I had one thing to do: make a fruit salad.
An entire year had gone by before I was asked to “help out” again, as my mother likes to call it. Another way to call it is nonnegotiable-unrequited-subservience. Do what your mother wants on the sole basis that she is the woman who bore you, nothing else matters, least of all you. The fruit salad was my ticket back in, if I wanted it. Being back in had its upsides. Physical affection, like long hugs in doorways; really it’s no longer being the only one in the room who doesn’t get a hug, that’s the upside. That’s part of her power, a mother’s power of isolation and indifference.
Julie, Ma said to me after we sat around the table digesting the meal that I did not help make, you can make a fruit salad for tomorrow. Just like that, and it wasn’t a question. Either I would do it or I wouldn’t. I never saw it coming. My head turned in her direction while the rest of the family’s turned to mine. We all knew what was going down in that moment. I said nothing. I nodded my head slowly as I felt my eyes move around the room, avoiding all living things. Had we been alone, Ma and I, maybe I’d have put up a fight, maybe even flat out refused. But she asked in front of everyone, she’s clever like that. On the surface it was a simple task given to me by my mother for the brunch party she was throwing at the house I grew up. This was all during the July long weekend family tradition with my uncle, on my dad’s side, and his wife who lived across country. About the fruit salad, Ma added that it didn’t have to be the best fruit salad in the world. As if my silent hesitation stemmed from the worry that I would not be able to make even a good fruit salad. I knew it didn’t have to be the best fruit salad in the world. It just had to be done and it had to be done by me.
When it felt safe I glanced at her face when she wasn’t looking. I know she believed that she was doing me a favor. A chance at redemption is how she saw it. Back into the family that I wasn’t really out of.
I took the car to the grocery store after supper. I had looked up online how to make a fruit salad. I searched: how to make the best fruit salad in the world. It called for a lot more than I had expected a fruit salad would need, even the best one. The ingredients for it cost me over 40 dollars.
My sisters were pissed at the unfairness after Ma had announced each of our assigned tasks for the brunch, and as always those tasks excluded the male members of the family. I didn’t blame my sisters. I was pissed about it too, but for completely different reasons that they never seemed to understand. Sarah was bringing a dessert, her choice of apple pie or lemon meringue; although everyone knew Dad’s favourite was apple. Becky was bringing homemade croissants. And only if Aunt Pat wanted to, as Ma put it in front of everyone, her being the guest and all, she could bring her famous deviled eggs. Of course, Ma added, only if you can make them from scratch. It must have been at least ten years back when Aunt Pat brought over a potato salad she had bought at a grocery store. Ma never let her live it down and has found creative ways to bring it up. Everything has to be home made, it was Ma’s thing, having everything be made from scratch.
Sarah and Becky followed Ma into the kitchen after she read from her to do list. I saw the list when she pulled it out to flatten it on the table to read from. I didn’t think I’d be on there, I didn’t expect to ever be on there again. I looked over at Aunt Pat who was wearing a flat smile.
I brought the groceries into the kitchen and washed the fruit. I grabbed the cutting board and set it on the table with all the fruit and rum and nuts that would make up my best fruit salad in the world. I started the peeling and chopping, letting the pieces fall into a large metal bowl. I thought about what Ma said earlier to Sarah and Becky. We have swinging doors in our kitchen, like you see in old Western movies, only ours are full length and painted blue. When the three of them retreated into the kitchen to argue over our food assignments, the rest of us heard what escaped through the flapping doors. Becky said, a fruit salad? Sarah said something but it got cut off by the door swinging closed. When it swung open again what Ma said came out pretty clear, even in her hushed voice. She has one of those voices that can move through walls and floors and up flights of stairs. When I lived at home, lying in my bed with the door shut, it was her sides of the arguments she had with Dad that came in clear. Dad sounded like that kid off Charlie Brown. I could hear the tone of his words but never the words themselves. Ma said, as the door swung open, she is too self-righteous to. The doors stopped swinging and cut her words off, and the room I was in got quiet. I forced myself to keep my head up but my eyes wouldn’t raise high enough to seem normal. I tried not to notice the glances from around the table. Uncle Joe cleared his throat and I felt Dad’s hand tap my leg, there there it said.
