The Wind in the Willows

Submitted into Contest #248 in response to: Write a story titled 'The Wind in the Willows'.... view prompt

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Inspirational Indigenous

The island could be lonely at times, but with Grandmother Mimi there and her stories, whispers, and touch, I could never ever be alone. My sisters and I fell in love with her as soon as she first held us in her arms, and I understand why mom could never move away from her. There was a certain stillness, calmness, and persistence of happiness that bubbled around me when I was with her. 

There was one summer when I had Grandmother Mimi to myself for a whole two weeks, which meant we could do all our favourite activities, with no sisterly interruptions. Mom was away, and my sisters stayed home with Dad. Mimi lived right on the beach in a small, navy coloured wooden house. She needed, as a river needs energy, to live in that house. Not only was it right on the beach, in a sandy, tranquil area, but a few feet behind the house was the forest. Mimi needed to live there, and she needed to die there. The salt, the sand and rocks, the pine, the berries, the fish, and the wolves. Her ancestors were from this land. It was close to our home too, but we were in town. She was right in the middle of all the nature. I think if she passed away anywhere that was not in the house, on that beach, she would be stuck in spiritual limbo. I don’t know if that's the term she would have used. 

In June of that year, when it was still just the two of us, Grandmother Mimi and I collected seashells from the rocky part of the beach, further down the shore. When the sun was at its hottest, we would go back to the sandy side near her house and dip in the water, make sand castles, and count the freckles that would grow on my face, no matter how much sunscreen I wore. Grandmother Mimi said people didn’t wear sunscreen when she was young, and would joke and say that was how she got her wrinkles, not because she was old. When the sun grew weak, we would lie out and nap, or go for a walk in the forest, and she would tell me stories about creation. Every time we spotted a robin, she would note its colours. Each time we passed the river, she would praise its essence. Every tree, she would regard its emotions. It was just us two in the world.

“We are all connected,” she would often say, then would grab my hand, kiss it, and smile. 

I felt so close to Mimi that when I closed my eyes, I could see all the veins, scars, and moles on her body so clearly. I could see which of her hair strands were grey and which were a shade of douglas fir. 

She had a remedy for “upside down days,” which were days when one of us wasn’t feeling our best. A cure that she discovered when I was very young. She would take me to a willow tree, a little ways away from her house, that grew by a river in a beautiful grassy area. We would lie down and nap, my head on her chest. The wind would wake us up, and everything would feel better. She loved all trees, especially the ones that grew in the forest by her house, but there was something about willows that she connected to deeper. 

“This tree is us. You and me. We are here spiritually even when we are physically not.”

When my sisters finally arrived, Grandmother Mimi caught them up on a few new stories of her childhood, and I listened once again with genuine fascination. Some were sad, and some were amazing. We sat wide-eyed and crossed legged on the floor while she reclined on her sofa by the fire. We followed her around the house like little ducklings when she was doing chores. We listened to her on her canoe, and she would keep talking. Eventually, sometimes the sisters would get bored and zone out, but she never minded. She’d squeeze our hands and laugh.

That July, she told us something exciting. 

“I’m getting a rescue dog in a few days.” She was giddy and giggly with excitement and said she had so much trouble keeping it a surprise already, so she couldn’t wait for the extra days to tell us. We screamed and squealed with delight. 

The dog was a well-trained collie mix, who had belonged to an elderly couple. The couple decided they couldn’t give the dog enough exercise now. 

“Walking too long hurts their joints,” she said. “It’s not their fault, their kids gifted the dog to them, without thinking about how old they were. They looked after him as long as they could. Tucker needs to run. He needs to be near the beach, needs to be free, just like me. Good thing I am still full of life,” she said, tickling us. Mimi was sixty and healthy when she said that. I’m scared she jinxed herself, but she doesn’t believe in stuff like that, so I tried not to either, but I was only nine. 

“You have to take time in life to look after the things you love,” Mimi had told me. “Things you give love to will love you back.”

Not all the time, I thought in my head. 

“No, not all the time.” 

Could Mimi read minds, or my face? 

