4 min

Gran’s guts

My favourite hand-me-down

Credit: Xtra West files

Once, when I was about six she dragged me up onto her bony knee and whispered into my ear that I had been born special. She smelled like Ivory soap and Oil of Olay and cigarettes. She told me that God never gave anyone a burden that he didn’t also gift with the talents to carry their load, and then she dug around in her careworn grey leather purse for a minute, and came out with a closed fist, tight like a knot in a board. She held her fist out, and I slipped my open palm under it. She dropped a silver medallion into my hand.

“St Jude,” she explained, like we were bank robbers, conspiring together in the corner. “Patron saint of hopeless causes. He will help watch over you. Pray to him when you have no one else to turn to. Don’t you lose that.”

“Okay, gran,” I whispered back, reverently. I knew she wouldn’t entrust my sister or any of my little cousins with anything so small, and important, and lose-able.

I slipped the medallion into the pocket of my cords, and when I got home that night I pulled out the cigar box my Uncle Dave had given me, removed the blue elastic band that held it shut, and placed the small silver oval in with my other treasures. Right next to the penny my Uncle John and I had flattened on the train tracks, a chunk of rose quartz I had found in a tailing pile outside of a mine in Dawson, two real sharks teeth and the pen my Dad had brought back from his teenage years in New Zealand.

The pen had long since run out of ink, but it had a fishing boat trapped in a little bubble of water in the handle, and when you turned the pen upside down the boat would cruise back and forth. It was a boat just like the one my Dad had worked on, catching sharks and swordfish and swimming in too-blue water, before my mom got pregnant and he had to be a welder instead.

The patron saint of hopeless causes. I never thought to ask her at the time if she thought I was a cause, or if she reckoned I was already hopeless. Instead, I chose to remember the part where she said I had been born special, and that I had a secret gift that only God knew about.

I am 12, and standing in the line up at the Super-Valu with my grandmother, my sister, and two of my cousins. I am the oldest, and so am supposed to be helping corral the younger kids, but instead I am trying to read a whole comic book while we are waiting to pay for our groceries, and pretending that I don’t know anyone I am with.

My gran takes a beaten envelope out of her purse, and removes a stack of coupons. She begins placing them on the corresponding cans and cereal boxes, and the woman standing behind us snorts, and then sighs louder than she has to. She backs her cart up out of our line and noses it into the next till over. I peer into her cart: all she is buying are cans of tuna, English muffins, and individual yogurt cups.

I look at the way she looks at us. I see my sister, perpetual snot on her upper lip. My cousins with their shoelaces untied. My grandmother, pale grey and shrinking, a yellow-brown trail in the hair above her eyes where nicotine has stained the silver. Bulk milk powder in a bag, hamburger, a giant bag of potatoes. A stack of coupons. Tobacco in a tin, and rolling papers. My ears burn under her contempt of us. A perfect stranger who eats nothing but tuna fish, why would I care what she thinks, anyway?

My gran takes the comic book from me, replaces it on the shelf, and straightens the stacks on either side of it. Smiles at the woman, like she hadn’t noticed anything.

Outside, we wait for a taxi. My grandmother watches the woman load her bags into the trunk of her car, and rolls a cigarette. “There is no shame in being frugal,” she says softly to me, and I feel horrified that I am so transparent to her. “No shame in saving a penny here and there. There is only shame in being ashamed.”

I am 32, and back home in the Yukon for a visit. I run into my grandmother’s doctor at a bonfire party. She tells me the other half of a story my Aunt Norah started earlier that day. My gran had been in her office to talk about her test results from a checkup she had had earlier that month, and the doctor had some bad news for her. My grandmother leaned forward in her chair, placed her hand over her heart.

“I’m sorry to tell you, Flo, but your kidney has stopped functioning.”

My grandmother paled, and grabbed the doctor’s elbow. “My goodness, not both of them?”

“No, no, just one.”

Flo relaxed, sat back in her chair, relieved. “Oh, that kidney. Well, that kidney hasn’t worked for years. For a second there you had me scared. I thought the pair of them had given up the ghost.”

Old Flo is doing fine now, thanks to St Jude, and day surgery. We have taken to calling her the Timex watch of little old ladies, because she just keeps on ticking. My cousin Lindsay makes everyone smoke outside on the deck now, so that is where Flo keeps her favourite chair, even in thirty below.

I’m going home next week, and I can’t wait to see her. “Look at you,” she’ll say, clicking her tongue against her teeth. “A good strong wind will carry you off. I’ll fix you a sandwich.”

I’ll tell her to sit, and relax, and she’ll ignore me. We’ll sit and talk. I inherited the gift of the gab from her, and honed it around her table. I inherited her fierce pride, too, and I’m not sure about her kidneys, but I hope I’ve got her guts.