Saturday, 5 March 2011

Marble Lake by Nancy Snipper

      It’s called Marble Lake for a reason. Patterns of sliver-thin ripples resemble the veins in Pentelic marble. And when the wind whips across the water, they open up like tiny cracks, then disappear. I’ve always associated my sister’s suicide with Marble Lake, not just because it happened there, but because she opened her veins before lying on the wharf. She must have dipped her left hand in the water after she slit her wrists because it lay gracefully in the lake when I found her. Her fingers were so still - in the water rippling red.
Even in death, Jane wore her calling well. She was a dancer. Her lifeless face was as white as a Venus fly trap; her diaphanous body holding a hint of colour lay beautifully on the wooden wharf.  In fact, at any moment, I expected her to rise to her feet and begin moving around in graceful abandon, as she always did every time she was on the wharf.  I used to love watching her dance on that small area. She would leap across it, do two pirouettes and then end it all with a lofty arabesque. I marveled at her suppleness and confidence. One slip could mean hitting her head against the rough edge of protruding nails, or spraining her ankle - an injury from the devil, Jane used to say.
It seemed like I was staring at her forever. It’s amazing how 26 years can replay in seconds. A flood of memories seized my brain – the first one being the pinafore fiasco.    I had always loved Jane’s flare for fashion, so when she picked out her brown pinafore dress for me to wear to my best friend’s sweet sixteen, I was thrilled. She giggled when she saw how grateful I was. It was only after I arrived at the party, that I understood why she had found it amusing. That dress was actually an old school uniform that belonged to Mary O’Halloran, one of her Catholic friends!  Mary had given it to Jane four days before moving to Toronto with her mom. A girl who was at the party used to go to that school. She instantly recognized the uniform. Bad luck. It never occurred to me that Jane had set me up, encouraging me to wear it to the party. I had thought it was pretty; the others thought it was marmy.
So Jane, now 18 was a practical joker after all.  How could that sweet face framed in long wavy auburn hair hold such deceptions?  It would take another 15 years before I would discover just how secretive my sister was, how her outward beauty belied inner anguish.
In 1967, my mother had enrolled both of us in the Razinsky Dance Academy in the Glebe, Ottawa’s ballet school for beauties. It was cruel of Mom to make me go. Of course, Jane was a stand-out. She excelled on point.
My mother used to say: “Jane, you think best on your feet.”  What she meant was, “Jane, everyone is watching you when you dance.”
How could you not? She was ethereal - a Raphael beauty in motion. Her legs were the envy of every student in the point class, and a magnet for every fellow at high school.
            Unlike her, I was short, had mousy brown hair and a long nose destined to be dipped into perfume bottles. I ended up a chemist. There was no perfume, only the noxious carbon dioxide I analyzed during daily tests to measure air pollution from exhaust pipes in my lab of the National Research Council.  
            I hated my mother for putting me in those ballet classes with my sister. I did however love the pink toe shoes. Jane owned five pairs of them. Some had lacy ribbons, others had jet black silk ones, and one pair had purple flowers embroidered across the toe.
One day after class I tied up a pair of her shiny pink ones which she always carried in her back as “spares”. I squeezed my toes into the hard part with no cushiony protection and tried to stand straight up on my toes. I let out a loud “ouch”, and then began cursing. Jane suddenly appeared.
“What do you think you are doing?” Really Anna, you’re not at the same level as me. You can barely plié without toppling over. Your feet are far too wide to wear my points.”
            By now, a least five of the senior dancers had gathered around, staring at me in disbelief; I had broken dance code etiquette. From that moment I was an outcast. Worst of all, I had shown I wanted to step into my sister shoes - as the expression goes. I think Mom wanted me to be like her.

