I’m back on the coast now and taking some time to think over all I’ve seen and done these past few weeks down east. I haven’t spoken to Frank yet or returned Liz’s voicemail asking me to be her babysitter, nor have I heard from Mike. I think we all need a bit more time. April has e-mailed from Manitoba to fill me in on what happened after I left and to let me know how she’s enjoying being away from Milborough and getting ready to go to Guelph.
Where to begin? Before I had made up my mind how much contact I could, or should, have with my birth family, Iris felt that I should meet my grandfather because his condition was deteriorating. This was hardly the time to be selfish and say that I wasn’t prepared, so I went to the hospice. I was so nervous even though I’d already watched his video will and heard his justifications for what had happened when Elly found that she was pregnant. All I wanted to say was that I bore no ill will for what had happened: I had a happy childhood with a family who loved me and I’m not the sort of person to waste time wishing I could have lived my life another way. Jim gestured to Iris, who held up a communication board on which were printed some simple words and a few drawings. He pointed to the words “thank you” and lay back. I kissed him on the cheek and stepped outside to collect myself. Something about the look of determination on his face as he controlled his shaking arm long enough to point to his board touched me more than I expected. He was – is – both a complete stranger and my grandfather.
Iris joined me shortly afterwards, saying that Jim was sleeping, so I asked if she’d like to get a cup of tea. She seemed taken aback and I worried that I’d overstepped a line, but she smiled and said that it was so rare that anyone wanted to spend time with her that she nearly didn’t know how to respond. She knew a quiet place nearby where she often went after being at the hospice, and we passed a lovely few just talking. She explained to me what society was like forty years ago and how an unmarried mother would be treated, so Jim and Marian had done what they thought was best for everyone by sending Elly away to have me. I had known all this, of course, but only on an intellectual level. Hearing it from someone who knew Jim’s side of the story, made me appreciate it emotionally for the first time. It was never an act of overbearing parental cruelty, but their way of doing what they felt was best for the daughter they loved, and attempting to shield her from the difficulties an unwed mother would face. It was, too, a form of self-preservation from the snide remarks which would have attached themselves to the parents of a girl who got “in trouble”, although I doubt anyone then would have been sufficiently naïve to believe that a story of “going away to finish high school” meant anything other than “baby on board”. Iris and I exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to keep in touch.
I spent most of the next day, my last in Ontario, looking around Milborough. It’s a pretty enough place, but hasn’t anything to distinguish it from any other residential area just outside of Toronto. I saw my mother’s former bookstore and spoke briefly to the staff there, without saying who I was. They commented on how odd it was that Elly retired to do all sorts of community work since she had never shown the slightest interest in local issues or politics. To judge from The Valley Voice, the community paper, there would have been plenty of opportunities to get involved with something: there were the usual things like Guides and Scouts, astronomy club, Little League, book clubs, amateur theatre and community choir, but also a cricket team, Mandarin classes and a strangely popular model railroad club comprising grown men in engineer costumes. I don’t usually read personal ads, but couldn’t help noticing that there seemed to be a disproportionately large number of married people seeking swingers. I’m not entirely sure I want to know if there’s more to Milborough than meets the eye!
I accepted Mike’s invitation to dinner. It was also the night before he and Meredith flew down to join Deanna and Robin in Colorado, so I appreciated the chance to see him when he must have been busy with last-minute packing. April was there as well and full of excitement about her graduation and plans for the future. I felt a little guilty for not having bought her a gift so let her know that there will always be a place for her to stay in Vancouver, and someone at the other end of the phone. Mike and April did try to fill me in with what they knew of their parents’ early years together, but the details were often contradictory and vacillated between the highly specific, like how they met when Elly spotted John napping in the university library, to the distractingly vague, like at what point Elly dropped out of university and got married. Mike said he only knew what he’d been told and had never really questioned his mother about the inconsistencies because she had a tendency to fly off the handle at the slightest thing and he learned it was best to avoid provoking her.
It was after dinner, when we were sitting in the garden finishing a batch of April’s Pina Coladas (virgin for Meredith), that Elly turned up. Here I was, face to face at last with my birth mother, once I had decided not to meet her. She ran straight to Mike, calling him by his father’s name, and saying that they had to set up a Block Parent scheme – kind of a Neighbourhood Watch – because some pervert had broken into Connie’s house and left something disgusting in her toilet and quite possibly did something similar on the grass and the dog had rolled in it. April took Merrie inside while Mike played along and tried to assure Elly that everything was fine. Elly kept looking in my direction and I didn’t know what to do: I knew that I was staring, examining her for familiar features and ignoring the seriousness of the situation by dreading that that nose might be my genetic inheritance. Finally she stopped mid-sentence in a rambling story about bananas and sprinkles (no, I didn’t understand either) and looked right at me accusatorially and said, “I know you, don’t I?” I didn’t know what to do – we hadn’t really discussed the way the Pattersons were dealing with Elly’s condition – so I said, “My name is Claire”. She frowned, while I looked to Mike for some guidance. Then Elly said something like, “You must be my son’s new teacher. He’ll be starting Grade One in September… no, that’s not right. He’s in pre-school now so he can’t be just finished kindergarten except that Deanna moved when he was ten and now he’s four and seven and five and six and his age is frozen in time but won’t stay still and soon it will be September, September, September…something new is coming again in September. It’s always new in September these days.” It was clear that she was blocking out Mike’s frustrated pleas for her to remember what year it was.
John turned up around this point, asking about when the burgers would be ready (I learned later that April had called him and said that Mike was making a BBQ because she knew John wouldn’t come otherwise). Elly started begging John’s forgiveness for the way she had acted. I froze, wondering if this had anything to do with me, but apparently it was about her going out and “acting single”, whatever that means, and some waiter gave her a phone number, then followed them home but didn’t flush Connie’s toilet. She seemed fixated on toilets and their contents. John was, frankly, extremely creepy, and kept leering at me in the most blatant manner. Finally he said that I reminded him of Elly around the time April was conceived. I hate to be so cowardly, but the whole situation was just unbearable and I’m ashamed to say that I left Mike to deal with it. I wrote him an apology but haven’t had a reply. I know he has a lot on his mind with his son’s problems and the move to Colorado, and I don’t think suddenly having a total stranger appear and announce she’s his sister has helped lighten his load, especially when she hasn’t any emotional ties to the people causing him trouble – and the freedom to leave at any time.
I really don’t know how to end this except to say that I’m on my way to see Mom and tell her how much I love her.