The following is from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset. MacDonald is an actor, playwright and broadcaster. Her first novel, Fall on Your Knees won the Commonwealth Prize, and her second novel, The Way the Crow Flies was a finalist for the Giller Prize.
“It Gets Better” is an online video project aimed at supporting Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered and Queer youth in response to a recent spate of suicides and assaults. Healthy adults speak into the camera and share stories of how desperate they were when, as younger people, they suffered the hatred of their peers, their parents and, worst of all, themselves. Each story ends with the assurance that “it gets better.” Hilary watched it and cried. Mary Rose didn’t need to watch the whole thing, she got the point and thought it was wonderful, etc. . . . It has been shown in schools, even some churches, ordinary people the world over have been watching it. There are even people in Russia and Iran watching it. But the evolutionary layers that have led Dolly and Duncan MacKinnon to watch it constitute a sedimentary journey as unlikely as the emergence of intelligent life itself. At least that is how it strikes Mary Rose for, although things have been just fine—more than fine, wonderful—between her and her parents for years now, they weren’t always. So she is all the more impressed that they are, at their advanced age, making connections between the daughter they love and an actual social issue. The cursor blinks.
The sound of splashing brings her to her feet.
“Maggie, no, sweetheart, that’s Daisy’s water.”
She bends and pulls the child gently back from the dog dish.
“Are you thirsty?”
“Is Daisy thirsty?”
“Are you being Daisy?”
Maggie dives for the dog bowl and gets in a slurp before Mary Rose lifts it to the counter.
“No!” cries the child with a clutch at her mother’s right buttock.
Mary Rose fills a sippy cup with filtered water from the fridge dispenser and hands it to Maggie. The child launches it across the floor. The mother escalates with the offer of jam on a rice cake. The child, after a dangerous pause, accepts. Détente. Another placated potentate. The mother returns to her laptop. Ask not for whom the cursor blinks . . .
The phone rings. A long-distance ring. She feels adrenalin spurt in the pit of her stomach. A glance at the display dispels the faint hope that it might be Hilary calling from out west. It is her mother. She stares at the phone, cordless but no less umbilical for that. She can’t talk to her mother right now, she is busy formulating a fitting reply to her father’s e-mail. Her father, who always had time for her. Ring-ring! Her father, who never raised his voice; whose faith in her gifts allowed her to achieve liftoff from the slough of despond of childhood—and grow up to write books about the slough of despond of childhood. Ring-ring! Besides, talking on the phone works like a red flag on Maggie; Mary Rose will wind up having to cut the call short and there will go her precious scrap of time to deal with e-mail and all manner of domestic detritus before grocery shopping, then picking up Matthew and then hurrying home to purée the slow-roasted tomatoes into an “easy rustic Tuscan sauce.” Ring-ring!
On the other hand, maybe her father is dead and this is the phone call for which she has been bracing all her life . . . His lovely e-mail will end up having been his last words to her. Maybe that’s what killed him—he finally got in touch with his emotions and now he is dead. And it is her fault. Unless her mother is dead and it is her father calling, which has always seemed less likely—Dad rarely makes phone calls. Besides, in the event of an emergency, her parents would phone her older sister, Maureen, and Maureen would phone Mary Rose. She breathes. Her parents are safe and sound in their sublet condo in Victoria, where they spend the mild West Coast winters close to her big sister and her family.
No sooner has she allowed it to ring through to voice mail, however, than she experiences another spurt of fear: it might indeed be Maureen calling . . . from their parents’ condo. Mo visits daily and perhaps she arrived this morning to find both their parents dead—one from a stroke, the other from a heart attack brought on by discovering the deceased spouse. Though her neocortex deems this unlikely, Mary Rose’s hand, being on closer terms with her amygdala, is already cold as she picks up the phone and, feeling like the traitor she is, presses flash so as to screen the call just in case someone isn’t dead. Her mother’s big rich voice chops through. “You’re not there! I just called”—here she bursts into song—“to say, I love you!”
From the floor, Maggie cries, “Sitdy!”—this being Arabic for grandmother because nothing in Mary Rose’s life is simple—and reaches for the phone. Mary Rose could kick herself. She presses end, cutting her mother off mid-warble with a stab of guilt, but hands Maggie the phone to stave off a complete toddler meltdown and feels even guiltier since it is rather like handing the child an empty candy wrapper. Maggie pushes buttons, trying to retrieve “Sitdy!” An urgent beeping gives way to the implacable female automaton, “Please hang up and try your call again.”
Maggie responds with a stream of toddler invective.
“Please hang up . . . now,” commands the voice, cool and beyond supplication, as though the speaker has witnessed too many of one’s crimes to be moved now by one’s cries. “This is a recording.”
