Thursday, December 9, 2010

Transplanting Time

"Ooooooooh, here it comes!" Mandy quickly brought the bottle of so-so champagne to her mouth as the exuberant wine effervesced like Mt. St. Helens. She poured some – shear liquid gaiety, into a crystal flute made brilliant by the midday sun on this warm late-April morning. Turning around, Mandy's wellington-shod feet "thwucked" loudly as they were grudgingly released by the mud. She smiled as she squared-up to a ten-foot by thirty-foot garden plot. Raising her arm in a grandiose flourish she addressed the clumps of nondescript greenness that were emerging from the mud; "I'm very proud of you all!" she began. "I know it was painful to be uprooted and land in strange soil but look at you! You're two weeks early this spring! This new soil agrees with you and if this is any indication of things to come, I believe this will be our best year ever!" There was no reply or applause, only a tacit acknowledgment of praise conferred in the glowing sheen of a leaf and the rustle of a bell-shaped flower.

Grabbing the bottle of champagne, Mandy excused herself with a deep bow and retreated to the shelter of her sunny deck to sip her champagne in the comfort of a cushioned Muskoka chair. She was deliciously tired and content where she sat. She contemplated her new garden and remembered her last day in her old one. That was six months ago...


She had just finished planting her spring bulbs. Mandy straightened up from the dirt; winced and rubbed her hip. Gardening at 45 wasn't the sheer joy it had been at 30 but pleasure in her art was as keen as ever. "Now I'll hide you from the squirrels and we'll see more of each other in the spring," she said to the hairy tulip bulbs she'd just buried under seven inches of rich black loam. She raked more dirt and leaves over the buried bulbs and smiled at her silliness. Her plants were like dear, old friends to her and she talked to them and cared for them as such. She fed and sheltered her Delphinium transplants, pruned and coaxed her Rudbekia into boastful bloom, talked-out her dilemmas with her Phlox and vented frustrations on her Hostas. Wherever she moved she brought her friends and settled them proudly in their new garden. After that, she watched them falter and rally, then take hold and flourish and it struck her how even the gentle side of nature had life lessons to share with us in courage and tenacity. Picking up a spouted green metal watering can festooned with bright yellow sunflowers, Mandy showered her flat of favourite plant cuttings. Then she rotated the flat to encourage the bending supplicants to straighten up as they looked once more for the sun. Finished her gardening, she picked up her trowel and gently rubbed off every bit of grime and moisture so it wouldn't rust.

Mandy's grandmother gave her that trowel when Mandy was fifteen years old. As she did so, Grandma's gnarled rheumatic hands squeezed to whiteness the perfect pink hands of her surprised granddaughter. The gauze of decades of overuse lifted momentarily from the old woman's clouded hazel eyes and she strained to impart a cryptic message that sounded to Mandy like a warning. She said, "This is the most important tool you will ever own. Let it remind you that whatever problems come crashing down upon you; you will always be able to dig your way out." At that time, the most serious problem Mandy could conceive of was how to pass grade ten math, but she took the trowel happily. Already a gardener, Mandy treasured that gift like she treasured her grandmother who passed away the following year.

Mandy stood for a moment and rubbed the tightness out of her lower back. Over the lattice top of the wooden fence that divided her garden from her neighbour's toy-strewn backyard, she saw her neighbours, Janis and David and their nine-month-old son, Nickolas. The young parents were trying to enjoy their coffee together but baby Nicolas, crying in David's arms, had other ideas.

"Good morning everyone," Mandy said peeling off her gardening gloves, "I think my little friend is horribly bored with you two at the moment. Why don't you let me take him to the park? He can shake out his sillies and I can work out my kinks!"

Janis' mouth opened in surprise. "I'd love to be able to finish a cup of coffee while it's still hot" she said, "but do you have any energy left after all that gardening?"

"Of course, I have," said Mandy "in fact a walk is exactly what I need after contorting my back in my backyard jungle for the past two hours."

