Life During Wartime

by Ingrid Keenan

Ingrid Keenan writes and makes theatre in a small college town in Western New York. After studying drama at the University of Toronto, she worked at CBC Television for several years. Her stories have have appeared in Room and The Rusty Toque, and she recently completed Humber College’s Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing with mentor Michelle Berry.

On the table by the front door there are twenty-six gifts. Two of them are small boxes, four of them are gift bags, and nineteen others are large boxes. All have been professionally wrapped in a dull bronze paper trimmed with black organza ribbon, finished with a jubilation of bows.

One package, brought by a great-aunt, does not match the others: it has been wrapped by hand, in shiny paper with blowsy red pansies. The other guests assume it contains something homemade, or passed down.

In the dining room and in the family room there are twenty-one women. Several women were not able to attend, but their gifts wait on the table regardless.

The women group politely, chatting and drinking turquoise punch. The hostess found the recipe to match the bride’s color scheme, and the womens’ lips and tongues stain greenish-blue as they become giddy for a Saturday afternoon.

They talk about the recent horrors.

I mean, what kind of world is this. What kind of a world is this, that’s all I can say.

We’re not safe! We’re not safe like we used to be!

There’s so much chaos going around these days!

The hostess passes around platters of strawberries and tiny little cupcakes. I shouldn’t! say the women, but they do. But then they don’t, really: afterwards, the hostess will find turquoise paper plates tucked here and there with most of the cupcake leaning into its lump of frosting. And the collars of the strawberries: there’s no shame in strawberries.

“The hostess found the recipe to match the bride’s color scheme, and the women’s lips and tongues stain greenish-blue as they become giddy for a Saturday afternoon.”

Everyone moves to the living room. Extra chairs have been brought in, and the women sit in a long oval, with the bride and her best friend and her mother on a loveseat at one end. Busy cousins bring gifts and surround the bride with them so that she looks small and lucky.

Great Aunt Ellen, who is the one who brought the wrong kind of present, sits in a low armchair, the sort of thing she would call a slipper chair. The women on either side of her perch on dining room chairs, so that Great Aunt Ellen’s head is at least two feet lower than theirs, and she feels like a child.

Her niece, who is the bride’s aunt, sits next to her, and looks at all the people in the room and remembers all the years. She remembers when half of these women didn’t even exist; she remembers their mothers’ baby showers, and bridal showers, and graduations, and remembers when all the grown-ups here were children, and the old people were the grown-ups.

The two women next to her are still talking about the events, but in lower voices now:

I just really think that when these things happen, what you see is so much good in people, you know? I mean, all the people who come out to help, and the people who give their shoes, and everyone wearing brown ribbons—

My kids all wore brown for a month afterwards, at their school! 

You see! 

And they have these little bracelets they all wear that say “Too Much!” 

The gifts. The bride starts with one of the large boxes. She takes the bow off carefully, and hands it to her mother, who attaches it to a paper plate. When she has two paper plates full of bows, she will attach them with more ribbon and make straps with other pieces of ribbon, and this will be a bow-and-paper-plate bra which her daughter will wear. Everyone will clap, and take photographs.

The best friend sits poised with a special pen and notepad that the bride’s mother handed her. In fact, the best friend brought a special pen and pad herself, but at a look from the bride she decided it would be better to use the mother’s. She is a very good maid of honour.

The paper is off, and the bride opens the box with the twin eagles on it and parts the bronze-coloured tissue paper inside. She reads the card out loud: “From Aunt Julia.” Her best friend writes it down.

A large oval platter.

Oh, isn’t that lovely! says a neighbour to one of the bride’s friends.

The next box is from the neighbour, and she pulls herself up proudly as the card is read. The bride smiles at her, and she beams back.

A salad bowl.

The maid of honour writes down the name and the gift.

Why are they all wrapped the same? asks Great Aunt Ellen, too loudly. The bride’s mother stops making the bra of bows long enough to smile across the room at her sister.

They’re from the Registry, says the young woman sitting next to her, but this is no explanation, because the great-aunt’s gift is also from the registry. Last week she took the bus downtown and hurried past vacant buildings to the last remaining department store. Great sections of the department store were empty, and some of the shelves and racks, she noticed, were draped in a thin layer of dust. As she took the escalator up to the third floor (Housewares), a homeless man, arm in arm with two elderly security guards, passed her on the down escalator, and they locked eyes for a moment. In Housewares she found a clerk to help her and he looked up the registry on his computer, and the great-aunt bought a nice set of knives. Then she went down to the stationery department on the ground floor, and bought the beautiful pansy-covered wrapping paper, and rushed back to the bus stop and got home just before curfew. Knives are always useful.

You can ask to have it wrapped, the young woman says.

The wrapping must be online, thinks the great-aunt, and so she says But I bought mine at the store. 

Do they even still have stores? I wouldn’t know where to find one of their stores, anymore, says the bride’s mother, looking around the room for agreement. The women her age all nod and murmur.

It’s downtown. Where it’s always been, says the great-aunt, and thinks, not for the first time, that her niece has turned into a rather silly woman. I haven’t been downtown in years! says a big-haired woman sitting across the room.

It’s changed so much, says someone, and someone else says So many of the streets have been closed off now, and someone else says It’s just awful—so depressing; and the great-aunt’s other niece is thinking Aunt Ellen went downtown, by herself! But she’ll talk to her sister about it later.

Bronze paper, more boxes, more tissue, more plates.

The great-aunt wonders What if they got it wrong? What if when she opens it, it’s the wrong thing? But she keeps it to herself.

The opened boxes are taken to a table under the window. The pile is enormous.

It’s a nice pattern she chose, isn’t it? says the neighbour to the friend.

