Vera’s sister-in-law sends tins of aspirin in her care packages, always with one pill missing.
Nobody knows why, and, at the heart of it, this is what this forty-page-long story is all about.
Nah, I’m making a joke. Actually, stealing one. Because it’s Vera who thinks it’s amusing to lend this single detail some serious weight.
My best guess is that it’s a way of drawing a line between Vera and her sister-in-law, in the same way that Lottie draws a line between her and Vera.
Lottie notices that Vera has dropped her crocheted gloves on the ground and her “hands looked as if they could easily deal with the oilier parts of a motorbike”.
Furthermore, Vera “didn’t know what white sauce was because they had never eaten it at home. That spoke volumes for the sort of house it must be.”
Lottie is in Paris working on her thesis, which considers the ways in which immigrants in Canada maintain the traditions from their homelands (in contrast to the Americans, who assimilate). It’s that old mosaic vs. melting pot theory.
She and Vera are from the same town in Winnipeg, but Lottie is properly Canadian. Which is to say that her ethnicity is properly tamped down, if not outright denied. Not even her parents speak German anymore, although her grandmother spoke fluently. But it’s different for Germans.
Which is maybe where that aspirin does matter. There, in that small tin, the pills perfectly packed inside, with one exception. A space where something should have been.
So it could be all about the aspirin after all. The mystery of it, as Vera jokes. Near the end of the story.
But by that time, we might also suggest that Lottie’s German heritage could fit in that emptiness as well. Or the child that Vera is not raising herself, the absent child that makes her cry in the movie theatre.
Or the space where the china rose no longer sits on Katherine Mansfield’s gravesite. Or the hole where Lottie’s homesickness should have been. Or the gap where her kindness towards Vera could have been.
“I’ve never understood that coldness. I know you’re not English, but it’s all the same. You can be a piece of ice when you want to.”
Charlotte Maria Benz arrives in Paris on December 9, 1952. When she fills out the police form at the hotel, she says that she does not have a job, but the woman who accepts her form scratches out her answer and replaces it with ‘student’. There are three things waiting for Lottie at the desk: a posted letter, a telegram and a hand-delivered not. The first is from her mother, the second from Kevin, and the third is from Vera. It is her thesis advisor whom she plans to write to first. And…
So, you can see: there are so many details.
They crowd this story. Even the care packages themselves are crowded.
But the aspirin. The one that’s missing…
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in Home Truths. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: Overhead in a Balloon.