My mother’s maiden name is Wheeler — in her early roles, she’s credited as MaryMargaret Wheeler — and the Wheeler family ethos, as my father would tell you, from time to time possessed everyone in our household. For my father and I lived in a house of girls and women. Imagine a back hall of scuffed figure skates, rubber boots, ballet slippers, mismatched high heels, a broken flip-flop. Picture a second floor where dance routines are rehearsed at all hours of the morning, doors are perversely slammed, sweaters are illicitly borrowed only to be returned “completely reeking of fucking cigarettes.” My four sisters competed for clothes, friends, time in the bathroom, nights with the car. They competed to be heard. There were skirmishes, schemes, hormonal swings, unburdening emotionality. Nights could be loud. When I was young, I tried to make connections between all factions — I let them give me manicures, I let them put my hair in braids — only to later explode in survivalist anger. My Sisters Talking: “Remember when you ripped off your Tarzan pyjamas? What a psycho!” “Mom’s right. You need therapy.” “You know when you mooned me and Faith? We saw your balls and they looked shrimpy. In your face! And fuck off, because I actually don’t talk about other people.” How to respond? The unstable spin of feminine non-logic can overwhelm a single guy, and after the age of twelve,
I vowed to never again take anyone’s side or get sucked into any argument. My mother presided over these histrionics from afar and seldom intervened. When indifference was futile, she could commit to the scene with the full force of her personality, and in these moments, the female members of my family seemed united in a singleness of lunacy. It was rampant in the house and halls and provoked in me a confusion of sympathy so absolute, I had no idea where their contradictions ended and my own instabilities began. So with such Sturm und Tollheit looming overhead, I can tell you most of what follows occurred some thirty years ago on a slushy late December afternoon when my mother began the proceedings sound asleep in a full bathtub in the house on Dunvegan Drive. For the second time in an hour, Katie, my youngest sister, called to my mother that she was wanted on the telephone. But this information did not really infiltrate my mother’s dreaming brain. She lay in the bathwater, her head at an awkward angle, her mouth a smidge above the water’s surface. Katie, on the other side of the door, stood listening for some kind of response or movement, but, hearing none, returned to the staircase. It was only when Katie’s footfalls faded from the doorway that my mother stirred, eyelashes fluttering, elbow twitching, finally awakening. “Who’s there?” She pushed herself into a sitting position, a pink mesh sponge slipping from her shoulder. In another second, the swirl of her dreams would dissipate and her full identity would return to her, bringing with it all the concerns, perplexities, and divinations that are free-floating on any given day. “Ditsy?” She stood up, bathwater rinsing from her, and reached for an orange beach towel draped over anearby radiator. She sniffed the towel, feeling where it was damp from earlier use, and quickly swabbed her shoulders, arms, legs. She called a second time and stepped out of the tub, careful to avoid the debris on the fringed bath mat at her feet, debris she seemed surprised to see. Which was: a three-pack of miniature Henkell Trocken champagnes, a red Lego brick, and a water-warped paperback copy of Anne’s House of Dreams. The first item had been liberated earlier that afternoon from a reunion luncheon for Dalhousie University’s School of Nursing, class of 1955. It was a degree my mother abandoned to go into acting, but she’d been convinced to crash the reunion by two of her classmates. The Lego piece belonged to my mother’s first and, at the moment, only grandson. The book had been hers since childhood. Frowning a half moment, she picked up the Lego piece and paperback, brought them to the sink, and placed them on a built-in tiled shelf. Why this frown? The whirligig of my mother’s likes and dislikes, and where it might spin on a given day, was something few could figure or predict, and what was obsessing her on this winter afternoon was anyone’s guess. It could be the reminder of being a grandmother at fifty, or the memory of a ringing telephone, or Neptune Theatre’s current season, or some theatricals still to be played. Whichever — with sudden compulsion, as if she felt the present scene needed fresh energy — she turned away from the sink and reached into the tub to pull out its rubber plug. She took a plaid bathrobe, not her own, from a two-pronged hook on the back of the bathroom door and, threading her arms through the sleeves, walked out into the hallway. Fading behind her in the bathroom was a sense of fragrant vapours —the down-draining water redolent of Pears Transparent Soap, lavender bath oil, and the everyday assorted effluence of an adult woman’s metabolism. “Hello?” she said, tightening the bathrobe’s belt. “Where are you? Ditsy?”
My four sisters — Carolyn, Bonnie, Faith, and Katie — went by the family nicknames of Itsy, Bitsy, Titsy, and Ditsy, although my father often changed that third appellation to Mitsy, especially in formal correspondence. My mother did not always care for formality — nor did she stand on ceremony. “Ditsy,” she called down. “Who was on the phone?”
“She probably wants to know when she’s getting picked up. Not that I haven’t told her three times.”
“No. She said she’s not coming. And the real estate lady called for Dad.”
“Not coming? She complains and complains she’s not invited, then when she is invited, she’s not coming?”
“She said she’s sick.”
My maternal grandmother, Evelyn Anne Wheeler, known to us as Nan, was spending her first winter in Nova Scotia in some time. She and my grandfather, known to us as Dompa, had wintered in Sarasota, but with my grandfather dying of congestive heart failure three years before and my grandmother suffering a small cerebral hemorrhage at the Trimingham’s perfume counter in Bermuda — after which she’d been on a more or less constant stroke watch — my mother decided it best to move her back to Halifax and into Saint Vincent’s Guest House.
“With Nan,” said my mother, “it’s always a little more complicated. She likes to play head games, you know. And she likes to be in control.”