            When Mother miscarried the fourth month into her third pregnancy, she never really recovered. She holed herself up in her room for the better part of the day listening to classical music on the radio. You could hear it when you went upstairs and knocked on the door to tell her you were hungry.
            “There’s pizza in the freezer. Just heat it up in the micro.  I made your favourite chocolate cake for dessert.” All this she said between her bedroom door and Rachmaninoff’s Concerto # 2. CBC Radio always seemed to play it at . I grew up associating pizza, French fries, hot dogs, and burgers with Rachmaninoff. It seemed normal to me.
            But Ottawa didn’t. Its WASP atmosphere stung me on a daily basis. My grade 11 class was full of blond Barbies with little noses, long nails, pink tops and mini skirts exposing pretty knees. No one wrote poetry; no one liked black, and no one ate burgers to classical music. Jane, proud and slender, fit in perfectly. In the 70’s skinny was your ticket to acceptance. Whenever I attempted to slide into a group of popular girls, I would mention Jane was my sister.
            “I’m Jane Basko’s sister. She and I are dancing a pas de deux for our Cecchetti exams.” They had no idea what I was talking about, but the circle instantly opened up, and I stepped in. Deception seems to run in the family.
We lived in the West End; our home was built by a brilliant architect, William Berona, and the neatest thing about it was the hidden garbage shoot. I loved opening the cupboard below the kitchen sink and tossing all kinds of things down there. I threw tea bags, packages of napkins, mustard jars, even chipped dishes that obviously needed throwing out. My garbage rampage was strategically timed when it was Jane’s turn to empty the shoot.  
            “What the hell,” muttered Jane with a confused look on her face. “It seems every time it’s my day to take out the garbage, it’s always heavier. It’s full of broken china and crap. What in heaven’s name are all these teabags doing at the top? Mom’s got to cut down. No wonder she can’t sleep at night. This family should be recycling. I’m going to sort it all out and put things where they belong,” Jane said self-righteously.
            I thought for sure she’d point the finger at me.  She never did. The garbage was my way of sticking it to my more than perfect sister who never thought it could actually be nerdy Anna who did this stuff. She blamed dad, mom, even the cleaning lady. To Jane, I was a boring innocent. It was only when we went to the cottage that Jane saw my fun side.
            At the cottage, cousins from Montreal invaded every inch of space. They were fat, noisy and lazy. They ate all the food, and when they dove into the water, every roasted marshmallow, hotdog, hamburger, pickle, pork chop and potato seemed to go with them. The sound they made as they hit the water caused a loud echo in Marble’s surrounding hills.  They thought they owned the cottage, and to my horror, mom and dad seemed more interested in them than they were in me. To grab attention, I’d try to impress the twins by talking about my discoveries of toxic level emissions from tailpipes, depending on the make of car and gas octane. Before I’d get to the third sentence, it was always “Pass the mustard, more milk please.”  Jane seemed to forget she had a sister when the twins were around. Yes, they were her age, but were their stupid jokes about Quebec and French people really that funny? I thought they were really cruel. I wanted to take the toxic air I tested and shove it into their mouths. I got the feeling Dad felt the same way.
            Mom had married a man who preferred Al Jolson to Mozart, but she totally adored him. She praised his wit and his passion for reading, but she did not share his love for the outdoors. He was a terrific father, even attentive in ways that attracted neighborhood kids over to the house, just to talk to “Mr. Basko”.
            When mother married him, she also married his fishing rod. Dad bought the cottage at Marble to teach us about nature, gas lanterns, water from pumps and fishing. The cottage was only an hour outside of Ottawa, so he would herd us all into the car and head out with mom sitting silently in the front seat - exhausted from the shopping and organizing.
            Dad and I loved our outings on the lake. His beat-up boat coated in ten years worth of ugly green paint was pulled by a five-horse-power motor.  No matter. The tug of a bass on either of our lines meant fried fish on the table within the next hour.  What we caught, mom dutifully cooked. She hated fishing - maybe because she was a Pisces. So, we kidded her that her destiny was to be caught by dad.
        I remember the day dad dropped from fatigue. He had been brushing pine needles off the bottom of the boat using a big cedar branch. He always turned the boat over before locking up the cottage every weekend. Six months later, he died. Leukemia killed him. He was my best friend, so watching my once-rugged father slowly disappear into a frail little man left a gaping hole in my heart. He died stoically, but I was so close to him I felt his silent anguish. It was the only time in my life when I wrote a poem. I had to. It would be the first time I tried writing anything other than letters or monthly scientific reports tabling toxic levels of gases and contributing noxious compounds. The pain of losing him somehow turned into literary pretense; it was my vengeance against leukemia robbing me of a wonderful human who happened to be my father. I needed to share the poem with someone. I wanted Jane to read it, to feel my pain, to say: “Dad didn’t deserve to go that way.” I thought only my sister, the other daughter would understand. I also hoped that Jane’s artistic brilliance was born of empathy – that an abundance of compassion lay beneath her carefree persona.  But it wasn’t to be.
            After writing the poem, I realized, I had better stick to science and syllogisms. Jane confirmed this when I showed her the poem.  She gave it a glance, then replied in a tone as icy as Marble Lake in winter,
            “A poem has to rhyme.” 
            She then shoved it back at me. I couldn’t bring myself to chuck it. I wanted to remind myself of the suffering dad had gone through, and I needed to respect his courage, to remember him healthy, and to hold on to that moment when I cradled his face in my arms the day before he died.
              Some days, when I think I can see dad waving at me from his boat, I feel compelled to unlock the top desk drawer in the lab and take out my poem. Conquering the effects of carbon monoxide, dioxide, and the rest of these mortifying monsters is as impossible as curing acute leukemia. I unfold its four corners and read it, ignoring the lack of poetic punctuation.
Body Breach
Scabbed spindly birch bark
cracks, cracks cracks
over the plate-glass lake
then dives into the shattersound of silence.
Such sudden swift surrender is
Nature’s divine acceptance of death.

