A Life on Fire – by Lindsey Harrington

My Aunt Clarice knew it would be her last trip home to Newfoundland. Everyone did, but no one said anything. That’s just the way our family is. Instead, we did small things to make it special. Uncle Mar provided a feed of fresh-caught crab. Aunt Lorna brought her out shopping.

The shopping must have been laughable to Clarice. She worked in the sprawling Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto, behind a high-end makeup counter, enveloped in clouds of expensive perfume and displays of designer handbags. Marystown’s mall had about ten stores with outdated décor and bargain bins. The only makeup counter was in the Shoppers Drug Mart. But the sisters came home smiling, bags brimming with clothes and gifts.

Whispered conferences took place while Clarice slept.

“What’s the plan for today?”

“We’re going to bring her for a drive up the shore.” 

“Ok, good.”

Clarice was my glamourous aunt, petite and stylish. She wore tapered jeans and crisp white button-ups, cashmere cardigans and lush pashminas. Her lips were always painted crimson, and her eyelashes, curled and mascaraed. She read thick, glossy fashion magazines. No trace of the bay accent of her youth had survived her thirty years in Toronto.

It was hard to imagine that she grew up with my dad, who said the best view of any city was in the rear-view mirror. Their father had sewn raingear from flour sacks and waterproofed them in a barrel of linseed oil. Their mother put oranges in the toes of their home-knit Christmas stockings— the biggest treat of the year. You would not have guessed her humble beginnings as her heels clicked efficiently down the sidewalks of downtown Toronto.

When she was young, Clarice fell in love with a man who could help her escape the isolated isolating island of her childhood. Tim was from Ontario and had been sent to run the regional fish plant. She left with him and sent postcards to her parents from all the places she visited. Las Vegas, Barbados, Vancouver, the names exotic and dangerous on her mother’s tongue.

Clarice and Tim later divorced. I heard hints that it was a bad marriage, but no one said it outright. That’s just the way our family is. She remained ‘away’—the blanket term for anywhere off the island, spat like a curse or whispered like a prayer. She never married again, although there were occasional boyfriends and a large circle of friends in Toronto. I met them when I went to visit. 

Mostly, Clarice just wanted to sit around our kitchen tables during that last trip home—still in her full face of makeup and beautifully dressed, mind you. She always secured her wig before coming out of the guest room.

The four siblings spent time reminiscing about their shared childhood in Jackson’s Arm. The rest of us sat and listened to the stories we had heard many times before.

“Remember when Cousin Arthur chopped his thumb off with the axe?”

“What about Gord copying ice pans in the ocean?”

Rides in boats, fishing off wharves, and coveted trips to the shop where their mother worked. A lifetime of memories from another world.

Clarice nursed cups of green tea, and in the evenings, a single glass of red wine. The rest of us swilled Tetley Tea plied with canned milk and sugar and enough beer to make a sailor tipsy. What was happening hardly seemed fair.

When her trip was drawing to a close, I insisted on taking her out for dinner in St. John’s before she flew out.

“Let’s walk there, it’s not far,” I said. She had done such a good job of hiding her illness that I must have forgotten.

 We spent twenty minutes weaving through the steep inclines of the downtown where I lived, her tottering in heels, putting a hand to her pearl necklace. I pointed out the restaurants and bars I frequented and the stores that sold beautiful things she might like. I wanted her to know that a piece of her would live on in me without saying the words. She breathed heavily beside me.

Clarice didn’t complain, but her face looked pale and pinched when we arrived at the restaurant. Sweat beaded on the foundation covering her brow. Once we settled onto stools underneath the twinkling lights, linen napkins spread across our laps, she brightened.

We chewed crusty bread with whipped goat butter and drank red wine from oversized goblets. Her lipstick left a mark after every sip. Health-conscious, even still, she got the salmon as a main and no dessert.

 At the end of the meal, I insisted on paying, waving away her hand clutching a golden credit card. We had all wanted to do something. And this was the only thing I could think to do.

When we said goodbye, it was for the last time. We both knew it, but we didn’t act like it. That’s just the way our family is. I popped the trunk and took out her luggage. We hugged quickly.

“Have a good flight.”

“I will. Thanks for everything.”

 She disappeared into the throngs of people, and I never saw her alive again. Breast cancer finally took her in a busy Toronto hospital.

None of her friends from her chosen home could come to the funeral. There was no time, no money, no place to stay in Jackson’s Arm, where her body was shipped. Instead, her family and a smattering of townsfolk filled a few pews of the large parish. The priest had never met her and had to look down and confirm her name throughout the service. The readings and eulogy rang hollow through the cavernous building.

The waxy skin and pink lips in the open casket bore no resemblance to my chic aunt.

“It’s not what she would have wanted.” My mother shook her head as we left.

After the funeral, the church women hosted a luncheon for the family in the hall. Casseroles and flaked ham sandwiches, boiling hot tea in Styrofoam cups. It was a nice gesture, but I didn’t feel Clarice there either.

When her few assets were being split amongst the family, I wasn’t interested in her money or jewelry. What I wanted was her matchbook collection. Colourful cardboard squares printed with the names of the restaurants and hotels she had visited. Toronto and New York, Fort Lauderdale and Acapulco. The tiny moments of her life made manifest, each containing the potential to set the world on fire.

That was over a decade ago, but I still take them out from time to time. I bury my hands in the brimming hurricane vase, imagining all those memories now vanished into thin air. This is all that’s left.

Both my Aunt Clarice and I grew up in small towns and left for cities. She showed me that there are other ways to be than those we grew up with. You can grow, stretch, and recreate yourself. You can live authentically and unapologetically.

I miss her confidence and style, her charm and her presence. I hope she knew how much I admired her, although I never told her—that’s just the way our family is.

Photo by julie aagaard from Pexels

Lindsey Harrington is a Nova Scotian writer with Newfoundland roots. She was the 2021 recipient of the Nova Writes’ Rita Joe Poetry Prize and has had short stories published recently by Long Con Magazine, Off Topic Publishing, and the Icelandic Connection. She is currently working on a short story collection about breakups in all their forms, called Coming Apart. Follow her on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/lindseyharringtonwriter/

3 thoughts on “A Life on Fire – by Lindsey Harrington

  1. What a wonderfully crisp and beautifully written story that I thoroughly enjoyed. I feel like I know your
    Aunt Clarice, and your family, too. Well done, Lindsay!
    Thank you for publishing, Marion. Wonderful selection, as always.]

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