“She was using her Big Whisper Voice.” “And after getting me to give up my hair appointment for her?” My mother came down the stairs, her hand sliding along the banister. Framed on the walls around her were posters for productions of Deathtrap, Chapter Two, and other plays she’d acted in. “Imagine,” she said. “Thinking you can get a hair appointment the week before Christmas. But you know Nan. It’s all about her hair. She’s on the phone, it’s about her hair. She’s opening a bottle of wine, it’s about her hair. She’s down at Emergency, it’s about her hair.” At the front door, my mother stooped to gather the day’s mail. “Maybe it’s better she’s not coming. I mean, Nan’s a wonderful woman. No, she is. Until that third drink. Third drink and she’s peeing on the floor.”
Standing up, my mother stared through a glass panel in the front door and considered the house under construction across the street. It was vertically composed, made with red cedar and solar panels, and very unfinished. Not only was it out of style with the street’s other houses, but its incompleteness — the lot disordered with backhoe tracks, cinder blocks, and twoby-fours — gave the place a raw, defective quality. “That mess of a house,” said my mother, with fresh awareness of nuisance.
My four sisters competed for clothes, friends, time in the bathroom, nights with the car. They competed to be heard.
“It just looks like shit. Bringing property values down, my God.”
There was, I should say, a For Sale sign on our house. For four years there’d been a For Sale sign on our house. Some eons earlier, my parents had divorced, only to reunify. But complications — familial and financial — persisted. The material takeaways were an enormous short-term debt and my mother’s wish to move to a smaller, cheaper house. But to avoid further tribulation, she wasn’t going to buy until she sold. “I wake up in the middle of the night,” she said, sorting through the mail, “and I have visions of that For Sale sign blowing in the wind for the next twenty years. By then, the roof’s fallen in, the windows broken. No one’s buying houses right now. No one.” Turning from the front door, she said, “Did Carolyn show up with the salmon? Ditsy, where are you?”
My sister Katie lay watching television in the living room, her head somewhat acutely propped up by a baseboard, her feet in striped toe socks. Katie was fourteen, but a very young fourteen, and, unlike my sister Faith, who at fifteen was drinking and dating her way through multiple social circles, Katie dwelled in a protracted teenybopperdom. She was slim, quick, “coltish,” as the heroines were described in the YA books she daily demolished, and for the past months, she’d been trying out a series of obsessions. Her latest fascination had begun with my mother’s appearance in a revival of The Gingerbread Lady, continued through repeated viewings of The Sunshine Boys, and had recently resulted in her commitment to a dialect I’ll call Generic New York Wisecrack. Which is why, when my mother took a step into the living room, Katie, without shifting her gaze from the television, simply said, “Hey, Ma. Dinner’s when?”
“Guests are invited for seven. Kids can eat any time. Did Itsy bring the salmon?” “She went to the cat clinic.”
“Cat clinic, bird clinic. Who am I — Marcus Welby?”
“Ditsy? Enough.” My mother crossed to the television and was about to switch it off when she recognized someone onscreen. “Is that Walter Matthau? Christ, he’s looking old. Katherine Mckee” — my mother faced Katie — “look at me. Where’d she put it? The kitchen or the basement fridge?”
“I’m fourteen years old! I should know where the fish is?” “The salmon, Ditsy.”
“Fish, salmon. You’re going to nitpick?” Katie rolled onto her stomach. “Adults get salmon. Kids get what?”
Katie nodded, judicious. “Is the shepherd fresh?”
“Ditsy” — my mother shook her head — “I forbid you to watch any more Neil Simon. You’re cut off. Did she drop it off or not?” “Yes. Kitchen fridge.”
My mother flipped the mail on a hall radiator and returned to the stairs. “I’m going to get dressed. If Nan calls again, Ditsy, let me know.”
Getting up to press rewind, Katie shrugged. “The thing about salmon,” she said to herself. “It’s not funny. Pickerel. Pickerel is funny. Kippers is funny. But salmon?”
Not four seconds later, the front door swung open and my father entered the house carrying a box of Perrier. Plastic bags containing bottles of wine were hanging from his wrists and a red Twizzler licorice dangled from his mouth. Without taking off his shoes, he carried his purchases to the kitchen and eased them onto the kitchen table. “Bitsy, Ditsy?” he said. “Which one are you? Could one of you crap-artist kids help with the groceries?”
Katie came to the doorsill and looked in. “Out of left field it comes running with the craziest questions.”
“Christ,” said my father, tripping over an empty milk carton. “Could we have one day in this house when there isn’t an open garbage bag on the floor?” He glanced at Katie. “Peanut? Go find your mother. She’s got a dozen people coming over for dinner.” “Find her yourself. She’s upstairs.” My mother, now wearing a full slip over tea-stained sweatpants, appeared at the stair top and gazed down at my father with — what would be called in the stage directions — an amused air of distant suspicion.
“There she is,” said my father, beaming. “Look at you twisting your hair, you get more and more beautiful every day. How about some kisses?”
“Did you remember the Campari?” “Campari? Who drinks Campari?”
“I don’t drink it, genius. But your esteemed colleague Roz Weinfeld, newly appointed to the bench, drinks it, and she’s the reason we’re having this dinner. Remember? It was the one thing I asked you to get.”
My father considered this with narrowing eyes, the Twizzler dangling from his lips. “All right, Little Miss Mums.” He shifted the licorice to the other side of his mouth, like a backroom bookie rearranging a cigar. “Make a list and we’ll get Baby-boy to get it. Because, God knows, whatever Mumsy needs, Mumsy gets.”
“It’s whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.” The line in question was from the musical Damn Yankees and, for my parents, another instalment in a never-ending game of name-that-quote. Both had strutted and fretted some time upon the stage and had within their imaginations a number of dramatic parts. So the evening might see variations on Elyot and Amanda, Nathan and Adelaide, George and Martha. My parents moved within a series of personas, but to what extent they were using these personas and to what extent the personas were using them was not always easy to establish.
