It started on May twenty-third, my sixty-eighth birthday. It was an important day, my son William and my daughter Margaret were coming with their families. William is a dentist, a solidly dependable man with a beautiful wife; Marissa, a veterinary assistant, or something of the sort. They have two boys: David Arthur, nineteen at the time, and Duncan Stephen, two years younger. And Margaret, we call her Maggie, is a free spirit, travelling about the country, working with this museum or that gallery, making her Art History degree pay for itself while she paints and home schools her daughter Sadie, then thirteen.
I hadn’t heard from William in more than a month. He and Marissa work such long hours, and their boys are so busy with friends and school and work. Maggie had called me from Halifax on Mother’s Day and we had talked until Arthur had come home from his bowling league and told me not to waste all Maggie’s long-distance phone time and reminded me how close to dinner it was getting.
I suppose it was my birthday that started the change in me. It’s not that I minded cooking supper, I adore being in the kitchen. Maggie and Sadie were bringing their camper and staying the night out in the yard. I insisted May was too chilly for camping out but they said they had a portable heater and they’d be alright.
But then William and Marissa arrived and informed me they were spending the night, and the guest room wasn’t ready because no one had told me. And David had spent the entire afternoon playing on the computer Maggie had so patiently taught me to use so that I could keep in touch with my sister who lived across the country. And Duncan had hidden downstairs playing video games on one of those little handheld machines. And Arthur had spent the whole day at the legion, because that’s what Arthur does on Saturdays and even if he had been home he wouldn’t have lifted a finger to make the bed in the guest room. Not that Marissa or William offered to help. At least Maggie and Sadie rolled up their sleeves after dinner and helped me with the dishes while William sipped his beer and insisted I get a dishwasher and Arthur sipped his beer insisted it was a waste of money since it was only the two of us now.
When I woke the next morning William was up and reading the previous day’s paper. “Got any coffee?” he asked when he saw me. So I set about making a pot of coffee even though Arthur usually drinks instant and I prefer tea. Arthur woke up grumpy because Marissa was in the shower. The boys woke up hungry and asking for pancakes so I made pancakes, and more pancakes, and more pancakes. William hadn’t been a big eater so it amazed me to see just how much two growing boys could devour. Marissa doesn’t eat pancakes so I pulled out the toaster. Arthur wanted his usually bowl of porridge. David wanted jam on his pancakes. Duncan wanted syrup.
And at ten o’clock, just as the last bites of pancake were disappearing, William said, “We’d best get going. The boys have homework.” And in a whirlwind of activity they were gone. I stood looking at the mess on the kitchen table and counters with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Arthur kissed my cheek. “I’m off to bowling,” he said, and then he too was gone.
It was about this time that Maggie and Sadie came in, the former with a mug of steaming coffee in hand, the latter with her homework tucked under her arm. “Good morning Mom,” Maggie said.
“Did you want breakfast?” I asked.
She held up her mug. “This is enough for me and Sadie already ate. Do you mind if I set Sadie up at your computer so she can do her homework?”
Of course I didn’t mind, but it felt good to be asked. I nodded a started on the clean-up. The kitchen was slightly less of a nightmare when Maggie returned, still sipping at her steaming cup. “If you need a refill help yourself. William and Marissa left half a pot,” I said as I wiped the last of the syrup off the table.
“Did you want a hand?”
“No. You were a big help last night. I can manage on my own this morning. Tell me how work is going.”
She chatted about a series of paintings she’d finished over the winter that had been selected for a gallery show in June. She told me all about helping a curator fine tune the dates of a set of pre-Victorian era paintings that had recently been donated. She complained that Sadie had no desire to pick up a paintbrush, camera, or any other art tool but preferred to write, and essays of all things.
“You know, I was quite artsy myself, way back when.” I’d never told her that before.
“Why did you stop?”
“Oh, those were the times. A woman was expected to settle down and have a family. Besides, making a living as an artist was probably even harder in those days then it is today. We didn’t have graphic design firms. And women couldn’t be curators and art professors. The best we could hope for was being a nude model.”
She laughed and something woke up in me. Leaving the dishes to drip dry for a change I poured myself a fresh cup of tea and joined Maggie at the table. “I’m sorry Mom, I was picturing you as a nude model.”
“Don’t laugh,” I said, fluffing my hair. “I was quite lovely in my time.” The fact that I was in my house coat made the joke even funnier I suppose.
Still smiling she asked, “Why don’t you take an art course now? They’re offered at the community center, and university courses are free for seniors.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s so much to do about the house, and errands, and what not. I don’t think I’d have the time. And who’s to say I have any talent?” I twisted my tea cup back and forth on the table until the silence made me glance up. Maggie was watching me, her lips pressed together, and a slight frown revealing where her wrinkles would eventually be.
“Alright, Mom,” she said, a note of concern in her voice. “But I wish you wouldn’t brush it off so quickly. Will you at least think about it?”
I smiled. “I’ll think about it.”
