Something to Remember Me By

by Mary J Breen

I don't know what made me stop and listen. Everything seemed the same--the chatter of my mother's knitting needles, the squeak of my father's rocker, the familiar cigarette and wood smoke drifting up through the grate. Then I heard the edge of cold fury in my mother's voice.

"I don't care what you say, Michael, I don't want him here."

"Ah, Louise," he sighed. "Let it go. It's over and done with. Water under the bridge."

"But, Michael--"

"But, Michael, nothing! Look. He's paid his debt, and now he has a job and he wants to visit us." I heard the strike of a match. "How can I turn him away? Besides, it would be grand to see him again. His letter says he hardly ever gets to Ontario."

"Well, I don't like it."

Daddy pushed his chair back roughly. His slippers made a slapping sound as he began pacing around the table. "For the love of God, Louise, it was twenty years ago. Before the war! Why can't you just let it go?"

The fridge door snapped shut, and I knew his cigarette would be wobbling in the corner of his mouth as he pried open a bottle of beer. "How many times do we have to go over this? It . . . was . . . an . . . accident. Yes, he shouldn't have been drinking--we all know that--but Joe didn't mean it, he didn't mean to hurt her! He was just young and foolish! We all were!"

My mother snorted. "You always defend him because he was your friend and--"

"And--" Daddy started.

"And he's reckless and irresponsible."

"And, as you choose to forget, he'd give you the shirt off his back."

I heard the sound of tea pouring into a cup, and then the clink-clink-clink as she stirred and stirred. "He never said he was sorry. Not once. And Susie was so young, not even sixteen, just a few years older than Bridget."

"I know all that, Louise. Why are we going over it again?"

"Because I don't know how can you possibly invite him here and expect me to act as if it never happened?"

The slapping of his slippers stopped. "Well, you're too late, Louise, I've already written to him and told him we'd love to see him, and that's all there is to it!"

Then I heard a chair being pushed back, and suddenly her footsteps rushing up the stairs. I managed to scramble into the bathroom just before their bedroom door slammed shut.

Things seemed to be normal next morning at breakfast, and pretty soon I'd forgotten about the whole thing as I got caught up in the school production of Tom Sawyer. I'd stayed late painting backdrops that day, and it was almost five by the time I got home. Both the porch light and the living room lights were on. I ran up the back steps, and before I'd even closed the door, I could hear my father calling. "Bridget! Bridget darling. Come in here. We've got company!"

I peeled off my winter coat and boots, straightened my stockings, and headed for the living room. The sharp tang of mothballs hung in the air. On the couch sat a small sinewy man in a shiny suit.

"Bridget, come and meet my old friend Joe Maguire." The man dropped his cigarette in the ashtray and jumped up, running first one hand and then the other through his thin wispy hair.

"He's just here for the night," my mother said, not looking up from her embroidery.

"Well, well, Miss Bridget Hogan," he said, smiling as he spoke. "And just call me Joe. None of this Mr. Maguire foolishness. Call me that, and I wouldn't know who you were talking to." He turned towards my father. "Glory be to God, Mike, she's the spitting image of Mary Claire." His voice lilted and dropped and lifted again as if he were speaking the words of a song.

"I know," my father said, "but Louise thinks she takes after her side."

I looked back at my mother who was already on to her feet. "Come along now, Bridget."

I followed her into the kitchen where she took me by both shoulders, speaking slowly as if I didn't understand English. "Now listen to me, Bridget. Joe lives out west, and he works for the railway. Long ago, he was your father's friend, not mine. That's all you need to concern yourself with." She turned to the stove and began stabbing the potatoes. "Now go and get your father in here while I mash these." I knew better than to ask her if he was the one they were arguing about.

I passed on my mother's message, and Daddy sighed and headed for the kitchen. "Well, Bridget Claire Hogan," Joe said, "come and tell me about yourself. Do you like to skate? Your daddy was quite a hockey player in his day. Or do you play the piano like your grandmother, or collect poor defenceless postage stamps, or I'll bet you raise prize antelopes!"

I laughed, and took a few steps into the room. "I'm learning to knit." I dropped my voice. "I made Daddy a scarf for Christmas."

"Well, that's grand. One of the lads I work with, he knits lovely warm socks. Learned as a boy in Scotland during the war." He tipped his glass to get the last of his drink. Then he winked at me as he popped the ice cube in his mouth. "I'll bet you're good at the books, like your Daddy was."

"Did you know Daddy when you were kids in school? Back in Saskatoon?"

"Bridget!" My mother called sharply from the dining room. "Come along then, both of you."

Joe held out his arm so I could hook mine through his, and we made a grand entrance just like in the movies. He even bowed and held my chair for me. Daddy laughed, and my mother scowled.

