Tea and Jell-O by Carol J. Hughes

“This darned ol’ head… And here if I wasn’t just talking to her. Never in all my born days…”

Alma drifted off like a leaf in the yard, leaving Gerald behind. Instead of feeling snubbed, he appeared not to have been listening.

“Now mind you, Gerald, this wasn’t a month or a year ago. That would be understandable, wouldn’t it, to forget a name after all that time, but it was one or two days ago, no more than that. If old age isn’t for the birds then I don’t know what is.”

Gerald was looking out the picture window at the back of the kitchen. His gaze skipped across the swimming pool and the terraced lawn and continued down to the river bank where a group of Canada geese had congregated. He knew his wife wasn’t really speaking to him. He was all too familiar with her self-chatter and treated it like the salad forks beside the real forks in the cutlery drawer—of limited utility. In fact, he considered a salad fork to be more purposeful than Alma’s rambling. At least he could poke something with it.

“Wouldn’t you say so, dear? … Gerald?”

She returned to the job at hand, searching for the Silvo and some soft rags in the cupboard beneath the sink.

 

 “Vascular dementia stems from out-of-control diabetes.”

The golden gleam of retirement was growing wool like the old stones hunkering at the edge of the river at the back of the property. Three years ago, at sixty-nine years of age, after a slight heart attack, Gerald Skinner retired as the village undertaker. Alma, in spite of her husband’s weakened physical condition, made all out to be just as splendid as the fact that they were a retired couple who merited their hard won retirement and who had never upset their family with a divorce. A divorce had stained the lineage, the first in generations. Their daughter Pam was the delinquent, and Alma felt herself helpless faced with Pam. They were as similar as tea and Jell-O.

Gerald thought otherwise. When Alma wanted something, she didn’t let go, and Pam was the same. “It’s because of your likenesses you don’t get along, not because of your differences.” Alma couldn’t see it. If she and Pam were so similar, then there ought at least to be a common something or other, but an episode with her daughter left her fretful and muddled.

Two children had come from Pam’s marriage—eleven year-old Josh and nine-year-old Emily. Alma knitted sweaters and mitts for them, as well as matching outfits for their dolls—Josh had had a Ken doll. Even the household pets wore Alma’s handiwork—a red toque with ear holes for Daisy the bunny and a striped scarf with fringes for Muldoon the hamster. Josh and Emily loved their grandma Skinner.

And now, with this proclamation from the family doctor, it was not only Gerald’s physical condition that was challenging the couple’s golden years but the early signs of dementia as well. The veins in Alma’s forehead had throbbed at the news. Vascular dementia? Does that mean we can’t ever go travelling? She had dreamed these would be magical, pampering years when she and Gerald would have enough money to buy a motor home and travel across Canada, visiting friends and relatives along the way, but the retirement joys were more like sand castles crumbling right before her eyes, a rude wave grinning back at her from the lake. Pipe dreams had more substance, she thought. At least, you knew a pipe dream for what it was……. weird flight of imagination. Not a trip across Canada.

Does it get better, Doctor? Dementia?

“What’s for breakfast, Alma?”

It was ten thirty in the morning. A silver casserole dish sat on the kitchen table, a rag and the can of Silvo beside it. Alma was tut-tut-tutting at the little bunches of grapes around the edge of the dish when Gerald spoke. Although the house, which stood to one side of the funeral parlour, was large and sprawling, they tended to congregate in one or two rooms. It was a touchy item about which Alma would never make disparaging comments. Gerald had been a perfect husband, a good provider, a good lover, maybe even a little too rowdy for her taste, but didn’t she have something to do with that?  Her own allures? Arousing his antics in bed? … Sometimes he wore her out. No, something so trivial as wanting time to herself now and then was hardly fitting behaviour; it reeked of the pretentious, to say nothing of ingratitude.