“Some days I hate that goddamn law firm,” said my mother, musing. “Do you ever wonder what it’s done to us?”
“As fun as that sounds, Mumsy, wondering what might’ve been, do you mind terribly if we stick to the here and now? You might want to get dressed.”
“Oh, Mckee. You’ve lost the plot. You’ve lost the plot, kid.”
“Sure, sure,” said my father. “You contain multitudes, Mums. Now would you mind containing dinner?” He smiled again. “And I better get some kisses around here or there’s going to be real trouble.”
Just then, Katie bumped open the front door and traipsed in with four bags of groceries. As she moved past my father, he snatched at her shirttail. “When I met her,
She was incomprehensible— a possible narcissist, a perpetual actress, a charmer, a drinker, a Fury.
Ditsy, she was nothing. She had half a degree and two dirty jokes.”
“Dad! Don’t stretch my shirt! And that lady called you back.”
“Just a second, Peanut. I’m trying to tell you something about your horrible mother.”
My mother arrived at the bottom of the stairs and, pushing shut the front door, said to him, “Quit terrorizing the children, would you, darling?” Ambling into the kitchen, she whispered over her shoulder, “And fuck the firm.”
“You’re a terrible person.” He was staring at her as if this remark were perhaps the absolute zenith of her irrationality. “You’re a terrible person.”
“Honestly, Stewart. Why do you talk? Why do you even open your mouth? Some lawyer.” She opened the refrigerator and searched for the rumoured salmon. “You want to tell me where you’ve been the last hour? The Halifax Club?”
“For your information, I was taking discovery on a case.”
My mother whirled around. “Stewart. Tell me it’s not Gregor Burr.”
“Well,” said my father in a more decorous tone, “I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”
“Gregor Burr?” She sighed. “I personally can’t stand him. What kind of guy who, when he’s elected Member of Parliament, starts messing around with teenagers? He’s a goddamn sleaze. And such a tendentious son of a bitch. He could be a role model for the youth of this province, and instead, he’s assaulting high-school girls in the stairwell of the Lord Nelson Hotel. Why can’t he go to a prostitute like a normal person?”
“Do you hear what you’re saying?” “Don’t give me that rise-above-it bullshit. Why are you always defending the bad guy?”
“That’s yet to be determined, my dear.” “That’s not what I heard.”
“And what did you hear, Mary-margaret Wheeler, pray tell?”
“Well, asshole, what I heard was a different story. Like the city hasn’t heard adifferent story.”
“That’s enough of this talk, thank you.” “Oh, I’m not allowed to say anything?”
“No, you can say whatever you like. You can print it in the paper, if you like. But if the people you describe take your remarks to be defamatory, you may be forced to prove what you allege in a court of law.” My mother tilted her head, unimpressed. “This isn’t all my doing, Mums. It’s just we have something here called the rule of law — ”
“I’m familiar with the fucking rule of law, Stewart. I’m also familiar with this man’s history. He stuck his tongue down Caitlyn Jessup’s throat. Marge Mclean, he pinned her up against a car in the Sobeys parking lot. Marge Mclean! I mean, how drunk do you have to be? And Bev Noonan, hemuckled onto her at the bar convention, lifting up her dress at the coat check. And God knows how many more there are.”
“Those are not the sort of stories you want to repeat.”
“Why? Because they happen to be true? And from what I’ve heard about this teenager, he finally went too far. It’s tantamount to raping her.”
“Mackie — ”
“Well, what would you call it? The teenager said penetration, and the RCMP identified the semen on her skirt as his.” My mother looked at my father, severe. “Did he admit it?”
“I can’t repeat what’s said in camera. You know that.”
“Ian Pulsifer tells Connie — ”
“How would you know that?”
“She told me!”
“Exactly. Look, I can’t discuss the facts of a case with you. Or what a client says in discovery. You know I can’t. And that’s final.”
These arguments, sound as they may have been, did not have a wholly persuasive effect on my mother. “Listen,” she said. “I applaud Tiggy for standing by him but come on, Stewart. Everybody knows what this man’s like. Every single person in the Conservative Party knows what he’s like, and they’re all letting him get away with it. That’s what makes me so sick. It’s like with an alcoholic. They’re enablers. If someone doesn’t say, ‘No, this isn’t right,’ then who’s to stop him? He obviously can’t stop himself. But they won’t say anything, because everything’s going so well up in Ottawa right now. Yeah, well, stick around.” My mother saturated her next word with contempt. “Men. Puh. There ought to be a revolution.”
“I feel it’s underway.”
My mother glanced at my father before looking up toward what, in a theatre, would be the first row of the balcony. “When the hurly-burly’s done,” she said, “we’ll look back and wonder what we’ve done on this Earth. And what will we say? That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, Stewart. What’ll we say then?”
Before my father could answer, the doorbell rang.
Dodie Rumboldt was a sweet, dithery woman who dropped by our house for the flimsiest of reasons. She worried about everything and lived in a tizzy of worsening possibilities. My mother was loyal to her because they’d grown up next door to each other in Truro. “Dodie Rumboldt has wanted to be my best friend for fortysix years,” she said on her way to the door, seeing who it was. Dodie, A S elected Oral History: “She was always big, you know? I mean, big. I never knew her when she didn’t look like a tent coming toward you. And her wardrobe went purple for a while. She was one of those ladies in purple. Like you don’t know how much weight she’s gained because you’re distracted by all the purple? Let me tell you something. You’re not fooling the cheap seats. Then she got a boyfriend. Did wonders for her. She lost over a hundred and fifty pounds. Jogging with weights. Eating right. Looked great. But now? She’s gone too far. Can’t stop. Some thin. Scared skinny. She’s going to give herself a nervous breakdown. Well, her mother’s had terrible Alzheimer’s. Her mother’s in Saint Vincent’s on the third floor, just out of it. Not much fun having a mother whose memory’s gone. But Dodie and her father have been bricks. Visiting every day. Every day one of them’s gone to see her.”