We never met my grandfather. She talked about him to me quite often, but not to the others. He had hair the same length as hers, but much darker. He liked fishing and playing soccer, he loved to sculpt, and he wanted to start a jewellery business with silver prints of animals engraved on them. Bears, wolves, ravens, orcas. He was tall and sturdy, like a tree, and could swim really fast, but was sometimes afraid of it. He was nurturing to her in a way that many men aren’t. She loved him, but he loved the bottle, and ran away with it. 

Two summers ago, I was twelve. Tucker was five. Grandmother Mimi was sixty-three. Usually in summer, since we didn’t have school and Mimi was a walking distance home, we slept there every night. Why wouldn’t we choose to be right on the beach? I didn’t that summer. Apparently, I had better things to do, like see friends and get ready for the eighth grade. Whenever I did drop by her house, where my sisters would already be, she would sense I was coming. She would have food already baking in the oven, and a blanket prepared in case I decided to stay the night. I usually would leave and sleep at friends or home. 

My friends and I spent the summer doing some things that were similar to what Mimi and I used to do. Swimming, walking around doing nothing, and talking. But, of course we did other things too. Some of the thirteen year olds had already started smoking. We would gather in random spots on the island that we designated as crucially important areas for social life, such as the skate park, and this long log on the beach. We gathered at one of these spots every night, and apparently the fact that we did this made us almost cool. Sometimes the fourteen and fifteen year olds would come from their own designated, crucial spots in town, and drop off smokes, or drinks. 

That summer, I got drunk for the first and only time, on half a beer. I went into the ocean with only half my clothes on, for a dare. When I came back out, all my friends and my clothes were gone. I was dizzy and sick, and I was too scared to walk home and face mom, so I walked to Mimi’s. She took me in with literal open arms, as she always did. She took me through the front door, and I shivered past the room my sisters and I shared, where they all lay asleep in their beds. She bathed me in warm water, put cool water on my forehead, and took me to bed with her. I cried, and she curled her body around me, and I squeezed in close to her, playing with my hair till I fell asleep. I don’t know if I was crying over the people who left me alone, for the nauseating feeling in my stomach, or for being stupid enough to listen to a dare.

In the morning, I woke up very early, and I cried again. Mimi got up and left the room, leaving me in bed. I thought she was angry. I soon followed after her in the kitchen.

She was flipping pancakes for me. Banana chocolate chip.

“Those aren’t real friends,” she argued, softly. “Some of them will apologize to you, and some won’t. And out of the some who apologize to you, only some of them will mean it, the others won’t, and I hope you’ll be able to tell. But the one who means it, will really mean it. Just like you meant it when you apologized to me. The ones who offer you no apology at all, at least you’ll know who they are.”

Grandfather sent her a letter saying he was sorry for leaving her, and she knew he really was, but not enough to come back. 

She was right. Some did, and some didn’t apologize. And some girls who did say sorry didn’t mean it at all. But I still spent the rest of the summer with them. With all of them. I also quit the summer reading club. I felt bad going against Mimi’s suggestions and for not seeing her, but again, it was the summer before eighth grade. High school. The choices I made were socially detrimental. 

In fall of that year, after things at school settled in, I started a new tradition of going to Grandmother Mimi’s house after school on Mondays and Wednesdays, she would teach me things that mom thinks I didn’t learn at school. She would teach me hands-on things like sewing, bracelet with beads, and cooking. I would get lessons on more family history, so much that I could trace our family tree back without any help to hundreds of generations ago. I learnt about the different uses of wood, and how they get turned into cooking objects. I wanted to learn her language, but she couldn’t remember it well. She would cry about this. I hated seeing her cry. When I was little, I thought it was her tears that filled the ocean by her home. She didn’t get upset often, but when she did, she was open about it, and would tell me why. I always thought her parents tried to keep their sadness hidden from her when she was a little girl. Most of what I saw of her was laughter and smiles. 

In winter, I would often go straight to Mimi’s after school and sleep there instead of going home every night because the high school was closer to her house than mine, and I was too cold and tired to walk home. Mimi's home and body would always be warm. The house would smell like cinnamon, pine, and bread. She loved baking breads from all over the world. 

“We were built exactly for these weather conditions,” she said to me. “Don’t you want to play in the snow?” The wind made the already cold air hurt even more, but Mimi loved the wind more than anything.

“Spirits.”

