Never Say Red
story by Phyllis Bohonis
Never Say Red
“It’s time, child.”
“Are you sure, Gran?”
Those few whispered words signified the beginning of my grandmother’s journey home. Her packed valise had been sitting like a sentry in our foyer for weeks.
She had been planning this trip for eighteen months. Every time she spoke of returning home, I wondered if she was referring to her home on the prairies or her heavenly home where my mother and grandfather awaited. After she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I had promised to accompany her to the town of her birth when her time came. Our drive west should take four days depending on Gran’s stamina and how many rest stops would be required.
Mid-morning two days later, our journey began. An overwhelming sadness permeated my thoughts knowing I would be returning alone.
We had lived together in Southwestern Ontario for seven years following the death of my mother. When Mom’s multiple sclerosis worsened, my grandmother rented out her home in Saskatchewan and moved east. Her intention was to stay until my mother passed but she extended her visit through my completion of high school, four years of university, then watched as my career with a marketing firm was launched.
After we crossed into the United States at Sarnia, Gran suffered the long drive north through Michigan without complaint. The early autumn colours were arrayed in all their splendour and the gentle fall breeze tossed sprays of multi-coloured leaves along our route in spite of an overcast sky. By evening we were back in Canada and spent our first night in a hotel on the waterfront in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The fresh September air and the sound of the St. Mary’s River outside our window provided both of us with a deep, dreamless sleep.
The morning broke with promise of a fantastic day. The scenery along Lake Superior in September cannot be out-done. As we headed north toward Thunder Bay, our predetermined destination for the day, I commented on the red dawn to the east.
“Is that what you see, Catherine, a red dawn?”
“Don’t you see it, Gran? The rising sun is a big red ball.”
“No, I don’t.”
My concern her eyesight was waning was short-lived when she continued, “I see a crimson globe surrounded by a profusion of vermilion clouds.”
“Isn’t that what I said?”
“You said a red dawn. Never say red.”
“I didn’t know red was a swear word.”
She smiled. “Red is a boring three letter word. You mustn’t view life in three letter words, dear.”
“A colour is a colour. I can’t help how many letters it has.”
“It’s not just about colours. It’s about life. Why exist in a three letter world when you can delight in a six, eight or ten letter one?”
“What a beautiful thought, Gran. I guess I never noticed your language was so … colourful.”
“My parents were simple, loving people with very little schooling. Their language was basic. Probably the longest words they used were those said in prayer. When I started school, I was amazed at the beautiful phrases and the sound and feel of the words in text books.”
“Feel? How can you feel a word?”
“You can feel the amazing way it rolls off your tongue, the feel of it filling your heart with anticipation. You can feel your brain expanding with curiosity and imagination.”
She remained silent as we continued to navigate our way around the shoreline of Lake Superior. The landscape was breathtaking as the highway curved westward. The deciduous trees varied in their depth of colour, from the pale yellow birch leaves to the deep rust of the maple and oak. The intense green of the conifers provided the dark, lush backgrounds. I sensed her need to experience all these wondrous sights knowing she would never come this way again. There were no vast expanses of water on her prairies. I often wondered what it was about the sameness of landscape, the barren flatness and never-ending ribbon of highway that rooted the prairie dwellers to their space.
“I thank God for allowing me to see the beauty of the Canadian Shield with its countless lakes and hills. It’s beyond imagination. Your grandfather wouldn’t have liked it though. He suffered claustrophobia when buildings were taller than two storeys. He would have suffocated among these giant trees and shadowed highways. He wanted unobstructed views of sunrises and sunsets — preferably both in the same day.”
“Mom always talked so fondly of Grandpa.”
“I was angry with God for taking your grandfather while we still needed him. He truly was the best father and the best husband. I can’t imagine being married to anyone else.”
“What made him the man he was?”
“There you go using three letter words again. Mitchell was much more than just a man. The first time I saw him was at harvest barn dance. I was having a great time. I’m sure the fiddles, accordions and guitars could be heard all the way to Estevan. When Mitchell Hayes wandered through those wide-open barn doors, the world stopped. He was the most gorgeous human being I had ever laid eyes on. My heart danced. He was one of those rare people who drank life in, carefully treasuring everything he deemed valuable. Just a man? Never.” She winked before adding, “Even though his snoring shook the leaves from the trees.”
Gran shifted in her seat and stretched her legs. I pulled in to the next rest stop where we leisurely stretched our legs. We lost sight of Lake Superior for a while and Gran dozed. I glanced at her contorted face; even in sleep pain was her constant companion. When she had asked me to take her back to her prairies, I had suggested flying but she insisted we drive. She wanted to experience this great country of ours one last time.
