By: Kaitlin Packer
I woke with my pajamas wet against my shoulder blades and my hair soaked through at the base of my neck. Jumping out of bed, I opened my computer and squinted at the email that came through the day before, the email I read and re-read.
I cried for an hour after receiving it. Someone had finally recognized my hard work. I could go to work and make lattes for rich people and still believe my life was going somewhere.
I snapped the laptop closed and pressed my forehead against its smooth surface. “Shit,” I ran to the washroom and retched over the toilet. I stayed there as the light outside grew.
I just have to decline the offer and forget about this. Maybe I’ll write something new, something better.
Downstairs Mom was frying bacon and my sister Sarah was sitting at the table, texting.
“Well, look who decided to get up today,” Mom laughed as I headed straight for the coffeemaker.
I took my first sip of coffee. “Why does this drink never get old?”
“You’re probably going to die young,” Sarah said without looking up from her phone.
“I’ll take that chance.”
I leaned over Mom’s shoulder and stole a piece of bacon from the plate beside the stove.
“Kels!” Mom swatted my hand away.
Mom rolled her eyes, but I knew she liked to hear it.
“So?” Mom looked at me.
“How was the date last night?”
With the email in my subconscious, I had forgotten I’d even gone on a date. “He was a dud,” I sat in a kitchen chair and pulled my knees to my chest.
“I hope you got a free dinner out of it.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m going to give both of you gals a night you’ll never forget.”
“Martini girl’s night.” Sarah danced in her chair.
“Are you even old enough to drink?”
“Shut up,” she said.
Martini girl’s night was an annual tradition that started the first year we lived apart from my dad. When we were too young to go to a martini bar, we just dressed up at home and Mom made mocktails. Now, our favourite place to go was a spacious lounge downtown with a dreamy Ed Sheeran-type as the musical entertainment.
“I’m going to go shower,” I excused myself.
When I came back downstairs, Mom and Sarah were finishing their breakfast.
“Why do you think she’s coming here?” Sarah asked my mom.
“Who’s coming?” I went straight to the coffee-maker for round two.
“Carol.” Mom cleared her throat.
“Like, your mom Carol?”
“The one and only.”
I sat at the table and cradled the mug of coffee in my hands. “I didn’t know you had started talking to her.”
“I haven’t. She got my email address from Uncle Dave.”
“She’s coming to Toronto for a few weeks and says she wants to see me.”
“I don’t know.” Mom wouldn’t look at me. “It’s the first time she’s reached out in a while.”
“Is she on a book tour or something?” Sarah asked.
I almost choked on my coffee. The last time Mom talked about her mother’s books was four months ago, right after I’d submitted my own book for publishing.
I had spent a year and a half of focused work on that novel. I switched back and forth from the small dimly lit corner in the university’s largest library to the desk in the room I rented off-campus. Countless nights of tears and burnt coffee.
Writing was therapy—and not just in the ways that any creative activity is a healing process. It was my way to articulate the pain I get in my chest when I see Mom cry or the panic I feel when I sit in a parked car for more than a few minutes.
It was my way of making sense of a childhood where my mom would lock me in the van whenever my dad came home drunk. It was my way of finding a voice when I grew up trying to be as quiet as possible, trying to push myself as far as I could under the back seat of the vehicle so Dad would, perhaps, forget about me.
Mom had eventually rescued Sarah and me from the situation, like she rescued me from writer’s block. Throughout the writing process, she brought me freezer meals and took me out for dinner on the weekends. She’d do anything for me, but she never asked me what I was writing. I never told her. It had always been that way, ever since I made it clear that I was serious about writing.
When I finally finished the novel, graduated and moved home to find a job. I left a copy of it, lying on the table one evening and forgot about it for a few days. I forgot about it until Mom showed up in my room one night, asking me if I planned to publish it.
“I mean. I hope so,” I said, not mentioning that my professor had just helped me submit it to a list of publishers.
