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A Tale of Two Mothers

(by Bex O'Brian)

It was a few minutes before five in the evening on a Sunday. I wandered into my bedroom, chewing on a piece of toast I had made, leaving the bread and butter out on the counter in the kitchen. My sister was sitting on my bed, her expertly packed weekend bag at her feet.

“You shouldn’t eat between meals,” she said. “My mother never lets me.”

I shrugged to hide my shame. My mother let me do everything. Eat between meals. Eat with my hands. Eat nothing but baked beans on toast for months on end. Besides, I had seen no signs of any dinner of any kind in evidence while making my toast. Catch as catch can. I swallowed my last bite, aware of the spill of bread crumbs all down my front. My sister sighed. There was obviously no hope for me.

That Sunday, I had just turned eight, and Mercy was ten. The blurred landscape of early childhood was beginning to come into focus. And nothing was clearer than the disparity between our domestic lives. One neat. One, not so much. A sister is a sister is a sister (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein), but I was starting to glean that when you have different mothers, you are going to exist in a crazy cauldron of jealousy (she got to have two Christmases), confusion, covetousness, loneliness (why was she only with me once a fortnight?), but mostly you are going to live in a world of comparisons.

Her house. My house. Her mother. My mother. No two women could be less alike.

At five on the dot, the doorbell rang. And there was Marcus, my father’s first wife, her coat cinched around her thin waist, her hair perfectly coifed, her teeth straight.

Greeting her was my mother, smiling her gap-tooth smile, pulling her ratty cardigan across her heavy bust, her fingers nicotine- and ink-stained (take that, Jo March!), her hair a fright.

As the slightly nervous pleasantries were exchanged, and Marcus reined her daughter into her protective orb, my own fervent brain was churning over the fact that my father had had sex with this woman, let alone shared meals. Having seen my mother naked, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why my father would abandon so fine a specimen. Maybe it had all been a terrible mistake, which would, by my reckoning, make me a mistake. Looking around our shabby-chic apartment, that seemed a real possibility.

“Did you have a nice time, darling?”

Mercy nodded. But not very demonstratively. And as they picked their way down ice-covered stairs into the cold Canadian night, I was scraped by the knowledge that my sister was heading back to order, warmth, ritual, candlelight dinners, cloth napkins. I had long made a habit of nagging Mercy into telling me about her other life. It all had to be hearsay because her stepfather (a former business partner of my father) didn’t want any aspect of Marcus’s past polluting his hard-won domain. Back in the ’60s, before blended families, children weren’t innocent victims to be protected; they were instruments of war.

I’d listen misty-eyed as she told me about closets where the linens were all neatly stacked, how outside shoes were forbidden in the house, and how all the hairbrushes were soaked and cleaned once a week. But what fascinated me most was that dinner was served promptly at 7 pm.