The Lake Huron sunset looked unnatural, as though painted by a child. The tremendous orb hung low in the sky, its colour so deep, so vivid that it no longer qualified as orange. As it slunk below the horizon, wide swaths of the same indescribable colour settled on the water’s rippled surface, then streamed through the trees to the screened-in porch. My mother was cast in an ethereal glow. The copper hair of her youth reappeared, framing her pale skin and the spray of freckles around her nose. For a moment, she was young again. Sensing my gaze, she put down her book. “Did you send the driving instructions to the girls, dear?” she asked—again.
Having her cousins to lunch had been high on her agenda for some time. And what better place to gather than the cottage my husband and I had bought in Bruce County, the heartland of her ancestry? The old, two-storey clapboard house had come cheap, given its position atop an eroding hill. We’d calculated the anticipated slippage inch by inch and figured we’d get thirty years out of it before it tumbled into the water. So we cleaned it up, fixed some windows, added some porch lights and called it ours. “Yes, Mom, I sent them yesterday. And stop calling them girls. They’ve got to be what… seventy something?”
“Well, I suppose you’re right,” she said briskly. “I’ve known them all my life. I don’t attach a particular vintage to them.” She picked up her book. “I just wanted to make sure you’d sent the email.”
I’d struck a chord. At what age are you supposed to stop calling your friends girls anyway? After all, I still use the term and I’m almost fifty. I’m having the girls over. I’ve got girls’ night on Thursday. And, for that matter, at what age are you supposed to stop shopping at H&M and switch to Talbots? What about hairstyles? Was there a biological deadline for switching from long to short? Uggh. I wanted to stay a girl too. Depressed, I went for a walk along the beach.
The shrieks of seagulls woke me the next morning, my limbs wrapped in a sweaty tangle of sheets. Menopause. Yet another test of ageing. I threw the mess into the overflowing hamper and headed downstairs.
“Good morning, dear,” Mom said, looking trim in a navy sleeveless dress embossed with tiny white flowers and matching blue flats. Her hair had been freshly washed and blown dry, but I could see the humidity had already wreaked havoc on her bangs. She was chopping celery with the ease and dexterity of Jamie Oliver. A glance at the dining room revealed that the tablecloth had been pressed and the table set. I didn’t even own an iron and was afraid to ask if she’d brought one in her suitcase.
“What are you doing? They won’t be here for ages.”
“I know, but we have a lot to do. Can you put the turkey breasts in the oven and get started on the salad? And oh, we should make sure that the ice trays are—”
“Mom, I need to wake up first, okay? I’m just going to sit down with some coffee.” I knew I should jump into the day, help quell my mom’s stress, but I’d recently started a new medication for my own anxiety and mornings were slow going.
“Well, if you think you have the time.” She opened the fridge, a square-shaped black and white Maytag that sputtered death-bed gurgles and sat at an awkward angle on the sloped floor.
“I do have the time, Mom.” Four fucking hours, I counted as Aidan came down the stairs. He had a thick ratty blanket wrapped around his shoulders and his hair stood on end, like a child’s stick-person drawing. Now nine, he wore a pair of old pyjamas that had been a favourite when he was six. He looked like the Incredible Hulk after he’d burst through his clothes. A dry chunk of something clung to his top. Recently, my husband had quipped that we should buy him a T-shirt that read, DON’T BLAME ME, MY MOM’S ON MEDS. After a glance at my wounded expression, he’d let it go.
Mom turned around. “Good morning, Aidan,” she said, holding a knife in mid-air as she assessed the scene before her. I knew what was brewing in her mind. When did my poor grandchild last get a haircut? Or his clothes washed? Or new clothes, for that matter? And for heaven’s sake, why does he parade around with that god-awful blanket? Her words remained were they were though—unsaid, but delivered just the same.
“Why is the table all fancy?” Aidan’s voice surfaced through my thoughts.
“We’re having company. Cousins of Gran’s.”
I smiled. “No, sweetheart, for lunch.”
“They’re your cousins, too,” Mom said, ruffling the red hair Aidan had inherited from her. She tried to wipe her fingers on her apron without me noticing but I saw the repulsion. It was only there for an instant, but I saw it.
“Cool. How old are they?”
