Mrs. Blunt's Bequest

Before she died in 2013, my friend Ruth Goodman started giving things away. “I want you to have the car,” she said, shifting her shrunken frame, trying to find a more comfortable position in the rose velour recliner where she was spending more and more time each day. “I haven’t put it in my will yet.” She fixed me with a stare that made me want to look away. “But you know my wishes. When the time comes…”

I nodded. Inside, I was squirming. Ruth had always said that when she was too enfeebled to live independently, she’d “off” herself, as she put it with characteristic candor. A Right-to-Die advocate for decades, she was now bequeathing possessions. That’s what people did when they were going to do themselves in. Ruth would have been proud of me for putting it that way, for not resorting to a more comfortable euphemism.

Ruth’s car, a white 1992 Toyota Corolla sedan, had traced an incestuous path of ownership. Originally, it belonged to my mother, who’d bought it after Ruth acquired the identical model in navy blue. Mum had learned over time that Ruth “knew from” the right stuff.

Ruth and Mum met at a party in Vancouver in 1967. Both had two teenage children. Both were activists who had recently moved to Canada with their families. Both stood no higher than five feet tall. But their differences were such that it is surprising, looking back on it now, how well they took to each other. Ruth had grown up on New York’s Lower Eastside in a family so poor her mother routinely hocked her wedding ring. She spiked her speech with profanity, and her sons called her “Mrs. Blunt,” because she refused to sugarcoat the truth. My mother hailed from the ivy-league town of Providence, Rhode Island, where her family had a cook, a maid and a chauffeur. She saw only the good in people (excepting certain politicians), and I’d never heard her utter a swear word. But two months after becoming friends with Ruth, she spilt a glass of milk and primly uttered: “Fuck.”

“Mum said the f-word!” I tattled to my brother.

“She must have picked it up from Ruth,” he muttered.

We shook our teenage heads. Ruth was a bad influence. We couldn’t get Mum to agree, however, and when my parents bought a house that Ruth’s husband Henry had built, her ties with the tough-talking New Yorker only deepened.

The contrast between our neighbourhood and Ruth Goodman’s were instructive. Our gracefully landscaped corner lot, replete with lilac and cedar trees, was on the tony westside, a mere five-minute bike ride from the University of British Columbia, where my parents hoped my brother and I would matriculate. Ruth’s house stood two blocks from busy Kingsway with its choking exhaust, flashing neon signs, and multiple lanes of traffic. I didn’t understand why anyone who could afford to live in West Point Grey would choose the down-market eastside.

The Goodmans and my family often spent Saturday mornings marching from Kitsilano Beach over the Burrard Bridge to the courthouse downtown, carrying signs almost as big as ourselves. “Canada is complicit in Vietnam!” they shouted. My shoulders ached as the wind buffeted our placards and I whined about pain and the rain and the cold, but Mum and Ruth never complained. They had strong arms and legs and backs and radiated health, although my mother was slightly zaftig. The most exercise she ever managed was a twenty-minute swim in the UBC pool, followed by aquatic calisthenics that consisted largely of chatting while waving one’s arms about. Ruth ate a Spartan breakfast of fruit and black coffee and kept her wiry figure trim with “the Air Force exercises”: from her curt description, a punishing regime of jumping jacks, push ups and sit ups that she executed each morning alone without fail in her living room.

My family went to Quaker Meeting on Sundays. Ruth did not approve of organized religion, even one that accepted atheists as members, but her son Michael would sometimes sit across from us in the silent circle. He brought draft resisters along, skinny, sad young men whom my parents would invariably invite home for lunch. Ruth went us one better. She picked up AWOL inductees at the Peace Arch border crossing and fed and sheltered them until they got on their feet.

Automobiles were necessary for such activities. But my father, who could see the future, started calling them “pollutemobiles” and converted our car to propane, which he said, was at least cleaner than gasoline. Cars, he said, would soon become obsolete. But when Henry Goodman died of a heart attack in 1973 and my father succumbed to pancreatic cancer the following year, Ruth and Mum, suddenly widowed in their early fifties, drove even more.

“After Henry died, I didn’t want to go out of the house,” Ruth told me, years later. “I didn’t want to see anyone. Your Mom made me. She saved my life.” My mother nodded. “Ruth did the same thing for me after Irving died. We’d drive downtown to Denman Street and buy ice-cream cones and walk for hours through Stanley Park. I don’t remember what we talked about. It didn’t matter.”

By the late Seventies, my brother had driven our car out east to Toronto, where he was starting his medical internship, and I’d left for New York, leaving our mother alone with a new Toyota in the house that Henry had built. Ruth’s son Dean also moved to Toronto. It comforted us to know that our mothers would dine together once or twice a week and would keep each other company going to protests and the foreign films they relished.

In the Eighties I returned to Vancouver, where, to my surprise, I found myself hanging out with Mum and Ruth. As Ruth sliced bagels and lox for us in her kitchen one lunchtime, she told us she’d worked in a shipyard during World War II.

