The benches were empty. Lined up against the low wall framing the walkway to library’s front doors, each greying wooden seat seemed to be quietly waiting for the day’s first weary patrons to sit and read, or talk, or judging from the number of cigarette butts crushed on the concrete below, to smoke. Each of the four benches was identical, except for the tarnished brass plate on the middle rail forming the back rest. “In Loving Memory” they each read, and each listed the same four women. Gertrude. Irma. Tina. Helen. But the order of the names changed on each bench, giving each of the four names shared prominence by being listed first.
Rose stood on the walkway, wondering who the women had been. Sisters? Somehow the dynamics of sibling relations didn’t seem to lend itself to such cooperation between sisters. Friends then. Lifelong friends who shared a passion for books. A close-knit circle. And elderly when they died. The benches hadn’t been there for that long, and the names were so old-fashioned.
Growing up Rose had hated her name, finding it too traditional and frilly as she entered adulthood in the 1980’s. She wanted a fierce name, a warrior name to go along with her leather motorcycle jacket, boots, and wild hair. A name like……..
She closed her eyes in pain as icy shards of grief lanced the dullness she used to coat her mind, and her heart. Her soul needed no such protection. It had long since worn away. And with the grief came the anger, the same internal rage she always felt now when she heard laughter, saw smiling faces, and watched parents hold their child’s hand or kiss the top of their head. How dare they be happy in this dark, dark world?
It had taken her weeks to settle on Jamie for her daughter’s name. It wasn’t so much that the baby came almost a month early. Rose just couldn’t accept that she was to be a mother, even after the birth. She loved Jamie from the moment she held her. It was a knee-weakening passion that shocked her, with a power that she never felt for any romantic partner, and certainly not for Jamie’s father who slipped away as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. But the actual role of mother seemed like a façade, someone else’s costume she put on to pretend that she knew what she was doing.
“What? You haven’t named that baby yet?” Rose heard this chorus from family and friends, even the public health nurse who visited their tiny basement suite. She poured over baby name books, searching for something more striking than the Ashleys, Brittneys, and Jessicas that were the favourites in the 90’s. It was when she accidently opened the boy’s side of the book and saw James that she found her inspiration.
And, the universe being what it is, Jamie hated her name.
If Rose had imagined that Jamie was going to be a miniature reflection of her own tastes and ideas, she quickly realized her assumptions were very wrong. For the baby shower, Rose has asked that none of the gifts be pink. No pink swaddling blankets, or pretty little pink dresses. Primary colours please. And she painted the little closet-sized baby’s room a lively sunflower yellow, with white-and-black zebras on the bedding. It didn’t matter. As soon as Jamie could point and say “I want”, she pointed at pink items.
Rose had felt so out of step with her own daughter, almost right from the start. Jamie wanted to be an Ashley. She wanted princess dress-up costumes. She wanted to take ballet. And when they moved into the larger apartment on Agnes Street when Jamie was five, she insisted that her room be painted pink. Rose spent her entire time as a parent in a state of vague panic that she was getting motherhood wrong, that she wasn’t doing enough of some things, and spending too much time on others.
There was one area, however, where Rose knew she had got it right. Twice a week, on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, she and Jamie went to the New Westminster public library. Reading to Jamie started when she was a baby, and every day ended with the two of them cuddled together reading storybooks. Jamie loved story time, and so Rose, exhausted from the endless cycle of early daycare drop offs, long office hours, and evenings crammed with cooking, cleaning, and laundry, would read aloud to Jamie as long as she could, sometimes drifting off into a fugue state while reading, changing the words on the page into dialogue from a dream, much to Jamie’s annoyance. “Mommy wake UP!”
The first time she took Jamie to the library is forever etched into her memory. She had told Jamie they were going to a “place of many books” that you could take home to read. Jamie had raced through the doorway as fast as her fat little toddler legs could carry her, then stood just inside the entrance, throwing her arms wide and shouting “Yibrary! Oh Yibrary!”
Rose hadn’t been to the library in almost two years. It was the scene of her greatest accomplishment as a mother, where she had felt most confident in her abilities as a parent. Since Jamie’s death, she couldn’t face it. She didn’t deserve to feel good about those memories. It didn’t matter that she had read and read and read all those stories. It hadn’t been enough to save her daughter.
Opening her eyes again, Rose looked at her reflection in the library’s clear glass doors. Her face seemed to have collapsed into itself over the months, the skin without colour, the eyes red rimmed. Her hair was cut indifferently short, a faded brown with none of the bold blonde streaks she used to favour. “Good”, she thought, “Suffer for your sins”.
Everyone said that Jamie’s overdose wasn’t Rose’s fault, but that wasn’t a claim she could make. When Jamie started to exhibit crippling anxiety as a teenager, Rose was asked about the family medical history by every doctor and phycologist they saw. There was nothing she could tell them about Jamie’s father, and she saw judgment in their eyes. She felt shame in her inability to help Jamie; her great love for her daughter outweighed by a lack of knowledge and strength to lead her away from depression. Rose had spent the last 18 months in an endless cycle of questioning every decision she had made as a parent, looking for the mistakes, trying to understand.
“It was horrible timing,” her best friend Tracey had told her. “She wasn’t that heavy into the drug scene, and I really feel she would have come out alright on the other side. You did do a good job as a mom. If it hadn’t been for this whole fentanyl thing…..”
She was here now because of Tracey. They had met at the library years ago, when Tracey had started as a junior librarian. She was one of the very few friends who had been able to stand by her through the grief and rage and self-harm that had followed Jamie’s death. Rose wondered if they would have their names together on a bench one day. Tracey had calmly and consistently campaigned to persuade Rose to volunteer as a reader in the children’s section. “You do all the voices”, she said, “Kids love it when you read. Please. For me.” For months Rose had said no. She refused to consider that there was anything of value left in her to give. But finally here she stood, feet rooted in place, unmoving and afraid.
“Mom! Hurry up!”
The excited young voice came from behind. Startled, Rose turned to see a pre-schooler, eyes alight and hand clasping his mother’s, trying to drag the woman toward the library doors. She was laughing with her son, and cradled a stack of picture books in one arm. As they approached the entrance, the automatic doors slid open, creating a small rush of air pushing inwards.
Rose found herself swept up in the moment and in the whoosh of air, and so she walked in.
About Mary Ann McKenzie
Mary Ann McKenzie raised her sons in New Westminster with husband Erich Rautenbach. Known by her neighbours in Sapperton for her extensive vegetable and fruit garden, she has a career in media and marketing, currently working at the Best Buy Canada head office in Burnaby.