Not so with my father.
His fall took the form of a slow bend
Born from a resistance of knowing
that the unknown void below
was waiting to engulf him.
Leukemia’s gravity weighted him down
whittling him into a ghost of bones.
And as he crumbled, bit by bit
into that darkest deep,
the black hush of
ushered in his final bow.
There were no stars that night.
            After dad was gone, mom shut herself up in her room almost all day.  She locked her door. We left her alone; she wanted it that way. Opera became her solace - the sound that opened her heart to swell into a thousand cracks where sadness, bitterness and despair silently seeped in. Her face took on the appearance of pathos. She began to look like Madame Butterfly without the beauty; she had lost her wings. Mom remained positively grounded in her bed. She rarely came out, except when we went to Marble Lake. It was up for sale, but when she was in the kitchen, Jane and I would take the kilometer-long walk down the gravel hill road and remove the offending For Sale sign, kicking it into the bush.  On Sundays we’d always ask mom the time we would be leaving, so that Jane and I would have enough time to walk down and put back the sign.
            The thought of selling the cottage was something we could not accept, and now that the twins were no longer interested in going up, Jane and I could enjoy peaceful weekends, fishing off the wharf, peeling onions in the kitchen, berry picking and refilling the pump hose.
            Jane would call mom to the wharf to attend her solo performance of the dying swan from Swan Lake.  While Tchaikovsky’s music played on the portable tape deck, mom looked positively radiant. She was transported to another place, but as Jane slowly fell as the hapless creature, gasping for her final breath, mom’s smile changed to sorrow, and her eyes welled up. I always found it hard to lose myself in the illusion. This was my sister pretending to be a swan; that’s the way I saw it. 
            Your dad is watching too,” mom said reassuringly. “His ashes have risen; I can see them floating at the top of the water,” she would say, and together we would sit quietly, contemplative, sad, yet at peace.