My grandmother had always been physically stronger than her years and possessed a mind as sharp and clear as someone thirty years younger. I knew she was an avid reader but hadn’t noticed her natural expression of language and wondered how my grandfather had fit in to her colourful world. I never knew him. He had died before my parents were married.
“I’ll never understand why the good Lord took your grandfather at such a young age.”
I was startled for a moment thinking she had once again read my thoughts.
“I was just wondering if Granddad shared your joy of words.”
“Your grandfather could read only the simplest of sentences. Farmers in those days were much better at mathematics and science than with the written word. Most of them only attended school until they were old enough to help with farm chores. Those boys were trained in crop cycles, grain quality and prices, quantity of land required per head of cattle, even how to read the weather. Reading time was not something allotted on a grand scale. However, Mitchell always looked forward to the hour before bedtime when he could take his boots off and rock gently in his favourite chair while I read aloud from books borrowed from the library. His favourite stories were those of the settlers arriving from Europe and how the railroad opened up the prairies.
“He would close his eyes and envision the homesteads and strange clothing of these newcomers. He was always astonished at how a well-written scene could be laid out for him to visualize without the benefit of pictures.
“Yes, child, he did indeed share my en-joy-ment of words.” She smiled while enunciating each syllable of her nine-letter replacement for my three-letter joy.
In Thunder Bay, we over-nighted in a gracious older hotel facing the natural harbour formed by the Sleeping Giant. The unseen sunset in the west cast enough light on the rock cliffs to intensify the various colours and shadows that shaped this rock formation. I remarked to Gran that it would be nearly impossible to find any descriptive words, no matter how many letters, that could do the grandeur justice.
In the morning we ate breakfast at Kakabeka Falls. In order to enjoy the best view of the falls and the depth to which they plummeted, I had to park the car and carefully help Gran to one of the various look-outs located at the edge of the gorge. In early September the amount of water flowing over the precipice isn’t as spectacular as in the spring but there was enough to give us a fleeting glimpse of a rainbow in the mist. Gran drank in the view for as long as her legs would allow before we took to the highway once again.
We left the lush forests behind shortly after crossing the Manitoba border. My grandmother’s awareness that she was almost home became apparent as the prairie opened before us. She seemed to sit straighter, her eyes never missing a cow, horse or silo. As we approached the by-pass around Winnipeg, I suggested we stay at one of the hotels near Polo Park but Gran insisted we push on to Portage la Prairie. It didn’t surprise me she wanted to spend the night in a setting from which she could watch the prairie twilight once again descend over her beloved wheat fields and glory in the unencumbered view of the rising sun in the morning.
Amelia Elizabeth Hayes passed away at the age of eighty-six a week after her arrival home in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It was a truly magnificent September day when she was laid to rest beside her beloved Mitchell. Women from her parish served a hot lunch when we returned from the cemetery. Because Gran had lived away for quite some time, I expected only a few mourners, perhaps a couple of distant cousins and maybe a small number of old neighbours. Surprisingly, the church was filled almost to capacity. Among the crowd were a number of city officials and staff from the library and college. They made certain I knew what a grand lady my grandmother had been. Her generous donations to the libraries and to the regional literacy programme had assisted many children, students and young adults to gain the ability not only to read, but to understand the written word more comprehensively. I also learned the library in the college had been named after my grandmother several years before she had moved east. It appeared Gran had set a new standard for colourful language and everyone who had benefited was present to show their gratitude and respect. In her humility she had never mentioned being a woman of prominence.
My mother, an only child, had been born late in life to my grandparents. The only family left were those few distant cousins, one of whom had rented then, three years ago purchased, Gran’s house. He and his wife had carefully packed my grandmother’s family treasures and kept them stored in the attic for her. The next day I arranged to have those boxes shipped to me along with a few pieces of her furniture. I retrieved my grandmother’s most fragile treasures to take with me and exchanged promises with her old neighbours and friends to keep in touch. It was mid-afternoon when I hit the highway. My plan to make it home in three days meant reaching Brandon, Manitoba that night.
I was approaching the Saskatchewan/Manitoba border when the setting sun began reflecting off my rear-view mirror. The glare affected my ability to see, even with sunglasses on. I pulled over and got out of the car.
I saw a horizon alive with crimson clouds washing the golden, partially-harvested wheat fields with a glow of burnt sienna. The vibrant canvas of colours was dissected by a ribbon of highway browned by the bronze blush from above. It was a sunset that could only be experienced on the prairies. Smiling through my tears, I waved good-bye to Amelia Elizabeth Hayes.
Please note: This is an excellent example of how more descriptive words can replace simpler words without being flamboyant or pretentious. It can take a passage from lackluster or boring to exciting or fascinating. Be careful not to overdo it though or it becomes hyperbole/overemphasis.