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Excerpt: A woman semi-retires in her 40s to raise her kids

Award-winning author Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest novel is a powerful drama about motherhood and the pressures of love.

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Ann-Marie MacDonald’s third novel follows the trials and tribulations of Mary Rose MacKinnon, whose life is a comfortable chaos with her wife, Hilary, an in-demand director, two kids, aging parents, a dog and a lovely urban home. It all threatens to unravel when a childhood health condition ominously resurfaces.

The last time she saw her parents was in January when they stopped off in Toronto for three days on the way from Ottawa to Victoria on the west coast.

She bundled Maggie up and went to meet their train.

She had left in plenty of time but wound up late with the effort to find parking — the station was being “renovated to serve you better!” By the time she got there with the stroller, her parents were nowhere to be seen. She waited at Arrivals next to the deserted Traveller’s Aid counter, but that was no guarantee; at Union Station nothing guided the traveller toward Arrivals, itself an undefined limbo, whereas an imposing granite ramp drew them up into the heroic main hall where two sets of brass doors opened, she knew, onto a perilous moat of perpetual construction where the sidewalk used to be. Who knew how many elderly people had already pitched into that polyurethane tangle never to be seen again? Maybe her parents were out there now, drifting toward a beeping backhoe — was her father wearing his hearing aids? Worse, she dreaded lest they had ventured down an escalator and into the PATH: a twenty-seven-kilometre maze of weather-indifferent retail. She pictured them: two little old babes in the wood, jostled mercilessly . . . Nonsense, they had travelled the world, Dolly had fended off muggers in Red Square with the centrifugal power of her purse, wielding it like a mace — Duncan still told the story. But that was back in Dolly’s glory days of rage and roses. Now she would simply fall, break a hip and die of pneumonia, and it would be Mary Rose’s fault for having been late to the station.

She checked to make sure her cellphone was on, though she knew her parents would not call it, regarding it with equal parts reverence and mistrust. They too had a cellphone but never turned it on. It was for “emergencies.” She risked venturing up the ramp, and emerged into the hall where a throng eddied about the base of the soaring digital display. If she called Andy-Patrick, perhaps he could have her parents’ cellphone located by the RCMP. Maggie cried out, “Sitdy!”

She hung up to see her mother cannoning from the crowd, all four-foot-eleven-and-a-half of her, jaunty in her beret, her bling, her snow-blindingly new running shoes, hurrying toward them with a funny splay-foot walk that reminded Mary Rose of Maggie. Was that new?

“Hi, doll!”

Duncan came into view behind her, walking stolidly as though over rugged terrain, his mouth set in the Highland perseverance that peopled the globe and its boards of directors, dapper in his peaked cap, yellow windbreaker and rubber-soled brogues.

“Hi, Mum.”

Dolly’s brows arched above her big dark eyes, her mouth formed an O! of astonishment, she raised both hands, framing her face with delight, and swooped down on Maggie, assaulting her with “Sitdy kisses” — this used to make Matthew cry, but Maggie screamed with laughter. Duncan looked on, amused, then after the first flurry he crouched, took Maggie’s hand and said softly, “Hi there, Maggie, how are you, sweetie pie?”

“Jitdy,” said Maggie, just as softly, and reached for his cap. He gave it to her.

Jitdy was Arabic for “grandfather,” a name that, for Mary Rose’s blue-eyed father, was a source of pride and amusement.

Dolly cupped Mary Rose’s facein her warm hands and looked up into her eyes. Mary Rose looked down into the familiar overheated expression of affection; the old eye-laden look that staked mute claim to martyrdom. She formed a smile and received the slightly too-long hug, registering a guilty yet inexplicable annoyance with her adorable little mother.

Duncan rose with an attempt at spryness. “How are you, Mister, you’re lookin’ great.” He bonked her on the head with the flat of his hand likea shingle — the Scottish equivalent of a hug. She was almost feverishly glad to see her father. It was always this way, as if an engine revved inside her, stoked with an urgent message. Dear Dad, I!

“How was your trip, Dad?”

“Like the fella says, ‘uneventful,’” he replied heartily if a mite hoarsely, she thought.

No sooner had she lost the battle with him over who would carry their overnight bag — it was on wheels, but he insisted on carrying it by the handle — than she turned to see the stroller standing empty.

“Where’s Maggie?”

“I let her out,” confessed Dolly with a mischievous glint.

“Jesus Christ, Mum!” Mary Rose swung to face the crowd — a blur, a black inland lake. “Maggie!”

