Abe Margel worked in rehabilitation and mental health for thirty years. He is the father of two adult children and lives in Thornhill, Ontario with his wife. His fiction has appeared in Fiction on the Web, Academy of the Heart and Mind, 2020 BOULD Awards Anthology and the Spadina Literary Review.
Despite a disagreeable incident between us I loved my mother’s sister Isabelle and was sad to hear of her death at the age of one hundred and three. Growing up I thought of myself as her favourite niece since I looked so much like her. Yet she was so different from anyone else in my family, tall and slim, with sapphire blue eyes. She had an aristocratic air about her, heightened by the expensive French perfume and the jewelled brooches she wore. As a young girl I wove all kinds of glamorous fantasies around her that involved imperious aristocrats, struggling artists and exotic locales. I have a fond memory of her visiting our home and indulging me by bringing along a Wigwag chocolate bar.
“There you go sweetheart.” She grinned, patted me on the head and handed me my favorite treat. She was still a small town girl then, before she embarked for Europe for the first time.
My aunt was remarkable in many ways, some of which only became clear to me recently.
Isabelle was an accomplished painter. Just before the Second World War broke out she had been studying art in Paris. Suddenly the congenial spell was broken and panic took its place. Her Italian boyfriend urged her to leave. She had to scramble to get out of France before the Wehrmacht marched in. She packed the best of her paintings into a steamer trunk and boarded one of the last ships out of Le Havre. Six days later she disembarked in New York and then took the train to Toronto. To this day many of the same canvases hang on her relatives’ walls all over Canada. Of course, I own one.
The themes are always bucolic: woods, rivers, wild flowers. The painting I was given features a majestic Holm oak. In its thick roots, where they meet the soil, grow poisonous, destroying angel, or amanita virosa, mushrooms. At first I mistook them for young Portobello mushrooms, they look so much alike. In the canvas’s background a lovely brook flows. The details of the watercolour are so exact one could mistake it for a photograph.
My mother and her siblings, including Isabelle, grew up in Port Ryerse, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Erie. The lake is magnificent in summer, surrounded by Eastern hemlock, oak and maple. Cormorants, yellow warblers and marsh wrens make their homes in the area. Lake effect snow in winter turns this beautiful scene pure white but makes life onerous.
Part of our family can be traced back to Empire Loyalists who moved from New York to the area in 1801. They were involved in shipping and fishing before the building of the railroads. The shipping business died and Port Ryerse shrank from a bustling village to what is now a mere hamlet. During prohibition in the U.S., rum-running in small boats across Lake Erie allowed some people to prosper but that ended in 1933. Today the community’s existence depends on cottagers and sports fishermen who stroll along Young’s Creek or take to Lake Erie. There is no downtown, not even a grocery store. The only building of note that’s left is the Memorial Anglican Church where for generations our family’s children have been baptized and married. A small white building of no aesthetic value, the church draws only locals and the odd lost tourist.
Between 1912 and 1961 my grandfather owned a hardware store in Port Ryerse. He sold the usual nails, saws, and shovels, as well as fishing gear. My grandmother bore eight children; all survived. In the early years the community and the store flourished but by the Dirty Thirties, that was history. The little community offered few opportunities and the children moved away as soon as they legally could, including Isabelle and my mother.
Having avoided the German occupation of France, Isabelle was left penniless. She was forced to return to the family home, something she resented. The bleak hamlet was no more inviting than the day she had left it for Paris.
My mother’s second oldest sibling was Arnold. When Isabelle first returned to Port Ryerse, she discovered he had moved himself and his young bride into the family home which the couple now shared with his parents. Arnold was a short-tempered man and made things difficult for everyone in the house.
I have only the vaguest memory of Uncle Arnold. During a visit in Port Ryerse, I recall him screaming at his wife, upset she had not properly sewn a button on his jacket. My mother, Aunt Isabelle and I hurried out of the house; that was the last time I saw him. Three months later he was dead. The family was told he died of a heart attack. After collecting Arnold’s life insurance, his young widow didn’t wait long to find someone to replace him. She moved to Cleveland where she and her second husband ran a tobacco shop.
Isabelle once said to me that living with Arnold had been impossible. It drove her to marry the first available candidate, a man ten years her senior by the name of Ralf Biglow.
“I had to get out,” she said to me. “He almost ruined my little wedding but was civil enough to hold off dying till the day after the nuptials.” She lowered her voice. “The man was crass and a bully, like all the men in this family. I won’t miss him. I don’t know who will.” There followed a long pause. “Why did he have to be so stupid?” Her face clouded over. She wiped a tear from her eye and walked out of the room wringing her hands.
Isabelle had met Ralf because his family owned a cottage near Port Ryerse. They quickly married. The couple moved to Toronto where Ralf’s father owned a dairy that supplied milk, cheese and butter to half the city. Whispers among my relatives said he was a drunk and a brute who slapped poor Isabelle around. I only met Ralf a couple of times. He died unexpectedly a year after he married Isabelle.
Isabelle’s second husband, Oscar, was a short, robust man with a thick black mustache and a square face that suggested a capacity for violence. As I discovered, he was in fact a gracious and kind man. Very entertaining, he told funny anecdotes and jokes.
I recall him telling the story of a talking horse that walked into a Toronto tavern.
“Are you hiring?” said the stallion to the owner.
“No,” replied the owner, “but try the circus they might have work you.”
The horse looked puzzled. “Why,” said the horse, “would a circus need a bartender?”
