“Have you seen your father lately?” My mother asked as she poured pecans on a chocolate cheesecake. I resisted the urge to snap Why would I want to see him? The man was an utter fool. He’d never been able to see the truth. Always too busy watching the flowers in public parks. The way bergamot floated in a glass teapot. The quality of textiles in period costumes at the theater. Colorful things mesmerized him while daily life and all its mundane responsibilities failed to hold his attention.
The spring he met Iris, and whereupon divulged himself of his family responsibilities once and for all, I was only 12 years old. Every other weekend we drove to London from our village, Port Stanley, to spend the afternoon at the Grand Theatre followed by a late lunch. On that April afternoon Dad was up before anyone else. He took a long time getting ready. He tied his graying hair in a ponytail, trimmed his beard and polished his round wire glasses. When Mom rose, she parted her brown hair in the middle, carefully combed her thick hair flat, and knotted the rest in a low bun. She was raised as a Mennonite, and maintained a certain sense of modesty in the way she dressed. She put me in a white linen dress, combed out my wispy caramel-colored hair, and strapped white patent leather shoes to my feet.
Dad whistled as he shepherded my cat, Persia, in the basement. My precious diminutive Persia, gray as a shellfish, eyes as blue as the ink inside a ball-point pen, knew we were leaving and hated waiting for us at home all day by herself. She made the most horrible noises, mewing and pawing at the basement door, in the hopes of getting out and coming with us.
The drive from our bungalow, on a private beach on the shore of Lake Erie, toward London, wasn’t too long. I thought of nothing but Persia. Dad listened to the CBC radio, and Mom, nervous in the car, hung on to her armrest. The city scared her. She hated urban sprawl. She complained about how the skyline devoured the landscape. She always felt that city people would swallow her whole. Oddly enough, she was surprised when Iris did.
Once in the city we visited Victoria Park. Underneath a monochromatic sky, with clouds that swathed the horizon, Dad, the landscape architect, pointed out the flowers in the park and told me their Latin names. Mom reclined on the grass, picked blades from her beige tunic, and watched us contentedly.
After a play at the Grand Theatre we went to a café nearby. Dad ordered lavender tea and shortbread cookies. On that particular weekend, when we met Iris, she was serving tea. She wore a white slip dress and chunky black heels. Her frizzy blonde hair was golden and wild, piled on top of her head like a beehive. A gold necklace with a moon charm dangled between her breasts as she bent to set the table.
“You’ve got paint on your hands,” Dad said. His eyes twinkled above the rim of his porcelain tea cup.
“I’ve been up all night. And I wasn’t having fun,” she said and winked.
“What were you up to?” he asked.
“Working on my latest painting.”
She said she was looking for a beautiful garden filled with lady’s slipper. She loved that flower. She wanted to paint them and set up a camera and record the other flowers as they bloomed. He offered her the use of our backyard.
She was around so much it felt like she was part of the family; I couldn’t call her Auntie Iris though, like she’d asked me to. I didn’t have much to say to her. I was too busy silently resenting my father. He only had eyes for her when she was in the room. Mom and I were invisible. He glared at Mom when she offered tea, accepted her cookies wordlessly, and sat with Iris and talked about art and culture. Iris was coy. She crossed and uncrossed her long legs, and a sunflower charm above her ankle glimmered in the sunlight. She rested her chin on the backside of her hand; listened attentively, as my father, hands tumbling over themselves, spoke excitedly. His cheeks pink as the coral bells beside him.
“You’ve captured the peonies marvelously,” he said as he watched her paint during her last visit to the garden.
While he admired her painting, I walked around the garden. Persia chased bees that were bumbling from one flower to the other. I pulled mint leaves from their terra cotta pots and inhaled the scent on my fingertips. I shook the stems of the bluebells and pretended they were ringing. I was following Persia around a patch of leopard’s bane when I saw Iris seated in a wicker chair. My father stood behind her. He put his hand on her neck. She turned and met his lips. He pushed the strap off her slip dress and clamped his hand over her breast.