We would play puzzles in the evening after I finished my homework. Mimi was a professional tutor, so she often helped me. Every once in a while, she would make us walk in the snow or rain to the beach, then come back. Even if I didn’t come with her, she would take Tucker for an hour, even if it was extra icy that day.

“It’s to keep you connected and grounded to who you are and where we are,” she said. “I think you grew up this summer.” 

When she said that, I never once questioned why. She was the voice. My voice. 

That spring, in March, I joined a dance club, even though mom used to joke about how I moved like a pile of sticks. She was not wrong. Mimi would lie and say I moved not like sticks but like a tree, flowing in the breeze. She believed I just needed to be a bit more loose, like an arbutus instead of a cedar. I came over to her less, because I was busy with dance, with band, with friends again. 

By the next summer, I really did dance a bit better, but it turns out I hated ballet so much that I quit as soon as the classes ended in May, vowing to not return to the studio. 

I stuck with the band, my friends, and started to think of boys. 

In June, Mimi and the family were supposed to all go away together for a week somewhere. But then she got sick.

Her illness started out slow, she gradually became weaker, paid less attention to me, and was always tied. I didn’t understand how she could go from healthy to sick, but the slow change stopped me from noticing until she could no longer leave her bed. Her hair was once, long and thick, like a raven's wing, brushed but not tame, a mix between soft and rough, like wool. She wore it down always, with the exception of braids sometimes, but it was now thin and rough. Her cheeks got hollower, and her body got skinnier. My sisters didn’t understand how sick she was, but I understood. Her dog, Tucker, had now passed on to us, although this made my sisters extremely delighted, I knew it was a bad sign. It was hard to look at her. 

Mom’s sister, my twenty three year old aunt who had moved away to Vancouver, came back and moved in to take care of her when Mom was at work. After work and after school, we would all go to Mimi. She was too weak to even clean herself alone. Mom and Auntie cooked, and it was weird not tasting her fish and her meat and her bread. 

“No hospital,” she would repeat often. “I’m happy here.”

People were coming in and out of the house to visit Mimi, and the laughing and crying never stopped. There were sometimes intermissions so people could eat, and there was some drumming. Food and hugs were being dropped off. Mimi was never too sick to speak, one time there were almost fifteen of us in her small room, sitting on the floor and bed, we listened to her stories. In between her words, I listened to her breaths, I knew it hurt her. At least they were still there.

In the winter, she got much worse. Her coughs were extra strong and loud, her breathing became delicate and wheezy. I braided her hair one day and sang her a song she had taught me. A raven propped up outside her window. Then another. Then another.

“It's the family,” her voice light and airy. She looked so tiny. I grew more scared. I needed a distraction, so I gave myself one.

My grandmother Mimi was dying and all I could think about was cleaning the dirty stains off the window, dusting the top of her wooden bed frame, lighting candles and setting up flowers to keep the scent in her house fresh. She was very particular about smell and fragrances, extra sensitive, even on her deathbed, to even faintly sour or musty odours. She loved forgotten scents, those that most people know they like, but wouldn’t first think about when thinking of their favourite smells. Bluebell, blackberry, and burnt sugar. The scent of her car after hours of it baking in the sun. The banana sunscreen I used as a child. The tomato soup she used to bathe her beloved Tucker in after he got sprayed by skunks. Keeping her room clean was the only thing I wanted to think about. Of course, it didn’t always work.

“You’ll know where to find me,” she’d whisper to me when I’d break down in her bed. 

I was scared I was going to forget Mimi when she was gone, but I was also scared I would never forget her, and I didn’t know which fear was tugging at me more, which one was right, and which one would hurt more. 

Mimi died in the thick of winter. It was snowing heavily outside, and the beach was white, the sky was grey, and she was too. It was in her bed, in her room, on this beach that she died. 

For the weeks after she died, I was searching for her everywhere, and I couldn't find her. By the time spring came, I realised it was because I had to find myself first. Who I was without her there, physically. After that, I was able to figure it out. I knew where to look for her spirit. In the seasons.

The scent of the first snow of winter.

In the sounds of the wild animals crunching the autumn leaves.

Under shells at the beach in summer.

In the wind of the willows in the spring. I think she will be loudest, most visible in spring. Easiest to find.

May 03, 2024 23:22

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