“Maggie, give Mumma the phone, sweetheart.”
“No!” Still frantically pressing buttons. She is a beautiful child, dimples and sparkly hazel eyes. She does everything fast, runs everywhere, and her curls have an electromagnetic life of their own.
“Sitdy’s gone, honey, she hung up.” Another deception.
“Hello?” A female voice, but neither a frosty recording nor the jolly gollywoggle of Sitdy, it is—
“Mummy!” cries Maggie, phone jammed to the side of her head. “Hi, hi!”
“Give Mumma the phone, Maggie. Maggie, give it to me.”
“No!” she screams. “Mummy!” She runs away down the hall.
Hilary’s going to think I’m beating our child—“Hil!” she calls in pursuit, tripping over the stroller, slipping on something viscous—dog bile—“Maggie speed-dialed by accident!”
“That’s okay,” comes Hil’s voice, tinny but merry through the phone. “How are you, Maggie Muggins?”
Maggie holes up under the piano bench in the living room. “I love you, Mummy.” Hil is Mummy to Mary Rose’s Mumma—the latter’s claim to “ethnicity” on her Lebanese mother’s side informing her designation, and Hilary’s WASP heritage reflected in hers.
She retreats to the kitchen table—Hilary can always hang up if she has to—now is her chance to frame a worthy reply to her father’s enlightened and loving e-mail. She takes a breath. Of course it would be Dad who would appreciate the socio-political importance of the video—he was always the rational one, the one who sat still and read books, the one who saw her intelligence shining like a beacon through the fog of her early school failures. What can she say that will encompass how grateful she is, how much she loves him? Love. The word is like a red bird she catches mid-flight, “Dad, look what I got you!” Look, before I have to let it go! He isn’t just her father, he was her saviour. She has written this in cards to him in the past, but she can’t have said it quite right because he never offers much indication that he has received them—he’ll greet her with the usual smile and pat on the head but never say, “I got your note.” She once asked him, “Did you get my note?” He nodded absently, “Mm-hm,” then asked how her work was going. At these times it was as if he were coated in something pristine but impenetrable. Perhaps she had crossed the line in presuming to tell him he was a wonderful father. Are her notes too emotional? Mushy was the word when she was a kid. Regardless of how she words them, she always feels there is something fevered in her letters; as though she were writing from the heart of some disaster in which he is implicated—from a hospital bed or a war zone, from death row. The kind of letter haunted by an unwritten qualifier: in spite of.
I was touched to deceive
I wery much appreciated your
Thank you for you note. I love you and your message feels very healing
The child has hung up the phone on her foot. “Sowwy”—sly smile, all curls and creamy cheeks.
Mary Rose heads to the hall closet, where she takes Tickle Me Elmo down from the shelf—he sings and does the chicken dance when you press his foot, they have two of them, both gifts from childless friends—and sets the fuzzy red imp on the kitchen floor. She wipes up the dog slime, fills a non-BPA plastic “snack trap” with peeled, cut-up organic grapes and thrusts it at her child. She feels like Davy Crockett at the Alamo—that oughta hold ’em for a few minutes. Maggie presses Elmo’s foot and he erupts with an invitation to do the chicken dance. Mary Rose returns to her laptop, tight in the chest, annoyed that she seems suddenly to be annoyed for no reason.
There is not a single aspect of her life that is not of her own choosing. She has nothing to complain about and much to be grateful for. For which to be grateful, corrects her inner grammarian. She came out when homosexuality was still classed as a mental illness by the World Health Organization, otherwise known as the WHO (Me?). She helped change the world to the point where it-got-better enough for her to be here now at her own kitchen table with her own child, legally married to the woman she loves, feeling like a trapped 1950s housewife. That was a glib thought. Unjust. Unfeminist. Her life is light years away from her own mother’s. Maggie is flapping her arms along with Elmo and drowning out the music, “I can flap!” For one thing, unlike her mother, Mary Rose led a whole other life before getting married and having children; a bohemian trajectory that spanned careers as an actor, TV writer, and, ultimately, author of “Young Adult” fiction. MR MacKinnon is known for her “sensitive evocations” of childhood and “uncanny portrayals” of children. Her first book, JonKitty McRae: Journey to Otherwhere, is about an eleven-year-old girl who discovers a twin brother in a parallel universe—in her world, Kitty has no mother, but in his, Jon has no father . . . It was a surprise crossover bestseller, a hit with young and “old” adults alike. The momentum carried through to the second, JonKitty McRae: Escape from Otherwhere. Together they are known as the Otherwhere Trilogy—although she has yet to write the third.
