Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Uldukis

Uldukis has lived more than nine decades and though she is small and withered, only common sense indicates that this will be her last one. Her mind is sharp, her body is still a vehicle, if a slow-moving one. Her room in the nursing home is small and cramped with 93 years worth of accumulated stuff: photographs of a husband who has been dead nearly thirty years; knick-knacks from dozens of mother's days; primitive preschool paintings, yellowed and curling around the edges, done by grandchildren now in high school; books so numerous that her 6 shelves don't hold them all, so they line the walls at least waist-high, an awkward kind of wainscoting.

It is painful for Uldukis to tie her shoelaces because her knuckles are swollen from arthritis, but she is meticulous about her appearance. She never leaves the confines of her room without a brooch, a silk scarf tied around her neck, and at least 2 barrettes holding back her thin white hair. She is among the oldest residents of her nursing home, but also among the liveliest. She has made many friends during her 25-year stay, and has since watched most of them die. Thank goodness for these friends, though, because despite having 2 sons, 1 daughter, 6 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild all living within 100 km, she rarely has a visitor.

On this frigid November day, Uldukis is going out. She bundles up in a long coat the colour of an eggplant, and tiny gray boots that you would have otherwise suspected belonged to a child. The senior's van drops her alone at a department store and she gets herself a shopping cart more for its support and aid in walking than for its intended purpose.

Uldukis has shopping to do; Christmas is fast approaching. She wields the cart around the store, the creaky wheel crying only slightly louder than her creaking bones. Every step is an effort, but she works hard to hide it. Uldukis is a proud woman. She is conscious of her decrepit appearance, and even more conscious of the disparity it has with the way she feels. Inside, she is still the caring mother, devoted wife, beloved school teacher, determined cancer survivor (twice), and strong matriarch which defined her all these years. But when death approaches, no matter how subtly, it wipes away all that has come before. Uldukis knows that she has no place in the world. Uldukis knows that she has hardly even a place in the very family that she founded. Uldukis knows she is forgotten.

Forgotten, yes, but Uldukis does not forget. And so she is shopping for a family that she rarely sees. A picture of her great-grandchild burns inside her wallet. She loves him fiercely even if she hasn't met him yet. He's almost 2.

She selects a gift for him first: a conservative woman, her instinct is always towards the practical. She picks out an outfit for him, and closes her eyes to remember how big a 22 month child would be. The clothing is of the sturdy, every-day kind, the kind that will withstand wear, and washing, and life. To balance out the gift, she guides her wobbly cart to the toy section, where she is instantly overwhelmed. Of the many, many things that line the shelves, she recognizes almost none of them as actual toys. And so she goes for what she knows best, a book.

Uldukis teeters around the store thoughtfully picking up gifts for all her family members. Several hours into her shopping, she spots a store employee who is setting up a display of sale merchandise. Uldukis trudges over to her, and asks for her help. She has several blouses in her cart, and she is trying to read the care labels in each one. Her failing eyesight is helped by the giant magnifying glass that she has brought with her for this very purpose, but it's not enough. The employee greets the tiny old woman with a smile, but she works in merchandise, behind the scenes, and this isn't her job. But there are no sales associates around, and so she does her best. Uldukis has several questions stored up: which colour do “the young people” prefer? Is it probable that her grandson would want a movie on the disc, rather than the tape? Where can she find the tea towels?

The store employee spends the next 3 hours following Uldukis around. Uldukis is so delighted with the company that she invents questions just to keep the shop girl from leaving. She boasts of her family members, and wants the girl's honest opinion on whether her grandson's girlfriend would like particular set of earrings. Even the young girl is exhausted by the time every person has been crossed off Uldukis' list, and her shift has ended long ago.

The girl waits with Uldukis in line at the cash, afraid that Uldukis's short arms won't reach to the bottom of the cart, and aware that she should probably be saved from all the bending and lifting anyway. Before she can get away, Uldukis asks for a favour: will she call the nursing home to let them know that she needs to be picked up now?

The girl calls, and the nurse who answers is gruff. She seems angry at the hassle. The girl aches for her little shopping companion, and the life she must lead, always feeling like an imposition even after such a formidable life.

Uldukis and the girl wait together at the entrance for the nursing home van to arrive. During the long wait, Uldukis shyly hands the girl a gift- a box of chocolates that she has purchased to say thank you for all her help. The girl feels the prickle of tears behind her eyes as she refuses the gift, and tells Uldukis that the pleasure of her company has been reward enough. Uldukis likes this answer so much, she grabs the girl around the waist, and holds on tight.

Finally, the van arrives. The driver is a somewhat friendly man, though he has the annoying habit of talking about Uldukis as though she isn't there.

“Uldukis sure is a generous gift-giver” he notes, as he loads the packages. “Last year all the presents sat wrapped in her room well past Christmas because her family never took her home for the holidays. They sat there until the end of March, when we had to call her son because she had a minor stroke.”

When Uldukis is ready to go, she reaches up to the girl, a virtual stranger, for a hug. The girl hugs her as fiercely as she dares embrace such brittle bones, surprised at her feeling. Uldukis waves at her friend-for-an-afternoon as the van pulls out of the parking lot.

The girl is so moved by this woman that she makes a point of visiting Uldukis before Christmas, and the visit is so well-received it is repeated several times that winter and spring. In fact, when Uldukis quietly passes away in her sleep that June, the department store employee has been her sole visitor that year. The Christmas gifts, so lovingly bought and wrapped brilliantly, are still piled in the room where Uldukis took her last breath.

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