Authors: Irene N.Watts
For Vicki Duncan
As always, thanks to my editors, Kathy Lowinger and Sue Tate.
The following people and institutions have been enormously helpful in the creation of this narrative:
Cathi Zbarsky, Firehall Library, Vancouver, British Columbia
Georgia Robinson, Lindsay Public Library, Lindsay, Ontario
Lorne Gray, Blacksmith, Vancouver, British Columbia
Marlis Lindsay, King Bethune House, Peterborough, Ontario
The Peterborough Centennial Archives
Professor Tania Watts, Department of Immunology, University of Toronto
A lily of a day
Is fairer far in May
Although it fall and die that night
It was the plant and flower of light
In small proportions we just beauties see
And in short measures, life may perfect be.
A Part of an Ode
Ben Jonson 1572–1637
used to talk a lot to my mother. I’d curl up beside her on the couch after school, and tell her about my day. How Miss Jones said Angie and me were chatterboxes, and about the bad boys in my grade one class. I saved up knock-knock jokes and she always laughed, even when I got them mixed up. Dad called us his laughing girls.
One afternoon she said, “Time to teach you how to make Dad’s favorite cookies for Christmas.”
“Gingerbread,” I said.
Mom got the things we needed and handed them to me. I lined them up on the kitchen table one by one, and repeated the names so I’d remember them next time. She showed me how to measure half a cup of brown sugar and three cups of flour, a teaspoon of ginger and a pinch of salt, then two-thirds of a cup of molasses. I broke an egg into
a bowl and beat it up with a fork (that was before I hated eggs). We took turns creaming the butter, then Mom added the other ingredients and I poured in the molasses a little at a time. When the mixture was ready, I rolled it out with the big rolling pin and made crescent-moon shapes and stars and trees with my own cookie cutters.
Dad tasted the gingerbread and told Mom it was the best gingerbread she’d ever made. I shouted, “Mom didn’t make it, it was me!” Gingerbread became my signature dish, something I always made for Christmas and birthdays.
That year Mom enrolled me in drama classes. I went every Saturday morning and, as soon as I got home, I’d tell her about the stories we’d heard and acted out.
She said, “I love stories.”
“Me, too,” I said, “and for Halloween I’m going to be a princess, or a witch, or maybe a ghost.” I made scary noises and Mom pretended to be frightened. I asked her when she was going to start making my costume, and she said, “There’s lots of time before then, Katie.” But there wasn’t enough time–there was hardly any time left.
Mom died of cancer a few weeks after Christmas, soon after my seventh birthday.
For a long while, I went on talking to her. I’d sit at the dining room table and look up at her picture. Dad told me it was painted when they went on holiday to Greece, the year before I was born.
Mom’s eyes are green, not brown like Dad’s. In the picture she’s smiling at something a long way off. Dad says she’s looking at the ocean, but I know she’s smiling at me. Her short reddish brown hair is ruffled by the wind and she’s tucked her pink shirt into a blue denim skirt.
I thought she was still there inside the picture, that she could hear me when I spoke to her. I told her all kinds of stuff: how I was having problems in school telling left from right, how I mixed up
, how my threes faced the wrong way.
Soon after that, Dad came into my room for a goodnight hug and said, “A kiss for your left hand–the one with the freckle on it–and one for your right. Now go to sleep, Miss Kaitlin Carr. Dad has a mountain of work to finish.”
That was how I learned left from right, so I
Mom was still listening to me. I imagined her as a gentle ghost who could put things right. I was a pretty weird kid.
I haven’t talked out loud to Mom for years. After she died, Gran (Dad’s mother) came to look after us for a while and, when she went back to Halifax, Dad and I muddled on. Actually, we managed pretty well with help from neighbors, invitations to meals, and a lot of takeout dinners from Greek restaurants nearby.
I’m glad we didn’t move from the house Mom and Dad bought when they got married. They chose it because it was close to the University of Toronto, where
Dad still works, and because Chester Avenue is right round the corner from Danforth Avenue, which is the center of the Greek district.
