Wednesday, April 11, 2018

hanging wombs / Quebec City

I don't know what associations you have with Quebec City.

Maybe you plan to join the half million people expected to come hear Neil Young on the Plains of Abraham this summer.

Or you like old buildings and good food. You're a military buff interested in the fortifications. Or history. In 1759? The Battle of the Plains of Abraham when the English beat the French. That's why the dominant language in Canada is English, not French. It all happened in Quebec City.

My associations are more personal since R and his family were born here. Walking up and down the streets with him leads to stories.

Over there... that building used to be a Kresge's where he sat with his high school buddies at the diner counter, hoping to see the women who worked at the brothel across the street. And up the street there... was where you came to have the best smoked meat.

There is a lot of up and down since the city climbs between the port and the military fortress that overlooks the St. Lawrence River. You can wend your way up the streets slowly, take the funicular or one of the many stairways. R was aghast that the funicular now costs $3. It always used to be free.

Even at the top of a long flight of stairs, the streets continue to climb.

Another reason to come to Quebec City: cardiovascular workout.

Down that street there lived an aunt R hadn't seen since he was a boy, but hey, maybe we should knock on her door. This was a few years ago. She answered wearing a cardigan over her slip. Throughout our visit she didn't notice she wasn't wearing a skirt. I wondered that she was so absent-minded not to have realized she hadn't finished dressing that morning, but since then I've retired from my out-of-the-house job and I don't get fully dressed till I go out in the late afternoon. If someone were to knock unannounced, I might well answer the door in my long johns.

I wish I could apologize to Tante Geneviève for questioning her wits--especially since she was quick to recognize R. She exclaimed, reached out arthritic hands and pulled him into the house where we had to sidle through corridors piled high with newspapers. There was nowhere to sit.

Back to 2018... We walked downhill to a less chichi part of town where one of R's uncles used to live. This uncle had one leg shorter than the other, which seems to be the only identifying factor recorded in family memory. But, R added, that didn't stop him from having kids.

That's such a nonsensical sentence and so unlike anything he would normally say that I understand he is ventriloquizing one of his mother's tales about family.

And believe me, there were some doozies... her nineteen pregnancies; her father who appeared in Quebec City at forty years old, no one ever knew where he came from; a horse galloping down a hill so fast that he crashed into her mother's kitchen window, hooves in the pot of soup; the aunt whose "womb hung to her knees" but she wouldn't go to the doctor to have it fixed, even though she was 80 years old and wasn't likely to have more children, because it was a mortal sin.

The street where the uncle lived hugs the base of the stone cliff where the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was fought. Rocks crumble down the cliff and the river is close. It's an unlikely (unwise?) place to build a house, yet R's uncle did. Every spring his house suffered an avalanche of scree or there was the chance of a flood. He could have moved, he wasn't poor, but he was attached to his house.

It was either this uncle or the one-leg-shorter uncle who was in the hospital when R's mother was on the bus on her way to work. The bus was passing the hospital (that was on a hill of course) and she had a vision of her brother. She demanded the driver let her off. She had to get into that hospital where her brother lay dying! She ran into the room breathless, he sat up in bed and said her name--first word he'd pronounced all week--and fell back onto his pillow. Dead.

The family member I knew best was R's sister. Let's call her Anne. She had Down Syndrome which is a form of intellectual deficiency caused by an extra chromosome. It affects people differently. Anne never learned to read but she could print the alphabet. She lived by herself, did her own grocery shopping, had supervised jobs, a series of boyfriend, could count money and had a passion for numbers. For Anne $12.99 was never $13. It's just as well she didn't not live to see the discontinuation of pennies.

This was her favourite store, though she wasn't allowed to go there anymore because she'd been caught shoplifting so often--which she announced proudly, even smugly, maybe thinking of all the times she hadn't been caught.

Toward the end of their lives, R's mother, Tante Geneviève and Anne were moved to residences when it was decided they were no longer safe to live by themselves.

Anne was at the top in a corner room with two windows. Maybe the mansard roof looks a little too "mad sister in the attic"?

She did escape a few times, trying to find her favourite store--or any store where she could make a heist.

We walked, had a few good meals, visited the Inuit collection and the Giacometti exhibit at the museum which is partly housed in the old jail.

Here Robert is demonstrating how small the prisoners' cells were.

The imagiNation literary festival was on as well, and I enjoyed a lively talk on writing female VS male characters and setting fiction in Montreal between Saleema Nawaz Webster and Anna Leventhal with Julia Caron.
And yes, this little getaway was this past weekend--the first weekend in April--and there was snow. Picture taken on the Plains of Abraham where the snow is as high as the clouds.

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