Maggie and Sadie were gone before Arthur returned from bowling so I set about tidying the rest of the house. I took an empty laundry basket and went downstairs to collect the sheets and pillows off the hide-a-bed and froze at the bottom of the stairs. The bed was a mess, there was a pop can under the bed, and a half dozen books had been pulled off the shelf and left scattered about the room along with nearly a dozen movies.
I don’t know how long I stood staring before I slowly retreated up the stairs. I moved across the house to the guest room and opened the door. The bed there wasn’t much better, and rounding the bed I found an abandoned glass sitting on the carpet still half full of water. My plant had been banished from the table by the window to a shelf in the closet where the sun didn’t reach. Not that any sunlight filtered into the room with the blinds still closed.
As I cleaned I tried my hardest to push the idea of taking art classes out of my mind but the thought stuck with me. Could I really do this? Did I have any talent? Did it matter if I had talent?
I grabbed a Community Workshops catalogue from the grocery store the next time I went shopping and as soon as I had a quiet moment I settled down to explore it. There were only three art classes for seniors, one in watercolour, one in oils, and one in digital photography. The photography didn’t really appeal to me. We had a digital camera but it was already getting old and I knew how to use it. I had never really played with oils before but I remembered Maggie fighting with them for weeks; they seemed so complicated with all the cleaners and thinners and thickeners. But I had some experience in watercolours and I had enjoyed it. So if I was going to take a course I decided watercolours would be the one.
It took me a week of pulling the catalogue out in secret and reading the course description to myself before I even admitted to myself that this class was something I wanted. When Arthur sat down for dinner that night he said, “What’s this doing here?”
I realized I’d left the catalogue on the table and my heart sank. There was no point lying to him about it. “I picked it up at the store,” I said.
“Why? You don’t need swimming lessons.”
“There’s more than just aqua fitness classes in there,” I defended.
He snorted. “Nothing worth while.”
“Actually, I was looking at the Seniors classes. They have a watercolour class coming up on Thursday afternoons and ...”
He laughed out loud. “Why would you want to take painting classes? You’re too old to learn to paint. What would be the point? And it will cost too much. Besides, I’m home Thursday afternoons so why go out at all?”
I stared at my plate. I should have been feeling small, put in my place, grateful that he had reminded me of my own foolishness. Instead I felt angry, I felt like screaming at him. I could do this, I wanted to do this, and who was he to tell me no, anyway. Keeping my eyes on my plate I said, “Of course. How silly of me,” and went on with my dinner.
The next morning Arthur left to pick up an old buddy from work to go to the used car auction. Arthur didn’t know the first thing about restoring cars but his friend liked the company so Arthur went. As soon as the house was empty I set about packing. There wasn’t much to take, just some clothes, my hairbrush, and my tea cup with the little daisies on it that Sadie had bought me for Christmas years ago. Then I made the most important phone call of my life.
Thirty minutes later Maggie was at my door. “What’s going on, Mom?” she said. “You sounded strange on the phone.”
“Everything’s fine. Arthur has the car and I needed a ride.”
“Sure, no problem.” She loaded my bag in the back seat and we started off down the quiet suburban street where I had lived for the last twenty years. “Where are we going?”
I pulled out the catalogue. “Could you take me to the Senior’s Center? I’d like to register for a class there.” I read her the address. Setting her lips in that stubborn line I knew so well she drove in silence.
After registering for the class we went back to Maggie’s house for tea. “You’re acting strange, Mom. What happened? Are you okay?”
“You know what, Maggie? I’m feeling better than I have in years. Do you mind if I stay with you for a few days?”
“No problem. But you know I leave in ten days for that gallery show. I can’t miss my own show opening. And I do have to call Dad and tell him that you’re here. I don’t want him having a heart attack when he finds you missing.”
“Do what you need to,” I replied. “I’m going to unpack.”
The next morning when I came downstairs there was a fresh pot of tea, a stack of toast, and an assortment of spreads on the table. After exchanging good mornings and settling at the table Maggie levelled her most mature stare at me and said, “Dad didn’t sound too happy on the phone last night. I think you need to tell me what’s going on.”
“Oh, Maggie, you shouldn’t worry about it. I just need a few days. Your father and I will sort this out.”
She continued to stare. “Mom, you’re twisting your tea cup again.”
I dropped both hands in my lap and dropped my gaze from hers.
“Don’t try to brush this off Mom. If you want to stay here, that’s fine, but I need to know exactly what’s going on.”
“Alright, I’ll try to explain. For fifty years I’ve been happy in my little suburban world. Really happy. I’m proud of you, and your brother. I feel I did right as a mother and a wife. But something happened this last week that has made me see how small my life is, or how small my life is making me. I don’t know what, exactly. Arthur has just been Arthur. And my birthday, well it wasn’t all that different than any other gathering we’ve had since you and your brother moved out. But now I don’t want to go back to that life, I don’t want to be that Sarah anymore. I want to grow a little, I want to be more than just a wife, or a mother, or a grandmother. I don’t want to be defined by my relationship to other people anymore.”
Maggie nodded. “I understand all too well, but I have to take you back there. You can leave your bags in my car and I will go in with you, but the two of you need to talk about this. You can’t just run away from your house and your possessions and your marriage without at least talking to him first.”