“Breakfast, dear? We had breakfast at eight, Gerald.” She wrapped a corner of the cloth around the tip of her finger, soaked it with Silvo, and worked at a grape. “Remember, dear? You ate scrambled eggs and a piece of toast with the grape jelly I made from scratch. I strained the mash in a cheesecloth… Remember the mess in the kitchen that time?”

“No.”

“Well, never mind. You said the toast was burnt but then you ate it anyway. And, Gerald, you had two cups of coffee, with cream and sugar. A little too much sugar, dear, according to the doctor. If you’re hungry, dear, I’ll start fixing lunch. Is that it, Gerald? Would you like some lunch?”

“No.”

“Well what then?” She applied more polish to the dish and waited for it to dry.

“I’ll have breakfast.”

She sighed.

“Alma-a-a-a!” Ever since his lapses had become obvious, Gerald had been extra sensitive to noises, noises only a dog could hear, according to Alma. He reacted to her sighing like a great weight thick with need had suddenly fallen on his shoulders. He wouldn’t have been able to give the burden an accurate nomenclature, but he knew from where it came. From Alma.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. The Silvo had turned chalky, and she began beating the dish with a rag, lost in the sadness of the moment. White dust flew into the air.

“Stop that fussing, woman!”

Never had Gerald spoken to her so sharply. And brazenly calling her “woman”… Well! It just wasn’t part of Gerald’s make-up to say a harsh word to anyone, although perhaps his inner realm could have told another story. She admitted to moaning her frustration, which was like a trigger that got him going, but verbal abuse? And coming from Gerald? That was too much, entirely too much!

She was rattled with grief and monitored her breath so as not to exhale too noisily.

The wild geese on the river bank continued to hold Gerald rapt. He watched expectantly as the heavy-bottomed birds took turns on sentinel duty, long necks stretched high in the air, keeping guard while the rest of the flock feasted on roots and plants. And then, telepathically, so it seemed, the roles changed, and the sentinels rooted in the earth while two or three others kept a lookout for intruders, providing hours of entertainment to one such as Gerald.

Alma pushed her chair back from the table, the legs hobbling across the linoleum, and went to the kitchen sink. She gave her hands a good scrubbing—they were as black as the polishing cloth she’d been using—before lifting the receiver off the telephone on the counter. She thought a moment, then hung up.

She wouldn’t ring up her girlfriends. Alma had never got into the habit of rattling the bones of her skeletons with her friends. If Ruby and Mary and Lil were curious about Gerald’s non-attendance at church, she had a ready answer. “Oh, Gerald’s a little tired these days. You know how it is with his heart. The doctor doesn’t want him to over-exert himself.” Truth be told, since hearing the dementia diagnosis, she’d feared taking Gerald anywhere. She had no idea how he would conduct himself. He may very well start to yell in the middle of the service or tell the minister to shut up, or a line of drool might dribble from his mouth. Then the tongues would start wagging and Alma had a horror of being the centre of gossip.

She picked up the telephone receiver a second time.

Pam lived in Montreal, only forty minutes away. Alma suspected she was living with a man. Ripping rows had erupted over Pam’s disregard for everything she had been taught, as though Alma and Gerald were country bumpkins who hadn’t a clue of what was happening in the rest of the world. Since when had those goings-on got anyone anywhere? thought Alma. But eventually, a truce had been called since family was family.

She punched the number into the keyboard. Despite the volatile nature of their conversations, she called often, as though the broken would somehow mend itself if she kept on ringing that familiar set of numbers. It would take a miracle, but she wished… Oh, how she wished… The sentence wouldn’t finish itself.  I can’t take it anymore. She felt empty as a forgotten heart and  she wanted to cry. Things must be bad for her to be turning to Pam.

Pam could see from the call display that her mother was on the line. She fortified herself with a deep breath. “Yes?” The tone of her voice couldn’t hide the irritation behind it.

Alma sighed.

“Alma-a-a-a.”

“Is Daddy all right?” Pam was suddenly worried.