“Welding paid a hell of a lot more than office work. But they gave the women the easy jobs, and we were often left just sitting around doing nothing.” She pursed her lips at the waste of it and poured us coffee so strong that a few sips were enough to produce a buzz. “So, one morning, I took all the men’s lunchboxes and welded the handles to the deck of the ship.”

“What happened?” I sputtered.

“What do you think happened? The noon bell rang and the men rushed to grab their lunch pails and pulled…and pulled…and pulled.”

In 1991, Ruth began driving her Toyota to the first freestanding abortion clinic in BC. En route she’d pick up women who’d booked appointments and escort them inside, through protesting throngs. In her younger years, Ruth had had two back-alley abortions — blindfolded to protect the doctor’s identity — and had nearly died from one of them. I didn’t know this, and when Mum said she was going to join Ruth volunteering at the clinic a cold tingle shook my spine. Mum had given me the ubiquitous talk on birth control when I was a teenager, but we’d never discussed abortion. Nor had I examined my own views on the subject since high school, when an English teacher assigned essays on the topic, and (like everyone else in the class, I naively assumed), I wrote that, of course, it was murder.

After dinner one night, Ruth told me about her terminations. She looked deep into my eyes, seeking judgment or acceptance — and I had to ask myself: what did I really believe? Was Ruth a cold-blooded killer? Did my mother, deep down, really hate children? This led me to wonder what other values I’d unconsciously internalized over the years, and started me down a difficult path of questioning my beliefs, to see how congruent they were with the life I lived and the values I upheld now.

Ruth’s eastside mechanic always discouraged her from getting work done. “Your car too old!” he’d say in English flavoured with a Vietnamese accent. “Not worth it.” By the new millennium, rust tainted the navy-blue Corolla, the sides acquired a multitude of dents, and Ruth didn’t even bother to fix a cracked taillight. My mother, on the other hand, drove her white Corolla dutifully downtown to the dealership for every check-up the manual prescribed. She took it through the car wash and vacuumed it regularly. No rust sullied its surface; no dents appeared.

Both women sailed into their eighties with few signs of slowing down. One day, I overheard Ruth telling Mum:

“This morning, I helped a little old lady across the street.”

“You’re a little old lady,” my mother retorted.

“No, I’m not,” Ruth insisted.

It was true that while Ruth’s back had started to hunch, she still walked with ease and carried her own groceries up from the carport. It was my mother’s health that started to go first. At 83, she had her first heart attack. Dinner in the Cardiac Care unit was a hamburger so desiccated that when she lifted the dry bun and poked at a meager patty, her fork bounced back.

“What is this?” she snorted indignantly. “Dried hockey puck?”

“It’s the provincial government,” the nurse answered, taking her views on Premier Campbell’s health care cuts out on the pillows with an overly zealous plumping. “They’ve reduced the food budget to a dollar a day, per patient.”

Instead of flowers, Ruth brought Mum a yellow bumper sticker which bellowed in thick black font: “Save Public Heath Care: Recall Gordon Campbell!”

My mother wasn’t about to let minor concerns like heart failure or kidney disease get in her way. So, she was a little short of breath. So, she couldn’t walk much anymore. She could still drive, couldn’t she? And drive she did, to dinner and a movie with Ruth, every Friday night.

One Thursday evening, she phoned to ask if I’d join them.

“What are you going to see?” I asked.

“Hard On.”

“What?”

“Or maybe it’s, “Hang On.”

“There’s a difference, you know.”

“I know!”

“What’s it about?”

“Lesbians.” Her voice dropped into almost a whisper. “Ruth really wants to go, but I’m so ashamed.”

As a marriage commissioner at the Vancouver Quaker Meeting, Mum had solemnized one of the first lesbian weddings in BC. Why would she be ashamed to see a movie about lesbians? As I pondered this mystery, an astonishing thought struck. Was it possible that their friendship had crossed the line into something deeper? After all, they’d travelled together all over the world. I’d been away for years, living in Toronto or New York — what did I really know about the bond between them?

“There’s nothing wrong with being lesbian,” I said gently.

“I know!” She sounded exasperated.

“Then why are you ashamed?”

“Because of the strike.”

“What strike?”

She sighed deeply.

“Don’t you know what’s going on in the world? Don’t you read the newspaper? Listen to the radio? They’re picketing.”

“Who’s picketing?”

“The projectionists.”

Mum and Ruth, cross a picket line? Now, that was truly shocking.

Mum lived in the house Henry Goodman built for four decades without ever needing to do more than a minimal amount of maintenance. And as property values skyrocketed and her property taxes rose concurrently, it didn’t hurt that the car required little maintenance, either. It was still running smoothly when she backed into another vehicle in a parking lot and her doctor reported her to the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles for suspected cognitive impairment. She was ordered to take a DriveABLE test. She drove the white Corolla and passed.

Not long afterwards, Ruth’s doctor reported her for the same offense. She drove the blue beater and flunked.