I turned and ran toward the house. Mom was at the desk in the corner, doing the books for Dad’s business, a slice of steaming apple strudel beside her. She looked at my flushed face. I told her what I’d just seen. I was devastated. I felt a tear roll down my cheek. She pulled her glasses off and hung her head. She waved her stubby fingers at me from beneath the sleeve of her slack cotton dress, and told me to go find Persia. She sat slouched over the books. The weight of her chest so heavy on the pencil lead it snapped.
Mom spun the cake around and inspected it from all angles. “It’s perfect, isn’t it?”
“He’s going to marry her,” Mom said.
“Labor Day weekend.”
I stepped over Persia, fat and asleep on the floor, and walked out the kitchen door to the backyard. The garden was beautiful this spring, filled with spring adonis, anemone, and basket of gold. He’s done an impeccable job. It’s no wonder Iris came buzzing around. Mom stayed in the kitchen by herself the summer he left and found comfort making sweet cakes. She was preoccupied with perfecting baklava. I found honey smudged all over the utensils. Remnants left on the stove’s elements. The smell of it burning woke me up the morning she’d found the note.
“He’s not coming home,” she said. A bag of chopped nuts fallen on the floor at her feet.
He went to London to live with her. They’d converted a store front to an art gallery. She displayed her paintings, landscapes mainly, of my father’s gardens. After he left, he took me to her exhibit called Persistence of Vision. Her artist’s note said, optical illusions work because the brain wants to complete things, it has to, movies look like moving pictures to us, when in fact they are just a series of completely still images, this phenomenon is called Persistence of Vision.
It was then that I decided I wanted to be an optometrist. I was just a kid, but I wanted to make sure he saw clearly. I thought I could bring some sort of completion to the illusions he saw. Help fix it all. Make him come home.
A few days before their wedding, Iris asked me out for lunch. We had pizza near her gallery in London and then went back to her office. She wanted to show me her wedding dress.
“Don’t you love the colors?” Iris asked, holding the burgundy velvet ball-gown in front of her chest. It had a violet, blue, and green leaf appliqué wrapped around the bodice. I nodded glumly. She placed the dress on a chair gently when her cell, a medley of tropical bird chirps, rang. She turned the ringer off and uncorked a bottle of champagne, sunlight sparkling on the flute, and poured us each a glass.
“We’ve been together for so long. Are you surprised we are getting married now?”
“Surprised you are willing to support him.”
I took a deep breath as I prepared to lie. I told myself I was simply creating an illusion. I was being creative: talking their language.
“He’s losing his vision. He’ll have total vision loss within the year. It sounds rough, but there are many sighted guide training opportunities for you. You can learn to lead him. You’ll have to change a few things around the house, install sensors in his teacup. Those things are great. I’ve seen those at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind fundraisers I’ve volunteered for. It’s nothing you can’t manage.”
“He’s losing his vision?”
“Don’t tell him I told you, he’s probably waiting for the chance to tell you himself.”
Her eyebrows shot up.
“He has a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa.”
“Are you sure it’s not just myopia?”
“No, that’s all about refraction, measurement and light, perspective. This is a disease.”
“He won’t be too much work. You may have to hire part-time help though.”
She sank into her leather chair and crushed the wedding dress.
On Labor Day weekend, when he was supposed to marry Iris, the pier in Port Stanley reopened. I don’t remember a time when it was in use. Mom told me they closed it when I was three. As a child I simply remember it as a crumbling crust of rock that slithered into the harbor straight from the base of the grain elevator. No one was allowed to walk on it. It was like a gray stone cavity, an open sore, bisecting the clear water, in all its dilapidated, lonely grandeur. There were heaps of people on the pier and the public section of the beach today. I walked down to the beach from our house, through Dad’s lovely gardens, and got in the water. I was alone, except for the boats anchored 20 feet from shore. I was floating on my back when I felt a slight flutter, a tickle, at my neck. I turned around and saw the brilliant orange and black-velvet patterns on the wings of a monarch butterfly. Its wings had collapsed. Its black antennae were twitching, and its hands and feet were tumbling over themselves, in a mad doggie paddle. I picked it up and let it go in the air. It fell back to the water’s surface, stuck like a magnet to the syrup-thick water. I picked it up once again, shook the water from its wings. It heaved until it caught its breath. When I threw it up this time, it flew like the tiny insect it was, spiraling itself back to shore, too weary to migrate across Lake Erie to Mexico, too frightened, perhaps, at the prospect of such a long haul. But if it stayed here it would surely die. I pictured it, bitten by the first frost, antennae crisp, glazed by ice, wings stiff and candied, clinging to late-season coneflowers, and I felt a sorrow I couldn’t quite understand, the sorrow of loss, akin to what happens in autumn. Resistance to change I suppose and the prospect of the ever-shortening dark days.