“Oh, he’s about the same.”

“I work at home in the mornings, Mum, so I won’t be disturbed. I wish you would call in the afternoons, unless, of course, it’s something urgent.”

“You’re never home in the afternoon. Oh, never mind. I’ll call later.”

Pam was a journalist for a women’s magazine. She tried to return to the assignment she was working on, but her mind coasted back to the telephone call. Why does Mother upset me? Why do I allow her to do that? Who’s in charge here anyhow? To prove a point, she pushed the automatic dial button on the phone.

“H’lo?” said a meek voice.

“I’m sorry, Mum. I was pressed for time. … Are you talking into the mouthpiece? Your voice sounds faraway.”

“Does it?”

“It wobbles. It sounds like your strength fell out the bottom.”

Alma burst into high weak sobs.

“Alma-a-a-a-a.”

“Mother, you’re crying. What’s the matter?”

“I-I don’t know … I don’t know anything anymore.” The sobs turned into bawling.

“Alma-a-a-a-a-a.”

“Mum? Is Daddy worse?”

“No … no,” Alma sniffled. “He’s watching the birds, as usual.” A wheeze. “I think he’s even been a little better,” another sniff, “this past while.”

“What is it then? Is there something wrong with you?”

“Wrong? Yes, everything’s wrong!”

“Al-l-ma-a-a-a-a.”

Pam was taken aback. “Okay, Mum, you’ll feel better if you just cry it out,” she said, not knowing what else to tell her mother. “I’m right here.” Alma wept some more, and then the receiver clunked down on the counter top. Pam listened to Alma blow her nose, one nostril plugged and then the other. She swallowed. This weepy side of her mother was so far removed from her drill sergeant mode it was disarming. She felt sheepish and contrite for thinking her mother hadn’t a vulnerable bone in her body.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Alma said, patting her eyes with the hankie she kept tucked inside the sleeve of her dress. “But I do feel better. Pam, do you think I should take some of those pills they talk about?”

“What pills?”

“Process. No, it’s Pro Zeus. I’ve heard about Zeus, that foreign god.”

“Prozac?”

“Imagine putting his name on a pill. A pill of all things.”

“Whose name?”

“Zeus. That immoral god. The one with all those illegitimate god-children. One of them was born from his forehead. I know a lady who takes them. She’s eighty-five, a darned sight older than I am, but she never felt better in years. They take away all the … you know, when you’re anxious.”

“Are you depressed, Mum?”

“Oh-h-h my-y-y no-o-o, dear.”

“Prozac is an antidepressant drug.”

“Who said anything about prose axe?”

“I did.”

“But what’s that got to do with anything?”

“Mum, you were talking about taking pills. The pills are called Prozac.”

“Oh, I don’t know about those pills. My friend Martha takes Pro Zeus.”

“Okay, it’s ProZeus.”

“That’s what I’ve been saying. … Are you feeling all right? You’re not making any sense, dear. Is something wrong with the kids?”

“No, the kids are fine. … Mum, was she depressed?”

“Who, dear?”

“Your friend Martha.”

“Heavens no, dear. Whatever gave you an idea like that? Although her husband died last year. A sudden thing. He was much younger than she was, one of those May-December affairs, but she was the December and he was the May. Isn’t that something? At their age? Everyone expected she would go first.”

“Listen to me, Mum. No pills. Have you got that? No pills.”

“Well, all right, if you say so, dear.”

“You know, I think everything has just gotten you down. It can’t be easy looking after Daddy. Don’t you get together with Ruby or Mary or Lil anymore?”

“Gerald needs me here at home.”

“Mum, maybe he’d like you to be away from time to time.”

“Oh, Gerald wouldn’t want that!”

“I think Daddy needs to get out too. Hmm-m-m… I just had a thought. Tomorrow is the first Saturday in September… You know what that means: Havelock Fair day.”

