I loved Mrs Major’s house, lowly and brown on St Pierre Street. She and her husband Stan had it built in 1975 and not ten years later a tragic boating accident made her a widow. The street is easy to find at the southern end of the city limits, where Eglise Avenue is the last one on the left before you cross a small bridge with planters for railings, and take Highway 75 straight down to the United States. St Pierre Street runs across Eglise Avenue, bisected by that historic church. Mrs Major’s house was to its right, on the side of St Pierre Street that ended with the now commemorated Pollock Island park. At the tip of the island, the La Salle river meets the Red and when it isn’t separated from St Pierre Street by flooding, it makes for a pretty nature walk.
Mrs Major’s yard dipped downward from the street, and the white door on the wood front always opened with the sound of the weather-stripping seal breaking and a long whine. The entranceway landing between two floors was small and company always found themselves in a bottleneck arriving or leaving. The steep linoleum covered stairs leading up or down were protected by a black wrought iron railing, and Mrs Major would lean on it from the adjoining dining room to add postscripts to the goodbyes. Guest or tenant, you always came into the house looking upwards. It was an awkward position, but no matter how I imagined changing it, I was always unable to come up with a satisfactory solution.
The kitchen was in the corner beside the garage, facing the street. A countertop separated it from the dining room and the countertop had a row of cabinets on top that stood detached from the ceiling and had doors that opened on either side, so that dishes could be accessed from the dining room or the kitchen. The counter space, the fridge and the stove formed a u-shaped hub and Mrs Major would duck her head under the cabinetry to survey the table or ask a question. Food was occasionally passed in the same manner, a basket full of homemade buns would be pushed forward and the person in the dining room sitting against the counter was expected to turn and grab the basket and pass it forward. There was a door beside the refrigerator that led to the garage and a staircase leading down to her white car parked between long stacks of firewood. The stairway was used as an alternative freezer in the winter, easier to access in her old age than the one in her basement. She would trundle firewood using an old wagon between the garage and the front landing where there were seven steps or so down to the cast iron stove she liked to use in the winter.
She liked to hang simple artwork. The tall wall beside the entrance closet had a picture of a woman representing the Virgin Mary, pointing to her exposed heart, her tunic vivid peach pink, the background a variety of bright blues. On the wall behind the upright piano in the living room were cheap gold frames with pre-made cut-outs for family pictures. Years ago when the spaces had already been filled, she took to sticking pictures she received from grandchildren and friends into the corners of the frames or propping them up all along the piano. Her adopted son Ronnie had drawn a Virgin Mary too, with geometric shapes to reflect round rosary beads around a mantled silhouette in black ink, and she pinned this in her room opposite the door until there were so many pin holes that when it was dry mounted as a gift, they had to cut a strip around the drawing. She had the kind of spirit of poverty that prompted her to keep the same furniture through decades of use. She never changed the ornamental knickknacks that lined the bookshelves and the TV set at the opposite end of the living room from the piano.
Even the carpets and linoleum were very old; wild shag in the bedrooms, a practical light grey cut pile in the long living room. More than one grandchild had been wrangled into her great spring cleanings that displaced furniture, unpinned meters of handmade curtains, and filled buckets of soapy water. A visitor who might not have noticed that the walls were newly painted in the same white would hear all about the adventure of getting Cathy who was afraid of heights to hold the ladder so that her grandma could reach and dust the ceiling fan. In her eighties, the house, not possessing a bone marrow to renew its cells, started looking tired of its cleanings. The things that had always stayed the same needed even more effort to do so just as she had less to give. The garden that had been moved up from a lower bank beside the river and closer to the house got smaller. The stairs were a fight even when, with her bursitis, the minimum amount of using them was still too much. Sometimes she’d forget her cane, or a burner on the stove, and then to her embarrassment she’d find herself asleep, again, on the red velvet chesterfield, sitting a little slouched to one side, because staying awake when there was less and less you could do only invited the fatigue from all the years of daily doings accumulated in tired bones and failing eyes.
She left the house, putting it for sale with a few final upgrades for better market value, and so it became the subject of third-party scrutiny. The comfort of its familiarity couldn’t be financially appreciated. It was finally sold and then emptied and I couldn’t shake the feeling that even while its only resident was moving to a better-suited place, we were leaving an old friend behind, a piece of Mrs Major.
The move felt like a humiliation, a necessary concession to old age. Her furniture, used to so much space, looked cramped in its new apartment quarters. The small freezer she bought looked awkward in the tiny kitchen. She made a point of never going back to her old neighbourhood.
I do sometimes drive by her house, taking St Pierre Street purposely, just to hear the sound of the wind in the oak trees and feel how the sun pierces through. The new owners put blinds up in the windows and puttered in the flowerbeds. I don’t know them. Their residing there separates me from the house. I wonder if they love it and doubt that they do, and then try to shake that feeling and be more reasonable. There’s no use for nostalgia, no time for it, a house is a building, it has a function, but tied up with a person, it looks like a partnership, and this was one that I wished never ended.