Read The Western Light Online

Authors: Susan Swan

Tags: #Adult

The Western Light

What Casanova Told Me
Stupid Boys are Good to Relax With
The Wives of Bath
The Last of the Golden Girls
The Biggest Modern Woman of the World
Unfit for Paradise

Copyright © 2012 Susan Swan
First ePub edition © Cormorant Books Inc. September, 2012

No part of this publication may be printed, reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit or call toll free 1.800.893.5777.

The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for its publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Culture, and the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit Program.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Cataloguing information available upon request.

Swan, Susan
The Western Light/Susan Swan.

EPUB ISBN 978-1-77086-223-4 | MOBI ISBN 978-1-77086-224-1

Cover design: Angel Guerra/Archetype
based on a text design by Tannice Goddard, Soul Oasis Networking


In memory of Constance Rooke,
a friend to me and to all writers.

WHEN I WAS IN MY FOURTH YEAR OF DOUBLE DIGITS, MY FATHER cuffed my cheek and said, “People are unpredictable. You never know what they'll do.” I could tell by his tone that he meant it was true of him too. The year he admitted he was human like the rest of us, my father, Morley Bradford, was referring to John Pilkie, who had risen like a dark angel out of my father's neglect and threatened us with destruction. In those days, my father was a country doctor in Madoc's Landing, a tourist town on Georgian Bay, whose smooth-worn rocky shores are lined with thousands of pine islands and inside channels.

People were more stoical and more formal then. Men took their hats off when they entered a house and women wore white gloves for most social occasions and hats with popcorn veils. I was known as Mary (Mouse for short) Bradford and I addressed all adults as “Mister” and “Missus” and never by their first names, except when I joked about them with my friend Ben Shulman, whose father ran the psychiatric hospital in Madoc's Landing. Ben and I sometimes called our fathers “Old Man So-and-So” and we talked about “O.B.s” for “Old Bags,” and “B.O.” for “Body Odour” and “N.C.” for “Nut Cases.” I personally used “N.B.” for “Non-Bleeder” and “I.T.T.O.N.B.” for “In the Time of Non-Bleeding,” which was a fancy way of describing my pre-pubescent state. Ben and I didn't say our secret code words in public for fear of being mocked by other children. Out of self-protection, I kept a lot of things private. I saw myself as belonging to an earlier age of females, much like the Paleolithic Age on the earth, and I had serious doubts about getting a thing called “a period” even if I lived into a later stage in my planet's evolutionary history. In the end, I grew up like other women, although the person I was back in Madoc's Landing is not the person I am now. For one thing, the world has changed so much that what I'm about to tell you may as well have taken place a couple of centuries ago.

In 1959, there were no free health care services. Doctors like my father worked around the clock, the wide brim of his dovegrey fedora shading his big, sad, healer's eyes. The Salk vaccine had been invented, but it wasn't in common use and the threat of polio sent families to the north, looking for germ-free air. This reminds me that I should point out that the polio epidemic of 1953 left me with a crooked leg I called Hindrance and a powerful need to deny the obvious. Or is denial just another word for optimism? In any case, it takes me a while to notice trouble stirring. Seeing the glass half-f is one of my characteristics, along with my narrow face and lopsided smile. M.B. Bradford.




BEFORE JOHN PILKIE WAS SENT TO THE PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL in Madoc's Landing, my father and I lived a quiet life in our two-storey brick house on Whitefish Road, overlooking the Great Bay. My grandmother, Big Louie, had sent my mother's sister, Little Louie, to look after me. According to Big Louie, our housekeeper Sal couldn't bring me up properly, even though Sal had been living with my father and me since my mother died eight years before. My grandmother came from oil money in Petrolia, Ontario, while Sal was a small-town nurse who had worked in my father's office. The two women had different ideas about raising me. For instance, my grandmother thought I should do nothing but rest and Sal said I needed to exercise to stop my leg from atrophying. To win her case, Sal would consult one of Morley's dense medical textbooks before talking to my father and convincing him that her way was the best.

Little Louie was pretty well useless in those conversations, since she had gone to pieces after a dipsy-doodle love affair with a married newspaperman. He broke her heart so badly my aunt had to take a leave of absence from her reporting job in London, Ontario. In those days on Whitefish Road, Little Louie didn't do much of anything, except sit around the house eating Macintosh apples and reading books. Her nickname made me laugh because Little Louie stood five-foot-eleven in her stocking feet, and her mother, Big Louie, was only five-foot-three. Little Louie resembled my mother, Alice, who had one of the pretty, heart-shaped faces common to the Vidal women. Before she died of brain disease, people had called my mother beautiful. What they called my aunt was nice-looking, and I guess that namby-pamby description stuck with Little Louie, even though she and my mother and grandmother all had the same yellow hair and large, heavy-lidded blue eyes. Little Louie hadn't grown into her looks yet, and my grandmother said my aunt's inferiority complex, which had been brought on by the beauty of my poor dead mother, would work itself out in time. My aunt dressed like she could care less. She didn't notice when her thick blond bangs needed a trim or if the seams of her nylons were crooked. And, even though she wore the pretty dresses that my grandmother bought for her, Little Louie often went around with her skirt hitched up in the back, or one of her sweaters inside out. Sometimes Morley called my aunt “Little Orphan Annie,” and his affectionate, teasing tone brought out a mean fierceness in Sal's eyes.

MY AUNT LIVED IN OUR guest bedroom. She rarely made her bed, an antique four-poster with a gold lamé bedspread that came from Eaton's department store. She didn't remember to tie back the gauzy light-filled drapes that were exact copies of the ones in my grandmother's mansion in Petrolia. Such sloppiness drove Sal crazy, because she liked our house neat and tidy. So Sal would clean the bedroom when Little Louie went out and my aunt would accuse Sal of going through her things.

My father still slept in the bedroom that he had shared with my mother; the room hadn't changed since my mother died. Even her make-up table, with its glass top and pretty silver hairbrushes, remained exactly as it was when my mother was alive. It sat next to my father's Sheraton dresser, which sheltered a mountain of large white handkerchiefs and huge, bespoke shirts whose pockets had been especially enlarged so they were deep enough to hold Morley's custom-made spectacles. My father kept two books on his bedside table: a collection of essays by Michel Montaigne and a German grammar book, so he could understand his German patients who had come after the war. An old Palm Sunday bookmark, woven in the shape of a bamboo cross, rested inside the third page of Montaigne's essays, suggesting Morley had read this far at least.


MY FATHER NEVER ASKED ME MUCH ABOUT MY LIFE, AND I guessed he accepted whatever Sal told him with the same fatalistic wistfulness he accepted most things. Big Louie claimed that Morley was doleful, like the land he came from, and that I was doleful too. I was glad my father and I had something in common; and from Sal and my grandmother, I had put together a few facts about my father's life.

Morley had left his home on the French River and gone to medical school in Toronto on a scholarship when he was only fifteen. His mother, my grandmother Phyllis Bradford, had helped him and, in exchange, he had supported her financially for the rest of her short life. Before she died of breast cancer, Phyllis Bradford claimed that Morley followed in the footsteps of his late father, Duke, who used to say as he doled out cash to poor relatives, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Duke had handed over so much money my Bradford grandmother claimed there wasn't enough left for their own children. Isn't that the confounding question? How much do you give away and still have enough for yourself?

After my father graduated, he took the position of a locum, or assistant, to an older doctor in Madoc's Landing and began working his eighty-hour weeks. When the older doctor died, Morley took over his practice. On Mondays, and every other day of the week, he started operating at eight a.m. at the town hospital. At noon, he came home for the lunch Sal prepared for him, took a half-hour nap, and was back in his office by onethirty p.m. He saw patients until six p.m., when he came home for dinner and another nap. By seven, he was back in his office seeing patients again or making house calls. He called it quits at eleven p.m., but nighttime didn't necessarily mean rest for him. He was often roused from sleep to deliver babies or rescue victims of traffic accidents. There were no paramedics in those days, so my father was expected to pull people from burning car wrecks and sometimes perform surgery on the spot.

On Saturdays, he went to the office and followed the same gruelling schedule, except that he didn't operate. On Sunday mornings, he went to the hospital dressed in his Sunday best, a striped black director's coat and black trousers, to see how his patients were recovering from their operations. Then, if Sal and I were lucky, if there were no car crashes or boating accidents, he took the two of us on his Sunday calls in the countryside.

It was a punishing way of life. Sal said my father sometimes wished he had been a philosophy professor. His book of Montaigne's essays was left over proof of his old interest in philosophy.

As for Little Louie and me, our lives were slow and uneventful. Every morning, I rode to school in the hospital van with Ben Shulman and our archenemies, the gang of boys whose fathers were guards at the Bug House. (I wasn't allowed to say “Bug House,” although it was what everyone in Madoc's Landing called the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital.) Ben's father was their fathers' boss so that was enough right there to make them hate us.

Little Louie would be asleep when Ben and I left for school in the morning, and sometimes she was still sleeping when we came home for lunch. She was always up by the afternoon. And, per usual, she would be downstairs reading by our coal fireplace when Ben and I came in for our cups of Neilson's cocoa after school. Little Louie admired American writers like Sloan Wilson, the author of
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
, and Martha Gellhorn, who had been Hemingway's third wife. Little Louie wanted to be a well-known journalist, like Gellhorn, so my grandmother couldn't boss her around. For the moment, though, my aunt said she needed “time out.” To justify her existence, she worked on freelance articles for Canadian magazines and newspapers. She called what she was doing “writing on spec” and she didn't act surprised when these pieces were turned down. Most editors preferred to assign stories rather than to buy something written without their direction, she told me.

When she first came to stay, my aunt was writing an article about socialized medicine, which hadn't yet come to Canada. Her married boyfriend, the mysterious M. Falkowski, was helping her, although Little Louie had told my grandmother they were “incommunicado.” Maybe Little Louie thought that accepting his help on a magazine article was different than exchanging love letters, because M. Falkowski regularly sent my aunt dozens of articles about free medical care written by Canadian politicians like Tommy Douglas. He also sent up packages that contained books by Leon Trotsky and Karl Marx, although Little Louie kept those tomes under a layer of cotton batten in her jewellery drawer. The name “M. Falkowski” was always scrawled in the left-hand corner of his envelopes as if he didn't mind anybody knowing who he was.

One afternoon, during the first few weeks of Little Louie's stay, I told my aunt that my father had considered studying philosophy; I said that Morley would like to discuss Montaigne with her. I knew that she, too, had studied Montaigne at university, and I swore that Morley had been secretly hoping he and my aunt could have a satisfying adult conversation about the French philosopher. To be honest, I had no way of knowing what my father was hoping, but I pointed out that his conversations with Sal and me were hardly fulfilling. “My father finds Sal and me dull as dishwater,” I explained. “I'm too young to give him his money's worth and Sal is pretty well hopeless as far as philosophy is concerned.”

Little Louie laughed and gave in. One evening, when Sal was busy in the kitchen, my aunt and I waited up for my father, our faces hopeful and serious.

“Anything wrong, girls?” He walked in, twirling his dovegrey fedora. His eyes fell on my aunt's books piled on the coffee table along with his copy of Montaigne's essays.

“We thought you might like to discuss Montaigne tonight …” My aunt's voice sounded girlish and high.

Unexpectedly, my father laughed. I laughed, too, trying to go along. My aunt bowed her head, her cheeks darkening in a self-conscious blush.

“No, no. I didn't mean to laugh,” my father remarked mildly. “Please excuse me. It's been so long since I read Montaigne. Let's see if I can remember … wasn't it Montaigne who said every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition?” His tired, deep-set eyes looked thoughtful.

“I told you, Little Louie!” I burst out. “Morley doesn't have anybody to talk to about the things that interest him.”

“What, Mary?” my father asked.

“If you don't want to talk about Montaigne,” my aunt said. “We could discuss socialized medicine. I'm dying to know what you think about it.”

The kitchen door slammed and Sal poked her head into the living room. “Did I hear you mention socialized medicine, Louisa?”

“Yes, why?” Little Louie asked.

Sal sucked her teeth noisily. “Doc Bradford doesn't believe in that communist hooey.”

“Well, I wouldn't put it that way,” my father said. “I think socialized health care will spoil a doctor's dedication to medicine.”

“So there, Louisa,” Sal retorted. I waited for Sal to stick out her tongue and say something nastier, but luckily for Little Louie the phone rang. Sal picked it up and said it was for Morley. Muttering apologetically, my father hurried out to take his call.

“I'm sorry, Little Louie,” I whispered. “I guess my father doesn't have time to talk about Montaigne.”

“Don't take it to heart,” Little Louie replied. “You know that old saying, Mouse: shoemakers' children don't have shoes.” I nodded my head solemnly. Oh, I knew that saying all right. You bet I did.

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