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Conch shell

 
February, 1983–I went to Utah with my father. I can tell you the year because I remember watching the last episode of 'MASH' in a hotel room by myself. We had gone with the specific intent of visiting his mother, my grandmother–the suffocating matriarch of our family–and his sister–my lonely, broken aunt. Both lived in separate apartments in a low-rise building in Salt Lake City. I have no idea why they lived there at that time. We had no other relatives in Utah, they weren’t Mormons, and they certainly didn’t ski. It was a puzzle, but as with many things in our family, nothing was said. It just was.
 
My father talked me into joining him on this trip with the promise of a few days spent skiing in the mountains. I was an avid skier, and coming from the not-mountains-but-hills of Southern Ontario, any chance to hurtle down a real mountain was dreamy. I remember the flight out, my skis and boots stowed safely in the belly of the airplane while I sat next to my father, and looked through the tiny window at the blue sky and the shiny starboard airplane wing. I listened to Chris Cross on my Walkman. Oh the eighties.
 
Our family wasn’t the sort that took regular vacations together. We had a farm to run and couldn’t just pack and leave, although beef cattle–free to graze several fields in the summer– are as easy as it gets. When my brother and sister grew old enough to keep an eye on the well-being of our Herefords, my parents did take the odd trip. Once, when I was nine years-old, I joined them while they were vacationing in the Bahamas. They sent for me days after they had left, because who doesn’t want a nine year-old with them during the rare time they have alone together? My sister took me to the airport and barely got me on the plane. It had pulled away from the gate, but returned for cute little me. Those were the days when the captain might come back and say ‘hello,’ which this one did. I got to see the cockpit, and was given a pin in the shape of an airplane.
 
My flight landed and I met up with my parents. Initially, we were guests at a regular hotel with the front desk, the carpeted rooms, and the dinging sound of the hallway elevators. Our ground-level room had a small patio as a bonus, and I remember us sitting out there, me newly sunburned, my nasal passages and eyeballs freshly scoured by the rolling surf; my first time swimming in saltwater. My father had somehow gotten hold of a conch shell, complete with conch, and seemed devoted to removing the little guy from its glorious, spiral home. It sat in the corner of the patio area like an easily overlooked decoration. Every now and then, my father would walk over and pick it up with a look of brave determination on his face. He would reach in and pull on some unseen part of what is actually a type of snail, the battle resulting in what sounded like a drain clearing, but never in the animals’ defeat. It’s possible that the three of us, my father included, were all slightly horrified at each onslaught, expecting him to pull out his hand and find a bloody stump where his index finger used to be. I was relieved, likely the conch too, when my father tossed the creature back into the sea.
 
 After a few days, we moved from the unremarkable hotel to an inn on a rockier, more interesting part of the shore.  We had our own little cabin with a loft, and a small kitchen. The people who owned the inn had a daughter my age and we played together every day, exploring the low pools and crevasses in the rocks. One night a tropical storm came howling through the area. Our cabin windows–jalousie style, made of louvered glass slats–were unsealable, so my parents piled sofa cushions against them to try to keep the wind from blowing the curtains straight out to horizontal. I remember it because it seemed an odd thing for my parents to do–kid-like, and out of character. It was as if there was a chance that, once we returned home, we were going to be the family that made blanket forts together and how neat was that going to be!
 
When my father and I landed in Salt Lake city, we rented a car and drove to go see my aunt and grandmother. I was going to be sleeping on the floor in my aunt’s apartment, which I thought would be fine. I was not prepared for the central eye-catching feature in her living room–a plastic wading pool full of kitty litter. Along one wall sat a loose section of floor molding, open enough to allow various neighbourhood cats to come and go through the hole behind it like they owned the place. If these cats had had thumbs, one could have imagined gambling tables alongside the pool, and perhaps a bar where a Tom with part of an ear missing, served bootleg milk brought in under cover of night. But there were no thumbed cats, and no Tom pouring dairy shots. There was only the wading pool. To be clear, I wasn’t squeamish. I had seen saw calves born, and shadowed the large-animal veterinarians when they came to the farm to do whatever to whatever that needed whatever, but this wading pool set me on edge. We had had cats on the farm, and a house cat now and then, but nothing that required accoutrements on such a large scale. Add a kind of fountain feature to the middle and the whole thing could have been considered art–a comment on judgement, or the hidden toxicity of wandering, feral cuteness.  My father had graduated from Cornell with a Bachelor of Science and plus, any functioning adult would have been aware of the health downfalls of such an installation, but I don’t remember him showing concern.

