The Montreal Review, September 2010
I hate to bother you like this.
Sheila smiled at the customer while she listened to her mother apologize over the telephone. Placing her hand over the mouthpiece, she told the customer, Mrs. Winston, she would be with her in just a moment.
Still smiling, she whispered into the receiver, Mom, you know Joline hates personal calls. I've told you that before. And I'm with a customer. Can I call you back.
Her mother sighed. I understand, she said.
Sheila placed the receiver back in its cradle and dealt with Mrs. Winston who, as it turned out, was just looking for a way to kill some time before her afternoon bridge game. After Mrs. Winston left, she helped Joline unpack the Christmas shipment and bring it out front for display. When she found the opportunity to call over an hour later, she made sure her mother knew she couldn't talk for long: Joline had stepped out only for a couple of minutes.
It was necessary to deliver such cautions because ever since the stroke two years ago her mother felt it was her maternal right to call at any time day or night for even the most trivial of things. Last week, when the faucet on the kitchen sink went, she had called five times - five times - in the two hours it took for Sheila to place the call and the plumber to arrive. It just wasn't fair. She had Theresa and Ted to look after and now this job. Mothers were supposed to look after themselves.
Her mother apologized again for taking up Sheila's time then said something Sheila couldn't quite catch about something falling.
What? What fell? All she could think of was that Joline would be back any minute and she would catch her on the phone, for sure.
I did. I can't get up.
Oh dear, Sheila said, shocked and feeling the sting of guilt. How long had she made her mother wait?
Are you hurt? If you're hurt, I should call the ambulance.
No, I'm all right.
Then why can't you get up?
Her mother sighed.
How can you be stuck. Where are you?
In the bathroom.
Isn't there a neighbour you could call?
Sheila! I'm still in my nightclothes.
Well then. Sheila clutched her hair with her free hand. She was going to have to go out there. Joline would just have to understand.
I'll be out there as soon as I can, she said. Just sit tight.
That's all I can do, her mother said.
When Joline returned, Sheila explained the emergency with her mother. The blue veins that spidered across Joline's temples pulsed and she squinted the way she did when there was a customer around and she couldn't chew Sheila out for something she had done or hadn't done. I don't know, Sheila, this is happening more and more often, Joline said. Don't you think?
She's fallen, Joline, she can't get up and she won't let me call an ambulance. What am I supposed to do? What if something is seriously wrong this time?
Joline picked up her pen and drew a line on the order sheet. She squinted at Sheila. Of course you have to go, she said. She looked out the window at the snow that hadn't let up since the morning and sighed. I doubt many people will decide to go shopping in this weather. But get back as soon as you can.
It snowed like crazy on the drive out to the farm and the cold lake air stung her face as Sheila stepped out of the car. She heard the wind shoving through the bare, brittle trees. Snow blurred the farmhouse's edges and angles.
They still called it the farm though her father had sold most of the acreage and the cattle herd while she was still in college. There had been some discussion, on her mother's part, of making the house into a bed and breakfast. Her mother had even gone so far as to have a sign made: Willow Winds, she had wanted to call it. Sheila's father's cancer had put an end to those plans but the sign still stood at the edge of the driveway, shaking in the wind and covered by blowing snow.
As soon as she entered, Sheila called out to let her mother know she arrived. She set her purse on the table by the door, took off her boots and ran upstairs. Her mother was sprawled on her back, her hips wedged between the bathtub and the toilet. Surprisingly, it didn't take much to free her. Sheila had to climb into the tub to gain the leverage to lift, but she had her up and standing in a few brief seconds.
There, easy as pie, Sheila said.
That's easy enough for you to say, her mother said, steadying herself with the sink counter.
Sheila noticed her mother's cane propped against the sink. She handed it over and suggested that they could both do with a cup of tea.
You go on ahead, her mother said. I'd better get dressed.
In the kitchen, while she waited for the water to boil, Sheila looked out the window. As a little girl, she used to play board games with her mother in storms like these while waiting for her father to return from barn chores. She leaned across the sink and touched the frost that had condensed on the window. Even though she couldn't see the lake she knew it was out there, crashing and roaring with icy bits. She realized she would have to call home. Let Ted know she might have to stay the night.