The doorbell rang again. Composing her face into a smile, and with a very convincing demonstration of calm, my mother opened the door.
“It’s Dad,” said Dodie, putting a hand to her throat. “First it was his heart. Now it’s his hip. He fell doing the snow blower. They have him at the hospital, and I think they’re going to keep him overnight. You just never know if this one’s — ”
“Oh, Dodie,” said my mother. “His hip? I’m sure he’ll be fine. He’s had a replacement before, hasn’t he?”
Dodie nodded. “I could just feel something was going to happen this month. All month I could feel it. My mind’s just been racing. I mean, I know life’s what happens when you’re doing something else, but this?” She pressed her lips together. “I’ve been down at the hospital all afternoon. I just left.”
“Was he awake when you left? Were you able to talk to him?”
Dodie was nodding again when she spied Katie in the dining room. Katie had her hands full of silverware and was setting fourteen places for dinner. “Oh?” said Dodie. “Mackie, you have company coming. I should go.”
“Don’t be silly. Wouldn’t dream of it. You stay for supper.”
“But I’m not dressed for it.”
“We’ll find you something. You come talk to me. Ever peel a potato?”
“Well,” said Dodie, with a surprised giggle, as if this might be the third funniest thing she’s heard in her life. “I might’ve peeled one or two.”
And so the evening, for some minutes, advanced without further ruckus, my youngest sister setting the table, my father shaving in the upstairs bathroom, and me rising from the basement, while my mother sat Dodie down with a glass of white wine at the kitchen table. Which is where Dodie learned of my mother’s plans to poach a salmon in the dishwasher. “I have never heard of anything like that,” said Dodie, watching my mother drizzle two large fillets with white wine, lemon juice, and butter. “In tinfoil? On a wash cycle? Mackie, honestly, I’ve never.” Mymother, holding in buttery hands a bottle of Chardonnay, was pouring herself a glass of wine when the telephone jingled. She glanced into the dining room and with a look indicated that Katie should answer it. Katie walked to the kitchen and shyly picked up the receiver. “Hello?” After a moment, she covered the mouthpiece to say, “It’s the real estate lady again.” She held out the receiver to my mother, who was wiping her hands with a blue J-cloth. Which is when my father entered and, with a nimble two-step, filched the receiver from Katie’s fingers.
“What are you doing?” My mother turned to Dodie. “What is he doing?”
“Sh, Mumsy,” said my father. “Go have an olive.”
“An olive? Give me that phone.” My father turned his back to the room, effectively blocking all access to the telephone.
Deciding on another course of action, my mother grabbed her glass of wine and was on her way to the hall extension when my father, after several curt, somewhat inaudible, but mostly professional-sounding, instructions, replaced the receiver.
With glaring eyes, my mother reappeared. “What did she say? What did you tell her?” “There’s an offer.”
“The couple from Vermont?”
My father nodded.
“I knew it.”
“They made an offer this morning and — ” “What is it?”
“It expires tonight at six o’clock.” My mother glanced at the clock on the stovetop. It showed two minutes to six. “How much?”
“Well, I suggested — ”
“I don’t care what you suggested! I want to know what the offer is.”
“I said we’d only consider bids over three eighty.”
“You did not. You did not — ” She studied him. “Stewart, are you out of your mind? This house, need I remind you, has been on the market for four fucking years! We get one offer in four years, and you think you’re John Kenneth Galbraith? Call her back this instant. No — just — move. I’ll call her.”
“You will do nothing of the sort,” said my father, disconnecting the telephone.
From somewhere inside my mother burst a howl — a melismatic mixture of crying and laughter — and with a vicious spin of her wrist she flung her wineglass at the window. After it smashed against the windowsill, she stared at my father, livid. “Why would you do that without talking to
My grandmother drank. Liquor was a magic fundamental to her spirits.
me? When you know I’ve been out of my mind with worry. Why would you do that?”
“Mumsy, you’re behaving badly.” My father felt his neck, above his shirt collar, for shards of broken glass, then extended his hand toward Dodie, who was still sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes wide with panic. “Dodie, I’m sorry to say your friend’s gone berserk.”
“Stewart,” said my mother. “I have met some jackasses in my life — ”
“Beautiful, you love me. You wouldn’t change a thing.”
“I’ve got news for you” — in the back hall, my mother grabbed a ski jacket and guided her feet into two rubber boots — “if I had to live my life over again, I’d do it alone.”
“Performance to follow. Applause, applause. Fanfare, trumpets, exeunt omnes.”
“No. Just mine.” She raised her voice. “Aubrey! Get your coat — ”
“Because I’m leaving. I’ve had it. I’m through. My nerves can’t take it.”
“Sure, sure, Mums.”
“Stewart” — my mother’s voice weakened with a note of frailty — “why would you do that? Without talking to me? Why?”
My father reached for her hand. But she shuddered away from him, fiercely blinking her eyes, and marched into the hallway. “Don’t touch me!”
Silent on the stairs, Katie and I watched our mother zip up the ski jacket, yank open the front door, and charge outside into the sleet and snow.