After supper, Mommy made me help with the dishes while the men talked and smoked and drank cups of tea. Then we all said the rosary, and Daddy offered up a special prayer in thanks for seeing his old friend again. At the end, he blessed himself with one hand, and reached into the card drawer with the other.

"Wait, Mike." Joe was patting his breast pocket. "I'd better go and get myself some smokes."

"Don't think of it," Daddy said. "Here, smoke mine."

"Thanks all the same," Joe said, "but I should get some for the trip back. Didn't we pass a little store near here? I'll just nip over."

I jumped up. "I'll show him, Daddy. I'll show him where it is!"

"Michael--" my mother said in her Do Something voice.

"Good idea, honey," my father said, waving to shush my mother. "You two run along."

We walked quickly through the cold air. "So, Bridget," Joe said, "it's a terrible thing you never knew Mary Claire, your aunt. Such a shame that was. You never hear of anyone so young dying of pneumonia anymore, thanks be to God." He scooped up some snow to make a snowball, but it was too dry so he just sprinkled a handful onto my head.

"Daddy always does that too!"

"Does he, now? Isn't that something?" Joe smiled. "Your Daddy's a fine person, Bridget. So was your grandmother, God have mercy on her. Auntie Ruth, we called her, never Mrs. Hogan. She was awful good to me." He sighed. "Ah, well, it was all a long time ago."

At the corner store, Joe told me to get myself a little treat, so I chose a Crispy Crunch, and then Joe grabbed a whole stack of them along with a couple of Archie comics. He added a carton of cigarettes and a detective magazine for himself, and by the time we were done, we needed two paper bags to carry it all. On the way home, Joe doled out one chocolate bar after another for me to stash in my coat pockets.

"Look, Bridget." Joe was pointing to the sky. "There's Orion, the Great Hunter. I can see Orion from my train in the winter, and now every time I see him, I'll think of you." I told him I'd think of him too.

My father was waiting with the cribbage board, and my mother was working on her embroidery, scowling as she jabbed the needle in and out. I decided to leave the candy and comic books in my coat.

"Ready!" Joe said. Then he slapped his forehead. "Lord! I almost forgot. I brought you all a little something."

"That wasn't necessary," my mother said. Daddy looked at her sharply, and then pursed his lips and looked away.

Joe returned with his valise. On top was a box of Laura Secord chocolates that he handed to my mother with a little bow. She murmured her thanks and put them beside her on the piano bench. She gave me a pointed look to stop me from rushing over to open them. I turned back to Joe who was handing Daddy a huge bottle of Irish whiskey.

"Ah Joe, you shouldn't have," Daddy said, "but I'm glad you did!" They both threw back their heads and laughed. "Remember that, Louise? How Uncle Jack always said that when someone gave him a drink?"

My mother didn't look up.

"And," Joe said, still chuckling as he wiped his eyes, "this is for the young Miss." He handed me a small, navy blue bag. Inside was a luminous, blue velvet box shaped like a doll's pillow. It was soft and almost warm in the palm of my hand. "Go on, open it," he said. I pulled, and suddenly the lid snapped up. Inside, buried in white satin, was a gold watch with a black cord bracelet. Bevelled glass covered its tiny face.

"A wristwatch! Oh, gosh, thanks. Thanks a lot, Joe! This makes me the very first person in my class to have one." Joe removed it from the box, fitted it over my wrist, and closed the clasp. Then he reached into his vest for his pocket watch.

"So, shall we set it for Alberta time or Saskatchewan time or what?" I laughed, and Joe's face shone.

"Look, Daddy! Listen." I held it to his ear and he smiled at me as he always did when I was happy. I turned to show it to my mother, but her face was a dark shadow of anger.

"You shouldn't have done this, Joe." Her voice was cold and deliberate. "What on earth does a child need a watch for?"

"I'm not a child, Mommy. I'll be thirteen in July!" I turned to my father, but he was looking over at my mother, his face very still.

"So, Mike," Joe said as he began dealing the cards, "how about a taste of that whiskey?"

* * *

Before bed, I stood in front of my mirror imagining what it would be like showing up Monday morning with this little bit of black and gold peeking out from under my sleeve. I tried lifting my arm ever so slowly to check the time like I'd seen Loretta Young do on television. After practising opening and closing the clasp a few more times, I put it back into its case beside the lumpy maroon scarf I'd made for my father. I was going to give this scarf to Joe, and try to finish another one for Daddy before Christmas.

I awoke to a room filled with cold blue light. Frost covered the window, and I could hear the regular scrapes of shovels on cement. Then I heard the hall clock chime nine, and I remembered my watch. I jumped up to put it on again, but the only things on my dresser were my mirror and comb set and the scarf. No watch. No watch case. I grabbed my housecoat and ran downstairs. "Mommy, it's gone. My watch! It's gone! It's been stolen!" 

