I could not remember a time when my mother had not been up before me, except on some weekends when I got up as early as possible to watch Saturday morning cartoons. But during the school week, it didn’t seem to matter how early I got out of bed. By the time I came downstairs, having washed the sleep from my eyes as I knew I had to do as soon as I got up, my mother was already standing at the stove in her dress, stockings, and solid shoes, her arms bare when the weather was warm, in a cardigan when it was cool. But as I began my grade five year, things slowly began to change.
More and more, Mom was staying in bed while I got myself ready. “Did you eat something?” she’d ask as I knelt by her bed. “Yes,” I would answer, sometimes truthfully, sometimes not. I was old enough to pour my own Rice Krispies and, without my mother to guide me, I would ladle as many scoops of sugar as I could into the bowl, creating a thick, sweet slurry at the bottom of my bowl that I would drink if she had not come downstairs. Drinking from the bowl was strictly forbidden and I could only do it if Mom weren’t around. Other times I ate nothing, having paused to read a book instead of eating breakfast. Packing my own lunch fared little better. On my own, when I remembered, I would throw whatever caught my attention into the plastic shopping bag that served as my school bag. Sometimes I didn’t remember to pack anything and I ate my first meal of the day after school unless one of the girls who sat around me gave me something from their own lunches.
I didn’t know it, but my mother was exhausted. Life had finally caught up with her. Six children, one of them handed to her not long after she turned fifty, combined with years of poverty, a drunk husband who beat her and did unspeakable things to her children, had given her a broken heart that caused her to take nitroglycerin tablets. My mother, the daughter of an optician, convent-educated and a talented musician who had once sung on the radio, had reached her breaking point at the age of sixty.
The year before, when I was in grade four, she had been hospitalized for her heart condition. I had sat on the edge of her bed when she was in the Intensive Care Unit, just before nurses shooed me off her bed, and watched the heart monitor intensely. I didn’t like the pinging peaks and valleys of the monitor and kept waiting for the lines to level out and stop pinging. “I wish those lines would flatten out,” I said to her. “I don’t,” she smiled. The nurse told me my time was up, so I kissed my mother’s hand next to the IV and was ushered to the waiting room while my sister had her turn to visit. This part of the hospital, unlike the section where Mom usually stayed, only allowed one of us in at a time.
But now I was in grade five and it was important I show some independence. So I got up in the morning, washed my face, brushed my teeth, changed from my ankle-length flannelette nightie, and kissed my mother goodbye. It was winter in Bedford Nova Scotia, but more importantly, it was January. January is a confused time for weather. Banks of snow lined the streets where the plough had come through. Sometimes the roads, scraped to the bare gravel, were treacherous skating rinks punctuated with small rocks that hurt when you slipped. Other times, without warning, a burst of warm air would blow through, causing slush puddles that didn’t reveal their depth until you had already stepped in it and had felt the icy chill of winter ice water pour over the top of your boot.
It was a Wednesday, January 27, and as usual I got ready for school, kissed my mother goodbye, and braved the unknown road for my thirty-minute walk to school that was, quite literally, uphill. School was uneventful so when my friend, Caroline, asked me if I wanted to come over, I said yes without hesitation. I was a frequent guest in her house. She was a good friend and her mother made treats for us after school that were different than my house. She gave us apples that had been cored and were stuffed with peanut butter. Or white, crustless bread spread with something called “sandwich spread,” some odd mixture that looked a lot like tartar sauce. Or something from the white Tupperware containers on her counter that contained her freshly baked cookies or squares.
We arrived at her house and I dutifully called my mother to ask if I could stay. There was no answer, but I decided to stay for a little bit and call home again. At 3:30, I called again and still there was no answer. “You’d better go home,” said Caroline’s mother. I agreed. I didn’t want to get in trouble for being at a friend’s house without permission. I arrived home in time for the Beachcomber’s, a popular TV show, to come on.
My mother was still not home when the Beachcomber’s was nearly finished. This was unusual. My mother was always home when I got in, but I didn’t give it much thought. One one or two occasions she had gone to the store. She would be home soon and I settled back to watch the antics of cranky old Relic as he squared off against the far superior Nick Adonidas. When I heard a car in the driveway, I jumped up to look out the window. The car sound was unfamiliar, clearly not my mother. It was a lone RCMP car.
I watched as an officer walked up our driveway to the door. I wasn’t supposed to answer the door when Mom wasn’t home, but this seemed like an exception I could likely make without consequences. When he knocked, I opened it and we both stood there staring at each other for a moment before he finally spoke.
