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Collection Recap: "Middle Age Spread" (1996-97)

The cover shows Elly stretching between the ringing telephone and Mike’s university brochure. Next to the telephone is April, a dead goldfish (Fred, say it ain’t so!) floating in her fishbowl, while Edgar and Mr B look on.

 

Recurring characters introduced:

  • Ned Tanner and the disembodied hand
  • Paul Mayes, Gord and Tracey’s son (weighing 7 pounds, 9 ounces and named for Gord’s grandfather)

 Incidental characters:

  • Sally, aged 21, the girl from John’s clinic who babysits Liz and April when John and Elly drive to Florida (note: Sally has Lips of Loveliness™)
  • Frank, Sally’s boyfriend and, later, Anthony’s friend
  • Farrah, a classmate of Mike’s
  • Elly’s Uncle Jay and Aunt Molly, her mother’s sisters from Vancouver Island; Elly’s cousin Ron, his wife Cheryl and their kids Jaime and Grant (Elly incorrectly says that Jaime and Grant are her niece and nephew once removed and that they are April’s cousins once removed – Jaime and Grant are Elly’s first cousins once removed and April’s second cousins) – and their cat Romeo
  • Dr Stanley, who performs the triple bypass on Marian
  • Jean-Marc, the handsome driving examiner Liz meets – her guess is that he has to be about 25, with sensational eyes, no wedding ring, he exercises a lot, must be a singer because of his voice, and definitely from Quebec.
  • Mr Rose, April’s Grade 1 teacher

Biographical information:

  • at the beginning of this collection, April is 6 and Mike and Lawrence are 21; Liz turns 16 during the collection but no one else has a birthday, although John mentions that his 50th is coming up in a few months
  • Elly tells Gord and Tracey to call her and John by their first names from now on.
  • Duncan says that his ancestors came from Barbados
  • Elly puts love notes in John’s packed lunches
  • April has two fish – Spot and Goldie – and three turtles – Tom, Dick and Harry – as well as Mr B and Eddie, but she also wants a cat
  • Weed’s dad wishes that he had hair and his sister, a nurse, is happily married
  • Anthony is slightly older than Elizabeth as, at some point in the spring, he says he’ll be 16 in a few days and she replies that she’ll be 16 in June (later clarified as the 28th). Candace is older as she got her licence before Easter.
  • the Pattersons buy Elly a central vacuum for Mother’s Day
  • Becky has a female cousin who’s 18 and married
  • Phil and Georgia have moved at some point between “That’s Not How They Do It on TV!” and this collection, as they previously bought a house somewhere in Milborough or the general vicinity, but are now a five-hour drive away
  • Jim met Marian during the war, when he was 21 and she was 19
  • April loses her first tooth
  • Becky McGuire’s mother is named Karen and the McGuires have a parakeet, a hamster and two newts
  • Lawrence’s partner, Ben, is offered a scholarship at Le Conservatoire in Paris; Lawrence feels unable to hold him back (this entire episode is covered by Lawrence discussing it with Mike – we never see Ben or any of the conversations between Lawrence and Ben about what is going to happen)
  • Lilliput’s bookstore isn’t doing as well since “Bonus Books” opened at the mall
  • Liz’s high school is shown to be R. P. Boire Senior Secondary School
  • Brian (unseen) has gone to university in Japan
  • John and Elly discuss the stress Mike faces at university and John says that he remembers it being the same and yet they survived – Elly corrects him to say that he survived, while she left university when they got married and stayed home, had babies and typed essays to pay the bills
  • Anthony mentions his uncle who has a comb-over made from about a dozen long hairs (could this be the guy who has the tuxedo rental place?!)

Liz starts 1997 by getting contact lenses and a short, bobbed haircut. When Anthony, other classmates and even teachers compliment her on her new look, she does wonder what everyone thought of her before. Anthony tells Liz that she looks sophisticated and beautiful, then locks himself in a toilet stall to curse how stupid he must have appeared (note: in a heart on the bathroom wall are the initials TR & LR [Lynn Ridgway?] repeated in several panels). Dawn, having ditched her black overalls for plaid ones, tells Liz to invite Anthony along to the Lucky Clucker and a movie. Anthony and Liz reminisce about their relationship two years earlier, back when they were kids, and Anthony points out that they’re more mature now, and it’s not like puppy love anymore. The next day Liz gives Dawn a full play-by-play of the date and wonders if this is what love is really like.

Deanna is introduced to Mrs Dingle and sees how Mike and Weed live for the first time. She prefers the relative privacy of residence, where a nosy landlady isn’t listening outside doors. Mike explains that Mrs Dingle was a war bride who came to Canada aged 18, worked as a seamstress, lost two children to polio and now, widowed and with her only surviving child living in Ohio, rents rooms in her house to students; yet somehow, after telling this to Deanna, Mike adds that he can’t figure out why Mrs Dingle has a perpetually sour expression.