Her mother appeared in the kitchen as she was leaving a message on the machine. She was telling Ted that there were hotdogs in the fridge for Theresa, but don't let her have more than two, and make sure she eats at least three pieces of tomato. She said this knowing that with her gone, the two would probably curl up together in front of the television and order pizza.
I'm so sorry, now I've spoiled your evening, her mother said, as Sheila pressed the end call button on her cell phone.
No, not at all. It's fine.
No, it's not fine. But I'm glad to have you here all the same. Haven't seen a storm like this in years. It's like the one just before they found old Ed Osler frozen out beside the woodshed.
Her mother sat down at the table, breathing heavily, as if the trip down the stairs and to the kitchen required a lot of effort. She reached into the pocket of her cardigan and pulled out a package of cigarettes. She lit one and dragged an ashtray from the centre of the table.
She had always made an effort, when Sheila's father was alive, to hide the smoking. She thought he didn't know, but he did. When she slipped out after dinner, announcing she had to take the garbage out to the bin or get a breath of fresh air, Sheila's father would wink and lean back in his chair.
Sheila hated the smell and whenever her mother visited, she made her smoke outside. But this wasn't her house, now was it? So she made the tea without comment, bringing her mother a mug, black, the way she liked it. She made one for herself with lots of milk and sugar and brought it over to the table and sat down.
As she stirred the tea, she asked her mother what happened. How had she fallen? Her mother looked away, as if reluctant to answer. She said it had been sometime in the morning. I must have slipped on that damn mat. That's it, the mat made me slip.
Get rid of it. Sheila sipped her tea. Then it occurred to her.
Just how early in the morning, Mom?
Her mother looked into her tea. It doesn't matter, she said.
Sheila had an image of her mother lying on the floor very early in the morning. It does.
Her mother shrugged. I don't know. I didn't have a clock in there.
But you took the cordless telephone. That was lucky.
Her mother sipped her tea.
I always take the telephone in the bathroom with me. You never know when you might need it.
You must have been there a long time. Why didn't you call earlier? I could have come over and helped.
I must have bumped my head.
Let me have a look. Sheila stood up from the table and ruffled her hands through her mother's sparse white hair. It felt soft, like Theresa's hair when she was a baby.
I don't feel anything.
No harm then.
Sheila sat down again. Are you sure you didn't have any other sensations? Feeling dizzy? Vision blurring? She tried to remember the checklist for a stroke.
Her mother shook her head. Don't worry. I'm certain it wasn't a stroke. A stroke of bad luck, maybe.
Her mother smiled. Yes. I am sure. She leaned across the table and stretched out her arm, taking Sheila's hand. Can't we forget it? Really, I'm all right now. And I'm looking forward to having you stay over. You don't know how much of a treat this is, how lonely -
- It's crazy for you to be out here on your own, Mom. I mean, you could have fallen down the stairs, tripped outside, anything. And I hate to think what might have happened if you didn't have the phone. How would I have known? It shouldn't be like this.
Her mother's grip on her hand tightened. There was something hungry in her look.
We both have needs, Sheila. There you are with your full time job and Theresa still needing attention and all the demands of a husband and a household. And here I am rattling around in an old house that doesn't mean all that much to me anymore, not since your father went. You're right. My moving in with you would fix a lot of things, now wouldn't it.
That's not what I meant, Sheila said.
Her mother released her hand and leaned back.
There are lots of good homes in town. What about Eden Woods? You have friends there. You'd have someone to cook your meals for you, even make your bed, I bet.
You want to put me into a home?
We'd only be a minute or two away.
Her mother's jaw started to shake like it did when she was upset. You think I'm useless, she said. Ready for the pasture.
Oh come on, Mom. Don't be so dramatic. You know as well as I do that something's got to be done.
Don't tell me what I know or don't know. Her mother slumped over the table and pressed her face into her hands.
The wind sucked at the windows and doors and then let them loose. It was like being in a submarine, Sheila thought. Pressured from all directions.
