Leona's Doorknob - Columbia: A Journal of Literature & Art No. 56 (2018)

My grandmother Leona Booth lived long and festered. In her forties, she began uttering vague threats that “Jesus will be coming for me soon,” and “You won’t have me to kick around much longer,” and “I’ll never make old bones.” In her seventies, she continuously threatened to stop taking her medications and start taking the bus downtown to buy marijuana for her glaucoma and arthritis. In her eighties, after the death of her lifelong friend Bernice, with whom she made an annual pilgrimage to Reno for gambling, she told me that longevity was God’s way of punishing women. As if the agony and gore of childbirth were insufficient. In her nineties, the last time I saw her alive, she said, “I really could have done without these last ten years.” 

I had assumed she would live forever, since she had always wanted to die. So when she admitted herself to hospital, suffering the minor scourge of constipation, I decided to wait until the weekend to visit. My mother called just a few hours later. 

“The nurse was really upset. I was trying not to laugh. Leona was constipated her whole life! What do you expect? She lived on raw carrots and tea!” 

This was a vast improvement on how my mother informed me that my cousin had died, a few weeks shy of her 40th birthday: “Lara’s dead. They found her on the toilet. Don’t be sad. She’s with Jesus now.” Like Elvis. And then she hung up on me. 

Unlike Lara, Leona had lived to a dusty age, 92 or thereabouts. An estimate, because she had unflinchingly lied about her birth year - to her employers, her spouse six years her junior, her three surviving children. A cliffhanger, as her body was cremated before we could cross-section her femur to count the rings.  

20210828 171740 HDRHer husband John (who everyone called Pops, presumably because of his atomic temper) predeceased her by three years. His funeral was a debacle. Their youngest surviving son, David, an unmedicated catatonic schizophrenic, grinned motionless over the powdered corpse for thirty minutes. Their middle son, Doug, patted the funeral home director on the back and hammed, “Nice work. Great job on the face. He hasn’t looked that good in years!” My mother, their eldest child, made no effort to contain her relief that the “monster” was finally dead. She took a sour glee in the formal indignity of him flattened in a starched blue suit inside a cheap plywood casket destined for the oven. Leona was inconsolable, throwing herself onto the body and wailing into her handkerchief that she had not been a good enough wife. All this hysteria over the “old fool” whom she had despised for fifty-five years. 

Much to our collective horror, the family pedophile crashed the ceremony, arriving late with his newest catalogue-sourced bride in tow. Bill was one of many boarders that my grandmother had hosted over the decades, but it was an open secret that he had molested first, my mother, and later, his own daughter, who had secured a billion-year restraining order against him. In the parking lot outside the funeral home, my unsubtle boyfriend blurted, “So, who invited the pedo?” Which lead to a reality television-style shouting-and-shoving match between the two men. The funeral home director intervened, and told us not to come back. 

Over dinner that night with my family (and no registered sex offenders), I asked Leona how her and Pops had met. She hesitated, in between gummy mouthfuls of orange coleslaw. “Well, since he’s gone, I suppose I can tell you now.” 

Leona grew up in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, the middle of nowhere, the middle child of nine, to French Catholic parents. At a young age she showed more intellectual promise than her bland sisters, so the nuns persuaded her parents that Leona should continue beyond the ninth grade. But she would need to learn English. And the nearest school for that was an Indian Residential School. On her first night away, Leona wet the bed, and the sadistic nuns forced her to wear the soaked, stained sheet as a cape, for the entire day. The punishments for speaking French were apparently just as perverse. She pleaded with her parents to come home, but they insisted she master English first. One year later she was fluent, and home. 

Throughout her life, she would remain bearish on this earned bilingualism. To anyone who asked if she was Quebecois, she would pucker and sniff, “I speak Paris France French, thank you very much!” Throughout her teaching career, she would show unusual patience with First Nations students, sparing only them from the knuckle-rapping and dunce-capping that was common practice in British Columbia classrooms until the early 1970s. “The worst thing you can do is take a child away from their family for school,” she would often preach. And yet in 1971, she would commit her youngest son, Howard, severely physically and intellectually disabled, to the infamous Woodlands Institution, a government-run dumping ground for “unwanted” children, where extreme physical and sexual abuse was considered part and parcel of “spare the rod, spoil the child”. In 1972, Howard went missing while on a field trip to Manning Park; his body was never found.