To me she was incomprehensible — a possible narcissist, a perpetualactress, a charmer, a drinker, a Fury. “Your mother’s larger than life, kid,” my father would say. “She’s something else, a singular sensation, and one of the great unsolved mysteries of maritime history.” Mymother was twenty when she quit nursing and went into the theatre, and, very arguably, her life from that point became one long unfinished performance. She started as an ingenue of shaky self-esteem. Feelings of nervousness and shy defiance were useful for some roles — Miss Julie, Juliet, Ophelia — but further vitalities were needed. a few digressions: my mother holds the record for most appearances in productions at Neptune Theatre and ringing the walls of the administrative office on the second floor is a succession of her headshots. Not only do these form a year-by-year photographic biography of my mother but they also showcase a sort of folk history of commercial photography and period hairstyles. Around the time of her Medium Wavy Shag, she and my father divorced. During the years of their estrangement, many were the conversations among my sisters regarding how my parents’ nights were spent — wondering who got together with whom and for how long. “All Dad’s friends have crushes on Mom, you dink. Don’t you want to know who she was with?” I knew my mother cultivated friendships with Art College types, sculptors in cable-knit sweaters, potters with kerchiefs and mandolins, and she dwelled for a time in a Volkswagen van with a man named Elkin Duckworth. This was a New Brunswick actor, effeminately gay, the lead in a celebrated local production of Godspell, and afterward known to us as Jesus of Moncton. Their relationship, my mother maintained, was a love affair in all ways but sexual. She and Elkin took a cabaret to BAM , Strasberg on Fifteenth Street, and acid on Halloween, before he transmigrated to Laurel Canyon and she returned to take custody of my two younger sisters. From America, she arrived supercharged. She’d been radicalized. My mother lived less than three months in New York, but for the rest of her life, auditioning for roles in Halifax’s two-and-a-half professional stages, she rather carried herself as if she were only three steps away from walking onstage at the Lyceum Theatre in midtown Manhattan. The expectations of the Halifax audience were irrelevant now. In her
time away, she’d gained access to a more primordial emotional life. She’d learned to “go there,” to trade and traffic in her emotions, emotions all the more potent if she actually believed in them. And believe in them she did. There was conflict in her acting now, vulnerability alternating with impatient superiority, and the friction between the two sparked true frisson. She was celebrated. She was profiled. She acquired groupies. There was a dental hygienist — known to us as Stalker Don Walker — who did not miss an opening night in twenty-three years. (During my teeth cleanings, he had the somewhat exasperating habit of asking about my mother’s shows when his soap-scented fingers were far inside my mouth.) Donald’s companion was the Dartmouth actor Brandon Merrihew, known as Uncle Brandy. Onstage, he was Jimmy to my mother’s Evy, Sir Toby to her Maria, and offstage, he was her pal and drinksy confidante. Brandy was enamoured of, borderline obsessed with, my mother, and his holiday compliments were so effusive as to veer into a dementia of overflattery. His remarks after my mother’s turn in Streetcar: “There she is! Nothing really astounds me but you, Mary-margaret, you astound me. You confound me. You wear the crown for me. When I saw you onstage, I said to Donald, ‘There is magic in the world. That Mackie Mckee has done it again.’ No one can touch you, can they? Not then. Not now. Not ever. Really, Mackie. Hail to thee, blithe spirit.” Emotive disturbance and evidentiary emotionality — these were her new vitalities, but such Method did not belong to my father’s process. Societal and practical exigencies played their parts in my father’s flight from playhouse to courtroom, but he contained multitudes all his own. And he would learn it was not really in his professional interests to be emotionally open or emotionally uncontained. The practice of law, which was to be his calling and prevailing vocation, demanded he think first, strategize second, emote never. It actually took me years to figure out I was raised within these two mighty monarchies and, digressions done, now might be the time to check in with the subject that was me.
There in the moving car, beside my mother, very much in the passenger seat, sits the lurking figure that is Me at Nineteen. This Aubrey Mckee seems a faraway incarnation, a gorky kid beset with contradiction and compulsion and greatly incomplete. A growth spurt has sent me over six feet but left me awkward, pimply — I am known to my sisters as Treetop and Pizza Face — and my signature has not stabilized in years, the capital K of my surname lurching wildly ahead of the final two letters. As earlier explained, it is my tactic, in these Walpurgisnächten, to keep calm and follow the example of my oldest sister. For Carolyn is the sane sibling in a crisis, supremely self-controlled and largely aloof from family politics. So, as my mother fulminates, I suppress All Feeling and mutely stare at a softcover actor’s copy of Hedda Gabler, published by Dramatists Play Services, which has been left in the slush of the plastic floor liner.
“Why is he doing this?” My mother punches at the steering wheel. “A month ago, he was willing to drop the price to three fifty but now he wants to play tough guy? I would’ve offered three seventy-nine to let them know we’re willing to budge. No one knows. No one knows what I have to put up with. Do up your seat belt, please.” She checks the rear-view mirror and swings up Jubilee Road. “Your father acts like everything’s fine. This unfounded optimism he has, thinking everything’s going to work
out. Well, unless you take steps to make sure things work out, I want to tell you, they don’t. Do up your seat belt, Aubrey.”
I grab carelessly at the seat belt, but the retractor pulls it from my fingers, the metal latch smacking against the window. My mother does not appear to notice and seems only disposed to stare out the windshield. The evening, I feel, has become for her a primal assertion of self, and despite her questions, I do not think there is a part for me in her one-person show. I do up the seat belt and peer out the window. Fog is everywhere in the city, the falling snow has changed to wetting sleet, and my window reflection is smeared with moisture.
