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I had spent time with Mavis, that I’m sure of. But I think the first time I truly saw her – by which I mean thought about who she is and began to appreciate her as more than just a mom – was on a Wednesday morning in Grade 8.
I was standing over the stovetop watching my egg fry, when – worried I might miss the crucial period for over-easy – I grabbed the metal spatula (metal rather than plastic because I liked the sturdiness of it).
Noticing my decision, Mavis looked up and furrowed her brow. “Don’t use that spatula,” she said. “You’ll scratch the pan.”
I wasn’t aware of this at the time, but there is a concept in psychology called dissociation. It refers to the defence mechanism of separating awareness from reality, which can, technically, make you incapable of controlling your actions and, consequently, unaccountable for their outcomes. I don’t claim that what came next was a product of dissociation, but I’m not ruling it out, either.
“Fuck, Mom!” I shouted. “I just can’t do anything right, can I?”
This wasn’t the first time I had yelled at her. It was, however, the first time I’d yelled profanity, and such a vulgar one at that.
Unsure of what to do next, I just stared at her, breathed heavily and refused to break eye contact. Her tears gathered slowly at first, but the longer I held my glare the faster they seemed to pool. Finally, the situation devolved into the sort of thing usually reserved for daytime television. These really are the days of our lives. In those moments, I realized that this person was not impenetrable, and that she didn’t exist for the sole purpose of making me content. She had feelings, and they had been hurt.
I apologized three times from outside her locked bedroom door before she accepted. “Is that what you really think?” she said in the breaths between sobs.
“Well, no,” I said. “I think you were just on the receiving end of a bad week. I’m sorry.”
My mother still lives in the community in which she was born – Gander Bay, Nfld. Outside of being my childhood home, other noteworthy aspects of the town are scarce. But it has everything she needs – her family, her home and an active knitting community.
Eight years after making Mavis cry for the first time – now 21 and entering my second term of university – I did it again, and for a reason that seemed not entirely unrelated to the first.
Thanksgiving, 2011, I boarded the bus in St. John’s at 7 a.m. to make the four-hour trek to my parents’ house. As usual, I’d spent the cab ride to the bus stop thinking of ways to deter people from sitting beside me.
The evening before, with my roommate, I’d devised a plan for finally telling my parents I was gay – even though I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant myself.
I’ll do it in the early stages of my visit, I decided. I wanted to give them time to digest the announcement before I faced what would undoubtedly be a multitude of questions for which I had no answers.
I assured myself that if I told them on Friday, things would return to normal by Sunday. My mother would be back to asking about the state of my finances, and my dad and I would continue watching Sunday football – the only difference being that he’d know my true motive.
Friday came and went. Telling them was a more daunting task than I’d thought. Instead, I spent the day discussing the intricacies of Mavis’s latest mystery read, dropping hints about my sexual orientation where I could.
“Yeah, but what if Detective Murray has a secret of his own?” I asked. “Something he’s incredibly afraid to tell people?”
Mavis was either oblivious, or a much better actor than she let on. “You’re right,” she said. “I bet he’s Catholic.”
By Sunday, I still hadn’t told them. Moments before leaving to catch the bus back I convinced myself this was my only chance. Instead of telling them in person, the method I’d previously thought best, I would write a letter and leave it on the counter where Mom would surely find it after she dropped me at the bus stop.
People often say time moves slowly when you’re waiting. I would propose a hierarchy of slowly-moving time: It’s slow when you’re waiting for Christmas morning; somewhat slower when you’re waiting for high school to end, slower still when you’re doing the same for university. And I can confirm it moves slowest of all when you’re waiting for your mother to find a letter explaining that you’re more of a Will than a Grace.
I’d been back in my St. John’s apartment for perhaps 30 minutes, biding my time by stacking the groceries Mavis had given me, when the phone finally rang. I’d imagined this conversation countless times, but it would never be one I felt ready to have.
“I just have one question, Jamie,” Mavis said, speaking as she had eight years ago – in the breaths between sobs. “Does this mean you want to wear women’s clothes?”
I laughed, relieved to have an answer. “No, Mom,” I said. “It doesn’t.”
“Oh. Okay.” She paused and several seconds passed. “Well,” she said, “did you put your groceries away?”
Jamie Gillingham lives in Halifax.