My father’s an associate professor of biology at the university. He often works late, and sometimes he goes away to give lectures on his research project: “Lymphocyte Development in Chicken Embryos.” When I went to meet him one Saturday, he showed me the warming chamber, which held a rack of eggs. He shone a light on the eggs and I saw the embryos inside. They were honestly the most disgusting things I’d ever seen–totally, absolutely, gross. I didn’t know how he could face eating eggs ever again. It doesn’t seem to bother him. I guess scientists aren’t as squeamish as other people. I can’t look at an egg without seeing those poor little squirming creatures. I’m even into baking eggless cakes now.
Last year, we redecorated and had the dining room painted terra-cotta. When it was time to put the pictures back, Dad asked me if I’d like to keep Mom’s portrait in my room. I hung it on the wall facing my bed. I look up at her sometimes when I’m learning lines for a play, or writing in my journal. She’s been dead over six years now, and I guess, most of the time, I’ve kind of adjusted to losing her.
Actually, I thought about Mom today. We had drama this afternoon, just about the only subject capable of keeping anyone’s attention on the last Friday of school
before summer vacation. Mr. Keith, our drama teacher, let us do the first read through of
The Secret Garden.
We sat around and took turns reading different parts. When Mary Lennox wakes up in her big house in India, not knowing that everyone has died of cholera, and she’s all alone, it reminded me of how quiet our house is, without my happy mother.
There are great roles for all of us: hunchbacked Uncle Archibald; Martha, the maid; Lily, the ghost of Mary’s aunt and mother of the spoilt, bedridden boy, Colin, who becomes Mary’s friend. Mel really wants to play Dickon, the boy who talks to animals. A lot of the guys do. I wouldn’t want to be in Mr. Keith’s shoes at audition time. That usually happens the first week we get back to school. I’m desperate to play Mary and can’t wait to begin rehearsals.
Angie said, “Don’t obsess, Katie. Thank goodness that’s months away.” I can’t help it–what else is there to look forward to? Mel’s going on a fishing trip with his dad and Angie is off to an arts camp on Lake Ontario.
After Mom died, I thought we’d always keep the house the way it was. That’s not what happened. Things started to change around the time Dad promised to come to the annual fund-raising evening at school. He was late as usual, and snuck in just as the school orchestra finished their first number. Truthfully, he didn’t miss much. Our
class put on a play with music called
We Shall Never Die.
It’s the true story of a mining disaster that happened in an English colliery in 1832. Twenty-six children, aged seven to seventeen, were lost. I was one of the trappers, a young girl who’s afraid of the dark. A flood swept through the underground tunnels and the kids whose job it was to open and close the doors as part of the ventilation system drowned.
Dad wanted to know why we couldn’t put on something more cheerful, but said he’d make it somehow. If I’d known what was going to happen, I would have moved Heaven and Earth to keep him away. Not because it didn’t go well; it did. Some of the parents were even wiping their eyes by the end of the performance, and a huge amount of money was raised for new computers and library books.
When the play was over, the principal went round greeting people. She’d invited her niece–you’d never guess that they were related. Our principal looks like … well … like a principal. Her niece is tall, with shining blonde chin-length hair. As far as Angie and I could tell, she wasn’t wearing any makeup.
“Bet she’s a model,” Angie mouthed to me. I saw perfect skin, big gray eyes, and one of those skinny bodies that look great in anything. She was wearing black leather pants, a red blazer, and a white silk shirt.
The principal introduced her to Dad. Stephanie told us that she and her brother had recently opened a boutique, Stephanie and Giles, in the Distillery District–a trendy part of downtown Toronto that used to be an old Victorian industrial area. It’s being restored into a cool place with coffee bars, boutiques, art galleries, and work spaces.
She congratulated me on my performance, gave Dad her card, and said, “Why don’t you bring your daughter to my shop? We’ve got some lovely things in right now, and it’s fun down there.”
, I thought.
Shopping is not the way to my dad’s heart.
“We might do that. Katie’s always complaining she’s got nothing to wear. Perhaps next Saturday?” Dad said, leaving me speechless.
It got worse, much worse, because five months later they were married.
Dad helpfully pointed out how nice it would be for me to have someone around the house who was only twenty-eight, young enough to be my sister. Is that how he wanted me to think of her, as a sister? I needed a sister about as much as I needed a stepmother.
I thought Dad and I were just fine before she arrived. Dad said, “Nothing is going to change between us, Katie.”
Ha-ha, big joke.
Everything has changed, and all
the stories I’ve ever heard or read about stepmothers are coming true.