"You've got yourself a peanut then, lady!" David said. Smiling, he seated eight-month-old Nicolas in his stroller and wheeled it around the fence to meet Mandy at the gate. He rounded the corner, saw Mandy and closed the gap. He wasn't smiling any more. He reached for her elbow, and drew her closer. In a voice barely above a whisper he said, "We were so worried about you last night! We heard him raving in there all night long. It sounded like he was tearing the whole house down! We almost called the police. It's getting worse, Mandy – you know it is. He's going to snap and when he does I think someone's going to get seriously hurt!"

She felt the truth of his words. The gnawing stomach pain that she'd lived with for months made her sick but she pushed it aside like she always did and said, "You can't do that, David. Please don't do that. I have to handle this carefully or it will get worse. If he's pushed into a corner by the police he'll strike back at me."

David looked at her wild green eyes that pleaded with him for complicity. He reluctantly agreed but warned, "Next time, I will interfere, Mandy; no one should have to live like this. Do you still want to take Nicko?"

"Of course I do," she said; "I want a date with my boyfriend." She was happy to ground herself in something commonplace and push her problems to the background. "Go and enjoy your coffee with your beautiful wife and we'll all unwind for an hour, OK?" Smiling now, Mandy slid between David and the stroller and started pushing it down the walkway towards the sidewalk. The sun bounced off the yellow leaves that the wind whipped up in little cyclones beside her and she smiled. She picked up a large leaf for Nicko to wave with as they walked along.

She never smiled in the house, she mused as she continued; not genuinely anyhow. She often pretended to be happy and light but that was just part of a "normal game" she'd made up so long that she couldn't remember if she'd started it to please her sons or to fool outsiders. Concentrating a wrinkle onto her pale forehead she thought about the night before.

It was a Friday night. Wayne was always at his worst on Friday nights. He was a finite vessel for infinite frustration. It mounted in him; palpably seething, all week long until home for the weekend, he finally exploded; firing an automatic salvo of rage on captive sitting ducks - verbal shrapnel aimed squarely at his flinching family who were never prepared enough and never fast enough to escape. It was their Friday evening ritual, like fish and chips, or house league hockey or date nights were for other families. Wayne had zero tolerance for daily irritations. Like the ravages wrought by a common cold on a body with a weak immune system, the most benign interaction could provoke in him a reaction of explosive rage. On Tuesday, a young girl at the coffee shop drive-thru window told him she wasn't allowed to take car trash from him as he went through. Coming home that night, he actually flushed with pleasure and excitement as he recounted the episode to Mandy and he proudly described how he "went up one side of her and down the other".

She thought about that poor girl as she made her daily inspection of the front hallway – clearing away anything in the path that might anger Wayne when he got home, like Justin's trombone case or Cory's hockey stick – that unfortunate coffee-slinger probably wracked her brains trying to think of what she had done so wrong to offend him so much. Mandy looked at her watch; it was five to six. Wayne would be home shortly. Her stomach was a cupboardful of broken crystal; her heart beat like a hummingbird's, and her mouth dried up like desert dew on a cactus. She wanted to back fully against the solid hallway wall and disappear within but she didn't. Instead, she closed her eyes, took one deep breath and commanded her features into a serene lie. Did her sons have a similar ritual she wondered? Did Justin don an invisible coat of armour? Did Cory become an impervious super hero? Did Tyler beg his teddy bear for help? In the end it didn't matter – those rituals and talismans – they were all useless.

As the clock approached six, Tyler, the youngest at five was watching TV in the darkened den, twelve-year-old Cory, was in the basement playing computer games, and Justin, the oldest at fourteen was upstairs doing homework in his bedroom. Everyone in their separate corners of the large four bedroom house – hedging their bets, no doubt, that they'd each be overlooked in their chosen bunkers. So quiet it was – for a house with three boys.