My father emerged from the garden, goat’s beard brushing at his ankles, dragging an Adirondack chair from the fire pit down toward the lake. The engorged shoreline pulsed at his feet. I knew I’d find him here. Where else would he go to find consolation? He’d been coming back once a week since she left. Mom couldn’t deny him access to the garden. He’d built the garden himself so he knew what every flower needed. It saved her time and money, she’d said. I’m not sure if it hurt her to see him so often, or if she looked forward to it. Did she feel as comforted by his presence as he felt simply by being in the garden? She seemed happier since the wedding had been canceled. Did she expect him back?
I got out of the water and sat beside him gently. His arms were full of bearded irises he’d just torn from the garden. A tangle of roots and dirt spiraled down his legs. His eyes were red-rimmed.
I took his limp hand and brushed the smashed purple petals from his fingers.
“Damn invasive flowers—”
“They were beautiful at first—”
“How could I let irises in the garden? They dominate and choke out every other flower.”
I squeezed his hand.
Mom sang out from the back porch, “Tea’s ready.”
Dad followed me up to the house.
“I was an utter fool to give this up,” he said. “I’ve been contracted to landscape the new park that’s opening up by the pier when they tear down the grain elevator. I can stay at the Kettle Creek Inn, but do you think Mom would let me stay?”
He walked up the stairs, smiling hopefully at her.
She stood in the doorway, her belly poked out through her turquoise linen tunic. There were deep creases in her cheeks, like the cracks in overbaked cheesecake, and underneath the tough dry skin, her flesh wobbled.
“Hello,” he said.
I walked in and raised my eyebrows.
She simply closed the door in his face.
Later that night after three pots of Earl Grey tea and eight shortbread cookies I felt sad again. I’d done him wrong. He was alone now. I felt no satisfaction in hurting him. Getting rid of her hadn’t done any good. It hadn’t brought him home. It hadn’t restored our family.
“You’ll see him again soon,” Mom said and brought the plates to the sink.
I suppose I wanted him back, even more than her.
She’d left the Mennonite faith for him. He lived in London when they met. He’d drive out to Aylmer to buy soil rich with horse manure from the Mennonite farmers. She told me he’d tasted one of her butter tarts she’d made to sell at the farmer’s market and his eyes lit up and he flirted with her outrageously. “He saw sparks,” she said, “I saw the possibility of an electric stand mixer.”
It took her a while to get used to life outside her faith. She told me that the Mennonite families she grew up with wore humble dress, didn’t use electricity, and rode horse and buggy. Despite attempts at a simplistic existence her girlfriends were anything but. They smoked cigarettes, drank bourbon, and shortened their skirts. All Mom wanted was an oven that didn’t use logs, spirt sparks, or make the house smell like smoke.
I wanted his focus to be on us. Back where it belonged. And the painful lurch in my heart, a dull axe whacking away at wood it couldn’t manage to cut, reminded me of just how much I missed him.
Since he’d been gone she started wearing her prayer cap again, and dropped her skirts a few inches. She looked like a plump rose, in petal pink, pink shawl over the same shade of pink cotton top. The hemline draped over voluminous no-nonsense slashes in the skirt that served as pockets. She didn’t, and wouldn’t, go so far as to cut the electricity. That would plunge her into despair, to be cut off from her baking like that. It would also allow her to focus on the loss, blindsighted as she would be, in the dark with nothing to see.