“You can’t do that,” she said. She looked like she was holding her breath. “You can’t write about me.”
“If I can’t write about you, then I can’t write about me,” I said.
“Kels, I mean it.”
I had known that her and Grandma had fallen out when I was young, but she had never told me what she told me that night. How the best-seller Grandma wrote “ruined her life”. How she thought Grandma used that book to take revenge on her exhusband, but the real devastation fell on her and Uncle Sam. How she stopped having dinner with her friends who had read the book because she knew they knew the intimate details of her childhood.
“And now this. Don’t you think I know me and your Dad have hurt you the most?”
“You didn’t hurt me, Mom. Dad hurt me. Do you think it was easy watching you suffer with him? This story isn’t even about you. It’s about me.” I could feel my voice getting squeaky.
“Since when did you ever care about my writing anyway?”
“I do care. I do. I just can’t handle this. I’m in this. I know you’re writing about me. If you publish this…”
I felt like I was in a nightmare, naked in front of an audience, watching as my biggest supporter stormed out in the middle of my shame.
But I couldn’t bear the thought of losing Mom. She’d been through everything with me, through counselling, abuse and legal battles.
She felt strongly enough to cut her mother out of her life.
I couldn’t shake that thought.
The first Saturday I knew Grandma was in town, I kept misspelling people’s names when I took their coffee orders. I checked my pocket for the sticky note with the address on it. Mom had decided she wasn’t going to get in touch with Grandma, but I’d logged into her email account late the night before and snagged the name of the hotel where she was staying. Just in case, I’d told myself.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I could accomplish with a visit. Maybe Grandma was a terrible person and I could comfort myself that the demise of her relationship with Mom wasn’t just based on her writing. Or, maybe she would understand my struggle as a writer. Maybe she’d give me clarity.
Grandma’s hotel was near the University of Toronto. I felt like
I couldn’t swallow as I asked the hotel receptionist for Carol Burton. She called up to Grandma’s room and it seemed like the person on the other end of the line took forever to answer. Finally, the receptionist gave me her room number and told me I could go up.
I’d seen pictures of Grandma before. But the woman who answered my knock looked even prettier than the pictures I’d seen. She was wearing a black turtleneck with hoop earrings and straight white hair and glasses with provoking frames.
“Kelsey!” she smiled. “Come on in.” She shut the door and gave me a brief hug. “I was so surprised to hear that Kelsey was here to see me. For a minute, I thought it was one of my students.
Did your Mom come with you? Here, have a seat.”
“Yeah, I really wanted to meet you,” I said genuinely. “I mean, meet you again.”
“I’m so delighted. Your mom and sister, they’re–.”
“I don’t think they’ll be coming. I found out where you were staying from Mom’s email account; she doesn’t know I’m here.”
“I see,” Grandma got up and grabbed two bottles of sparkling water out of the fridge and poured them into two glasses. I noticed how I had been subconsciously trying to hold myself with the same straight posture Grandma had.
We talked over the basics from the past twenty years, Grandma’s most recent book and the three-week writing course that she was teaching in the city, my studies and where I was looking for work. I even told her about the manuscript I’d written—and that I’d gotten an offer for publishing.
That’s incredible,” she touched my arm. “I’m sure you don’t need my help, but I’m always here if you need an extra pair of eyes to edit.”
I nodded uncomfortably.
“Of course,” Grandma said, watching me closely. “A writer’s work is personal.”
“It’s not that,” I said, sitting up straighter. “I just don’t think I’ll actually be publishing it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I just don’t think I can.”
I avoided Grandma’s gaze. “Someone close to me read it and it really hurt them,” I said.
Grandma opened her mouth as if to say something and then stopped.
I see,” she finally said.
I took a sip of my sparkling water.
“The thing is, Kelsey, you can’t let what other people think define your writing. Not even people you love.”
“Why though?” I said. “What’s more important? A relationship or being true to your art?”
I meant it as a legitimate question, but Grandma was silent for what felt like a long time and I realized I’d crossed a line.
