I was sitting on the back porch, overlooking all our neighbours. When I was 15, our house had a massive back yard that took up the core of the residential city block. Everyone’s back yard bordered on ours. From the porch I could see into the yards of a lot of families, yards where their personal lives spilled out from their houses: broken ride-em toys, unpainted fences, half assed atrium renos. The general public would see the perfect front lawns when driving by but I was privy to a more intimate view. As I sat there I thought about these people whom I didn’t know and how parts of their lives were fueling my curiosity. I then mirrored it back to my life and wondered if I was normal. Would ever be normal.
Margaret came out from the back door.
Margaret was our “family friend”. The woman who stuck with both Mom and Dad simultaneously during the separation and subsequent divorce. Not an easy feat. She became friends with my Mom first, meeting at the public library, where Mom did some finances for the board. Margaret and my Mom hit it off fast – both liberated women working in respectable, power positions, both single (Mom, in a way, since Dad was busy all the time), both highly intelligent. I can’t recall a time when Margaret wasn’t part of our family while living in Brockvegas.
Margaret was familiar with the family. That is to say, she had carte blanche to speak her mind in any family situation. So often my parents would turn to her and ask “What the hell did we do wrong in bringing up X?” X being whatever sibling had been discovered smoking, or drinking, or doing unspeakable teenage things. Being a librarian she had access to vast amounts of knowledge, which she would store in he head, which Mom and Dad relied on like we now rely on Google. She would often be invited over for Sunday dinners (I could see her condo from where I was sitting) and as a trademark joke, push herself back from a massive dinner for 6 with a sigh and a dead pan “Well, that was good. What there was of it.” She could get away with comments like that. We welcomed them.
“Ted, what’s wrong?”
I stare ahead. I can’t respond. I want to cry. I want to get angry. I’m having an “off” day where I’m dealing with my homosexuality, school, unrequited love (football jock best friend), and my family disintegrating all around me.
“I know right now it seems really tough. But everyone of your family loves you. I love you.”
I notice that the neighbour just south of us is out in her back yard, puttering around her garden, getting it ready for the fall.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
The neighbour is on her knees. Digging. I still can’t say anything. I think I’m crying but I can’t bring myself to make a sound.
She puts a hand on my shoulder. “I’m not your family. So I can be someone you can talk to. I’m always here.”
Margaret didn’t know that 30 minutes earlier I had decided not to kill myself. But somehow I think she did. Probably because I had a face that looked like a beat-down hound dog on a hot summer day.
Needless to say I didn’t kill myself (ooo ooo or am I wriiiting from the graaaave??), and I did talk to Margaret a lot since then. These days I wish I had talked more.
Mom gave me a clipping from the Brockvegas local rag – Margaret had retired from being the head of the public library and despite being retired, was still sitting on a ton of committees and boards. I absolutely love how she explains that in her job, “The challenging part was trying to discover exactly what people wanted to know about a subject”, as if she was embodying Google decades before it existed.
I wish her all the best.