12.21.2008

there is no end in sight



i first met her a couple of days after i moved into this house. her name is irene and she lives in the little grey house across the street. she is elderly, into her eighty ninth year now, and rather grey looking, much the same grey as her house in fact. she has this warm voice that immediately makes you think of wisdom and experience. i was drawn into her the moment i met her. it only took a minute though to realize that she wasn't completely there mentally, her stories repeating like a broken record, her stare unwavering. marko and i entertained her cyclical conversation for five, maybe even ten minutes, and then we made up a reason why we had to leave. she was enamored with ada, touching her toes and smiling off into the distance.

i just realized that i am talking like she is dead, but she isn't. this isn't about death at all, in fact it is almost about the opposite.

mostly the relationship that i have shared with irene has been from afar. i later learned that she lives alone in that house, except for the home care workers that come to see her for an hour here and an hour there, making sure all her ducks are in a row, pills taken, stoves turned off. she has lived there, in that very house, everyday of her 89 years. in fact, i am told, she was born there, in the grey little house. she lived with her parents and then when they died she stayed on and kept living. she has a sister who wants to put her in a home, but irene knew what was coming for her and she made it clear before it was too late that she didn't want that, she wanted to die in the home too, it only seemed right. so she is over there, across the street, doing whatever it is she does all day, and waiting.

a kilt maker by trade, she worked for a fancy boutique on granville street, but one day, when she couldn't take her boss anymore, she decided to try it out on her own. legend says that she was even commissioned to make a custom kilt for the queen. "it isn't easy getting it just right you know, not just anyone can do it". so she lived with her parents and made kilts for the queen and never left.

all through the summer i would watch her as she sat on her front steps. it is a steep set of stairs that leads to her house and she would often sit, in the early evening, right in the middle, and she would look around carefully like a cat. her face was always set the same, serious with deep lines carved into the skin. sometimes the soft last light of day would hit her just right and i would grab my camera, but i couldn't take the shot from my house, it wouldn't work through the trees, and i was much too afraid to ask her. i dreamed of that photo though, every time i saw her out there, it must have been two or three dozen times. often as people walked past she would say hello and they would say hello back, a familiarity seemed present. if a block has a matriarch i guess she is ours.

i have come to accept that i have a bit of a fascination with irene. i think it is because i don't understand what it feels like to stick something out so fully. sometimes i wonder if it was giving up more than staying put though. i have often thought that irene's story is a sad one, tragic even. no children or grandchildren to fill her quiet life with joy, hardly any visitors and then alzheimer's to leave you confused and frustrated. she has people who come and take her out, and others that bring baking and groceries by, but by and large she is in the house, alone.

i was brought back to thinking about irene this afternoon as the snow fell. you see, living in a house there is a certain amount of work that needs to get done, garbage taken out, leaves raked, lawns mowed, that kind of thing. periodically throughout the summer i would see someone over there mowing, or raking, but i never gave it much thought, i guess i thought she had a gardener, but then today something unexpected happened. after more than 8 inches of snow fell, leaving everything white and new, six of my neighbours showed up in front of irene's house with shovels in hand and they cleared her walk, her stairs and iced, and then they each went back to their own home. a few hours later they came back out and did it again. there seemed to be a silent understanding. it wasn't just adults either, a couple were teenagers, no doubt sent out by their parents, but there they were out none the less. for me it seemed like a scene from a christmas movie, the cheesy moment where everyone comes together and spreads love, or something, only in real life it didn't seem cheesy, it seemed kind of incredible.

when i saw another neighbour hours later and i asked about it she said that they all pitch in to help, that it was each of my neighbours in turn that i had seen mowing the lawn or raking the leaves last summer. "some who can't help physically bring by baking and dinner already cooked", she said. even the wreath hanging from her grey door was brought over by someone who thought she could use it.

i have never known this vancouver. i have never even heard about it through legend. it seemed like a scene from the seventies, when no one locked their doors and everyone had neighbourhood barbecues. too good to be true, and yet it is. everyone doing something that gets them nothing in return, other than the right to say they are a community, that they are neighbours in the true meaning of the word.

i am not sure why i wanted to write about her tonight, so many times i have thought of it and turned it down. maybe it is because i am a pessimist, the one in the room who can be heard whispering, "i hate people", but then there is this, the opposite of what i have known, and it filled me with optimism and hope. maybe it is because i think her story needs to be shared because maybe that is what she is to bring to the world, a reminder of the way things used to be, could be, everywhere again. if the worth of a life is the mark it leaves on the world, then from over here it seems like she is doing alright.

3 comments:

Randi said...

such a touching story of your neighbours lending a hand. i didn't think that unselfish sense of community existed anymore, let alone here!

i hope you find a way to take that photo one day.

cheesefairy said...

I am glad you wrote this. I often think about what we leave behind. Irene seems to inspire many different kinds of tribute and that is a great way to live. I hope she knows.

m said...

What a fabulous story. I do hope you manage to get a photo of her. I imagine her face, but I'm sure it's so different than what she really looks like.

It's funny that you say you have never know this Vancouver. For me, that's what the Lee Building felt like. It felt like a true community, friends looking out for each other in a way I had never experienced before or since.