To Gertrude MacFarlane, in memory
Edith peers down the long shadowed nave of the church. There is only a sparse sprinkling of people seated close to the altar. She has heard that her former neighbor, Andrew McIntyre, spent his last years progressing from mild to acute dementia. People simply vanish when that happens. She has had intermittent contact with his wife, Larissa, who is said to have visited him every day. It is thirty-five years since they were suburban neighbours whose children played together. Edith decides to sit far beyond the outer fringe of the mourners.
There they are in front: Larissa, the three McIntyre children and people who seem to be their spouses. There are some young people there…probably grandchildren. And there is Larissa’s sister, “Anne” is it? Yes, Anne, and her appalling husband, Walter. The middle-aged couple beside them must be their son and his wife. She sees Andrew’s brother and sister, and some more middle-aged people beside them. Their children, probably. She hasn’t seen them since they left Montreal for Edmonton in the ‘80s. Who is that elderly man, at the end of their row? She counts off the various siblings who have died. No, he can’t be a sibling, perhaps a cousin?
There is something familiar about him, though. He’s a small elderly man with thin hair combed over, wearing what looks like a tweed jacket. It must be a colleague of Andrew’s from Physics, although goodness knows so many of their old neighbours have already departed this world. She can’t see his face very well, but she recognizes a gesture, the nibbling and sniffing of cuticles. She leans forward just as the man turns to scan the church.
Of course, how could she not have recognized him, even after all these years? They had spent twenty-five years together and raised two children. There he is, sitting with the bereaved family, her “then husband,” as she likes to call him: Max. How dare he sit with the family? He never even wanted to invite them over for drinks, let alone dinner, when they lived a few houses down. As a classicist, he would sneer at scientists who he claimed were illiterate. Edith had privately thought his contempt was based on envy at their advancement in academia. Their university friends were all to retire as full professors and some as professors emeritus. Max never rose beyond the associate professor level; he used to profess pride in his lack of ambition.
Max, she notices, appears to be alone. She has heard that he recently married for a third time, a Bulgarian woman twenty years his junior. He will be well looked after in his final days. Isn’t it typical of him to nestle within the bereaved family, although he probably hasn’t had anything to do with them for years? Unlike her, he has never been socially adept. Now, of course, they have invented a name for that condition, but she can’t remember what it is…the name of some German doctor, she thinks.
Who would have thought he’d turn up here? He never liked the McIntyres or ceremonial occasions. He is probably afraid no one will come to his funeral; he’s burned his bridges so many times. The first time was when he married her against the objections of his family. How silly she was at twenty with no inkling of her future life with him: his constant threats and intermittent violence, his infidelities, his vengeful bouts of impotence. Well, at that time there simply wasn’t a vocabulary for those qualities in her circle of nice girls at McGill. It’s taken the women’s movement to stir up that hornets’ nest, and is life really any better for the young women she sees nowadays on her walks through the campus? One reads shocking things in the newspapers.
There he is, she thinks, there he is. She would like to take a closer look, but she does not acknowledge his presence on this earth. She has managed to avoid him for years, and her children have reluctantly complied with her wishes. “Let it go, Mom,” they’ve said to her singly and together. “ It’s all so long ago.” But she is adamant. She has carried preciously within her the tightly wadded memories of his lies, cruelties and subsequent rationalizations. How could she have believed him, been so gratefully gullible? But she did; they’d all believed their husbands… her friends, now spirited old women forging ahead on their own in nice apartments furnished with tasteful heirlooms and framed photographs of their progeny. She is four years younger than he and looks forward to outliving him. It will be gratifying, she thinks, to know that at last she is inhabiting a planet free of him.
A young child is now speaking about how her wonderful granpa used to take her for walks on the mountain and identify the flora and fauna with her. “Flora and fauna,” says the child. Where did she learn those terms? Edith recalls how Andrew was a stickler for terminology with his own children. How lovely and quaint it sounds from this distance though it has so annoyed her in the past. The entire family is leaning forward in support of this child. That is the style now; funerals are interminable. Everyone must have a say; on the other hand it is just as well not to have to listen to the practiced banalities of the clergy.
She certainly doesn’t want this kind of funeral in an almost empty and cavernous church. A more intimate funeral locale would be better, perhaps that nice one on the mountain…she’s always favoured it, although the parking lot is a bit far. Oh well, who drives anymore? Taxis will let people off at the door. Good catering too, not ostentatious but generous: delicate tea sandwiches and lovely little petits-fours on doilies.
Imagine seeing him here. She would never have come if she knew he was going to be here. She is the person to whom he has done and said terrible and unforgiveable things. Even the distant sight of the back of his head stirs up familiar feelings of rage and despair. Why did she spend all those years burnishing the façade of their marriage? How could she have so irresponsibly ceded so much of her life to him?
Everyone is standing up. Of course he has the effrontery to put himself forward as a pall-bearer. If she hurries, she can be out the door before they reach her row. She will hail a taxi on Sherbrooke Street and write a letter of condolence to Larissa later. She wants her to know that she was there.