For another thing, unlike her mother, Mary Rose has never borne a child, much less buried one.
Her partner, Hilary, being ten years younger, is closer to the start of her career trajectory, and when they talked about having a family, Mary Rose welcomed the chance to be the woman behind the woman, no need for the spotlight anymore; like John Lennon, she was going to sit and watch the wheels go round and round. Except it turns out she has very little time to sit, nor is she a big “sitter” in any case. In that way she is like her mother: she has difficulty sitting and watching. And listening. All of which are what Hil does for a living, being a theatre director.
So Mary Rose gardened really hard. She cooked really hard. She cleaned like a white tornado, baby on her hip till he started toddling and Maggie came along and there were suddenly two in diapers. A writer she admires has described sex as “indescribable.” The same goes for a day with two toddlers. That early period is now a blur, but Mary Rose still has the reflexes to show for it: like a war vet throwing himself over the body of a bystander at the sound of a car door slamming, she rushes in with tissues to staunch other people’s spills in cafés, and has to repress the urge to cup her hand beneath the chin of a coughing stranger. She used to think she was busy when she was all about her career, but she did not know from busy till she had children. Now her life is like a Richard Scarry book, Mom’s Busy Day in Busy Town.
She never dreamt she would be married. She never expected to become a mother. She never imagined she would be a “morning person” or drive a station wagon or be capable of following printed instructions for an array of domestic contraptions that come with some-assembly-required; until now, the only thing she had ever been able to assemble was a story.
They hired a part-time nanny: Candace from northern England, a real-life hard-ass Mary Poppins. Mary Rose started yoga. Wrecked her knee doing the tree. Met other moms, went to playgroups, caught all the colds, felt shame when she failed to pack snacks and had to accept the cheerful charity of the shiny mums, preened with goodwill when she was the one with the extra rice cake or unscented baby wipe. She bought stuff for the house, she renovated the kitchen, researched appliances and didn’t waste time bargain hunting—another way in which she differs from her mother. She forged a new domestic infrastructure for their lives, All-Clad all the time.
A mere three years before Matthew was born, she was living in boozy boho twilight with erratic Renée, three to five cats and the occasional panic attack. Then, in a few blinks of an eye, she was married to blue-eyed striding Hil, living in a bright semi-detached corner house, other-mother to two wonderful children. It was as though she had waved a wand and presto, she had a life.
But it was also as though she were a factory, tooled for a wartime economy. Apparently it was peacetime now, but she could not seem to find the switch to kill the turbines. Before leaving for the gig out in Winnipeg, Hilary asked if she wanted to start working again, to come out of her self-appointed retirement. Like a groundhog poking its head up out of its den, thought Mary Rose, except she’d see her shadow and dive for cover. “I can’t believe you’re saying this, Hil. It’s like you want me to start using drugs again. I need to find out who I am without work. I’m tired of being a demon elf, spinning cotton into gold, I am a human being, I want a human life, I want a garden, I want peace, I want to hammer swords into ploughshares, don’t make me wiggle my nose, Darren!” Hil didn’t laugh. She asked if Mary Rose would consider “seeing someone.”
I should have know the e-mail was from you right off the bat because of the address—I remember you telling me that’s what the Germans called the Highland regiments when they came over the top in their leather kilts to the skirl of the pipes: “the ladies from hell.” Was Granddaddy in both wars? He was a medic, wasn’t he?
“Flap you dance chicken flap!!” A Thracian ferocity has crept into Maggie’s tone. She presses Elmo’s foot again—and again—and—
“Let Elmo finish his song, sweetheart.”
Was Granddaddy an alcoholic? Is that why you sometimes had a hard time talking about certain
Hil thinks that because she is in therapy it must be right for everyone, but Mary Rose is not about to risk having her creativity dismantled by a well-meaning therapist who might mistake the riches of her unconscious for hazardous waste. Even if her creativity is on hold at the moment. The cursor blinks. There is something just out of reach. Something she knows . . . witness her fingers hovering over the keyboard even as her mind draws a blank and she sits staring, as though someone has pressed pause . . . Her eyes skid involuntarily from side to side—is it possible to experience a seizure without knowing it? People have mini-strokes all the time and never know till they show up on a CT scan. She should google it. Something familiar is bobbing on the horizon of consciousness, something she knows but cannot name . . . she can almost see it, like a package, a crate on the sea. But when she looks directly at it, it vanishes. Slips her mind as though somewhere in her brain there is a sheer strip that interrupts the flow of neural goods and services. Like a scar.
From ADULT ONSET. Used with permission of Tin House Books. Copyright © 2015 by Ann-Marie MacDonald