Elly and John prepare to go off on another two-week holiday without the kids, but Liz and Anthony’s relationship persuades them to ask Sally, from John’s clinic, to stay at the house while her apartment is being painted. Liz and Sally glare at each other, and when Sally invites her boyfriend, Frank, over, Liz invites Anthony and the two guys bond over hockey and ignore the girls. After Anthony leaves but Frank doesn’t, Liz and April sneak downstairs and Liz sprays Sally and Frank with the fire extinguisher. When Dawn and Shawna-Marie question Liz afterwards about whether she would have taken Anthony over if her parents had left the house empty, Liz denies it vehemently, then stutters for a moment and then finally admits, “Yeah”. 

Elly and John arrive in Washington and John can’t wait to take in various historical and cultural sites, but Elly just wants to shop. They spend a day and a half and then hit the road south, zipping non-stop through the little southern towns as John drives them from Milborough to Jacksonville in under a week and Elly nags him about the way he doesn’t pause to appreciate and meander through lovely little restaurants and shops in villages along the way. Upon their return, Elly thinks that they could do a trip like this again sometime – in separate cars. April waits for three days and then tells her parents everything about the fire extinguisher, Sally and Frank, leading to a resolution where John and Elly admit that they have to start trusting Liz at some point, then looking gobsmacked when Liz tells them that she’ll never do anything that they never did.

Mike comes home for spring break and reconnects with Gord and a heavily pregnant Tracey; Tracey and Mike both look suitably embarrassed when Gord tells Tracey to pull up her shirt and show Mike the baby moving. Liz has already promised to babysit for free and April overhears her telling Mike excitedly about having a real baby around again. April curls up on the sofa with Edgar and Mr B and begins sucking her thumb again and wanting some babying. Elly and Connie discuss being old enough to be grandmothers – Elly isn’t ready but Connie can’t wait. As they sit on the porch, drinking coffee and talking about new babies, Liz races out with the news that Gord and Tracey just had a baby boy. Tracey has a room filled with visitors, but when they – and Gord – leave so she can get some rest, she turns her head away from the baby and sobs into her pillow.

Once again, Liz ignores her friends in case Anthony wants to see her, staying home and sitting by the phone. Dawn calls her out on this and reminds her of how jealous Liz got when Dawn began hanging out with Candace and Shawna-Marie, but Liz doesn’t even listen because Anthony is nearby, and Dawn thinks that love isn’t just blind, but also deaf. Anthony boasts that he has passed his driving test, but when Liz asks if she can come with him as he cruises the used car lots, he tells her that it’s a guy thing and besides, there isn’t enough room in Frank’s car (is this the same Frank who was dating Sally? It looks like it is, in which case Anthony’s only friend happens to be his girlfriend’s dad’s employee’s boyfriend.) On another occasion, Liz joins Dawn and Shawna-Marie at Club Soda but doesn’t tell them that she only went to that place in case Anthony might be there.

Liz prepares to get her driver’s licence and asks how often she’ll be able to use the car. Elly isn’t sure: both she and John need cars for work and Mike will need one when he’s home, and they only have two. John asks Gord to look around for something for them and, when he hears that Anthony is also in the market for a car, offers to take him along to Gord’s. By some amazing coincidence, someone has just dropped off exactly what John wants to buy, and at the same time Tracey offers Liz a summer job babysitting Paul. John, Liz and Anthony (yes, Anthony too) all put the pressure on Elly to let John buy the new car, as he’s already given Gord an understanding that they’d take it if Elly agreed. Liz passes her driver’s licence on her first try, despite the distraction of a handsome examiner.

Weed spent his Christmas holiday photographing people in Toronto smoking for a photo essay on addiction. The following spring he learns that he got top marks for it and it will be put on display in the library. His parents still see photojournalism as a hobby and want him to go into law, business or accounting. Mike and Deanna take Weed out to celebrate and, for his date, Mrs Dingle. She tells the students about her life and dances with Weed, telling him that, if he were her son, she’d be mighty proud of him. Weed drives Mike home for the summer again and Mike apologizes for the amount of gas money he owes Weed for all these trips, offering him an extra $50, but Weed refuses. He reconsiders and takes the cash instead of Mike’s follow-up offer: a hug. The following autumn Weed gets his first gallery showing, now including photos he took over the summer of homeless people and people in psychiatric wards (it isn’t explained how he managed to take the latter).