“Is there anyone else home?” he asked uneasily.
“No, just me,” I replied.
“Is there some place I can take you?” he asked, still looking uncomfortable.
We both stood there, neither of us speaking.
“Why?” I asked. “Where is my mother?”
Again we both stood there. I was frozen with terror for the answer I feared was coming. He didn’t know how to tell a child the news that would change her life. Heartbeats passed before he finally spoke. “Do you really want to know?” he asked.
“No. I guess not,” I said. I turned and reached for my coat, so he wouldn’t see the tears pricking my eyes. “Take me to Jo-Anne’s. She lives down the street.” He didn’t need to tell me where my mother was. From the look on his face, I already knew: my mother was dead.
Jo-Anne’s place was in full swing with supper preparations when we arrived. The house was warm and steamy with whatever they were cooking and Mrs. Marcatelli, eyes wide as she saw me at her kitchen door with the officer, sent me to the living room to watch TV while the officer talked with Jo-Anne’s mother. Jo-Anne did not look happy to see me. She didn’t like to be disturbed when she was watching TV. She liked, even less, having to share her snacks. After a while, her mother came into the living room, her voice oddly bright, and said, “Don’t worry, Charlotte. I’m sure your mother will come and get you soon.” Jo-Anne ignored her and continued to watch TV, stuffing the peanut butter and celery sticks into her mouth as quickly as she could so she didn’t have to share.
I looked at Mrs. Marcatelli in confusion. My mother was dead. I was sure of it and her words made no sense but I said nothing. Our eyes locked. She knew I knew. I knew she was lying. We both just looked at each other and then she disappeared from the room. We ate dinner in front of the TV, Jo-Anne and I laying on the green rug of their living room, her eyes unblinking as Bob Barker called the next contestant to Come On Down! I waited for something more to happen.
It was dark by the time my brother, Peter, arrived in his little green Honda. He came into Jo-Anne’s house, looking unfamiliar in this familiar setting where I had played for years. Jo-Anne’s mother kept up a bright stream of chatter while she helped me zip up my coat. Jo-Anne’s father didn’t look at me, his eyes also remained glued to the program on the TV. Peter and I walked in silence to his car, our feet crunching on the snow. We got into his car and made a silent drive back up Brook Street, to number three, where Peter pulled his car into the still empty driveway.
“Where is Mom?” I asked.
Peter turned off the engine and twisted to face me. His eyes were the same colour as my mom’s. His thick glasses and brown whiskers familiar to me as the brother who was most often at our house to do odd jobs for Mom. He was the one who had recently rewired a new thermostat so Mom could lower the heat night on a timer.
“Charlotte,” he began, clearing his throat. “Mom is dead.”
For a moment the sound of a whooshing filled my ears and cut through the silence that followed this sentence. I had known it when the RCMP came. I knew it when Jo-Anne’s mother told me Mom would come to get me soon. But hearing the terrible, terrible truth out loud made it real. I wanted it to not be real. I wanted to have kissed my mother when I came home from school. I wanted to watch the Beachcombers with her. As all of the things that I would never see or do or hear again filled my mind in a wall of pain, I began to cry.
All at once, hysterical sobs encompassed my whole body. The pain. Oh the pain. I wanted my mom. This couldn’t be true. The pain was terrible and I felt my heart break. She was my world. I was the apple of her eye. And just like that, I couldn’t even say goodbye. Peter cried too. He cried because his mom was gone. He cried because the little girl next to him was crying in heartbroken sobs. He didn’t try and stop me from crying as other grownups did. Sitting in the passenger seat of his little green Honda, winter dropping the temperature in the car to below freezing, he just let me grieve and cry until I couldn’t cry any more.
“Go get some things,” he said. “You’re coming back to my house.”
Normally this would be exciting news. His children, Jennifer and Michael, were my favourite playmates. Going to his house meant an adventure. But tonight it meant something new. I knew I would never sleep in my own bed again. My life, filled with Mondays at Girl Guides and tight little braids to keep my hair neat, and of Sunday night Kentucky Fried Chicken while we watched Disney together, was done.
My heart ached. I didn’t know what to pack. Mom usually did this for me. I filled two shopping bags with things I felt were important. I doubt now that included a toothbrush. I cuddled my cat, also named Peter, and as my brother and I locked the door behind us, I walked down the steps in the moonlight, each step taking me further away from my home and further away from the childhood that had just ended.