This afternoon at Assiniboine Park we met an interesting couple, or rather, an interesting woman, the husband said little.
Siv and I were walking in the English Garden when we met them – the woman wore a polka dot, black on white dress, and a white hat that had a streaming red band.
‘Shall I walk up and ask her why she is wearing a cake on her head?’
‘Probably it is a wedding cake. Must be their anniversary,’ I said.
‘Must be a foreigner. She is the only one dressed up, heels and hat and all.’
‘Looks like a Mexican.’ We lightly exchanged such comments and slowly walked along.
She came right up to us and said, ‘Oh, do you like our Winnipeg flowers?’
‘They are beautiful,’ I said.
‘I suppose you have flowers that we don’t have here.’
‘Some,’ I said, ‘and there are some here that we don’t have.’
‘You are an East Indian, aren’t you?’ Several people had called me that, and by now I knew it was their way of differentiating between someone from India and a Native Canadian. ‘We know an East Indian,’ she said, ‘he used to come to our Church, and one day I said, If he crosses our path, we’ll take him out for pancakes and coffee. And do you know what? his coat was right next to my husband’s and I thought, Well, God did want our paths to cross. And we went to the Pancake House and he told us about life in his country. His name is Byron and he teaches school. And what do you do?’
‘I work at a University,’ I said.
‘Oh, you people who come are so talented,’ she said.
‘He was from Trinidad,’ the husband said.
‘And he told us so many things. And I told him to phone us whenever he came to town. You see, people were so kind and friendly when we went to Europe, and I told my husband, It happens that way because God knows that you try to help people at home and so folks are friendly.
‘I have an Indian boy too. See.’ She opened her pocketbook and showed me a picture of a ten-year-old Native Canadian boy sitting on Santa’s lap. ‘He was burnt in a house fire waist down and his mother, brother and sister died. He was in the hospital about four months, and now he comes into town once every few months to see the doctor. He came at Easter time for shoes.’
‘Oh, where does he live?’
‘With a foster parent. Her husband was a minister but he died and so she took in two boys, this way she is paid and doesn’t have to go out to work. He lives with her. And whenever he comes into town, he calls. Hi Bill, he says, always so cheerful. But I may not be there when he calls next. You see, I have cancer.’
I flinched. She was so cheerful and talkative, I couldn’t imagine she had cancer.
‘It is spreading fast. I started treatment too late. I already have a breast out but it spread down my ribs and arms. I went for deep X-ray and responded well.’
‘Yes, rapid progress is being made,’ Siv said, ‘my father had cancer of the throat and he was cured. At sixty!’
‘X-ray?’ the man asked.
‘Yes, Cobalt ray. Every year they are finding out so many new things about cancer.’
‘Yes, yes,’ she said, ‘but I was too late. I went Christmas before last and they said if it doesn’t recur for five years, that would be good. I went again last Christmas and the doctor said some cells had got away. So you see, I am not well now. But then one mustn’t think of it; live as long and happily as you can, do you have a family?’
‘No, not yet,’ I said.
‘God will bless you in good time. My daughter, she is 27, waited for years and then last August had a miscarriage. But she is expecting again, now. Oh, I am happy with my children. I myself had my first eleven months after we were married. And in the seventh month I tripped. I was always careful but that day I stepped on a loose piece of ice and went rolling down, and there was so much water, I wondered from where it came. I was very young, you see, just twenty. And the doctor said it was the water bag and that I might have a dry birth! Who would believe it in those days, just nine months married, and my mother-in-law said, “You’d better carry another two months. No one will believe it otherwise.” Fortunately, I did carry another two months! Who will believe it, yes?
‘I read a lot. I like to know everything beforehand, you see. It is better that way. I
spend a lot of time reading. Yesterday, I was reading about leukemia while my husband was painting.’
‘Is your father all right now?’ he asked.
‘Oh yes, he’s fine,’ Siv said.
‘Oh, you paint, do you?’ I asked.
‘He was painting the room. And I said, “I think I’ll help you.” And he said, “With your muscles?” You see my arm muscles have been removed. And even carrying a handbag is a strain. There is no muscle here.’
I bent down and looked at her arm and made a sympathetic sound. I had furtively and wonderingly looked at her full breasts earlier.
‘They had to remove it. Tie it off where they give the treatment. And the doctor said the lesions were healing well. Before X-ray, they had this mustard treatment. They give a large dose directly and so could hit the spot straight. Of course, it wasn’t as sure a hit as deep X-ray. Even when it spread to my pelvic region, I wasn’t worried. I thought it meant just the hip bones, but then I came to know it includes all the organs inside. But, as I say, it is always better to know. There are so many things we don’t know. My sister’s son, for instance, has to have his testicles operated. They are inverted. I never had a son, so I don’t know.
‘I don’t talk of my illness to anyone. If neighbours know it, they will have pity.’ She looked around and lowered her voice. ‘But we don’t need pity. We live as well as we can, God takes care. If anything happens to me, my husband will marry my sister, she has a son studying for engineering and it will be all right. You see, one must put one’s house in order.’
Author’s Note: Recently, I wrote a poem for a volume honouring P.Lal, who has done much for Indian writers of English. The poem was about how I remembered him with appreciation when I recently came across copies of his Miscellany at a time when I was engaged in trying to throw out some of the books and papers piled ceiling high in every room of my house. The first lines of the poem were:
Myself preparing for that smaller space/to which we all are bound
and the first stanza went on to talk about how difficult it is to actually throw away books, the written word. So, two years later, the books and papers are still ceiling high, and I pick up some nuggets from time to time as I try to sort out the piles.
I wrote the above diary entry forty plus years ago, during my second year in Winnipeg, Canada. What is the story around it that I wanted to write? I don’t remember now! Perhaps useful details about a simpler age that has gone by forever, perhaps something about simple faith, simple values, simple something that we don’t seem to recognise any more. The last paragraph amazed me at the time, for it sounded so like something an Indian woman might say. Probably that is why I wrote the piece at such length rather than as notes.
Uma Parameswaran was born in India and has been living in Canada for a long time. She is the author of an award-winning collection, What was Always Hers. Her most recent novel, A Cycle of the Moon, has just been released.