It was six o'clock – time to get dinner on the table. Mandy went to the kitchen to pull the hot lasagne out of the oven. Just as she lifted the large glass casserole, Wayne burst through the back door and bombarded her with, "What the fuck is going on here?" His face was luminously angry. Expecting him through the front door, she hadn't braced for a rear assault. She started and jerked around and gasped as the casserole dish slipped and shattered on the hard porcelain floor sending dinner all over the ivory-coloured tiles, painting them a vibrant terra cotta. Mandy looked from the floor to her husband's face. He looked at his dinner on the floor and spat out again, "Fuck! Why did I even come home tonight?"

Why do you come home any night! Mandy thought while trying to get the mess scooped up with a dustpan. "There's beer in the fridge," she mumbled with her head bent down, hiding the tears that she couldn't control. If they were lucky, he would blow off his end-of-the-week steam and fall asleep on the couch after four or five beers.

"Where's Justin and Cory?" he asked but didn't wait for an answer. "Justin and Cory!" he bellowed through the house, "Get your asses down here, now!"

The two older boys arrived in the kitchen at the same time. The entered slowly, their faces still, their eyes dull and surrounding them, an air of resignment. They knew they were in for it, but as usual, they did not know why. Justin glanced at his mother, down on her knees, still cleaning up their ruined dinner and then at his father and he closed his mouth tightly.

"I thought I told you two slobs to clean up that shit in the garage this morning!" he said. "I need some more room for my van or it's going to end scratched to hell like your mother's car that she doesn't give a shit about!"

"We're going to, Dad..." Justin began.

Mandy added, "Wayne, they've been at school all day and tomorrow's Saturday; they can do it then."

Wayne's face turned a darker shade of angry and he slammed his fist into the wall. The hanging tiles shook and little cracks spidered-out around where his fist had been. Cory's eyes widened and he flinched and caught his breath.

"Don't defend them!" Wayne ordered. "They're just lazy, spoilt slobs who don't know how to show respect and that's something they get from you! None of you ever listen to me and none of you ever do anything right – you're all fuck-ups – all of you!"

That was the gist of his grievance. He explicated it all night long – or so it seemed, in endless variations on the same theme. He divided his "attention" equally among them – on and off for the next hour or more. There was more wall-slamming and throwing of carefully selected objects like her reading glasses and Cory's Nintendo game.

Eventually Mandy grabbed a couple of granola bars and whisked Tyler upstairs, washed him up and read to him for a half an hour, then put him to bed after prolonged hugging. Tyler didn't say a thing about his father's anger; he just rolled towards the wall and hugged his teddy bear.

On the second floor, Mandy could still hear yelling. Wayne had an Olympic capacity for sustained rage and she hadn't been down stairs to deflect it from her two other sons. She hurried down the dark wooden steps to the den. Her heart sank and she cried inside when she saw the state that Justin was in. Reduced to a crying mass, he was curled up on the rocking chair, huddled in the foetal position – defenceless – worn-down by his father's verbal battery. All he could say was, "Leave me alone... leave me alone..."

She took up a position between Justin and her husband who was lounging on the love-seat with beer in his hand. "That's enough, leave him alone," she begged, her voice catching. They were all sick and tired; defeated, bruised and battered as if from a physical attack. A beating would have been easier to take than the siege he had waged for hours on their souls; a siege that robbed them of hope and volition.

"Keep out of this!" he hissed bringing his thick arm and massive fist up to her attention.

She would have grabbed the two older boys and run from the house at that point but Tyler was upstairs in bed. She wouldn't leave him alone with Wayne. She froze as he pinned her with a look of hatred and she wondered what he saw in her to bring that expression to his face.

"NO!" she cried.

The massive word hung heavy in the air. Her stomach heaved waiting for his reaction. He breathed hard, grinding his teeth between clenched lips.

With pounding heart, she took a step towards him and shook her finger at him, "We've had enough!" she said.

Her entire body tightened as she noted his heaving chest and flared nostrils. He squeezed his fist and his face began to twitch. But Mandy took a deep breath and took another step towards him. Her heartbeat rose to a crescendo and she felt a rush of rage and exhilaration as she continued in a stronger impassioned voice, "How can you come home, night after night and put your family through this and think you deserve a scrap of respect?"