Whenever he visited any of our family he brought the most beautiful flowers, and the finest chocolates and wine. His only bad habit was gambling. Oscar would disappear for a day or a week and return with a pocket full of cash; sometimes two pockets full of cash. One spring afternoon he came home accompanied by two large thugs. He looked terrible, his face scraped, his jacket torn. The brawny men walked him to the safe in the basement. He emptied its contents and handed over all the money.
The event terrified my poor Aunt Isabelle. According to my late mother when Isabelle asked him what happened to bring about this shocking intrusion, all he said was, “You win some, you lose some.”
His gambling sojourns went on for years, then one day he didn’t return home. After going missing for a month, his body washed up on the shore of Rotary Peace Park in New Toronto. This same park, ironically, was a place where Oscar and Isabelle often picnicked with their young son. Oscar had drowned, the police said. Isabelle decided not to remarry. She had wisely invested the money she received from her first husband’s insurance and had also squirreled away some of Oscar’s winnings.
The family lost sight of Aunt Isabelle when she moved back to Paris with her young son, Ted. I learned years later the boy grew to be a man much like his father, gambling, drinking and womanizing. At age twenty-nine he was dead from some sort of seizure.
In the summer of 1975 my husband, little daughter and I visited France. We dropped in to see Aunt Isabelle. She was living in the 16th arrondissement in a beautiful apartment and teaching art at the École des Beaux-Arts where she was held in high esteem.
My aunt welcomed my husband, daughter and me warmly. We sat in the drawing room where Isabelle regaled us with stories of her siblings when they were growing up in rural Ontario. Her maid brought in coffee and delicious pastries. In surveying the room I noticed a Rodin figure standing on a column of red marble. With the exception of a few abstract watercolours, the place looked like it was straight out of the nineteenth century. Persian rugs hugged the floor and paintings in elaborate frames hung on the walls. It was as if my aunt was hoping Claude Monet or Edgar Degas would walk in and she wanted them to feel at ease. She noticed my eyes scan the room and gave me an approving smile that soon disappeared. It was then that Isabelle turned toward me and pointed to my daughter.
“What is wrong with her,” said Isabelle.
“Oh, you mean her foot. She was born with a club foot and for now has to wear a special corrective shoe. But the doctor expects she’ll be okay in a year or so.”
“No, it’s ugly. Poor crippled child! I can refer you to a doctor here. I have excellent connections. They’ll fix her up in no time.”
“Thank you, Aunt Isabelle, but she’s getting great care in Hamilton. She’ll be fine.”
Isabelle seemed to take my remarks as a rebuff because her face turned red with anger.
“Are you sure?” she said coldly.
“Yes, but thank you for your concern.”
The mood had changed and we all fell into silence. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her furtively tap on her diamond watch.
This was apparently a signal for her maid who quickly reminded my aunt, “You have a meeting with Andre Allar in thirty minutes, Madam.”
My husband gave me a knowing look and the three of us said our goodbyes to Isabelle. Irritation was written on her face as she escorted us to the door.
The Bois de Boulogne was just down the street so we walked among its trees and along the shores of Lac Inférieur for some time trying to shake off the unpleasantness we had left behind in Isabelle’s apartment. We soon found a park bench among the oak trees and watched as our little girl made faces at the ducks on the lake.
I can recall saying to my husband as we looked out at the water, “It seems my aunt’s offer of help had more to do with her than our daughter. She was trying to impress upon us how far she’s come up in the world; that she now has important friends. We took away her chance to show us how influential she’s become.”
He nodded. “Maybe she’s worried when we look at her we don’t see a grand dame but the daughter of a middling hardware store owner from a no-account town?”
A couple of weeks later I found a letter from Aunt Isabelle in my mailbox. In a precise hand-written note she apologized for the disagreeable ending to our meeting in her Paris apartment and urged me to come visit her again soon. Astonished, I stared at the message for a minute then tossed it into the trash.
The following year I gave birth to twin boys. I received gifts, cards and phone calls from my extended family but nothing from Isabelle. In the years that followed I had no news regarding my aunt and indeed almost forgot she existed. My own life went on with its ups and downs. I became a science teacher, my children grew up and I divorced my layabout husband.
Late one evening last October I received an email from a nephew informing me of my aunt’s demise. For a moment I thought it was a joke. I could not believe she had lived to the age of a hundred and three!
In her will she left the older members of the family money and mementoes. Three months after her cremation, I received sixteen thousand Euros and yesterday her Edwardian oak accent table was deposited at my front door. I spent some time trying to find a place for it. The antique table is small so I moved it several times before I was satisfied. It seemed to fit nicely in a recess in the hall. I’m not young myself so perhaps that’s why only hours after it arrived I clumsily knocked it over. That’s when a hidden drawer not half an inch thick slid open from its back. Inside was a small book bound in green leather. I was of course surprised and immediately opened it up expecting to find a gossipy diary of some kind. A faint scent of lavender rose from every page.
But it was no diary. On alternate pages I found, in flowing longhand, recipes for mushroom concoctions including Creamy Wild Mushroom Pasta, Mushroom Frittata and Wild Mushroom Tart. Facing those pages Aunt Isabelle had drawn wonderful likenesses of people. There were renditions of her two husbands, Ralf and Oscar; her brother Arnold and her son Ted. There were also portraits of two women. One woman I did not recognize but the other was of me. In the portrayal I look to be about thirty, the age when I last saw my aunt. With the exception of my likeness, under each picture, in tiny precise print, Isabelle had noted the dates she had poisoned each person.