Mike’s old bedroom has been turned into a guest room – Elly has it redecorated with new wallpaper in magenta and turquoise with green and tan accents. Mike doesn’t understand the need for all the new furniture until Liz explains that she doesn’t think that Elly is expecting guests, but expecting Grandpa Jim. Grandma Marian is sick again and Phil and Georgia, who went to Vancouver for Christmas, are worried about how thin she was getting. Elly takes April to Vancouver just after Liz’s 16th birthday (which we actually see celebrated) leaving Mr B with Becky. Phil calls Elly before she leaves and promises to get to Vancouver as soon as he can, as Marian is scheduled for a triple bypass. Jim, Elly, Phil and various family members wait at the hospital through the operation and visit Marian often until she is discharged. Elly and Phil begin to question whether their parents are capable of living independently and Phil phones various organizations to find someone to come and take care of Marian on a regular basis.

Elly and April collect Mr B from the McGuires and learn that Becky has renamed him “Furgus”. Mike likes the name but April refuses to change it, even after Liz says that Mr B is a dumb name. John intervenes before the argument gets out of hand, but Liz complains what she ought to have some rights to the rabbit: after all, she was the one who brought him home. John points out that Liz hadn’t wanted the responsibility of looking after a pet and had given him to April and Liz responds with accusations of favouritism and demands that John admit that April is his favourite; John sends her to her room.

Recurring themes / This strip conserves punchlines

I don’t understand this modern technology stuff: Liz encourages Elly to learn to use e-mail at the beginning and at the end of the collection, although Elly sends an e-mail from Vancouver someplace in the middle.

Ogling: Weed tries to pick up girls in a park by telling them that he and Mike are journalism students doing a documentary on personal space and asking one how close would she let someone get to her; in the background Mike is ogling her friend. (The girls ask where their camera and note pad are if they’re journalists and leave. Weed says that next time they go to the park, they’ll bring props; Mike sticky-outy tongue laughs.)

Laughter saves the world: April, as Sockhead, uses Liz’s bra as a slingshot to fire Koosh balls at Edgar; Elly is rendered helpless with laughter.

John can’t dress: In a complete reversal, Elly complains that Liz is trying to give to charity perfectly good clothing just because she doesn’t wear them anymore, so Elly decides to wear them instead. John stands in the door, gobsmacked, as Elly goes about watering the plants wearing plaid overalls and a tie-dyed t-shirt.

Foreshadowing: April tells Liz that Marian looks older every time they see her, and now she’s looking different, not like Grandma, but like she’s going to get smaller and smaller until she disappears.

There’s no place like home: Elly speaks of having grown up in Vancouver, having friends and family there, but Liz phones her and asks when she’s coming home, with home in bold caps.

Appearance: Elly gets cranky when trying on swimsuits. Liz gets frantic about a massive zit on her forehead and sprays her bangs rock-solid to conceal it – Dawn notices that Liz’s hair bulges every time she moves her eyebrows. This sequence is repeated almost word for word when April goes through it.

Trust in fate: When Mike sees Liz’s new look, he panics that his sister looks too much like Deanna, and, filled with his recent psychology studies, points out that Anthony looks like John and, since Liz looks like Elly and Deanna looks like Liz, they’re both subconsciously choosing mates [sic] who resemble their parents – “It’s not fate that shapes our destiny…it’s family!”

April who?: April begs to be taken with her parents to Florida, crying that she doesn’t want them to leave, even clinging to John’s leg as he walks off, dragging her through the snow and thinking about how he feels guilty. April follows John around the house as he changes all the clocks to Daylight Savings Time, asking him lots of questions as he doesn’t even make eye contact with her. As he puts on his coat and prepares to leave, she asks, “If it’s called ‘daylight saving time’…will you save some time for me?” Liz, having babysat all summer for Gord and Tracey, can’t believe how hard it was to look after a baby, not even mentioning April just six short years earlier.

Grooming that Electra complex: As they prepare to leave for Florida and get Sally to babysit their daughters, Elly hesitates and wonders if they are being overprotective and if Liz could stay at Dawn’s instead, but John replies that he wants Elizabeth to stay as innocent and naïve for as long as possible. In a Sunday strip, John joins Liz to watch TV, then thinks about how he’d love to put his arm around her but worries that she might think it was wrong or push him away; meanwhile, Liz muses to herself that she doesn’t know why her father doesn’t hug her anymore. John buys Liz a ring for her 16th birthday so he can be the first man in her life to give her a ring.

Miscellaneous: About every few pages there are strips of Edgar chasing Mr B around the house or other such “pets do the darndest things” comics.

Finally, a Sunday strip I really liked: Elly takes April over to visit someone and when April tries to whisper to Elly, a smug-looking Elly gives her a lecture about it being rude to whisper in front of other people and demands that April say what she has to say out loud. When April hesitates, Elly prods her to say something, so April says, “I’m bored, the soup is gross, and I wanna go home!"

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