I cut the fruit into smaller bite-sized pieces and mixed them together. Colour was apparently very important in making the best fruit salad in the world. I pulled out the almonds and walnuts from the oven and scraped them in with the fruit and thought about Aunt Pat when she left the awkwardness of the dinner table and walked into the kitchen after the door stopped swinging open. I had thought about leaving too but more than that I didn’t want them to think it got to me, what Ma said. And that if it did, and it did, then I wanted us to suffer in it together, as a family. Aunt Pat wasn’t gone a minute before the door swung open again. Ma, followed by my two sisters and Aunt, filed out. I laughed as I poured the rum into the fruit mix, remembering how the four of them lined themselves along the wall, facing the table, each carrying something. It was like a show. Ma had her cake, Becky and Sarah had the good plates and forks, Aunt Pat had the coffee. Dad and Uncle Joe thanked them, and in a voice that sounded way sadder than I had wanted, I thanked them too. Aunt Pat smiled at me and our eyes met when she said you’re welcome. I felt hot, I tried not to fidget and I know that the sight of it screamed cover up. I felt the shame they all wanted me to feel. Everyone except for Aunt Pat, I am not sure what she wanted in that moment. Sometimes I think she knows more than she lets on, most of the time it seems like all she has up there is one train on one track going in circles. But I am starting to think that there might be a few more tracks up there, secret tracks with secret trains on them.
This whole business of being considered a desperado within my family started Christmas of last year, after dinner when everyone was feeling stuffed and jovial. I remember, even as I scraped food off plates and plunged them into hot soapy water, I was taken over by the Christmas spirit. Through the reflection in the window that I faced while working in the sink I could see Ma and my sisters getting dessert ready behind me, each in their own area, their minds fixed on their tasks. It wasn’t a huge kitchen but the four of us worked it well. I thought about how we had become fine-tuned into such an efficient team. I thought about all the time my sisters and I had spent in this kitchen. In that moment, cleaning dishes, I felt proud of us, Ma and my sisters and I, and I wanted to share that. I turned to face them, my mouth part-way open in anticipation of sharing my happy thoughts. I could hear Dad laughing and Uncle Joe cursing as Aunt Pat came through the doors, her eyes on the floor. I asked her what was wrong. I knocked Joe’s coffee over when I was cleaning up, she said, it got all over him. She sniffled as she looked for a clean dish towel in places no one would keep a dish towel. I handed her the one I had been using to dry the dishes with but Ma pushed my hand away and handed Aunt Pat a clean one. Dad was still laughing when she pushed through the doors to clean up the spill, Uncle Joe was sitting with a wet stain on his belly and crotch, his face fixated on Aunt Pat’s as she patted him dry. I watched her through the window, my good feeling gone and I didn’t know why. I went back to my task, like everyone else had, and worked at the dishes, thinking then of Dad’s work shirt and how he taught me to iron it when I was eight. It became my job to make sure Dad’s work shirt was ironed before he left for work. Later on it became my job to sweep the house every day after school. It was Sarah’s job to vacuum, and Becky’s to dust. When we were bad we had to go along the edges of all the carpets with a rag, to get to the places Ma told us the vacuum couldn’t reach. On Saturdays the three of us spent the day push-mowing the front and back of our lawn, followed by weed-whacking the spots around the trees and raking it all up. When Dad paid to get the wood stove in the basement fixed-up and running it was my job to bring the wood from outside after Sarah had cut it and stacked it. Like it became my job to do the dishes after supper. And then I thought about what would happen to me and my sisters if we didn’t do one of our jobs. It was a moment of realization, and I held my breath as I took it all in. I stopped doing the dishes right then and walked through the kitchen doors, my hands dripping soapy water, grabbed my coat and slipped on my boots and was out the door and in my car and pulling off the street our house was on before I took another breath. And there I was again, starting with a fruit salad, knowing that in a couple of days I would be picking up their dry cleaning again like their good little girl. I had a choice: I was in or I was out.
I scooped the fruit mix into my best serving dish, a large decorative glass bowl. I tore open the package of powdered sugar with my teeth and sprinkled a layer on top of the now completed, and possibly, best fruit salad in the world. I stared at it, thinking about the look on their faces as I placed it on the dinner table. Dad would say how good it looked and Ma would stand close to me, triumph faced, smiling, and running her hand up and down my back that finally remembered its place. At some point during the meal even my sisters would come around and say something nice about my fruit salad. Aunt Pat would smile like she always does.
I grabbed the biggest spoon I owned and plunged it deep into the bowl, pulling out a heavy heap and stuffed it into my mouth. I let the extra bits that couldn’t fit fall out the sides of my lips and back into the bowl and then did it again.
I was out.
Lacy Lalonde is an underpaid Maritimer who sometimes writes things. You can follow her on Twitter @lacylalonde.