“Like you talked to Mike?” I asked, feeling a little defensive that my unmarried daughter was lecturing me on relationships, and feeling even more defensive because I agreed with her.
“Oh trust me, Mom, we talked. And shouted and swore at each other. I’m proud of you for walking out, but you loved Dad once and you need to be damn sure you can’t make this work before you abandon a fifty-year marriage.”
I sighed, defeated. “You’re right, of course. I’ll go pack.”
Arthur’s face hardened when he saw me come in. “What were you thinking, taking off like that? You didn’t think to leave supper in the fridge before you left? What did you think I was going to eat last night? A sandwich? I can’t believe that after fifty years you would be so inconsiderate.”
Maggie’s eyebrows shot up. “And this is why I didn’t marry Sadie’s father.”
He stared at her in disbelief. Before they could start into their fourteen-year-long argument about marriage values, one I didn’t know which side I stood on anymore, I said, “Why don’t we all get comfortable so we can talk.”
We moved from the doorway to the living room where Arthur presided from his armchair. “I registered for that art class,” I said. “It starts next week.”
“I thought I said no. I’m home Thursdays, you should be home with me,” he replied.
I shrugged, feeling a little reckless. I had survived raising two children, basically on my own, and everything that went with it: the dirty diapers, the puke, the poop, the two-year-old temper tantrums, and the rebellious teen years. Compared to the last fifty years of my life, this should be easy. “If you want to spend time with me maybe you should cut out bowling, or the Legion, or the used car auction, or Bingo, or your twice weekly coffee date with the men you used to work with. The class is only for six weeks.”
“What about the housework? What about supper?”
“You could lift a finger and help.”
He glared. “I worked for forty-seven years so you could eat and so we would have a pension to live on. Now, I am going to enjoy my retirement. That means no more working, for any boss. Not even you.”
My self-assurance waned. He had worked forty-seven years in a back breaking, physically demanding job so that I could stay home and raise my children. I loved him once, and that doesn’t just go away.
Maggie looked her father, then at me, then back again. “Dad, couldn’t you just ...”
“No, I refuse. And I refuse to let you take that ridiculous art course.”
Refuse. How could he love me and still refuse me one little thing to make my life a little brighter? I took a deep breath, braced myself, and said, “I’m sorry Arthur. But I refuse to live in a box only as big as you say it can be. I’ll be staying at Maggie’s until you change your mind.”
“Maggie’s never in town!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Maggie said. “It’ll be nice to have someone around to bring the mail in while I’m gone. She can stay at my house as long as she needs to. I don’t mind at all.”
Out in the car Maggie said, “I’m sorry Mom, I didn’t know he’d gotten that bad.”
“Neither had I.”
I went back to the house a few times, trying to reason with Arthur, but I could make no headway. As it turned out I was quite good with a paintbrush and Maggie allowed me a corner of her studio so I could paint whenever I pleased. When Maggie returned from her gallery opening we had a long talk about the future and she called her lawyer on my behalf.
It felt strange sitting in that board room with Arthur across the table in the suit he only wore for funerals and weddings. Endings and beginnings. “Sarah,” my lawyer said, “Why don’t you start?”
I took a deep breath. “I have thought about this for a long time. If Arthur refuses to help around the house, and refuses to allow me to continue painting, I don’t see us being able to reconcile.”
Arthur snorted. “And if she doesn’t drop this foolishness I don’t see us being able to reconcile.”
My lawyer laid a sheet of paper on the table. “This is a settlement my client has drawn up. She requests a few family heirlooms including a rocking chair and a hope chest, and three hundred dollars each month to help her pay her rent. She also requests one quarter the value of the house when or if you choose to sell.”
Another snort from Arthur who seemed to be completely ignoring his lawyer’s attempts to restrain his outbursts. “Nonsense. She can’t live on her own without a husband! And she certainly can’t live on three hundred a month.”
“Are you offering more?” my lawyer pushed.
“Of course not. I expect her to come home, today.”
“I’m sorry Arthur,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
A year has passed since then. Maggie and I have a wonderful arrangement: I pay utilities while she’s out of town, she pays them while she’s in town, we share the studio space, the cooking responsibilities, and the chores. I don’t see Arthur anymore, though Maggie has let me know on occasion how he’s doing.
I haven’t seen William since the divorce was finalized since he agreed with his father. He did come over once, just before the papers were signed, and told me I was being cruel and spiteful. Did I realize Arthur was all alone and that he wasn’t eating right? I told him it wasn’t my problem any more and that if he wasn’t careful he would end up just like his father some day.
I started selling my paintings at the Seniors’ Christmas Craft Sale and the woman who runs the gift store at the museum bought every thing I’d painted to sell at the store. She even asked for more.
In January Arthur sold the house and moved in with William. Maggie tells me it’s driving Marissa crazy. She wants to put him in an Assisted Living Apartment and William won’t let her. He won’t help around the house and he’s very demanding, but I could have warned her about that. Arthur doesn’t understand that a home, a family, needs a parent that cares and nurtures, needs a mother, but a woman doesn’t need a man.
Casia Schreyer is a writer living in Manitoba, Canada.