catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 10 :: 2005.05.20 — 2005.06.02



I heard a knock at the back door and there was Garret, leaning on his cane, his car parked in the driveway. I looked across the muddy rutted back lane to his tidy home and shook my head at him. “I would have walked over, Garret, you didn’t have to drive.” He grinned at me, independence more important to him at eighty-eight than it is to most teenagers.

“Girlie, that wouldn’t give me something to do.”

Garret never really knows what to call me. He is much more comfortable with Hank, my husband. The first summer we owned our house in this tree shaded neighborhood, he wandered through his gate, across the lane and then into our yard to inspect the damage done by a thunderstorm to a gnarled apple tree in front. As Garret climbed into the tumble of branches and leaves to clear it away, he told Hank stories of his life up north as a lumberjack during the Dirty Thirties. From then on, Garret’s practical wisdom from the lessons of life helped Hank in the odd jobs in our little part of the world. Garret’s years as a school janitor meant he knew about plumbing and furnaces. His suggestions and careful eye helped us to landscape our backyard to keep the spring run off oozing down the poorly graded lane and away from our garage and basement. When floods threatened our city several years ago, he recalled the terror and devastation of the big flood in 1950 that actually filled most of the houses on our streets with water and silt.

He and Toots, the joy of his life, had never had any children so their life had centered on working to support their love of travel and golf. Arthritic joints eventually slowed them down and they started spending more and more time sitting in their sunny back yard, watching birds and the neighborhood. As the years progressed, we kept making small improvements in our home and yard, which met their full approval. It didn’t seem right to cut up our yards, so when our old fence leaned to the point of no return, we put up a chain link fence, the same height as their small picket fence. They were thrilled with the decision. Garret said, it was like watching two yards for the price of one.

As with many neighborhood relationships, ours tended to be active from Easter to Halloween. During the dark winter months, Garret and Toots often went somewhere warm and across the lane, we hurried to and from work and other family commitments. In November, Hank would go share a drink with Garret on Remembrance Day. He would get teary remembering his fallen friends, many buried in Holland, Hank’s parent’s birthplace. We would send a little baking over at Christmas but it was in spring that we would take stock of each other again.

Then there came the winter when an emotional storm trashed my internal landscape. That year when the grass and tulips reemerged, I was home, tidying my life. Part of the process was tending the flowerbeds that bordered our yard. The ones that Garret helped to plan. Everyday, I would wave at Garret and Toots as I dug, planted, weeded and watered. They would call words of encouragement to me and we would meet in the lane to discuss varieties of shade plants or the birds we had seen in the yard. Garret gave me all the leftover plants from the golf course where he was tending the flowerbeds instead of walking the links and he made sure everything was watered if I missed a day. They approved of the Virginia Creeper that was filling the fence between us but Garret was not happy with the way I had hacked away at my lilac tree. (It didn’t bloom for years, so he was probably right.) They never asked why I was home but somehow they knew I needed to tend to my yard to heal some part of me. I don’t think Garret ever called me by any name until that summer and then I was always, “Girlie” or “Young Lady.” It felt like a blessing.

Late that summer, Garret came over with a carton of eggs for Hank. Special eggs. We thought it was a little odd but Hank dutifully put them in the fridge. About an hour later Garret came back. “Have you checked those eggs?” he wondered. He giggled when Hank opened the carton to reveal twelve beautiful golf balls?found in the flowerbeds at the golf course.

About the same time, we also noticed that Toots was getting paler and quieter. She wore sweaters every day and seemed to be less and less energetic. Garret and Toots never complained or explained what was happening. But other long time residents of our street knew. Cancer, stomach cancer was threatening across the lane.

I went back to work that fall. Now we watched the yard and house across the lane. Did Toots leave the house for groceries on Saturday? Whose head was in the window of the kitchen? Was Toots still cooking? Hank went over a bit more often and Garret’s tears flowed more freely. He was losing his Toots.

When spring returned, I was back in the yard after work and on weekends, digging and waiting for the warblers and my long time back lane friends. They sat there watching me, waving, but were not quite as chatty. Then one day, Garret called me over to his garage. He said that Toots was too tired to come out but she had wanted me to have a birdhouse. She knew I loved my yard and thought I would like one of the houses that Garret worked on all winter. There were several sitting on a workbench and I could pick the colour I wanted. He squeezed my arm as I picked the yellow one. “Toots likes that one too.”

That same spring I splurged on new golf clubs. Garret leaned on the fence and laughed as I practiced hitting dandelion heads in the yard. He enjoyed my struggle with the skills he once knew so well. Toots hadn’t been outside for awhile but Garret went in and told her about the clubs and probably about my clumsiness. Two days later, he told me Toots wanted to see me in the house. She sat in the kitchen, wheezing with a cheerful kerchief on her head. “Nothing tastes much good anymore.” she said when I asked how she was. “This is awful. It’s hard.”

But then she picked up a grocery bag on the table and gave it to me. Four hand knit golf club covers with huge pompoms on the top were nestled inside. All were glowing in pastel colours, pink, blue, yellow and green. “Use the green for your #1 driver,” Toots said, “You know green for go. All the girls used to do that?back when we still golfed you know.”

I went home and pulled them over my woods. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that drivers are bigger now and that the covers barely fit. Big pompoms are no longer the rage but I used them proudly. When she gave me that gift, it was the last time I saw her. She went into the hospital a few days later, refused all visitors except Garret and died while we were out of town. Garret came over when we got back, looked at me and said, tearfully; “My Toots is gone now.”

The next winter was hard. Garret went somewhere warm for awhile but mostly he tried to keep busy in his house. I could see him wash walls and sweep the steps. He called Hank over to help him figure out his oven so he could learn to cook.

Toots has been gone for two years now and Garret is moving slower and slower. He won’t let us help him so we watch with agony as he puts his recycling and garbage in his wheel barrow and hobbles along with his cane to get them to the lane for pick up. I worry, is he lonely, is he eating? But he won’t come over for a meal and doesn’t want the food we offer either. “I can do it myself,” he says over and over.

Today he drove around the block to give us his house key. He is going into the hospital for a hip replacement and we will get the mail. He hopes to be home and on his own in two weeks or so. “Are you gong to have Meals on Wheels or something. Garret?”

“No Girlie, I have to have something to do. I can cook for myself.”

So, I will plant a lot of beautiful flowers this spring. Big tall ones that will rise above our fences and nod in the breeze when he sits by his back door. The bird house is mounted and waiting for wrens that I hope choose to move in and sing their beautiful songs. And finally the lilac has recovered and sprouted little buds. I hope he will soon be home to see that tree bloom once again.

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