Look, maybe we shouldn't talk about it right now. There. Stop crying, why don't you. I'm not a monster.
She made them soup and crackers for dinner. It was all she could find in the cupboard. Rows on rows of tinned soup. Cream of celery, cream of mushroom, beef noodle, consumes. She chose beef noodle.
She set up the TV tables in the living room and they watched the local news while they ate. The news anchor reported that the storm would ease off later in the evening.
Sheila told her mother that she might make it home after all.
Do what you want, her mother said. She lit a cigarette, picked up the remote control and switched to a game show.
Still angry about the conversation in the kitchen, Sheila thought. She collected the bowls and the plates and the glasses to take them out to the kitchen but paused at the door. Listen, she said. I really should go. Theresa's been coughing lately, she may be coming down with a cold, she said. But hey, why don't you come over on Friday night. We'll all have dinner together. I'll come by and pick you up after work. We'll order pizza and watch a movie.
I don't want to come over if Theresa's sick, her mother said. I don't want to catch a cold.
Well then, if Theresa isn't sick. I don't want you catching one either. If all is well, Theresa and I will come and get you. I'll even send Ted out with the boys for the night so it'll just be us three girls. Come on, what do you think.
If you like. Her mother pushed the table away from her knees. You'll get the dishes, won't you, she said. And when you wash up, don't forget to put the pot away.
It was a reference to when Sheila was a girl and she would put the pots and pans on the stove after drying them and forget they were there. A strange thing to say. As if, after all these years, her mother found her unreliable.
I'm not a little kid, you know.
No, you're not, her mother said matter-of-factly, like Sheila's adulthood was something that had happened out there, somewhere in the storm, far beyond her control.
After she had washed the few dishes and put them away, Sheila called Ted and told him to expect her home in an hour or so. As she folded the TV tables she told her mother not to worry, that she would be right beside the phone and if there were any problems, just to give her a call and either she or Ted would be right out.
I can look after myself, her mother said.
Of course you can.
Before she left, she went upstairs to remove the bathroom mat. But she couldn't find it anywhere. Not on the floor, not on the tub. She finally found it wadded at the bottom of the laundry hamper in her mother's room, damp and smelling of mildew. She stared at it, puzzled by its location. Maybe her mother moved it after she got back up.
Her mother stood at the hallway entrance as Sheila donned her coat and boots. Sheila kissed her on her cheek.
I'll be back on Friday then, if all goes well. Don't worry about what I said. We'll figure something out. In the meantime, no more slipping.
Her mother looked away, then back. Suddenly, she gripped Sheila's hands as if she had something important to say. Then she let go.
Friday it is, she said and turned away from the door and Sheila.
As Sheila left, she wondered what it was her mother had wanted to talk about. She was still trying to figure it out as she switched on the ignition and waited for the engine to turn over, fearing briefly, as she used to when she was a teenager, that it wouldn't catch and she'd be stuck there forever.
Mary Baxter is a London, Ontario writer who specializes in agriculture. She holds an Honours B.A. in English from the University of British Columbia and an M.Phil. in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College, University of Dublin and has completed Humber College's creative writing mentor program. In 2008, she was one of a team of three awarded the Canadian Association of Journalists magazine category award for investigative journalism in 2007 as well as the American Agricultural Editors' Award for best team story. In 2009, she received a gold award for monthly reporting and silver for press feature from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation and this year she received a silver award for special projects from the North American Agricultural Journalists. Her creative writing has appeared in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Niedengrasse, and several regional publications serving Grey and Bruce Counties in Ontario.
Painting: Tom Yost, "Winter Tree".
Origianlly from Oregon, Oxford, Connecticut, based artist Tom Yost is not only an accomplished painter, but also a gifted art restorer. His paintings often depict the rural landscape of Connecticut in a realist style.
"My objective as a landscape painter is to create realistic images that go beyond merely depicting a scene. It is my intent to capture the atmospheric quality of that location and to impart that sense of a special place and time," Yost says about his paintings.
His works can be purchased at Cooley Gallery (25 Lyme Street, Old Lyme, CT 06371). Yost's website: www.tomyostpaintings.com