So, yes, that wading pool, but what became more concerning for me, was the emotional instability of my aunt. She was schizophrenic, medicated, and had gone through shock therapy treatments on occasion. It’s unsure if her illness was caused by her social struggle after skipping several grades in school, the abusive marriage from which she had escaped early on, the relentless overseeing by her mother, genetics, or simply the world being a shitty place for her. Whatever it was, the result was profound and sad. I have slight memories of her playing guitar and singing songs to me when I was young. She studied the Tao Te Ching, and did Tai Chi back then, before it became a thing, and before she became emotionally overwhelmed.  My aunt was stunning when she was younger. We have a black and white photo of her at some patio table. There are a couple partially filled glasses and two opened bottles of foreign beer on the table. She is sitting, looking off to one side, a cigarette aloft in one hand, hair coiffed, and the whole shot looking like something you would find on the cover of 'Life' magazine. There in Utah, decades later, the gorgeous, confident romantic shine was gone, stolen, short-circuited by ‘whatever,’ her fancy hairdo replaced with great batts of unruly, black wiry hair–she looked like she could have been homeless.
 
 Our family didn’t talk about mental illness. I was not taken aside and given advice on my aunt’s situation, which had progressed since the last time I had seen her. Night came, and initially, from my vantage point in the sleeping bag on the floor in a corner of her bedroom, she seemed okay. I fell asleep, but woke soon after to the sound of her crying. She lay, fully clothed and distraught for what seemed like hours during that first night, weeping into her pillow, and I had no clue of what to do. Our family was not physically demonstrative of affection, plus the not talking about mental illness habit–I was scared, not that she would harm me, but that she needed me to do something, or someone to do something. All I could think of was to try to make myself invisible in the corner of that room.
 
The next morning, I suppose we sorted ourselves out, though I don’t remember. There were likely cats to feed, and feed, and feed. My father and I went to get my grandmother so that we could go out to eat, but for some reason, she could not get to the door to let us in. My father had a key and could open the door, but there was a chain latch hooked on the inside which kept us from entering. I don’t know where the idea came from, but I took a wire coat hanger, straightened it out and put a reverse hook on the end that could fit into one of the chain links, so the tool could push, instead of pull. I slid the contraption in through the open door, settled the hook into the farthest link that I could, pulled the door almost closed, and pushed the coat hanger towards the chain lock housing. The end of the chain popped out of its place with ease. “How did you know to do that?” my father asked. I had no good answer. Doors, I could open. Troubled relatives, I could not comfort, or even come close to figuring out.
 
The next night, I slept in a hotel room and had never been more grateful. I watched MASH with no cats or circular storehouses of kitty litter in sight. The smell of over-chlorinated water was like aromatherapy after the previous night’s air. The 'ding' of the elevator was like music. Nobody was weeping near me. Nothing was wrong here. Nobody was in any kind of pain. When I look back on that night with my aunt, I could judge my younger me as being selfish, but I don’t think that’s fair at all. Now I have a much better grasp of mental illness and would love to be able to transport back in time to that heartbreaking night. I would have gotten out of my sleeping bag and sat with her on the bed. I would have talked with her, which may or may not have worked to ease her sadness, but I have to think that my making the attempt might have helped. I’m frustrated that my father figured that it was okay to have me sleep there at that time, but I feel that he was just as lost both as a parent, and a brother­–him dealing with his own demons that would emerge and conquer years later. I can’t imagine ever allowing my kids to be faced with such a challenge. I am grateful that I didn’t have the opportunity and therefore did not have to make that call.
 
The skiing in Utah was fantastic. It’s a lovely thing to ski down the side of a real mountain, in case you haven’t done it. There, it was nice to go fast. It was nice to get tired. One morning, I went to the top of the mountain, and came off of the lift into a cloud so dense that I could not see the ends of my skis. I didn’t know the runs, but managed a controlled snow plow, feeling my way along on a groomed path. I could hear voices around me so I knew that I wasn’t alone. Every now and again, I would come up next to a sign on my left,  'Danger, Avalanche Zone. No Entry,' which was interesting. Soon, the cloud thinned until it was gone, and I could see the terrain below me. I was doing my best.  

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