An Angel That I Know (February 2023)
In my powder room hangs a cross-stitch that I made several years ago, one that holds a special place in my heart among my most cherished possessions. It is a small, simple cross-stitch, worked on dark blue cloth, depicting a winter scene of barren trees and a sky filled with stars. On the mat which frames the picture is inscribed in calligraphy the words “I believe in angels.” On the back of the frame is a tribute I wrote to the woman for whom I did the cross-stitch, a woman who began to change my life from the day I met her almost sixty years ago.
My family moved to the outskirts of Toronto the winter before I was born. My parents, my 14-year-old brother and my 10-year-old sister packed up all their belongings, hired a mover, and drove in their 1959 light turquoise Pontiac from London to Etobicoke. They bought a red-brick split-level house on a quiet, tree-lined street, and went on with their individual and collective lives while waiting for my arrival.
The first three summers of my life were as eventful as any infant’s life could be -- learning to walk, talk, and gain a perspective on the world. Then, in the summer of 1963, something different happened. A new family moved in to the yellow house on the corner, right next door to ours. Formerly inhabited by three young boys, the newest family on the block boasted two exceedingly well-groomed little girls, with shoulder-length curls pulled back tightly in elasticized baubles, and crisp pinafores that you dare not get too close to, for fear of soiling them.
Forever etched in my consciousness is the vision of these two sisters standing at their back gate, staring at me with stern faces. As their eyes rested briefly on my grass-stained pants and mud-encrusted T-shirt, I noticed a confusing mixture of jealousy and disdain.
Although the differences between us seemed insurmountable at first, gradually we all became friends. Elaine and Kathleen’s mother found me entirely frustrating. From the day I pulled all of her carefully placed border plants out by their roots, until the day I locked her oldest daughter in our tool shed for a joke, then forgot to let her out, Mrs. Sutherland would beg, scream and plead with my mother to “tame your child.”
But I was not to be tamed. One hot July morning shortly after the flower-pulling incident, my parents awoke to very loud, metallic banging in our backyard, and went out to find Mr. Sutherland putting up a fence between our previously open-access backyards. “If you think that’s going to keep Lisa out,” my father said, almost defiantly, “you’re wrong.” The fence went up anyway.
As the years passed, I still managed to get both Elaine and Kathleen into trouble on a regular basis, but a lasting bond began to develop between us as well. Perhaps they envied my carefree attitude, or perhaps they were simply afraid to cross me.
Mrs. Sutherland kept an impeccable house. Without fail, she apologized for messes whenever I entered her front door, and I looked around in confusion, finding not one item out of place.
I can’t imagine whatever possessed me to violate such sanctity, yet I managed to do so on a rather grand scale, I thought.
The entire Sutherland family were sitting on their front porch when I, together with my accomplice Stephen, the boy from two doors down, snuck in through the back door. Room by room, we placed all of Mrs. Sutherland’s expansive collection of Royal Doultons under the tables on which they formerly stood, and we removed all of the linens from the beds in each of the three bedrooms in the house, placing these on the floor as well.
Hearing noises in her house, Mrs. Sutherland came in and discovered both Stephen and I cowering on the floor of one of the bedroom closets. One look at her face, twisted with rage and disbelief, was all it took to make us bolt out of the house without a backward glance.
My mother made me go back to apologize, and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Perhaps it was having to explain why I did what I did that made me realize that there was no excuse for my behaviour, then or in the past. Or perhaps it was the fact that Mrs. Sutherland was actually gracious when accepting my apology. I looked at her incredulously, and finally asked, “Why don’t you hate me?”
“My dear child,” she said, “I know that you can be better.”
Mrs. Sutherland eventually became my most stalwart supporter. With a grace that I have yet to match, she saw through the mischief to the potential that lay within me, potential that I would like to believe I have lived up to.
She saw me through years of boyfriend problems, career and lifestyle choices, she wrote me letters and we accumulated endless hours of telephone time. Through it all, her underlying concern was always my happiness. The day after my daughter was born, she came to the hospital to see me. She took my face in both her hands, brought her own face close to mine, looked me straight in the eyes and asked, more forcefully and with more feeling than ever before, “Are you happy?!” In my drug-induced state, I answered yes.
Mrs. Sutherland passed away very suddenly, many years ago, in her early 60s. She had suffered a massive aneurism, and Kathleen found her when she arrived for her weekly visit. I had just come in from church when I got a call from my father, telling me the news. The bite of the submarine sandwich that I had brought home for lunch became like cement in my mouth, and the remaining portion fell to the floor. It took me little more than half an hour to make the trip from Guelph to Toronto, and I walked into that same impeccable house that I had known for years. Words unnecessary and unavailable, Kathleen, Elaine and I held each other and cried, tears of anger, sadness and desolation.
The reception after the funeral was held in the Sutherlands’ house. Still numb from shock, I walked aimlessly from room to room, not wanting to believe that I would never see Mrs. Sutherland again. Visions of the past kept appearing before me, and I was again that little girl I once had been, longing desperately for guidance and affirmation.
As I reached the family room, the sight that greeted me stopped my feet in mid-step. On the family piano stood three graduation pictures: one of Elaine, one of Kathleen, and one of me.
I heard it said once that when we lose someone we love, we gain an angel that we know. I still miss Mrs. Sutherland, desperately at times. But I believe that she is watching over me, and the thought warms my soul.
My cross-stitch still holds a special place in my home and in my heart, and will serve as a constant reminder of that fateful day, so many years ago, when my family moved from London to Toronto, leading me to the woman who changed my life forever.