“In their seventies.” She laughed and gave him a hug. “So, don’t expect them to play water-guns with you.”
“As if, Gran.” He slid out of her arms to get some cereal, the blanket trailing behind him.
I had my head in the fridge, poking around for the cabbage. Mom was in the dining room, cleaning a white porcelain water jug she’d managed to scrounge up. Only the best for today.
“Morning, Mom.” Julia swept past me to claim the remaining coffee that I’d had my eye on. Her black, wavy hair hung loosely at her shoulders. She looked gorgeous even though she’d just gotten up.
“How are you this morning, love? Did you sleep well?”
“Like a rock, as per uze,” she said, grabbing the footstool to hunt high in the cupboards for sugar.
“Just when I think you can’t possibly come up with another short form, there it is. From all your texting, I guess.”
“I’m working at ten,” she said, ignoring me.
She grabbed the sugar package and stepped down “What’s the problem?”
“Oh, God, Julia. I told you that we were having a special lunch today with relatives.”
Julia frowned, poured some contents from the package into her cup, leaving a trail on the counter. “I know, Mom, but what’s the big deal? I switched with Davis. He burned his hand yesterday in the fryer.”
“The big deal is that your Gran will have a conniption.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” she said, sauntering off to the washroom to cover her beautiful face in make-up.
Mom breezed past me to the sink. “I’m just getting a sponge to tackle some of those marks on your walls, dear. Was that Julia?”
“She’s up early.”
“Yes, she has to work at ten,” I said, my tone deliberately light, airy.
“Pardon?” Ice dripped from the last syllable.
“She has to work today.”
“Didn’t you tell her about the lunch?”
She used the article as though we were preparing for a marquee event. I chopped some cabbage. “Yes, Mom, I did.”
“Then why is she working?”
“She had to switch at the last minute.”
“So she doesn’t care about meeting her relatives?” One of her eyebrows had shot up to the top of her forehead. She stood on the crest of the sloping floor and towered over me.
“I’m sorry, but remember, she’s sixteen.”
“Yes, old enough to care.”
“Mom, please.” I was angry at Julia for forgetting about lunch and angry at my mom for being angry at her. I started chopping faster, felt my mom’s eyes upon me.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She returned to the dining room.
I was carving the turkey breast into thin slices when Mom reappeared by my side.
“Does that look a little pink to you?” she asked.
I sighed inwardly. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, look at it closely.”
“It’s not pink.”
“I don’t want Lynn and Mary getting sick. Especially Mary, she’s had some bowel troubles.”
“Okay, I’ll put it back in the oven.”
“But you’ve sliced it already.”
“MOM! What do you want me to do?” I blurted.
“No need for a tone, dear.”
“Fine. I’ll zap it in the microwave.”
“Whatever you think best.”
Julia arrived in the doorway, face made-up, hair straightened, nails painted—all to work at a greasy diner in town.
“Bye, have a good lunch,” she chirped.
“Hold on.” I took her arm and whisked her out to the front verandah. The screen door slammed behind us. The heady scent of pine filled the air. The buzzing of cicadas intermingled with birdsong. Usually these were enough to calm me down. Not today.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Julia protested.
“Look, honey, I don’t really care one way or the other, but Gran is upset that you’re not going to be here for lunch. You promised her that you would be. Now call your boss and say that you won’t be in—please.”
Julia’s raccoon-lined, green eyes were wide, defiant. “No. I can’t. That’s so embarrassing and rude! Plus, my shift starts in half an hour.”
“Just tell him that you’re sick or something.”
“What?” she said, louder now. “You want me to lie?”
“Shh!” I don’t want Gran to hear you.
“You don’t want her to hear you telling me to lie.” Who are these people again? Some cousins five times removed or something? And aren’t they a hundred years old?”
“You don’t get it, do you? They are important to Gran and she really wants you to meet them. She wants to show you off. She’s so proud of you, honey.”
Julia paused just long enough for me to think I had her. “Mom, you don’t really want me to stay for Gran’s sake. You want me to stay for your sake, to please her… like you’ve tried to do your whole life. God, Mom, stand up for yourself for once. If you think that it’s fine for me to go to my shift, then just tell her.” She gave me a peck on the cheek.