My mother was brushing crumbs off the table. "No, Bridget, just calm down. It's right here." She pointed to the buffet. "Daddy and I have been talking, and you're going to give it back. It's not right."

"Give it back? Why?" I grabbed the little blue bag, and held it to my chest. "But Joe wants me to have it. He said so!"

"Yes, and he shouldn't have." My mother took the bag from my hands, and put it back on the buffet.

"Oh, Mommy, please!"

"It's not right, Bridget. It wasn't right for him to buy you such an expensive present."


"Haven't the nuns taught you it's more important to give than to receive?" She continued clearing the table. "Ah, there're the men now. Your father's going to take Joe to the train." She handed me the bag. "Here. Now go and give it back to him." She steered me into the hall where the men were standing as far apart as the narrow space allowed. The air smelled of snow and cigarettes.

"Hi, Daddy." My words came out high and strained. "Hi, Joe." I turned back to my mother. "But Mommy, I love it!" Daddy reached out to me, and I buried my face in the rough tweed of his overcoat. My mother took the bag back again.

"Joe," Daddy said as he stroked my hair, "as I've been saying, it's a grand gift and very kind of you, but it's . . . it's too dear. I see you got it at Eaton's. They'll let you take it back." He sighed. "It's not that we aren't grateful. It's just that Louise, that is, we both think it's too much. But you won't be getting my whiskey back." His empty laugh echoed around us. "It's not that we aren't grateful."

Joe's voice was hard and fast. "Mike, you two can talk all day, but I'm not taking back that damned watch." His shoulders slumped. "Ah, Mike, I shouldn't have come. I just thought . . .  I just wanted . . . ah, hell, let's be going."

"Yes, Michael, it's almost nine-thirty." My mother pointed to the clock.

"I know, Louise, we're going!" Daddy was almost shouting. He kissed the top of my head, picked up Joe's valise and left, letting the storm door slam hard behind him.

My mother stood there, folding the top of the bag into tighter and tighter creases. "We'll get her a watch ourselves someday," she said, "when she's grown up, when she's old enough to understand the value of things."

"Louise," Joe said, shaking his head, "for the love of God, Mike was my best friend and Bridget is his daughter. All I wanted was to give her something, something to remember me by." He ran his gloved hand down the side of my face. "Don't be crying so, Bridget, darlin'. It'll be alright. You wait and see. I'll bet they'll let you have the watch before long after all."

He bent down to whisper good-bye. I whispered good-bye back, and he turned and left, letting the storm door slam behind him too. My mother closed the heavy inner door and leaned back against it. Her eyes were closed.

"It's not 'cause the watch is so expensive, is it, Mommy?" I was crying again, and I didn't care what she said. I didn't care if she yelled at me or anything. "It's 'cause you don't like Joe, and you didn't want him to visit us."


"It's true, Mummy. I know it's true."

"Well, yes, I don't like Joe very much, and neither should you. The fact is, he's not to be trusted. Men like him--"

"But Daddy likes him. He's Daddy's friend, and he's really, really nice. I heard you and Daddy arguing last week, and Daddy likes him a lot."

"You what? When, how?"

"You were in the kitchen, after bedtime. I can hear everything you say." Her hand came to her throat. "I heard Daddy say that Joe didn't owe any money anymore. 'He's paid his debt,' that's what Daddy said, so why are you so worried about that?"

"His debt? Oh, child, that's not what he meant. He didn't mean money. Now look--"

"And Daddy also said it was all an accident, what Joe did! That he didn't mean to, and it was just an accident, Mommy, so that means you're wrong. Joe's not bad. He's really nice. He just--"

"Bridget, stop! You just don't understand."

"You want me to forget all about him, but I won't forget him, Mommy, not ever!"

She took a deep breath and her voice lost most of its anger. "Ah, Bridget," she said. "One day you'll understand. One day you'll see that some things are just too much. Now go on. Off you go and get dressed."

I went back up to my bedroom. The scarf still lay on my dresser; I'd forgotten all about it. I flopped down on the bed cradling it while I listened to the train whistle as it picked up speed on the other side of the river. I thought about asking my mother to let me mail the scarf to Joe, but I knew she'd never agree. Besides, what would I say? That he'd given me the most beautiful watch in the whole world? Which was true. That I'd never forget him? Which was true. That whenever I saw stars on a winter night, I'd think of him riding in his train across the frozen prairie? Which was also true. What I knew I wouldn't tell him was something I'd just realized: I didn't want the watch anymore, and I didn't want it because I knew that every time I looked at it, I'd remember the look on his face that morning in the downstairs hall.

BIO: Mary's essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio, and she has published fiction and nonfiction in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Boston Literary Magazine, Canadian Woman Studies, Mystery Authors, Writer's Bloc, Soliloquies, and Other Voices. She lives and works in Peterborough, Canada.