“It wasn’t her story,” Grandma said, defensively. “It was mine.”
“But it was hers too,” I said, knowing I was just playing the devil’s advocate.
“So, you’re willing to scrap your novel?” Grandma asked.
I moved my glass back and forth on the coffee table. “Not yet.”
You still haven’t answered my question,” I said. “How can a book be more important than a relationship?”
Grandma sized me up. “A book is not.” She poured me more water.
“But there is no relationship when one person is silenced.”
“Exactly,” I met Grandma’s gaze.
I stood to leave and Grandma gave me a stiff hug. “Come to one of my lectures.”
“Okay,” I said. “And you should come visit us. Or call or something.”
“Well, I emailed.”
“The first email in years, right?”
“Kelsey.” The way Grandma looked at me made my neck get warm. “The ball’s in her court.”
When I got home that evening, I saw the office light and Mom’s silhouette. “Mom?” I stepped into the office.
“Hey, where you been?”
“Just thinking,” I said.
“What?” Mom laughed.
“I’m going to bed. Love you.”
I woke with my pajamas wet against my shoulder blades and my hair soaked through at the base of my neck. Jumping out of bed, I flipped open my laptop and started typing furiously until the song of the sparrows broke through my earbuds like victory. Print.
After work that day, I headed back to the hotel where Grandma was staying. When she opened the door, I noticed she was wearing a turtleneck again–purple this time.
“Nice to see you so soon.” She looked genuinely pleased.
“I wanted to give you this.” I handed her the pages I’d written that morning.
“What is it? Writing Mother out of my Memoir.” Grandma read the title slowly.
“I started re-writing my novel. I want you to read what I have so far.”
We sat in the two armchairs that were still arranged in one corner from the previous afternoon and Grandma read it silently. I studied the pattern on the curtain, trying to find an end to the swirls. Finally, she looked up.
“Kelsey, your mom is still in this.”
“But not directly.”
“But it’s still about you and her.”
I let out a long breath. “I know, but this one exposes her less. It kind of shows how life would’ve been terrible without her.” Grandma’s eyes were a bright, paralyzing blue. “And your other novel didn’t?”
“Listen,” I swallowed audibly. “I need you to talk to my mom.”
“No, you really don’t,” Grandma said.
“If you could patch things up, I think it would make a difference.”
“I know you think it will.”
When I heard the doorbell ring the next evening, I looked out my bedroom window and recognized her straight, silver hair. I heard Mom’s quick step from the office to the front door and the quiet mingling of voices. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. I watched Grandma leave and heard Mom come up the stairs.
“Can I come in?” She pushed open the door slowly.
“Who was that?” I asked.
Mom let out a deep breath. “It was your Grandma.”
“Kels, she said you gave her our address.”
“Anyway, she asked if we could have dinner tomorrow night.”
“I said yes.”
“Cool,” I tried to sound nonchalant.
“You went and saw her?” Mom fingered the edge of her shirt.
“Yeah I just really wanted to meet her,” I said. “Sorry, I maybe should’ve told you.”
“It’s okay. What did you talk about?”
“We just caught up. Small talk. She seems really nice though, Mom.”
“Okay,” Mom was silent as she looked at the mountains of paper and binders and notebooks scattered across my bed and stacked on my desk. “You really need to clean this place, you know.”
“Sarah and I are going to watch a movie if you want to join.”
After I heard Mom’s footsteps retreat downstairs, I opened my laptop and clicked ‘reply’ to the email from the publisher. I wrote a message and re-read it once, and then again before clicking ‘send’.
“Thank you for the offer, but…”
I grabbed my copy of the rewritten novel that I’d shown Grandma, crumpled it in a ball and tossed it in the garbage. I tucked my original novel in a folder on my desk, humming to myself. I grabbed a pen and labeled the folder ‘Save for later’.
Then I went downstairs and joined the two girls sitting on the couch, sharing popcorn.