“Oh, Pam! You’re not suggesting…”

“Exactly.”

“But Daddy can’t handle an outing like that, dear. And people don’t know your father’s condition.”

“Mother, for crying out loud, get relevant.”

“Well, it matters. We have our respect to think of.”

 “Oh, heavens to Betsey, stop that. What matters is you and Daddy.”

“But the fair is in a hayfield. Gerald can’t get around in a cow pasture, dear.”

“The hay is always mowed inside the grounds. Take the wheelchair.”

“The wheelchair! … Daddy doesn’t know how to operate it.” She lowered her voice. “And he doesn’t always look presentable, dear. I try my best, but sometimes he drools and makes gagglely noises. They’re not usually very loud, but sometimes he forgets. Oh,” she moaned, “Gerald would be mortified if everybody gawked at him!”

“I think you’re the one who would be mortified. Wait … the kids are off school tomorrow. I’ll bring Josh and Emily, and we’ll all go the fair. And I’m bringing my friend.”

“Who?”

“My friend, Nolan. … And be nice to him.”

“I don’t know what Gerald will think.”

“About going to the fair?”

“About your friend acting like a father to his grandkids.”

“Honestly, can you think of any other excuses? We’re coming. Be ready at ten.”

Alma replaced the receiver, her thoughts filling up with questions. Havelock Fair? Gerald in a wheelchair? What’s-his-name is coming too? Norad? What will I wear? She felt woozy for a moment, but then she was back at the kitchen table talking to Gerald. “Gerald, guess what? We’re all going to Havelock Fair tomorrow.”

“No.”

“Yes, Gerald. Pam’s coming with Josh and Emily and her friend Norad.”

“No.”

“Did you understand, dear?”

“I’m hungry.”

“Yes, dear. I’ll fix you a snack in a minute… Listen to me, dear. Josh and Emily are coming tomorrow, and Pam’s bringing Norad.”

“Who?”

“Pam’s boyfriend. They’ll be here at ten. They’re taking us to Havelock Fair.”

“No.”

“Just think, dear, you’ll see so many people you know.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Eat something first, dear, then you think about it.”

The next morning, Gerald was awake at dawn. Alma passed the soundest night of sleep she had had in a long time. Still fitfully dozing, in a dreamy half-awake state, she reached her arm over to Gerald’s side of the bed expecting to encounter a pyjamaed form with bones protruding through the material, but there was only a smooth cold dimple on the sheet. She swept her hand a little farther towards the edge then sat up with a start.

Gerald was sitting in the easy chair by the window, almost another being, and gazing at the globe of bright sunlight that rose steadily in the eastern sky. The nascent glow infused his face as well as the landscape, shortened beams of light making the entire picture waver and jack up and draw him into the silence. It gave him a feeling of fitting into the canvas, of disembarking on a far-off shore, desolate perhaps but stripped of chaos like this azure sky, complete and infinite, and a love spread through Gerald at the window, the love of the fisherman, the love of the painter, the love of the builder, the love of…

Alma’s voice, still hoarse with sleep, shattered the rhythms. “Gerald! How did you get there?”

He hesitated before disturbing his own strange calm. “Walked.”

“Without me, dear? Whatever got into you? You could have hurt yourself, dear. You could have fallen and broken your hip.”

“Pshaw.”

Uninvited, a thought crept into Alma’s mind. Perhaps Gerald is the strong one and I am the weak one. The words sounded like a snippet of music or poetry. There was a settled familiarity about it and something indistinct as well, something weighty with knowledge for the weary at heart. The thought resonated in her mind, paving the way for another thought: Perhaps it is only courage that is demanded of us.

Then she saw his best suit and tie hanging from a hook at the side of the highboy and wondered if she had put them there herself before going to bed and had forgotten. The yellowing sun bounded off the highly polished mirror glass above the dresser, making her squint. “What’s your good suit doing out of the closet, Gerald?”

“I’m going to the fair.”

 

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