Wayne's chest gave a violent shudder and he shoved himself to his feet never taking his eyes off her. She didn't try to flee; in fact, it was all she could do to hold herself back from jumping at him with all her strength. She wanted to hurt him and beat him until he shut up. They both stood, breathing hard, and they stared at each other. Then he came for her. Grabbing her arm in a vice, he sneered, "OK you Bitch, this is war! I'm not putting up with you and your ignorance and your disrespect!" He raised his other hand in a fist and brought it down to her face. She froze in horror... He checked his blow at the last moment then casting one last look of loathing he shook her away from him and marched out of the den and retired to their bedroom.

She hugged her sons and cried a few silent tears. Shell-shocked and exhausted, the three sat quietly and tried to relax as they watched a movie together; a comedy about a young man from a dysfunctional family trying to get into a good college. Few words were said between mother and sons before going to bed. They lay their heads together briefly before saying a quiet, "goodnight;" then hugged, but very gently, as if they expected to find broken bones somewhere. Family evening was over.


Mandy came back from her musings when she heard Nikolas cry out in excitement. He could see the swing set at the park and knew that he was finally going to get some fun out of the morning. "OK then, honey bunch; let's see how high we can swing this baby!" They played together for an hour and both of them forgot their woes. She watched the kids playing in the sandbox. They coughed and sputtered for their action figures buried in cars under the sand after a "big earthquake." "Where am I? Somebody call 9-1-1!" a boy yelled out.

"Don't worry," shouted his little girlfriend. "I have a shovel. I'll dig them out!" Definitely her grandma's kind of gal, Mandy thought and watched as the girl began her rescue. 'We have to act fast or they'll suffocate!" she said, and she bent her black braids over the debris and worked the shovel furiously with her chubby little fingers. She unearthed the distressed toys and held them up triumphantly. Watching intently now, Mandy froze, transfixed by what she'd just seen. The whole scene had become strangely interlaced with the image of her grandmother; way back when she gave Mandy the gardening trowel. She heard the echo of her grandmother's raspy urgent voice saying "...whatever problems come crashing down upon you; you will always be able to dig your way out" and something moved inside her – she felt a lightening as a faint fearful hope took root.

Quickly, she scooped Nicko up, and said, "Well my hot little date, it's time to get you back for your lunch and N-A-P." She gave him a hug and tickled him into submission before snapping him into his stroller. Waving "bye-bye" to the park, they headed back home. Her eyes sparkled with unaccustomed anticipation of something not horrendous as they splashed back through the fall leaves.


When the two got back, Janis and David were still outside. Hearing Nicko's yells, they turned; happy now, that he was home. "Who is this cheerful fellow?" Janis asked taking Nicko out of his stroller. "Thank-you so much Mandy; it's amazing what a difference a quiet hour can make, isn't it?" she asked, giving Mandy a hug.

"Yes, quite amazing in fact!" agreed Mandy giving Nicko a parting tickle under his arm. "We sorted each other out this morning and came home with shiny new attitudes!" Then turning to David, Mandy asked "Is there any action from next door yet?"

"Wayne took the van out about fifteen minutes ago and we haven't heard from the kids yet."

"That's good," Mandy said with a deep breath of relief. Her body relaxed noticeably; "A couple of quiet hours should be enough time."

When stress has been routine for so long, relief can come over you as a burden – almost unbearable. When your body starts to relax you feel it crumble; you can't figure out how to hold your limbs to your torso without the usual tourniquet tenseness of muscular contraction that they're used to. Even your head feels weightless, dizzy and drunken. The stress gushes out in a silent painful exodus, oozing from every square inch of your shaking, hurting body that can no longer support you so you collapse sobbing on the floor, or on the ground, or on your bed or as Mandy did, into the arms of her startled but comforting friend and neighbour.

"It's all over David" she cried as he continued to support her. "It's all over..."