            But it wasn’t dad who filled my mind at that moment; it was Jane, beautiful Jane. I would miss her dancing, her teasing, even her insensitive pranks. Why did she do this? Why did she choose to leave us and in such a horrific way? Was it because this was our last weekend at the lake?  True, the thought of losing Marble was awful. Could that cause deadly grief? Did she obsess about it - that we would no longer be hearing the chickadees, nor smell the fresh scent of cedar?  No longer would we be able to watch ‘our’ two loons glide across the lake in exquisite grace.  No more would we hear their ‘whaaawhaaaaw’ sounds echoing across the lake into the Gatineau hills. No more freshly picked berries or nighttime skinny-dipping.
            We had tried over and over again to convince mom that all three of us could handle the chores and challenges of living in a cottage that had mice, leaks and broken doors. But that was futile.
            “Do you think we are characters in La Boheme?” We are not hippies living for the ideal. I cannot continue here, and without dad, there’s no point. Plus, putting his ashes in the lake was a mistake; he can’t fish, he can’t hold me, he can’t complain about my cooking, and he certainly can’t fix anything. No girls, it’s hard I know, but we have to accept that Marble Lake is now the past. Yes, I’ll miss the wild flowers, but I won’t miss the bees, wasps and black flies, nor will you.”
            Mom had a way of quickly setting things straight, but the result was always dismal, just like the direction of an opera hurdling towards tragedy.

            And so it was that Jane ended her life on the last day Marble Lake was to be an integral part of our lives. It was a double finale, that day, that terrible day, one I would never forget, even seven years later.
            Why Jane did this, no one knows, but I suspect underneath that beauty, that style, that edgy humour, she had a secret; one so deceptive that no one ever imagined it could actually exist.  She once said to me in a tone I took as sarcasm. “Clever Jane, the affected cynic, the killer of other people’s pleasures.  “Tragically, I was to find out, Jane was speaking from her soul.
            “You know mom’s operas… well… lovers never end up together.  Beauty is staged, so happiness has nothing to do with how popular you are or how lovely your hair is. Love is what so few people really have. You’re the lucky one. Dad always loved you; I know he didn’t feel anything for me. And do you know why? Because you are normal; no one is afraid of you; you listen, you laugh with others; I laugh at them. You aren’t afraid to make mistakes.  Three days before dad died, he called me into his bedroom. Do you know, he never even told me he loved me? He just told me to keep on dancing and that I would have many marriage proposals, and that I would always look perfect. He didn’t take my hand when I reached out to his. I cried when he told me he needed to rest, and then shooed me out of the room. I cried not because I was going to lose my dad, but because I never really had one, at least one that took me fishing, one that read to me, one that laughed with me and hugged me, the way he did with you.”
            My theory is,  I think Jane longed to be as awkward as I am, as logical and dull as I am, as inconspicuous as my breasts are and as mediocre as my personality is. How strange. All that time she was full of self-loathing. She was the unhappy one. I was envious, but never deeply damaged. Nothing was worth taking too seriously. And I have Jane to thank for that - the pinafore and toe shoe episodes, even the circle of pretty girls at school that liked me for the wrong reason. Living in Jane’s shadow taught me to laugh at myself – to accept myself no matter how the cards were dealt. Although I didn’t have constant approval, Jane did – except from the one person she loved deeply. I knew I had Dad’s love; Jane felt she had to dance for it.
            The heart is a fragile hunter which can only handle so much, and then it’s all over for some. Jane, oh my beautiful Jane!
* * *

            Sometimes it all seems like it happened yesterday. But here I am, head of my department, married and a mother. My daughter’s name is Jane.
            Right now I’m standing outside Mom’s bedroom door. She’s up here, locked away as usual, lost in the music of Rachmaninoff.  But in three seconds I’m going to knock on the door – and, for the first time in my life, insist that she come down and eat with us. Jane is waiting and our hamburgers are getting cold. I wonder if Rachmaninoff ever ate one?