“We owe three hundred thousand dollars! I was always taught to live within your means. Your father spends it as soon as he gets it.” Speeding into the intersection with Oxford Street, she turns sharply left, our tires slipping sideways on the paint of the wet crosswalk. “I’m fifty years old. I’m too old to be in debt. I say drop the price and rent a place. I don’t care where we live. But your father wants the right address. Maybe he needs it to have the confidence to win cases but — Jesus — who’s this asshole?” My mother squints into the rear-view mirror, where the reflection of high beams from an upcoming vehicle has begun to blind her. “For the love of Pete.” She pulls over to allow this vehicle, an ambulance, to pass. After it has gone by, its rotating light flashing on my mother’s cheek, she checks over her shoulder and swerves back into the lane.
I am still studying my reflection in the rainy window, the Christmas lights of St. Thomas Aquinas shimmering outside, when somewhere in my memory shimmers a scene from four years before, when my family is split and I am wandering smashed on Kempt Road, and I see my father inside a brightly lit Harvey’s restaurant. He is alone at a booth, his table covered with case briefs, legal pads, an orange cheeseburger wrapper. As I teeter outside, a stranger exits the front doors, and with this airstream, the wrapper breezes off the table, but my father does not notice, so absorbed is he in his preparations. He has this day ninety-two files in various stages of discovery, development, and trial, and he seems so solitary, eating by himself at ten o’clock on a Friday night, when once we’d eaten together as a family, and Iconsider the ideals he once pursued — a life where his wife wasn’t running off, where his family life was secure, where he could manage everything through diligence and force of will — and I think to wave hello to him, impulsively, absurdly excessively, in a way we sometimes had, but as the doors reclose and within their glass my scruffy reflection appears, I am too ashamed to say hello and have him see me fall-down drunk — and all of this is getting close to the crux of my feelings of what-the-fuck powerlessness regarding my father and mother and sisters and me, and so, returning to the scene-in-progress, and sidebarring for amoment my instinct to punch a fist through the windshield, I twist in the car to ask where, exactly, we are going.
My mother sighs, sensing a change in my manner, and asks, “Do you have the list your father gave you?”
I say I left it at the house.
“Well — ” She rubs the bridge of her nose. “Can you remember what’s on it? The Campari, Gouda, the what-was-it?” She glances at me, irritated. “I don’t have time for one of your moods, Aubrey. If you’re going to be like this, I can stop the car and you can get out. In fact, here, I’ll do it myself.”
She spins the steering wheel, beginning a very unstable U-turn — which sends me into the armrest of the door — the car coming to a skidding stop on the other side of the street. She gets out, steps over a rainmelting snowbank, and slides toward a payphone beside the Oxford Theatre. As she inserts a quarter and dials, I become aware that her getup — ski jacket, full slip, sweatpants, rubber boots — is not quite suitable for public walkabout. I am thinking again of Evy from The Gingerbread Lady and her last-chance struggle with what she calls this “human being business” when my mother hangs up the phone, her face grim with new information. “It’s Nan.” She stands very still, the falling sleet fluorescent in the lights of the theatre marquee. “Saint Vincent’s called to ask if we picked her up.” She makes a fluttery sigh. “No one knows where she is.”
My mother lived the first years of her life in an orphanage. My grandmother had become pregnant before she and my grandfather were married, and the stigma of being an unwed mother, in those days, was such that she chose to give her first-born away. “It’s not as if she was a pregnant teenager,” my mother recalled later. “She was twenty- four, for Christ’s sake. But Nan grew up in the Depression. In that era, respectability was the most important thing. Respectability, security, appearances.” After my grandmother’s figure recovered, after she’d entered properly into wedlock, and after she’d given birth to a legitimate daughter, my grandfather prevailed upon her to repossess the first, and so my mother, at thirty-one months, rotated back into the Wheeler ménage. “Dompa loved Nan. But so did everybody else. So did half the city. And in those days, you didn’t get divorced. What you did was argue. And drink. Their marriage was like a lot from those years, I guess. And during the war, that was a party every night. Up at the Officer’s Club.” My grandmother drank. Liquor was a magic fundamental to her spirits. Dipsomania was everywhere in the years of my childhood, in all waters, someone or another was always sloshing toward the end of the line, and you learned from an early age not to take it personally. At family dinners, you’d see her sneak away from the table and totter into a hallway, only to later rejoin the room, talkative, flirtsome, hilarious. She was then at ease with herself, and her various energies expressed themselves in sweetness and light and contagious unpredictability. She let you operate the electric ice crusher for her crème de menthes. She sent you a cheque on Labour Day. She grabbed your hand and sang high harmony on “Happy Birthday.” But over the years, there was a gradual running down, and aspects of her behaviour — the monomania, the suggestion of paranoid self-involvement, a drift toward delusion — seemed to darken every scene and family occasion. My father, whose preference was to speak well of everyone, conceded that his mother-in-law had become “a bit of a loose puck.”
“After Dompa died,” my mother explained, “things took a turn.” My grandmother became quite close with a widower in Tampa, but when he couldn’t commit, she focused her attentions — briefly — on a tennis instructor, after which she made a move to Bermuda. “You should’ve seen her in Bermuda! Now Nan’s a good-looking woman — big bosom, long legs — but there are age-appropriate clothes, you know? Your father and I arrive in Bermuda and here’s Nan tricked out like a Vegas showgirl. Seventy-three years old in hot pants and
a lace-up tube top with matching headband?” My grandmother’s bachelorette adventures resulted in some confusion and real infirmity, so she’d been relocated, not without protest, to Halifax. “Here’s the thing with Nan. All she wants is a man. She doesn’t care what kind. She just wants someone to make her feel special. Well, her parents spoiled her. Her husband spoiled her. Her boyfriends spoiled her. But when there’s no one left to spoil her, what’s she going to do then?”
