After my mother moved out, the general view in town was that she was nuts. Not chemically imbalanced, but reckless, shameless, impulsive. A woman possessed of an overly high opinion of herself. Why else would she have left a kind, handsome man with a good job like Jim McLaren? And those poor girls.
How did I know what the gossips in town thought? Because many of them told me. It’s amazing the things grown-ups will say to children of divorce. The stone was cast by Mrs. Oliver, the blind Christian housewife whose house we went to for lunch after Mum started her job at the local newspaper.
“Your mother has a lot to answer for,” Mrs. Oliver said to me one day as I sat at her kitchen table spooning the remnants of cold pea soup into my juice glass—an ingenious food disposal method if you ever happen to find yourself with a visually impaired babysitter.
“What?” I said, then corrected myself. Mrs. Oliver was a stickler for manners. “Pardon me?”
“I said your mother has a lot to answer for. For breaking her vows. It sets a bad example for you girls.”
Mrs. Oliver regarded me with her blank glass eyes.
“You’re a big girl now, Leah. I trust you’ll make better choices for yourself.”
She was sidestepping my question. I was beginning to notice this was something grown-ups often did. My mother might have a lot to answer for, but if I asked her a question, at least she answered it.
“Mind you take care of your father. He’s a good man.”
There were so many surprises in Mrs. Oliver’s little speech I could barely take them all in. First was the revelation that, by splitting up with Dad, my mother had broken some kind of sacred covenant. The idea that there might be an actual penalty involved filled me with worry. What Mrs. Oliver seemed to be implying was that a punishment would be levied upon Mum socially, possibly even in the eyes of God. This I knew for sure because everything that Mrs. Oliver said, every story she told or comment she made, eventually circled back to God.
My gaze drifted over to my younger sister Meg, who sat at the other end of the table twirling her hair. I caught her eye and winked.
“Thank you so much for lunch, Mrs. Oliver. The soup was delicious. Would you like me to clear the table?”
“Yes, please, dear. You’re very welcome,” she said, a smile blooming on her face.
“My pleasure, Mrs. O.”
Meg grinned and bounced in her seat, swinging her legs under the table. “May we please be excused?”
“Of course, girls.”
Mrs. O accompanied us to the hallway and stood as we pulled on our coats and boots. Just as we were leaving, I poked out my tongue and waved both my middle fingers in her face. Meg stuffed a mitten in her mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
In the years after the divorce, my mother moved constantly, frenetically, from rental to rental, crisscrossing the town of Cobourg, Ontario. Dad sold the house on Hamilton Avenue and moved to a bungalow on the other side of town that my parents had bought years before as an investment property. They divided the money equitably without argument, but for some reason Mum was always broke. My sister and I changed primary schools three times in a town three miles wide. Her last house is where we stayed longest, almost a year, a white stucco Victorian miller’s cottage overlooking Pratt’s Pond on the north edge of town. The plan was that my sister and I would take the bus to school and back, but in the end we almost always missed it and did the half-hour walk each way at a jog, lunch boxes rattling in our school bags, through the snowy, muddy woods behind the courthouse, over the town creek and across the highway past the Baskin-Robbins and into the suburb on the west side of town.
Since becoming a general reporter for the Cobourg Daily Star, Mum had gone from being an aloof, bookish housewife to expert village gossip. In those years, Mum could inform you who’d won the pumpkin-growing contest at the Roseneath fall fair, which kids on the Junior A hockey team were out for the season with concussions, and whose dad was recently convicted of domestic assault. A couple of times a week she slept with a police scanner beside her jewellery box on her old pine dresser; the device crackled and bleated through the night. If there was a four-alarm fire or a six-car pileup, she’d pull on her ski jacket, and slip out without waking us.
I learned how to use a can opener and heat soup on the stove for dinner. In the morning, if Mum wasn’t around, I packed our lunches and made sure Meg brushed her teeth before school.
The cottage at Pratt’s Pond had character, Mum said, which meant it had a fireplace and hardwood floors and roses that climbed the half-rotted trellis beside the door. Character also meant there were mouse droppings in the cutlery drawer, peeling paint and limited hot water. In the winter, frost formed inside our bedroom windows and an arctic chill whistled down the chimney and snuffed out the fire, filling the room with soot. The living room rug was singed from sparks. Fire screens were another thing Mum didn’t believe in.
I wasn’t sure what my mother did believe in apart from Penguin classics and Mozart, but the list of things in which she did not was growing longer by the day: curtains; carpeting; having more than one television; saltshakers; houseplants; books with bumpy covers; radio stations that weren’t CBC or Classical FM; chicken balls; sugared cereal; sentimental greeting cards; hand washing after peeing or before eating; air-conditioning; scented lotions; houses without bookshelves; piano lessons; people who went for a drive instead of a walk; taking escalators or elevators when stairs were an option; chiming doorbells; anything that was just for guests; Highland dancing; Brownies and Girl Guides. My sister was dismayingly committed to the latter. At Meg’s flying-up ceremony, we stood at the back. As the rest of the parents made tearful home videos on their camcorders, Mum made me giggle by whispering that the whole thing was in fact a colonial cult.
