This short story was written for the 2018 CBC Short Story Contest. It didn’t make the long list so here it is and it will be added to the short story collection I’ll be putting out eventually (but is on Tablo if anyone is interested in reading my other short stories in one place).
Big disclaimer here: As always, fiction is fiction. There’s a couple of similarities to my life in this one however I want to make it very clear that this is in no way a portrait of my ex or my own mother. She is a wonderful person who has been very much present and supportive of me all of my life and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without her quiet understanding. I got very lucky that way.
In a little corner of nowhere I lay my head. Some might think of this as paradise; hell, maybe even I do sort of. It really is a run-down falling apart cabin on a small lake far from anybody else if you call about 2 ½ acres far, that is. It doesn’t matter. It’s peaceful. That’s what counts.
It used to belong to my mother. Before that, it belonged to my father. Before that, his father because my grandfather bought these five acres when it was just a bunch of trees and grass and hills and a rocky shoreline on a lake. He liked to fish I understand. I never met my mother’s father. He died long before I was born.
I kind of wished I was like other kids growing up, you know, those kids whose grandparents were permanent fixtures in their lives. Built in babysitters and step in parents and keepers of candy and fun places to stay in the summer. It seemed like all my friends had these people. I didn’t find out until my other grandfather was dying that he was even alive. I never met my grandmothers because they had both died before I was born. My parents were orphans, or at least one of them was. The other suffered from the family curse of somebody cutting the other one out. Or not living up to expectations or some other shit like that.
So here I am. Pushing 60, living in a cabin heated by a woodstove that I just put in because the old one could have caused the cabin to go up in flames. This one is supposed to be miserly with the wood and burn it completely. That’s good because I need to figure out how to cut down trees, split them and dry it if I plan to stay here. Maybe I should get someone to do that, I don’t know. I can’t think right now.
All I know is that I have got to get this place cleaned up and patched up where it needs to be. I have things to do too. The deed is signed over to me that happened at the lawyer’s office for a small fee, but I have to switch over the electricity. So much depends on electricity that I’m considering – no planning – solar panels. It’s the backup heat, the pump for the water, the microwave and stove and fridge. Think I’ll get a generator. Thing is, I’m so remote here that if the power gets knocked out it could be weeks or even months before they reconnect it. I’m an hour away from civilization but you know if I were hurt or freezing or starving or something that I might as well be a hundred hours away. This is what I want – no, need – right now though.
When I last saw my mom she was a tiny curled up comma in bed. Long past words or knowing, just existing. It’s been twenty something years since I last saw her. Back then she was in her seventies but still vibrant and living on her own. She called me out of the blue saying, “Isn’t it time we talked? It’s been so long.”
I went, she poured tea which I took plain though she remembered I used to take it with milk and sugar. She had little cubes of sugar in a bowl with those silver claw tongs that belonged to some great aunt that went untouched. We talked about the weather and my brother and sister and their kids and spouses and I knew she knew all about me even though we hadn’t talked because they’d told her and she didn’t bring up my ex-husband or the fact he’d long since remarried or the fact that she cut me out of her life instead of him when we split up, but hey. Water under the bridge, right?
So she just nattered on about the grandkids and I smiled and sipped my tea and after an hour or so I said I had to go and it was nice seeing her again. After that I planned to not answer her phone calls but I didn’t have to worry about that. She never called.
She died last month, not long after I visited her in the hospital. I went because my brother – the sibling who still sort of regularly talks to me – told me to get my ass home and go visit because she wasn’t long for this world. So I went and in my mind I had a long list of things I wanted to say to her when we had a few minutes alone so I could maybe make some amends or at least explain my side ‘cause I’d been told that people can still hear when the body is breaking down.
That never happened because my siblings made sure there was always a niece or nephew with me in the room when I visited. I don’t know what they thought I would do to her if I were left alone and I didn’t ask. I’m used to that. I’m almost afraid to know what they really think of me based on what’s been said of me. I wish someone would have taken the time to ask me the truth of my life but they haven’t, so here we are. I long ago gave up telling my truth; they weren’t listening, what they’d decided was my life was all they wanted to know.
I found out I had a living grandfather when somebody came to tell my dad his dad was dying. I thought, what? Why did we not know about this person? My mom never told me. I do remember meeting grandfather and thinking, wow, he looks just like my dad, just like me. So when my dad left my mom a few years later for a younger woman my mom told us he was dead to her and if we loved her, he’d be dead to us too. I thought, why? He’s our dad.
My sister defended mom fiercely, my brother though somewhat angry he was more open minded. He wouldn’t visit dad’s house, but he would have coffee with him and call him once in a while. Me, I couldn’t cut him out like he never existed. He was my dad. So I stuck with him and you know what? His new wife wasn’t so bad. I liked her anyway.
Family rifts are evil things. At my wedding I was told if I invited him the rest of the family would go if the new wife wasn’t there, even though at this point my parents had been split up for 15 years. I said no, so my dad was there and my brother but that was it.
In an effort to make it up to me, my mom treated my husband like he was another son and he could do no wrong in her eyes. Not when he drank away the rent money, not when he “accidently” head butted me during an argument. Not when he disappeared for days at a time. Not when he pretended nothing happened when I had that miscarriage and wouldn’t go away with me for a week or so when I asked him to so I could swim in the ocean and heal my soul. Not when I told him to get out after he slept with a coworker. My mom asked what I did to cause that.
Somehow everything that happened in my life was my fault. The ex though, he was always wonderful in her eyes. Holier than the Pope, she thought I should have had a bunch of children and shouldn’t be working. I did have children but they didn’t go to church so I was a bad mother. Then she orchestrated trying to have my children be raised by my sister so they could be raised in the church.
Of course later having a boyfriend didn’t help me either; rather than being happy for me she interrogated the kids looking for signs of sexual abuse that didn’t exist. She wouldn’t accept that he, and I, were actually pretty good people. When he died, she never said a word and one of the three people in this world who actually knew me and cared was gone. That’s why I went to see her for that long ago tea party.
I know why she left me this cottage. She didn’t like it ever. It was too much work. The beach was too rocky. The water too cold. Fish nibbled at the air bubbles on her toes and I remember her screaming at that. It was too far away. So for thirty years it’s only been used off and on.
I know why my dad left it to her. She said it was because he forgot to change his will but I know that isn’t true. He left it to her because he knew she hated it, and she would have to pay the taxes. Just maybe he knew that someday it would go to me. I don’t mind the taxes. It’s a small price for my little piece of the world.
Someone once said I should write mom a letter, read it out loud when no one is around then take that letter and burn it. That was the first fire I burned in the fireplace. It was twenty pages long. The second was to my ex-husband, the third to my sister. The fourth, a one pager, was to my brother. Then I swam in the cool clear water and laughed at the minnow tickling my heel. My dinner tonight was a trout I caught earlier that I fried in a pan.
Life is good. I have a plan, a place to fix up, a pen and some paper. Tonight I start my novel as the sun melts its way into the copper and gold water. I sip my wine and think that maybe someday they’ll want to understand my side of the story and realize that maybe I did my best. But if not, that’s fine too. I know what’s in my heart and my thoughts.
I lift my glass and say, “Thanks mom and dad for this gift that you gave me. I’ll appreciate it more than you will ever know.”
I start writing: “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the little girl whispers into her pillow.
(c) 2018 Catherine M. Harris. All rights reserved.