ALONG THE CANAL
by Susan Pierce
“Auntie Ag,” Lewis chose his words carefully. He’d given it a great deal of thought and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring it up. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“What is it, dear,” Auntie Ag asked. The two were walking slowly along the path that ran next to the irrigation canal. The Auburn area was riddled with irrigation canals. Without them, nothing worth planting would grow.
Winters in Auburn were chilly and occasionally included a day or two of snow. Springs and falls were wet. But from July through September, the area was bone dry and temperatures hovered around 100 degrees. Without the canals, much of California would be a semi arid wasteland.
Decades earlier trees were planted along the irrigation canal that flowed through Sissy’s land. Cooled by a light breeze beneath the canopy of olive trees and perfumed by a hint of oranges, a stroll along the canal was as soothing as it was invigorating.
Auntie Ag pushed back her big straw hat and let out a bit of length from her chinstrap so the hat could hang casually between her shoulder blades. No need for my hat in the shade, she thought. She liked the feel of the breeze through her hair.
“Auntie Ag, Sissy and I are married,” Lewis said gently but firmly.
Agatha stopped in her tracks. She turned to face Lewis, looked him in the eye, and said, “I beg your pardon?”
“That’s right, Auntie. Me and Sissy are married.” There. He said it. Once and for all, for better or worse, the cat was out of the closet.
She turned as pink as the tea roses on her white sweater. “When?”
“We were married at San Francisco City Hall five years ago.”
“Oh, my. It’s quite shameful.”
“You disapprove?” Lewis was braced, ready for whatever her reaction might be. But now that they were actually having the conversation he wasn’t sure how he felt. Angry? Disappointed?
Auntie muttered to herself, shaking her head. The only word Lewis heard clearly was, “Disgraceful.”
As he listened to the water lap gently against the banks, Lewis watched the current pull a single leaf to the center of the canal and then carry it off. He realized that what he felt was a profound sadness.
“So, Auntie,” he said quietly, “you disapprove?”
“Disapprove of what, dear?”
“Of me and Sissy being married.”
“What on earth makes you think I disapprove?” she asked in surprise.
“Well, let’s see . . . ” He ticked off items on his fingers. “First you said ‘shameful,’ second, your face turned as red as a rose, and third, you said ‘disgraceful.’ Those are pretty good indicators of what you think.”
“Lewis, I am embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I love our Sissy more than anyone on earth. I meant to say shame on me. Quite disgraceful of me, not to send a gift. Of course, I really ought to have been there. To miss Sissy’s wedding and not even send a gift. How rude of me. It’s quite inexcusable.”
He saw tears well up in her blue, blue eyes and wrapped her in his arms. “Thank you, Auntie.” Lewis closed his eyes. “I love him, too.”
They walked slowly along the canal in the late afternoon sun. Lewis said, “You know him better than anyone, Auntie. So tell me some family secrets. How’d he get the name Sissy?”
Auntie Ag took his arm. “Well,” she began, “you know that his mum and dad both taught at Berkley.”
“No.” Lewis answered, scandalized.
“Oh, yes. His mum was a great fan of poetry and nature. Wrote little bits about ponds and lambs, that sort of thing. She was a great romantic and idealist. She idolized Saint Francis of Assisi. ”
“And that’s how he got the name?”
“There’s another wrinkle. Sissy’s dad taught mythology. He was in his dark period when Sissy was born, all very Albert Camus and the absurdity of life.”
“Yikes,” Lewis said, “what a fun guy. I bet his idea of a party was sitting alone in a dark room with a glass of vodka, watching a candle melt.”
“He was very taken with the Greco-Roman god, Sisyphus. Sisyphus had been caught in wrong-doing, and his penalty was to spend the rest of eternity rolling an enormous bolder up a hill.”
“Wasn’t it? He expended all sorts of effort every day pushing the thing up the hill only to have it roll back down. He became the symbol of futile repetition. And interestingly . . . ” she pulled Lewis’ arm a bit closer and whispered up to him with the air of a spy, “Sisyphus became the ‘patron saint’ of politicians.”
Lewis threw back his head gave a loud hoot, “No. How perfect. Those guys shake people’s hands and spend gobs of money and get elected and have their pictures taken shaking more hands and go to long meetings and spend more money—and nothing really changes. Futile repetition. That’s great.”
Then Lewis asked, “But what kind of a mom and dad would give a name like Assisi or Sisyphus to a little baby? I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong.”
“If you repeat this, I’ll deny it,” she began.
“You dish it, girl.” Lewis was a great appreciator of any item of gossip about anyone, past or present. He almost never repeated gossip, but he soaked it up like a sponge.
“Well,” Auntie Ag said in her most confidential tone, “I always thought Sissy’s mum and dad were a bit odd.”
“No,” Lewis slipped a hand over his mouth. “What was odd about them?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, I don’t remember. All I remember is that they were a bit odd. I don’t think I liked them very much.”
“I don’t think Sissy liked them very much, either.”
“Yes, but the great thing was that he came to visit me. Every few years he came and spent the entire summer and we had such fun.”
They walked along the canal, arm in arm. Agatha’s thoughts were swept into a jigsaw puzzle of memories. Lewis felt necessary, appreciated, and content.
As they strolled along the canal, a cloud drifted over Agatha Bliss. She became a bit agitated and said, “A man was in my room.”
“Really? What did he look like?”
“Well, I don’t know.” She thought for a minute. “I don’t think I actually saw him, but I know he was there.”
“When was he there?” Lewis asked.
“Last night. I think he came in to steal something.”
“What did he come into your room to steal?
“My hat. The man meant to steal my hat.”
The psychologist had told him, “Meet them where they are. People with dementia drift in and out of reality. You can’t correct them. It just makes them angry and more confused. But it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Tuesday or Thursday or they’re in their childhood home or somewhere else. You go there with them. Meet them where they are.”
“Well,” Lewis said, “I’ll look into that. Don’t you worry. We’ll guard your hat.” He reached his arms behind her and lifted her straw hat back onto her head.
Agatha sighed in relief.
There was something very assuring about the irrigation canal. The current was strong but quiet. Maybe it was the constancy of the flowing water or the shade of the olive trees. Maybe it was the occasional bird or the silence of clouds drifting across the sky. Maybe it was the solitude. Or maybe it was a combination of things. But there was something rhythmic, steady, and assuring about strolling along the canal.
Lewis caught a faint scent of eucalyptus in the air. Oranges . . . eucalyptus . . . and was that honeysuckle? They walked along alone together. In due time, Lewis turned them around and began to steer them toward the deck on the back of the house.
Agatha Bliss said, “I say, young man.”
“Yes?” Lewis was cautious.
“Are you married?”
He answered carefully, “Yes, ma’am. I am married.”
“Did I send a gift?” she asked.
Without hesitating he answered, “Yes, ma’am. You sent a gift.”
“Was it something lovely?” she wondered out loud to herself.
“It was marvelous.” He gave her arm a little squeeze and helped her up the stairs to a padded rocking chair on the deck.