“So now you’re a psychiatrist all of a sudden?” I said to her departing back.
I moved back into the kitchen where Mom was removing the turkey from the microwave with a look of pensive expectation. She pierced it with a fork and seemed pleased with the results, though it looked dry to me. I was reaching for a platter when a metallic crunch tore through the air. I waited a beat. Please, no. Then came the familiar slam of the door and Julia appeared before us, stricken.
“Gran! I’m so sorry. I just hit your car by accident.”
After I’d surveyed the damage to the cars and assured Mom and Julia that it wasn’t too bad, but allowed to myself that it was, and after I’d let Julia drive into town in a car with a flailing bumper, Mom and I stood silently on either side of the table, putting food on the best plates we could find. Aidan poked his head out from the TV room long enough for me to insist he change.
“Where are the napkins that you bought yesterday, dear?” Mom asked.
Shit. “I’m sorry, I forgot to get them.”
She looked up. “But what are we going to do?”
“Do we really need them?“
I sighed. “I’ve got paper towels.”
“Well, those won’t work!”
Was there a quiver to her voice? Was she more upset about the damn napkins than her car?
“Okay. I’ll drive to town to get some.” She pictured Julia’s reaction to this offer.
“In my car? With that big gash in the driver’s side? Is that a good idea?”
Be strong. “Then we’ll have go without them,” I said in my best whatcha gonna do about it tone, then walked into the kitchen to avoid seeing the look on her face.
Minutes later she followed me there. “I really wish Julia could be with us, dear,” she said, mercifully dropping the napkin topic but heading straight back to my errant daughter.
“She should realize how her decisions affect people.”
“Mom, just stop.” Again, I thought of Julia, of what she’d said about always trying to please her, to not stir it up. “You’re being dramatic.” I banged around in the cutlery drawer in search of a wine opener. “If she’d stayed, she’d only be doing it to please you and me. She’d have been bored stiff, okay?” I yanked out my prize, sending a bunch of spoons clattering to the floor. “Her friend burnt his hand and she had to go in. End of story,” I said, shaking the opener in her face. “Now let’s have a glass of wine on the front verandah and wait for our guests.”
Mom opened her mouth, then closed it again, like a fish gasping for air.
“Before noon? No, dear, but you go ahead.”
Aidan joined us outside, his blanket still in tow. He looked sleepy from all of his TV viewing, but at least he’d changed his clothes.
“Aidan, dear, please put that ruddy thing away,” Mom said, her eyes narrowed.
Aidan looked at her. “What does ruddy mean, Gran?”
“It means cute,” I said quickly. Mom sounded her disapproval with her tongue against her teeth. “And you can hold on to it,” I added.
“I’m staaaaaarving,” he whined. “Can I just take some stuff from the table?”
My “sure” and Mom’s “no!” repelled off each other, like magnets.
“It’s for our guests.” Mom’s voice was firm.
“He’s hungry and they’re late.” My voice was firmer.
Aidan held his head back, as though imploring someone, somewhere, to come to his assistance.
“Go ahead, honey, take all you want,” I said, waving him inside.
“What has gotten into you?” Mom asked.
“Nothing. Just the real me, I guess.” I held her gaze. “The real me has gotten into me.”
Mom didn’t know what to make of that. Instead, she said, “I can’t imagine where the girls are. They’re usually prompt.”
“Did you give them good directions?”
“Yes, Mom.” Just then, a terrible, horrible idea slithered in. Feigning calm, I glided across the porch, then raced to my computer and opened my email. I scrolled through my sent messages. Where was it? Where was it? Then I switched to my drafts folder. And there it was, larger than life. My directions to the cousins were stuck in limbo. I sank into the chair. They had no way to reach me. We didn’t have a landline at the cottage and Mom didn’t own a cell phone. In short, no one was coming for lunch today.
What to do? The temptation to lie was huge. To blame it on the cousins. I took the bottle of wine and a glass, strode outside and handed it to my mother. “I screwed up. My email never reached them, so they’ve no idea how to get here.” I paused, but not long enough for her to respond. “I feel bad, but it’s not the end of the world. We’ll have them to lunch another time.” I opened the screen door. “Aidan, let’s go for a swim.”
Header photograph: By User:TitleStock at English Wikipedia. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons