Her room has a faint odour. I’m not sure what it is exactly although my mother once told me that she used to have difficulty controlling her bladder. Before this past April, when my grandfather was dying, I hadn’t visited her in nine years. I didn’t have any money, I had responsibilities I had to look after, but mostly I was afraid.

Afraid of her husband and afraid of the time that I had carelessly let rise up between us.

Of my mother’s four children I think I used to be her favourite. Now Michael is. He’s lived in Montreal the past two years. She stands closely to him: “Is André still living in the house in Caledon?” He looks at me before answering her, not sure how to proceed. The question wasn’t for me.

“No,” he says. “Laura and Jamie are.”

She always has ice cream. Handing two small bars to my brother by the freezer she says: “Here, for you and Jonathan.”

We don’t say anything. Michael hands me one of the bars and we each eat ours quietly as she talks. The television is on behind her, Canada vs Sweden in preliminary World Juniors action.

“How old are they?” she asks.

“Under 18,” I say.

“They’re good, eh?”

Her maiden name is De Blois and she tells us about the castle in Blois, the largest on the Loire. They let her brother in for free when they saw him put his name down in the guest book.

She has cookies and Pringles and Reese’s peanut butter cups that she puts in a bag for us to take home. “Me, I don’t eat that,” she says. She’s diabetic. It’s Christmas and she can easily pretend they were gifts to her. In the car Michael explains that she usually says that one of her sons has left them there on a visit.

I know she’s proud and I wonder how much of what she has told us is lies. She is amiable but cunning. After my brother returns from the bathroom she explains that she has some problems with incontinence, but it’s just little drops that come out, so she wears pads. Just a couple drops. Nothing like some of the other old people, who have to wear diapers all day.

“I don’t know how you live like that,” she says.

“I guess you just have to get used to it.”

“Yes, I guess so.”

On the phone two days later she asks me what I’m doing. I tell her that I am in school, finishing my Master’s in English.

“I should do my Master’s in French,” she laughs. “But I wasn’t very good in French. But in math I won the ribbon when I was in high school.” She was the best student in math in her entire school. But she was poor and she married a farmer from Holland.

“Look at how handsome he was.” She’s holding up an old photo.

He died this past April. When we came to visit he was yellow and muttering to himself in an endless sleep.

“People can’t get over that,” she says, glancing back at the photo.

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