In the months leading up to a repeat test, Ruth lost her appetite and dropped fifteen pounds, becoming so skeletal I worried about her. During the day she took driving lessons, and at night she lay awake, fretting.

“I’ll never pass that goddamn test!” she ranted to us. “They’ll take one look at all the rust and dents on my car and think I can’t drive at all.” She fell uncharacteristically silent. Then, in a voice that shook a little, she asked: “Can I borrow your car, Dorothy?”

She drove Mum’s white Corolla and passed.

In 2005, my mother’s health worsened and my husband and I moved in to help. I’d hear her talking to Ruth on the phone every morning, giggling: “What did you have for dinner last night? A hot dog? Ohh, was it one of those kosher hot dogs?” She’d moan. “I love those kosher hot dogs.”

Mum was not supposed to eat hot dogs. Her kidneys were failing. Nor could she drive more than a few blocks, but she refused to stop entirely, so when her car started making an awful noise I took it into the dealership for her. The mechanic said it needed a new timing belt and charged four hundred dollars to install one. Only, as I drove it home, the noise started up again. I brought it to a garage on the westside, where another mechanic came up with a different diagnosis and guesstimated a thousand-dollar repair bill.

“I won’t pay that!” my mother scoffed.

“You should get a new car,” my brother said. “This one’s a piece of junk. If you were ever in an accident it would implode. It doesn’t even have air bags.”

Mum bought a new Corolla and sold the 1992 one to my husband for a dollar. We took it to Ruth’s eastside mechanic, who fixed it for $60. We never heard the noise again.

Ruth, however, started to make noise. “I want that car,” she’d say. Her mouth was smiling but her eyes begged, and I could see that she was already thinking ahead to the next accident, the next imposed driving test. I smiled back uneasily. Ruth was psychologically stronger than me, and if she kept this up I might start pleading with my husband to give her the car. My husband wouldn’t like that.

My mother died in 2010. The Toyota, however, refused to die. While other cars from that era disappeared from Vancouver streets, I kept noticing these ’92 Corollas still around, still going strong. One day, I was stopped at a red light when a young man in the next lane over rolled down the window of his new-looking Nissan and lowered his Ray-Bans.

“Will you sell me that car?”

I shook my head.

Ruth and I started going out for lunch every two weeks. We talked about the books we were reading, the latest movies, and most of all, our families. I enjoyed her wit and willingness to dish — not malicious gossip, just a truth-telling exchange based on an enduring fascination with the human condition.

“Your mother was a very private person,” she said in a booth at Kaplan’s Deli one afternoon, biting into a hot pastrami sandwich. It was a year since my mother’s death, and we now felt comfortable dissecting her personality. “I loved Dorothy dearly, but she was a real Pollyanna.”

“Tell me about it,” I sighed. “Pass the mustard, please.”

“She never said one bad word about you two kids.”

“That’s awful! Who do you vent to, if not your friends?”

“Sometimes I’d say, Michael makes me so mad, or Dean did such-and-such and it pissed me off. But you and Bobby, you two were perfect.”

I groaned.

“We’re a very long way from perfect.”

“I know that, bubbee.” Her eyes smiled, warming me all over.

That night she phoned. The transmission on the blue beater was shot.

“It’s so loud I can’t hear anything.”

She could hardly hear anything anyway. She wore a hearing aid and didn’t turn it on when she drove.

“So, get a new car.” I knew she could afford it.

“I’m not getting a new car. I’m 90 years old. I won’t be driving much longer.”

After I hung up I started pacing back and forth. “Ruth’s going to have an accident in that car,” I growled at my husband. We looked at each other. I knew he was thinking the same thing.

When we told her, she could hardly speak for five minutes.

After we gave Ruth the white Corolla, she gave the blue beater away to a friend. And although she’d refused to spend a single cent on it while it was hers, before she gave it away she put in a new transmission, which set her back $1,200.

Ruth’s suicide — an overdose of medication — in February of 2013 came as a shock, although maybe it shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have believed she’d really choose her own time. Maybe I was a Pollyanna like my mother. Maybe it is okay to feel that a thing is both absolutely right and also completely unbearable. Maybe love is too complicated a matter to ever fully comprehend.

Ruth left a letter championing the right to die, with a note to her sons, asking that they send it to the media. “I do not have a terminal illness,” she wrote. “I am simply old, tired and becoming dependent.” She’d never been one to admit weakness. In fact, in addition to debilitating neck pain, she was suffering from Crohn’s disease, but was too proud to let anyone else wash out her shitty nightgowns and clean her up in the middle of the night. The Globe & Mail published her letter, and her death for a time became a national cause célèbre, ensuring she died as she’d lived, true to her activist nature.

The Toyota sits in our carport now. Recently, I took it in for a lube and a check-up. The mechanic said it was in great shape. As for the bumper sticker, it simply won’t come off.


Barbara Stowe’s fiction and non-fiction have been published in literary journals and newspapers. She lives in the alternate universe of Pender Island, off the west coast of Canada: a haven she finds highly suitable for scribbling and contemplation.