I liked the cottage at Pratt’s Pond apart from the fact it was constantly freezing. Even in winter, the thermostat was fixed at 15 degrees Celsius. I learned not to complain; there was no point. I developed an after-school routine that involved coming into the house, taking off my snowsuit, then changing immediately into a series of layers: leotards under jogging pants and socks and an itchy Irish knit sweater over a turtleneck and sweatshirt. I slept in a ski toque. In the mornings, I stayed under the covers as long as possible.
Meg and I got home from school around four, but Mum didn’t get off work until six or seven, often much later. I’d turn up the heat to 20 degrees and often forget, which would make Mum irate when she returned, exhausted from a long reporting shift at the paper.
“If we’re not careful, we’ll have to move again,” she’d threaten. “We can’t afford to live in a steam bath. I’m not rich like your father.”
Dad wasn’t rich, not by a long shot. The point was that he made more money than Mum, which was why at his house we had babysitters. At the age of 11, I was still unable to distinguish my mother’s facts from her fantasies. The facts were mostly complaints, ruminations: she was poor (but with panache!), she hated her job (though she also loved it), she wanted a boyfriend (but commitment sucks the life right out of you). The fantasies were harder to grasp.
When she was home, we’d sit up late talking even if I had school the next day. She didn’t believe in bedtimes.
“Ugh, I’m sick of this town, aren’t you?” she’d say, pouring herself a J&B on the rocks. I’d agree uncertainly.
“Maybe we should just move to Provence?” she’d add.
Many nights we’d sit in front of the fire reading our books or talking about our future life in the South of France—Avignon or Antibes? (It seems clear now she must have been reading Peter Mayle)—while my sister slept under the coffee table or wedged in the space between the wall and the love seat. We thought it was hilarious how Meg fell asleep in situ. Mum and I had a running list of all the weird places my sister had slept half the night: flung over the arm of a chair. On the upstairs landing. Under the kitchen table. In the empty bathtub. In a cupboard with her stuffed pig, Hamlet. Around 10 o’clock we’d rouse her for the zombie shuffle up to bed. After that, we’d continue talking of France.
“But what will we do in Provence?” I’d wonder.
“Whatever we want!” Mum would say. “But mostly write and paint. The quality of light is unparalleled. We’ll ride around on our bicycles and eat baguettes and unpasteurized cheese, which is so delicious, it’s illegal in Canada.”
“Won’t we have to speak French?”
“We already do!”
“Seriously, Mum, where would I go to school?”
Mum would give an exasperated laugh and sweep her hand through the air in a dismissive zigzag motion. “It wouldn’t matter. Don’t you see? We’d be poor with panache.”
The South of France, Mum assured me, was the best place for creative souls like us. We talked about it all the time, and the more seriously we discussed it, the more anxious I became.
“But what would you do for a job?”
“I’d go freelance. Write a roman à clef about my divorce, like Nora Ephron.”
“Thinly veiled fiction.”
“So, like, a novel?”
“Please stop saying ‘like,’ Leah. You sound like a Valley Girl.”
“Somebody would pay you to do that?”
“To write a book about your life?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Can we please just read?”
Since the divorce I’d become increasingly concerned about my mother’s finances. Even though she worked all the time and got support from my dad, we could never afford anything. She was always saying we’d have to go live in a cinder block, by which she meant one of the grim pebble-dash high-rises in the social-housing project on the north end of Division Street, inexplicably known as the “depot.”
“You can’t imagine how ashamed I was,” she’d often sigh, remembering the initial rupture. “All I took was three plates, three forks, three knives, three spoons, three juice glasses—just three of everything for me and you girls. From my own kitchen. That’s how awful I felt for leaving your father.”
My mother was no longer guilt-ridden; she was rueful. By this time, my father had sold the place on Hamilton and moved in with his new girlfriend, Diane, a special-ed teacher with no children of her own. She was quiet and shy, fastidiously tidy—the opposite of Mum. She had a collection of vintage Barbies she let me and my sister play with so long as we folded up all the clothes before returning them to their correct cases. Dad and Diane bought a new house, a Victorian right on the park with seven bedrooms and a wraparound porch. After the split, the single women in town put on lipstick and got in line, my mother said. It was so much easier for men to move on after divorce, especially men like my dad. It’s true people seemed to like my father—not just women but pretty much everyone. He fit seamlessly in Cobourg. My mother and I were the odd girls out: bookish, prickly, overly opinionated. People like us weren’t meant for a small Ontario town, she said.
Night after night, we returned to the subject of our imagined life in Provence. We’d be penniless, but it wouldn’t matter, because it was warm all year round in the South of France. My mother wouldn’t be stuck in this dreary backwater, wasting her talent filing reports on the last meeting of the board of education. I’d learn French in five seconds flat because I was so clever. Every morning, I’d bicycle to school in a cotton sundress after breakfasting on a baguette and Époisses.
“When would we see Dad?”
Mum rolled her eyes. “Obviously, your father would come to visit.”
“I can’t really imagine Dad in Provence.”
Mum burst out laughing as if I’d just made a witty joke. “Oh, Leah, nor can I.”
What I’d meant to say is that I couldn’t imagine Provence at all.