But back on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, in 1943, Leona found herself unemployed and unmarried in inescapable Duck Lake. Her brothers had volunteered for military service, most of the other men had been drafted, and her despised hometown had become that much more bleak. Leona hatched a plan to kill several albatrosses with one boulder. She took out two advertisements in a Vancouver newspaper, one seeking a teaching post, one seeking a husband. Three men responded to the latter, and she chose the man with the best-looking photo. (At this juncture in the story, the faces of her adult children were rictuses of surprise and shame.) 

Leona struck up correspondence with John, but after he was drafted, his letters stopped. Unfazed, she took a train to Vancouver, tracked down his relatives, and discovered that he had been imprisoned at Oakalla Penitentiary as a conscientious objector. What he objected to, however, was not the war itself, but rather taking orders. During his training on Vancouver Island, he had punched out a commanding officer, over a pair of insufficiently shined boots. Leona worked tirelessly to have him released, even meeting with the Lieutenant Governor to ask for clemency. John was granted early release, and they married in 1947. 

When Leona died three years after Pops, any more shameful (and therefore hilarious) family secrets died with her. And of course we went back to the same funeral home. Again, David grimaced at the corpse for an interminable length of time. Again, Doug made inappropriate jokes, egging on his children to “come give granny a big wet kiss” and laughing at their creeped out shrieks. His wife Francelle was whining to anyone who would listen, “I almost left Doug so many times because of that horrible old woman.” My mother kept nodding off under the influence of prescription pharmaceuticals. I made audibly snide comments about my niece wearing a black bra underneath a white shirt to a funeral. Poor Leona was stuffed into a black velour tracksuit, wrinkled face pulled taut, her chin whiskers plucked clean, which had been her only antemortem concern. The family pedophile was a no-show this time.  The funeral director told us never to come back. We will.

20210828 171959 HDRNanoseconds after her death, Doug and Francelle began cleaning out Leona’s house, stealing anything with even a nickel of resale value, trashing anything with purely nostalgic value. This theft was not unexpected. The second-to-last time I had visited Leona, I had found a book full of five-digit cheques made out to Douglas Booth. His handwriting, her shaky signature in pencil. He was robbing my blind grandmother blind. When I confronted Leona about the cheques, she sighed, “I would have been happy if I had never gotten married.” When Doug was diagnosed with ALS this past year, the uncompassionate lobule of my brain ashamedly knee-jerked, “I sure hope that money and stuff you stole years ago brings you great comfort when you’re struggling not to choke on your own saliva.” 

The more compassionate lobes of my brain still crave mementos of my grandmother. When my parents separated, she consoled me with a Cabbage Patch Kid, a yellow plastic pacifier embedded in its plastic mouth. It was the last one on the shelf, during the height of the craze, and Leona had eagerly shoved another old woman to the floor to grab it. When my house burned, I scoured boxes of surviving objects, looking for a dress Leona had given me that Christmas. Purple with black polka dots, ruffled, with a strand of fake plastic pink pearls attached. I still have those pearls and the pacifier. But somewhere in a landfill, pulverized under layers of less wanted trash, is the novelty laughing machine she found endlessly amusing, especially after a shot of Grand Marnier. The wooden radio she used to listen to hockey games, cursing in French at every goal, every penalty, against the home team. The garish heels and hats she wore, self-conscious of her petiteness, even inside her own home. 

Fortunately, the liquid part of her estate had been immediately bolted down in probate. Though Leona often claimed, “There are no pockets in a coffin,” she had shrewdly hoarded the maximum insurable amount in savings accounts at ten separate banks. One teller surprised us with a key to a safety deposit box. Inside was a thick gold band topped by an avalanche of tiny jewels. My mother sneered, “It looks like a doorknob! One of those cheap 1950s fake glass doorknobs. Leona had no taste.” Every piece of jewelry Pops had given Leona over fifty-five years of marriage, she had deemed inadequate. So she had consolidated the stones into one monstrous uberring. That she never wore. That sat in a metal box for decades. My mother thrust her hand at me, taunting, ring finger straining under the weight of the gems. “I’m not long for this world. Someday soon this doorknob will be all yours.”

Originally published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art No. 56 (2018) pp.90-94 - sadly, with the inexcusable typo "Lenora" in the title of the piece.

Tags: Vancouver, dying, Leona Booth, old age, Duck Lake, French Catholic, Indian Residential School, Woodlands Instiution, Oakalla Peniteniary, funeral, Grand Marnier, inheritance, jewerly, seniors

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