Art: Ivan Jetvic
Our family rarely talked about great aunt Karin, though in my opinion she was the most interesting of us all. I was twenty before my grandfather mentioned her off-handedly over the after-dinner wine.
It happened when my grandfather and my mother were engaged in the morbid task of tallying all the strange fates that had befallen our family’s in-laws. It was a significant number, partly because my grandfather had been born into a traditionally large Acadian family. He had grown up with five brothers and two sisters in rural Quebec and the family could reliably trace their lineage back to 17th-century French colonists. It was a surprise no one could explain when my great grandparents packed up their eight offspring and settled in a small factory town in southern Ontario.
The family stayed among the Anglophones; the children even married some of them. Decades later, my great grandparents grew old and died. Eventually the children began to grow old, too, but they did not die. There came a point when all of the children were septuagenarians or octogenarians, beset with countless health problems. Hypertension, diabetes, skyrocketing cholesterol, senility, poverty. All of these they survived. The oldest sister was diagnosed with cancer at the age of eighty and was given six months to live. She refused treatment. Five years later, she remained undoubtedly alive. The only apparent effect of half a decade of cancer was occasional fatigue.
This was the state of familial affairs when I first heard of great aunt Karin. While the eight siblings were all old, all medicated, all walking around with reasonable vigour, several of their spouses were dead. Karin was, apparently, not yet among the numerous deceased.
Some quarter century before I listened to my grandfather and my mother morbidly cataloguing our relatives’ vicissitudes over a cribbage board, Karin had married the family’s second youngest brother. Unlike some of the other in-laws, Karin was a nice girl from Quebec who preferred to speak in French, attended a Roman Catholic mass every Sunday, and could play euchre competently. The family judged her to be, by all measures, a good fit. For a long time, there was no question they were correct. Karin and the second-youngest brother remained married for forty years, raised two children into adulthood, and paid off their war-time house in a quiet neighbourhood before anyone suspected anything unusual of her.
Looking back, it was as if, at sixty years old, Karin had begun to notice how often people recount the mundane misadventures of youth, or discuss the half-expected excursions of midlife, and had suddenly decided to prove to them all just how capricious old people can be.
One Saturday morning she was standing in line at the grocery store with her shopping cart and her husband when her eyes began to narrow at the people around her making casual conversation. Can you believe the price of carrots? one said, and Karin’s nose wrinkled briefly. Her husband saw it and he touched her arm. She stared at him, grew tense under his hand. Mon dieu, she muttered, and went running from the store.
Five minutes later, her husband emerged from the store with a cart of freshly bagged groceries and her purse. He walked over to where their car had been parked an hour ago. He proceeded to circle the entire parking lot before starting his trek home with a now-stolen shopping cart filled with groceries. The wind was blowing hard and the snow was a foot deep, so it took him half an hour to make the ten-minute trip home. He arrived to find an empty driveway and an empty house.
He waited for two white knuckle days before calling the police to report his wife missing and his car stolen. He waited five more days to receive a call back, informing him that his wife was safe and his car was parked at an out-of-town bus station. The police said he could go ahead and pick up his car but he would have to wait for his wife to decide whether she wanted to disclose her whereabouts.
He waited two years. He went to work, completed household tasks, and maintained an otherwise static routine. Five minutes after he arrived home at his usual time from church one Sunday, he finally got the call he had been expecting.
“Where are you?”
Karin had gone back to the motherland.
Karin’s husband drove straight through the night. It was winter again, colder in Quebec than in southern Ontario, colder still during the night squalls that her husband mostly drove through.
He arrived at a convent in the early morning. One of the nuns greeted him in the foyer and asked him to sit. She came back ten minutes later with three more nuns and Karin following behind them. Karin smiled sleepily at her husband. She hugged all of the nuns lengthily while saying her loquacious goodbyes in rapid French. Sixteen cheeks were kissed. Then Karin picked up her bag with tears in her eyes and went with her husband out to the car.
“I missed you so much,” Karin said, looking out the window.
“Then why were you gone for two years?” She didn’t answer. “Are you a nun?”
“No.” Karin smiled at the landscape rushing past. “I missed you very much. I guess, for a while, there were just other things I missed more.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t need you to.”
For the rest of the drive home, Karin’s husband told her everything that had happened to the family while she had been gone. He started with their sister-in-law Leonie’s death.
“How are the kids?” They were fine, he assured her. Everyone was fine. Except for Leonie. Karin’s husband looked carefully at her very short hair, but didn’t say anything. He looked at her wrinkles, then at his own in the mirror.
When they got home, Karin asked her husband to help her dye her hair. And so their reunion celebration consisted of Karin sitting and drinking wine while her husband stood behind her in an apron, alternating between mouthfuls of dry red wine and brushing black dye onto sections of his wife’s hair. Afterwards, she kissed him, put dinner on to cook, sat back down at the kitchen table, and started dealing out a hand for gin.
My grandparents stopped by to visit them the following Saturday. Karin opened the door. My grandfather looked at her, said, You look just like Eddie Munster, and was promptly swatted by my grandmother. Once they were inside, Karin smiled at the empty doorway.
My grandfather refrained from doing anything else questionable until dessert. He stopped a spoonful of lemon meringue pie when it was halfway to his mouth to ask,
“Karin, what the hell were you doing for two years in Quebec?” My grandmother tssked very hard but turned avidly toward Karin all the same. Karin looked at my grandfather seriously, then back down at her plate.
“When I was quite young, my family didn’t have much money. I decided that I would help by growing food for us. But, as you know, Quebec soil is sandy and the climate is harsh. Growing anything is difficult work. I pushed on, though. By the end of two summers I had a respectable crop of potatoes, carrots, beets. Even a flourishing apple tree. When the time came to harvest, I turned the scrubby grass into a sunrise of yellow, orange, purple, and red.” Karin trailed off.
“I think of that garden and I wonder if it wasn’t the most important thing I ever made.”
Karin continued staring at her food. The rest of the family began staring at each other.
Jade Wallace works in a legal clinic in Toronto, Ontario. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in The Dalhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Headland, A New Ulster, Acumen, Pac’n Heat: A Noir Homage To Ms. Pac-Man, and seven chapbooks from Grey Borders Books.