“Heroes of Arras,” says the friend knowledgeably. My fiancé and I almost picked that one, but we went with “Titus Andronicus” instead. 

When are you getting married? 

In June. 

The neighbour smiles, approvingly, and thinks With all the chaos going around nowadays—

Another box is opened, from the bridesmaids. As well as a sangria jug, there is some lovely lingerie. Oooooh! say her friends and her aunts and her mother, and the bride pretends to blush, but holds the feather-trimmed negligee up to her body. Her mother, who has the bow-bra halfway finished, holds it up in front of the negligee, and everyone claps. The friend next to the neighbour pulls out her phone and takes a picture, and then a second picture of her friend pointing at her, laughing and saying Don’t you dare!

I’ve already posted it! And everyone laughs.

The next box is from the maid of honour’s mother. The bride has known her for twenty years, but she still says Thank you, Mrs. MacKenzie like a well brought-up child, and the maid of honour says to everyone I almost wrote down “Mom” on the list!

Two more boxes are opened. Two more place settings.

She must have the full set, by now, says the neighbour, but the friend says—Oh no, they registered for eighteen. That way they can do Women’s Day and Deployment Day and Gathering Day and all the holidays. 

The neighbour nods, approvingly.

She’s having like five more showers, anyway, says the friend. So. 

Great Aunt Ellen’s weirdly-wrapped package is next. She made the bow herself, out of a roll of flamingo-pink ribbon she had bought years ago, for another gift. There was lots of ribbon left, but the great-aunt used up every last bit, cutting it into short lengths and tying them together, and then trilling the ribbon along the blade of her kitchen scissors so that it fell in gorgeous, flamingo-coloured corkscrews, but then it got smushed in her canvas tote bag on the way over here in her niece’s car.

With all the chaos going around these days, thinks the bride’s aunt—but hurries off the thought because she doesn’t want to cry.”

What beautiful paper! say several people, even though it is different from all the other paper, and the bride’s mother catches her sister’s eye across the room. She finds a place for the smushed bow in the bra.

Oh! Wait! It’s five o’clock! Someone says, and they all turn on their phones for the Moment of Silence.

Well, that was nice, says the big-haired woman, when the two minutes have passed and the chatter starts again.

It makes a difference, doesn’t it? pleads a cousin.

Just a few more packages. Eight more dinner plates. A banana bowl and a set of banana spoons. Napkins and tablecloths and knife blocks and a set of sixteen avocado-holders.

Oh! Aren’t those clever! says the neighbour.

Green serving spoons for salad, and red serving spoons for sauce. The special kind of container to hold spaghetti, and the special kind to hold fusilli. Picture frames for things that haven’t happened yet. A soup tureen. With all the chaos going around these days, thinks the bride’s aunt—but hurries off the thought because she doesn’t want to cry.

The great-aunt is silent, watching the gifts as they come out of their boxes, watching as they pile up under the window. They are all the same. There could be anything in those boxes, she thinks.

The great-aunt pictures a warehouse somewhere far away, pictures faraway hands picking out the plates and serving spoons and champagne flutes, placing them and tucking the tissue paper around them, making them safe for their long journey. Closing the box. Wrapping it in bronze. Packing it in another box, sending it to this party. Sending it here. Boxes filled, boxes emptied. Parcels sent across the globe. Emissaries, ambassadors.

What if one of them does not have a gift, she thinks. What if one of them contains something terrible?

How do we know we’re safe? She says to the woman next to her, but she mutters it, and the woman just says Hmm? and keeps watching the presents.

Box after box. Bronze paper. Black Ribbon. Gift after gift. The great-aunt is nodding off, happy to be surrounded by voices, happy not to be alone. Deep in her low armchair, the worries fade, and she drifts into memories of her own bridal shower, years in the past. In another time, in the same place. Tea-towels and measuring-cups and useful cookbooks. A bathroom scale, a mixing bowl. Women with wide skirts, pretty hats. No guard at the door.

(But she is not wrong. Someone wishes these women ill. Somewhere, outside the circle of family and friends, past the guard at the door, out the gates where sentries smoke in the September sun, down many highways, across many oceans, yet as close as FedEx, someone has reason to replace the sixteenth soup bowl with something sinister).

Bronze paper and black bows. The maid of honour helps the mother of the bride tape the last few bows to the paper plates. It is beautiful. The women clap, and for some reason the bride’s neighbour tears up.

(Miles away, in what used to be downtown, the sirens go off. In another country, bombs fall, and in the warehouse across the ocean, hate breeds among the shelves of crystal and china. One box waits to be opened).

“She imagines a changeling gift, a gift that does not contain what they think it will contain.”

The great-aunt daydreams in her slipper chair. She remembers the empty streets around the department store, she remembers the fox she saw, walking straight down the street where they used to hold parades when she was a child. She thinks about a bridal shower with unmarked, identical gifts. She imagines a changeling gift, a gift that does not contain what they think it will contain. A gift that contains something horrific: something severed, or something rotten.

Who is this one from? asks the maid of honour.

I don’t know—there’s no card? says the bride as she parts the tissue paper and sees what lies beneath it.

The bride’s hands spring back from the box, as if bitten, her fingers making little claws of surprise. Oh, oh, oh… she whimpers, and at first the guests think it is with delight, but then the bride pushes the package onto the floor and stands and starts to back away, her face ashen.

The great-aunt sits up straight in her low chair, and cranes her neck to see as the women rise from their chairs and gather around the bride to see what has been put into the last box.

 


Ingrid Keenan writes and makes theatre in a small college town in Western New York. After studying drama at the University of Toronto, she worked at CBC Television for several years. Her stories have have appeared in Room and The Rusty Toque, and she recently completed Humber College’s Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing with mentor Michelle Berry.

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