When we arrived at Saint Vincent’s, the ambulance that had passed us was flashing in the parking lot, a paramedic loading through its back doors someone strapped to a wheeling stretcher. “Good God,” said my mother, as the ambulance rolled on to Windsor Street, its siren sounding. “Who do you suppose it is?” My mother walked across the yellow painted lines of the parking lot, her face set in a pensive frown, as if there were two or three plot twists still to be endured. Inside, we moved into the hallway, past the reception desk, and there, at the end of the hall, as if only a few beats behind cue, my grandmother appeared, frail and quivery and checking behind her, as though persecution might arise from some new quarter. Summoning her strength, she began to walk very evenly, with chin held high and a frozen smile — the expression of a visiting head of state — and she stared at a point in the hallway ahead of a heavy-set elderly woman in a Lindsay tartan dress. Though I vaguely recalled this second resident as a family acquaintance, I saw that, for the moment, my grandmother was choosing not to favour her with recognition.
My mother, sensing something very unfinished about this interaction, but reassured to see my grandmother among the quick, was about to greet both women when my grandmother — spotting my mother — stumbled for her and grabbed her hand, as if on the verge of complete collapse.
“Oh Mackie,” she said, her voice shaking. “There’s been the most horrible accident.” She took a stagey sort of breath. “It’s Dolly Hollibone. We were coming out of the service and this little boy came roaring around the corner — some people here don’t care who their children knock into — well this boy banged right into Dolly and her glasses went flying and she fell and — crack — she’s broken her wrist. The ambulance just came and took her away.”
My mother, while listening closely, was also noting my grandmother’s slightly overdone appearance. Her bouffant curls and blond highlights had been newly maintained, and she was wearing hoop earrings, burgundy lipstick, a low- cut burgundy dress, and matching slingback high heels. “You look awfully nice, Mum. What service was it? I see you got your hair done.”
“This? Same thing I always do.” My grandmother sniffed. “It just breaks your heart. Here she was, all set to go to her granddaughter’s concert, and Dolly ends up being taken to the hospital!”
My mother nodded and asked, “Was that Elsy Horne in the tartan dress?”
“Life’s full of surprises, I suppose,” said my grandmother, her face twitching with worry. “But my God, that could have happened to anybody.”
As my grandmother talked, without particularly deciding to, we’d travelled down the hall toward the elevators. Stepping into the nearest car, my grandmother resumed her earlier, imperious manner, and I saw she was performing in her imagination an entirely different drama from many of Saint Vincent’s other residents, one of whom, in an inside- out turtleneck
sweater, shuffled toward us looking fully bewildered.
“He lives in the Twilight Zone, that one.” My grandmother pushed at the close-door button. “Sometimes you can get a straight answer out of him. Other times? Jabberwock.” She shook off a shiver. “And homely? Imagine having to kiss that every night.”
Taped inside the elevator was a variety of colour photocopies. These announced Jazzercise sessions, Christmas carolling, prayer groups. I was reading a bulletin about a memorial service when my grandmother said, “That’s what Dolly dragged me to this afternoon. I didn’t mind going to funerals when they only happened once in a while. But this place?” She made a pained smile, as if there were further details to be divulged. “And do you know what hymn they chose? Mackie, you won’t believe what hymn they chose. ‘They whipped and they stripped and they hung me high and they left me there on a cross to die.’” She smirked at us, as if her own dismay had just been wonderfully validated. “I mean, it’s the tackiest, most godawful hymn you can imagine. For a funeral?”
My grandmother sat at her dressing table reapplying her mascara, the table surface busy with poinsettias, an eyelash curler, a slim rouge brush, a silver hand mirror, a square-bottomed decanter of bourbon, two cut-glass tumblers, an unopened box of Thank You notes, and, in a pine frame, a photograph of my grandfather, the print so dislodged most of the image was lost within its matting. A smell of floral perfume pervaded the environment, seemingly drenched into everything from the padded coat hangers in the closet to the embroidered linen doilies on the dressing table to the white lace collar of my grandmother’s burgundy dress. A television in another resident’s room was loudly tuned at the moment to a Christmas special where a tenor was quavering through “O Holy Night.”
“I used to know the name of that song,” said my grandmother. “Is that Andy Williams?”
My mother, after a brief frown — for my grandmother’s failure to remember afavourite Christmas carol was another of the day’s mysteries — sat on the bed and, following a moment of private deliberation, gaily leaned into the room. “So, my dear, how are things in Glocca Morra?”
“Well,” said my grandmother. “Seventyfour isn’t sixty-four, I want to tell you. I’ve got three more years and then my looks are really going to go.” She reached for the decanter of bourbon and, with a slight palsy in her right hand, poured herself a drink. “Now normally I wouldn’t take a drop of hard liquor — ”
“No,” said my mother. “Just a fortyouncer.”
“But my nerves today are shot. Put everyone in such a state, what happened to Dolly.” She raised the glass, a bit erratically, spilling a dewdrop on her wrist. “Cheers, my dears.”
For the past few minutes, my grandmother had affected a mood of playful detachment, but, as she smiled and oversniffed some moisture in a clogged nostril, the rest of the room began to sense the mood’s essential falsity. My mother was about to say something, probably to inquire after Saint Vincent’s reasons for thinking my grandmother missing, when footsteps approached in the hallway.
My grandmother turned and directed a radiant smile toward the doorway. When this visitor, an elderly lady in bifocals, hobbled past, it was clear this was not who my grandmother was expecting and she reacted with a series of micro-expressions —
a spasm of annoyance, a flinch of pain, and, finally, a slow-building pout, as if she were concerned a conspiracy was being somewhere set up against her.
“Who’s that?” asked my mother. “Joyce,” my grandmother replied, firmly, clutching her glass of bourbon. “Her daughter, Mary-lou, she sings with St. Martin’sin-the-fields. She won a Bafty — she won a Bafter — she won an award. Her mother’s a Morrow. Well” — my grandmother inclined her head — “was. All the old families are gone. The Mairs, the Morrows. They hardly exist anymore. Oh, people used to care about each other. But it’s all segmented now.”
