Isabel had been feeling happy in such a simple, harmless way when she saw her mother again. She’d been sitting at the bottom of a brick staircase in Yorkville, her back turned against the expensive stores beckoning to her from the top. She was enjoying a frozen yogurt cone and watching the passersby smile at the sunshine. Then she became aware of her mother—her mother’s presence—sitting on the warm step beside her.
She stared at the empty space to her left. She could not say, my mother is dressed all in black. Yet Isabel felt her there; felt the agonizing, impossible presence of her mother. Her mother, staring fixedly and expressionlessly ahead of her, apparently unaware of Isabel.
Isabel didn’t speak or cry or call attention to herself in any way. She didn’t even reach out, afraid she might actually touch something, or imagine that she did. She sat as quietly as she could, uncannily involved with this incorporeal body beside her. The feeling was extraordinary, and wrenching; she had missed her mother more than she was willing to admit.
This apparition lasted a full minute, even more. When it was over, Isabel hid the dripping cone behind her back, and warily, gently, advanced her trembling left hand into the empty spot beside her. Nothing.
For four days in a row Isabel went back to the same place, sat on the same bottom step, even bought the same kind of low-fat chocolate frozen yogurt cone each time, but her mother, or the hallucination of her mother, did not return.
What could have brought on a delusion like this? Her mother had died over eleven years ago. It was incomprehensible. She hadn’t been in the mood for a séance; in fact, she’d been feeling relaxed for the first time since the children had gone off to camp. But she had been thinking about her mother; how much she would have disapproved of Isabel sitting on a step and eating in public, like a tramp.
That didn’t seem enough to bring her mother back. Isabel had certainly cried enough after her mother died; cried to her and cried for her. There’d never been any reply. Not even after Isabel and Tom’s divorce, just to say I told you so. All she’d had of her mother, for years, was the same dream.
Her mother would phone. Isabel would be painfully aware that her mother was in fact dead, and tell herself to make the most of their dream time together. They would talk for a while about the children, whom her mother had never seen. Then Isabel would say, “Why don’t you come over, Mom? Come and see them for yourself. We’ll have tea.” And in the dream, what she could never recapture while awake—her mother’s voice: “Sorry, Bel, but I can’t. I have to stay here.”
It had taken three years for this dream to convince her unconscious that her mother really wasn’t coming back. And yet her mother’s greatest complaint had always been that Isabel was too independent, had a heart of stone.
Telling her brother and sister was out of the question. Ian would make a joke of it and demand stock tips, and Iris, who had once taken a psychology course, would diagnose her freely. Isabel despised people who believed in the supernatural, so was even more reluctant to talk to friends who could believe she’d seen her mother than to those who would laugh at her. Nevertheless, she became expectant. Such a vision must mean something.
But nothing miraculous happened. She didn’t win the lottery, didn’t meet the man of her dreams, didn’t find Tom on his knees at her doorstep, begging for forgiveness. There weren’t even tiny miracles, not so much as an open parking space in Chinatown. Her mother’s uncanny reappearance hadn’t made any difference at all, except to unhinge a perfectly decent, manageable life. Either she’d had a hallucination, or the dead weren’t really up to that much. The dead were overrated.
It had just been a fantasy, and the reason for it was obvious. She was alone for the first time in her life. She was parentless, husbandless, and now childless, too—both Patty and Gary away at camp for the first time. The best thing to do was keep busy, be a moving target, never give herself a moment to think until the kids came back and made sure she couldn’t.
Isabel arranged to spend the weekend with Naomi, her closest friend since their first year of university together. Naomi still lived in Guelph and had, in fact, never married—the dire consequence of university education that Isabel’s mother had predicted for her, too. She particularly hadn’t wanted Isabel to leave home and go to Guelph, a whole hour’s drive away—was urgently opposed, insulted, furious as a scorned lover—and they’d fought every minute of the drive to the dorm. Just before her mother drove away she hissed through the car window, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.”
The familiar, monotonous landscape along Highway 401 to Guelph brought back the customary droning pain. Isabel would love to be able to tell her mother that she hadn’t completely failed: she had two beautiful children—heart-melting, greeting-card-beautiful children. Thinking of them, she unconsciously loosened her violent grip of the steering wheel. Surely, if her mother were alive to see her grandchildren, she would smile. Surely, looking back on those days, she would smile now, too.
With the distinctness of a dream, she heard her mother say, You gave me nothing but trouble.
Isabel thought many things at once: that she was sorry, that it wasn’t completely true, that she was having a nervous breakdown; but mostly, that death had changed nothing—her mother still hated her.
She pulled over onto the shoulder before she dared to glance at the passenger’s seat. Nothing, of course. She’d imagined it. Maybe not the other time, the first time—but this, definitely, surely, she’d imagined it. The grey velveteen upholstery was dirty in several places, stained with chocolate and orange juice and grape Fanta because her children were real children, alive and well, and real children spilled things. She leaned over and kissed the dark stain closest to her, still gratifyingly stiff and sticky and resistant. She had been remembering too hard, and she had imagined it.
