The first time it was clear to me that I was not part of my own family was the summer of 2005, six months after Bobby and I had called it quits.
It was an early July evening. A slight breeze blew. The setting sun cast dappled light through the mature maple trees at the back of the yard. Beyond the maples a crazy quilt of forest and fields stretched to the lake, which was a ten-minute walk down; fifteen minutes back up. When I was home during the summer, Mom and I trekked the dirt road several times a week to refresh ourselves in the cool, clear lake waters.
My brother, my mother, and I sat on the back deck sharing a light meal.
“Mom needs a new awning,” my brother said. He sat across the table shovelling food from his plate to his mouth. He looked at me over a heaping forkful as he spoke.
I had cranked up the green and white striped awning about an hour earlier. It was meant for the heat of the day, and wasn’t much use once the sun got below a certain point in the horizon. Now it hugged the house above the back door and two kitchen windows like a giant twenty-five-foot-long scroll.
He was right. It did need to be replaced. It was getting tattered and worn, and it sagged in the middle.
“Oh yeah?” I said.
Mom was between us, to my left and his right. She said nothing; kept eating her meal.
“Yeah. I thought we could buy it for her – split it, you know.”
I considered my financial situation. Things had been challenging since Bobby and I had separated six months earlier. I had relocated to Dubai from Abu Dhabi, set up shop and restarted my life.
Rental costs in booming Dubai were through the roof when I made the move. I got lucky and found a small row house on the edge of the Satwa slum. It was a narrow two-storey, with a small living area and galley kitchen down, two bedrooms up.
I converted one of the bedrooms into an office from which I ran my one-woman public speaking consultancy. It was adequate. Cozy even. And cheap, cheap, cheap by Dubai standards at about $1,500 a month plus utilities.
The neighbourhood was colourful. Thirteen Filipinos shared an identical space on one side of me; they sectioned it off with sheets like a hospital ward. A family of four lived in the place on the other side. We had common walls.
Several dozen Pakistani construction workers were crammed into a squat shack across the lane. They worked in shifts and presumably slept the same way because there wasn’t enough room for all of them to bed down in the place at once. They cooked on an open fire in the middle of the hovel day in and day out; the smoke rose through a hole in the corrugated tin roof.
It was a world away from the backyard scene in southeastern Quebec, but it was part of my reality.
My brother’s reality was vastly different.
He and Mom had been business partners for about twenty years. He joined her in real estate in the mid-eighties, and together they built a thriving business. They counted movie stars, rock stars and members of the Canadian corporate elite among their clientele.
My brother lived a few miles down the road with his wife and two children all of whom were at his motheri-in-law’s for a few days. That’s why he was dining with Mom and me.
“How much will it cost?” I said as I picked at a salad made from greens I’d harvested from Mom’s garden a couple of hours earlier.
“About $6,000. I thought we could each pay half.”
“I don’t have that kind of money.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I don’t have $3,000 to spend on an awning for Mom’s house.”
“Why don’t you sell something? You have a house in Calgary. If you’re short on cash you could sell the house.”
Bob and I owned the house jointly; it was where we had lived before we moved to the United Arab Emirates in 1993. We were still negotiating the terms of our break-up. Things were tense and complicated.
“Why would I sell my house to pay for an awning for Mom?”
“You said you were short on cash.”
“No I didn’t. I said I’m not going to sell my house to pay for an awning for Mom. That’s just plain stupid. Mom has enough money to buy her own awning.”
My mother, who could have bought several awnings with little if any impact on her bank balance, said nothing. She speared a cucumber slice, lifted it to her mouth, took a bite.
“Well, I thought we could buy it for her.”
“I don’t have the money, and I’m not going to sell a house to get it. That’s crazy. If you want to buy an awning for Mom, and you have the money–great. Go ahead and do it.”
“You should pay half. God damn it Sue you’re maddening sometimes.” The volume went up, his face turned red. We argued back and forth for another fifteen minutes. Finally, I turned to my mother to settle it.
“Do you want us to buy you an awning Mom?”
“I don’t care what you do,” she snapped. “If you want to buy me an awning, that’s fine. I’ll be happy. If you don’t want to buy me an awning, that’s fine too. I just wish the two of you would stop arguing. I don’t like it, and I won’t have it.”
We sat in silence for a moment or two, and then she turned to my brother.
“When will Gordie be coming to cut the hay?” She said as if the past half hour hadn’t occurred.
“I’m not sure,” my brother said. “I’ll give him a call this week and see what his schedule is.”
“Okay dear,” Mom said. “I hope he comes soon.”
They kept talking. I felt invisible.
“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” Mom said.
“Blah blah blah blah,” my brother replied.
A prickly ball formed in the middle of my throat. Tears fell into my salad. Neither of them noticed. I tried to eat a piece of tomato. It got stuck on the way down. My plate became too blurry for me to finish my dinner. I made a little choking sound.
“Blah, blah, blah, blah,” they continued.
I stood up, picked up my plate, and took it inside. The screen door slammed shut behind me. I went upstairs. The breeze felt cooler and fresher in my room. The lush green foliage of the maples whispered a few feet from one of the two south-facing windows. I loved to listen to the rain on the leaves during nighttime storms and to count the seconds between lighting bolts and thunder claps as my father had taught me to do as a child.
The beginning of the end rooted itself in the substrate of my life on that summer evening, and bloomed unbidden in the decade that followed.
© 2019 Susan Macaulay . I invite you to share my poetry and posts widely, but please do not reprint, reblog or copy and paste them in their entirety without my permission. Thank you.