“Who are you kidding? You never cared about anybody. You couldn’t wait to get away.”
“Well,” said my grandmother, bitter. “I still can’t.” She stared at her jewelled wristwatch as if she feared it might be broken. “I’ve got to get out of this place. I’ve got to.”
“And go where? Back to Florida?”
“How am I going to do that? I have no money.”
“What about Dompa’s pension?”
“Ha! I drank that away.”
“Well,” said my mother, reaching for something on the floor. “As long as it didn’t go to waste.” She picked up a fold of toilet paper. It was vivid with a smear of lipstick where someone had blotted their lips. “You’re looking pretty good, Mum, for someone who’s supposed to be sick — ” “I called to say I wasn’t coming.”
“So why get your hair done?”
“For the — the service.”
“Mmm-hmm. This is the real world. The one I have to live in. Hoop earrings and high heels? For a funeral? Something’s going on.”
Nan’s attention was drawn again to the doorway, where a looming shadow preceded the appearance of the woman in the Lindsay tartan dress. For some minutes, this woman had been lurking like Hamlet’s ghost — a rather portly, slow-moving Hamlet’s ghost — and she now looked in and fixed my grandmother with a distasteful, vindictive stare.
“She’s always got something up her skirt, that one,” whispered my grandmother, going to the door. “Making a big to-do. I’d just as soon trip her.”
A few murmurs passed between the two women before my grandmother carelessly swung the door shut.
“That was Elsy Horne,” said my mother. “Dodie’s godmother. What’d she want?”
“I have no idea.” My grandmother flipped her hair. “The Catholics, they’re always ganging up on people. Thinking their way is the best because it’s the oldest. Well, let me tell you, I was in Rome once and I’m so glad I’m not Catholic. All that blood.”
“What’d you say to her? Because you said something.”
“I don’t know,” said my grandmother, reaching for the decanter of bourbon. “Go screw yourself and your dispensation from the Pope.” She refilled her glass. “Oh, she gives me the pip, that Elsy Horne.”
My mother was frowning. It was the day’s starkest frown, a sort of intricacy of thoughtfulness, but in another moment, all frowns would vanish as the pieces of the play for her came together. “Oh, Mum.” She stared at my grandmother with real helplessness. “You did not. Tell me you didn’t. Tell me you’re not carrying on with Dodie’s father.”
Moisture came unbidden to my grandmother’s eyelids. Another commotion of expressions began to form in her face but none really seemed to take. It was all somehow terrible to see.
“That’s who you were expecting? But he didn’t come today, did he?” My mother rose off the bed. “Mother. Look at me. His wife’s upstairs. She’s right upstairs. What in the name of God were you thinking?”
My grandmother was staring at us, but staring without any recognition. Attempting to speak, her mouth began to form words but no sounds were coming out and instead she made a simpering, crooked smile. Pushing on the dressing table, she suddenly started out of her chair, went over on a high heel, and toppled to the floor. She lay where she’d fallen, shivering.
My mother knelt beside her and felt for a pulse. At this touch, my grandmother screamed, as if she’d been stabbed with a letter-opener, and clutched at the foot of the dressing table. There was real madness in her eyes, a sort of feral cunning that showed no idea but resistance.
“Aubrey” — my mother stood up — “I’m going to tell the duty nurse to call a doctor. Stay with Nan. And” — she looked at my grandmother’s wristwatch — “it’s six forty. Remember that time.” She opened the door and fled in rubber boots down the hall.
My grandmother’s face was pale beneath smears of rouge, her eyes gleaming with tears, her lower lip dribbling a gossamer line of phlegm. I was aware of a smell of raw urine — there was a dampening in her burgundy dress — and when I got down beside her, she made me understand she wished to be taken to the bathroom. We rose to a hunchbacked, standing position, and Iguided her to the bathroom, her hand feebly shooting for and grabbing the diagonal safety bar on the wall beside the toilet. After a few side-to-side leveraging movements, I was able to remove from the crumples of her dress and pantyhose her incontinence pad, the absorbent lining of which was thoroughly soaked through. She pulled up her dress, established herself on the toilet, and waved me out of the room. I closed the bathroom door and went to the hallway, wiping my hands on my jeans. I scanned the hall. Seeing no one, and mindful of my mother’s direction to stay put, I went back and opened the bathroom door, startled to see my grandmother sitting naked on the floor beside the toilet, a moist bit of feces mysteriously balanced in the groove of her collarbone. The burgundy dress, pantyhose, foam-cupped brassiere, and high heels were discarded on the tile floor. She sat stricken with fright, vulnerability, and — what was worse — an absolute confusion as to where she was and what was happening. Which was when my mother returned. Flicking the dirt from my grandmother’s shoulder, she said, “Let’s get you to the bed, Mum.” I helped heave my grandmother off the floor. A flush of sweat had risen all over her, making her skin slippery, and I dug my fingers tightly into the wattles of her underarm to make sure she didn’t slide away from us. We staggered across the room and bumpily lowered her to the bed.
Scarcely conscious, making no effort to conceal her nakedness, my grandmother sprawled on the bedspread, a hoop earring bending under her cheek.
“Aubrey,” said my mother, watching her. “Go see what’s taking so long.”
My sprinting steps in the hall overlapped with a second shriek from my grandmother and, swivelling around, I saw, framed in the proscenium of the doorway, both women lying on the bed, my mother looking alertly into my grandmother’s eyes. “You be strong, Mum. Doctor’s coming any minute. You squeeze my hand. Just like that. That’s it. You hold on now. I’m right here.”