Nevertheless, she called Naomi from the next service center and made some ridiculous excuse for not coming. She was unnerved; she would be sure to talk, she would pour her heart out to Naomi—and then what? What if she were actually going crazy? What if she had a brain tumor? What would happen to her children?
She had to speak to them as soon as possible. Of course, she’d been told repeatedly by the unctuous camp director not to call them at camp. Now they were there for a whole month, in the middle of the wilderness, although Patty was only ten and Gary was barely nine. They were being governed and “protected” by camp counselors not old enough to vote, by teenagers who still needed their own mothers to look after them. And she’d done this of her own free will, because she’d wanted them to learn independence. Because she’d had a point to prove.
Isabel, Iris, and Ian had shared their mother’s bed for years. It had started when their father fell from the ladder while cleaning out the eaves trough. He’d broken his back, and was in the hospital in a body cast for three months. That first night without him, her mother had gathered them together, her baby chicks, and told them she was anxious for them, she had dreams of them falling. They all slipped into the big bed together. She gathered her chicks back into the nest, brought them back rapturously skin to skin with their mother. Isabel would never be so happy again. If only Iris and Ian would disappear as their father had, everything would be perfect.
Her father came home at the end of the winter, an inch taller and many years older, but he didn’t get his old place back. Perhaps something else had changed, something else children had to be protected from. He slept by himself in the guest room from then on. Maybe, Ian said, they ought to get a bigger bed. Their mother laughed, and the four of them went back to cuddling together like a cage of sleeping puppies. Bliss, when Isabel was eight, nine, and ten; primal bliss until the day Isabel let it slip at school and the other children teased her mercilessly. That night she went to her own bed. Her mother followed her, questioned her, first with concern, then with anger, then with heartbreaking dismay:
“Don’t you love me anymore, Bel?”
“I’m too old for this,” she said. She was too young to understand that her answer could be understood more than one way.
One night of laying alone and sleepless was enough. The next night she returned sheepishly to her mother’s room. She was greeted with silence, and a tight, thin, triumphant smile. Finally, her mother silently pulled back the floral quilted bedcover and let Isabel in. But from that night on there was no more turn-taking for fairness’ sake. Isabel was always the one made to sleep outside the mother sandwich Iris and Ian made. Waking and sleeping, she was kept outside. Two years later, Ian’s sudden and strenuous defection from their mother’s bed was treated as something acceptable and correct. Isabel and Iris were sent back to their own beds, just to be fair.
Isabel called the camp the moment she got back.
“You really shouldn’t be worried, Mrs. Cannon. They’ve adjusted beautifully.”
“I think they just need to hear my voice.”
“They both did cry a little on the first day, but now they’re doing fine. They’ve adjusted beautifully, Mrs. Cannon.”
“That was quick,” she said bitterly. “Let me just say hello to them. Five minutes. One minute. You don’t understand a mother’s feelings,” she said, appalled to hear herself speaking with her mother’s voice. “One day your children will do to you what you do to me,” her mother liked to say. What if Patty and Gary came to hate her the way she had hated her mother, and love her in that same strangled way?
In Isabel’s dream that night they talked about Patty and Gary for a while. Isabel said, ‘Why don’t you come over, Mom? We’ll have some tea.
‘You know I can’t, Bel. I have to stay right here.’ Her mother’s voice became hoarse with need. ‘You come here. Why don’t you come over here, to my side?’
Isabel shuddered awake. She turned on the light and clutched her pillow, breathing to a count, trying to feel rational again. She was seized by the idea that in her sleep her mother could claim her. But she must have fallen asleep again, because she dreamed, or did not dream, that the children were in terrible danger. Horrors named and nameless surrounded them. There was drowning, head injuries, molestation, rape. A perverted camp counselor could lure either one of them into the bushes. The child in the next bed had an infectious disease. And even if nothing like that happened, her children weren’t safe. Terror was built into life itself; every day the sun laid down layers of melanoma on their defenseless skin.
She went downstairs to make herself a cup of coffee. Her childless brother and sister found her anxieties comical—and so did Tom, for that matter. Mostly she just kept them to herself. She didn’t want to be like her mother, after all. That’s why she’d sent the kids to overnight camp at the first opportunity—to become strong, self-reliant, everything her mother had tried to deny her. Now she realized that she’d been trying too hard; she’d overreacted. She had left them crying for her at the bus station. She had turned her back on them.
Isabel got dressed quickly. There was no time to shower or eat. Luckily, it was a Sunday, and she wouldn’t have to deal with rush hour. She could be at the camp in less than three hours.
During the first hour, Isabel tried repeatedly to use positive visualizations to prepare for her encounter with the unctuous camp director. She would succeed in seeing the children this very day. That creep was not in charge of her life. But he might not know that. She gripped the steering wheel tighter. He would certainly patronize her, poor foolish mother hen, and then she would become infuriated, possibly make a scene. How civilized that would be, how adult, for all concerned.
She turned off the highway onto the two-lane road that would eventually take her to the camp in Minden. There were a surprising number of exits south, as if drivers were expected to change their minds and turn around, urgently, at every five-mile interval. And no wonder—it was a dingy and depressing drive. All she saw were gas stations, used car lots, and a few fields and farmhouses, most of them neglected or abandoned.
She drove through Fenelon Falls, the only real town on the route so far, past the temptation of the Tim Hortons at the corner of the main street, and back into the country. The clouds darkened and the route became even more depressingly uninhabited. She felt trapped within a video loop; maple trees so densely lined both sides of the highway they closed in on her like prison bars.
She would demand her children be returned to her at once. The slimy director wouldn’t dare refuse her, and if he did, she would push past him, find her children, and take them home. He was only a camp director, after all, not the police, not God.
But what if Patty and Gary were having fun? What if they cried when she tore them from the arms of their new friends and took them home? They were certainly very prone to crying. They’d cried when she took them back to school after a single day home sick. They would cry when she’d take them to a friend’s house for a playdate and then cry when it was time to leave. They’d cried when she bathed them. They’d cried in their sleep, in their preverbal dreams.
Their grief and distress was always so genuine it made Isabel feel guilty. She knew she mustn’t let them eat mud or broken glass no matter how much they cried, but how about candy? How much was too much? Was she being unreasonable, too controlling? Was she simply a bitch? Her friends never seemed as torn as she was, or didn’t show it, and she didn’t dare ask. Presumably a good mother, even an adequate one, didn’t think twice about such questions. A good mother wouldn’t have to; a good mother’s children would not be hysterics. Isabel could still hear Gary sobbing, wailing with the intense grief of outraged innocence, when she wouldn’t let him pour his alphabet soup into the computer’s disk drive. My God, how he could cry—epically, Biblically—as if it were not just his right but his duty to cry. She had to envy that.
In their physical perfection and pitiful innocence, they were like Adam and Eve—but the Adam and Eve of the New Age: despising guilt and without remorse, blameless beings outraged by the demands of their needy, neurotic God. They were full of the fruit of knowledge that life was just not fair. “Not fair!” they screamed at her. “You’re not fair!” And while they told Isabel they hated her, while she wiped away their tears and their snot, she thought of the original Adam and Eve howling just like this at their terrible fate: this world, this life. Then she would kiss them and they would accept her kiss, already forgetting (she hoped) what they’d said.
If she did bring the children home, how could she explain it? Mummy missed you so much? Mummy had a nightmare? Mummy dreamed that you fell. The kids would be happy for a day or a week or even the whole summer, but one day they would realize what they had missed out on because of her. If she gave in to her fears this time, she might never let them go to camp again. And there would be worse. She was on the way to becoming her own mother.
Isabel didn’t wait for the next exit south. She did a sharp U-turn in the middle of the highway. She had to get the children out of her own harm’s way.
As soon as she started heading back to the city, the anxiety that had been driving her let go of her, and she let go of it. Already, the trees had a familiar, friendly look, and in just another twenty minutes she was back in Fenelon Falls, stopped at the light adjacent to Tim Hortons. She was hungry, and in the mood to enjoy something really bad for her. Coffee and a doughnut, filled, glazed and covered in whipped cream. If that wasn’t normal, what was?
The light stayed red for so long that Isabel had time to study the little group of people gathered on the opposite corner of the street. There was an obese man standing like a statue in a dirty red T-shirt, his arms pulled tight across his chest, wearing enormous headphones with the plug dangling unattached at his side. Just a few feet away from him were four teenaged girls with sticky-looking hair worn loose or in ponytails, all of them wearing studded black leather jackets despite the heat. Talking to them, but standing a little apart, was another teenaged girl in a pink sweat suit, with a blonde boy of about two in a stroller. Not so long ago, this girl, who looked no more than seventeen, must have been part of the group.
She was just beginning to feel sorry for the burdened young mother when she saw the girl bend down and smack the toddler’s arm so hard Isabel could hear the blow across the road. The little boy pitched forward, laid his head against the bar of his stroller, and sobbed.
The light turned green and the group began to cross. Isabel turned into the Tim Hortons parking lot and out again, past the man at the corner still clutching his red T-shirt, and back onto the main street. By now the girls were across the street and walking on the sidewalk just ahead of her. They were all talking and laughing. The little boy was laughing too, bouncing happily in his stroller.
Isabel watched them go, feeling numb with grief, until the driver behind her honked. She drove a little way further and pulled over onto the sidewalk.
That wretched girl beat her little boy. If that was how she dealt with him in public, what happened in private? Yet somehow the sight of the child laughing had shocked her almost as much as seeing him hit. Poor little prisoner, condemned to love his keeper, and only really happy when she smiled. There was no ransom he could pay, in dreams or out, to set him free. Not fair. Not fair. She sat with her foot jammed against the brake, staring blankly at the man in the red T-shirt, until a policeman who’d just left Tim Hortons pulled up beside her and asked if there was something wrong.
Barbara Abramson lives in Toronto.