“Relax.” Her father’s voice behind her, the one he used on her mother. “There’s no panic, Rosie.” Paneek.

She looked down. Maggie was sitting on the stonefloor, going through Dolly’s purse, grown-up legs scissoring past her.

Dolly said, “Golly Moses, Mary Roses, I didn’t meanto upset you.”

“I’m not upset.”

Maggie made to scoot off into the human thresher, but Mary Rose reached out and caught her by the arm.

“Gently!” yelped Duncan.

It snagged her attention, she turned. “Dad, it’s okay.” Maggie exploited the distraction and swung out. “Ow!”

“She’s got a great left hook.” He laughed.

he plunked her daughter back into the stroller, asserting her authority over her child, her parents and the entire spoiled Depression-era generation with its full employment and exceeded expectations, its freakish longevity and insatiable demand for filial gratitude from its stressed out, greying, autoimmuning offspring by swiftly engaging five points of restraint with one click.

“Noooo!”

“You tell ’em, Maggie!” he said with a grin.

Dolly giggled. “I’ve finally got my revenge, Mary Rose. She’s just like you!” And she laughed. That is, she did an impression of a saucy stage laugh in which Matthew would have recognized a very creditable na-na-na-na-boo-boo!

Mary Rose blinked, dry and humourless as an iguana.

“Aren’t you, fuhss?!” continued Dolly, kneeling on the floor, covering Maggie with kisses, turning toddler tears to laughter.

Arabic is a beautiful language. Thanks to her mother, Mary Rose knows terms of endearment anda lot of food words, otherwise her vocabulary is limited to shit (feminine and masculine forms), shut up, slap on the ear, money, enjoy your meal! God-willing and fart — which was what Dolly had just called Maggie.

An incomprehensible announcement echoed over the PA system in French and English.

Duncan commandeered the stroller and was on the move. Working swiftly, Mary Rose deployed the telescoping handle on the overnight bag with one hand and took her mother’s in the other — it was surprisingly soft. They set out against a tide of commuters a hundred thousand strong and together entered the PATH.

“How’s Hilary?” asked her mother. “How’s Mark, I mean Matthew?”

“They’re fine, Hilary’s heading out west soon to direct The — ”

“‘Same day heel replacement,’” said Dolly, reading a sign. “‘We deliver.’ Did I tell you, we ran into Catherine — Catherine? — Dunc, is it Catherine or Eileen we ran into on the train who wanted Mary Rose to sign a book?”

“Darned if I know,” he replied.

She turned back to Mary Rose. “She was so thrilled when she saw me, she said, ‘You’re Mary Rose MacKinnon’s mother!’”

Mary Rose braced herself and Dolly continued, “I used to be Abe Mahmoud’s daughter, then I was Duncan MacKinnon’s wife, now I’m Mary Rose MacKinnon’s mother!”

You could almost beat time to it.

“Sure, I’ll sign her book, Mum.”

“‘Big and tall, we have them all!’”

“Where the heck did you park?” asked Duncan.

“Sorry, it’s the construction — ”

“Just like Ottawa.” He noddedruefully. “We have two seasons: winter and construction.”

“Phyllis Boutillier’s grandson,” said Dolly.

Mary Rose looked around; was this too written on a sign? “Where?”

“He was married to her, but they got divorced,” said Dolly.

“He . . . What? Married his grandmother?”

“Don’t be saucy.” Dolly pretended to slap her.

Mary Rose winced reflexively. “Mum, please don’t — ”

“How’s the book coming?” asked Duncan.

“It’s on hold.”

“Take your time. Do it your way, Mister.”

“Hurry up and write it so I can buy all three in a box set, you know you’ll sell more that way, Mary Rose.”

Duncan laughed. “Your mother’s going to save the publishing industry.”

“Catherine!” exclaimed Dolly. “The gal with the book — Eileen, I mean — dammit, I’ve got it written down.” Dolly slowed and made to open her purse.

“Don’t open your purse!” cried Duncan. He winked at Mary Rose. “We’ll be here all day.”

Dolly laughed and hugged her purse to her little pot-belly as though to resist the temptation to open it. “Dunc, you know exactly who I’m talking about.”

“Her name is Catherine not Eileen,” said Duncan in a tone of beleaguered management consultancy. “I don’t know who Eileen is, I’ve never heard of an Ei-leen since Germany. Cath-er-ine was married to Phyllis and Mike Boutillier’s son.”

They pressed on through the white-collar lunch rush, Duncan pushing the stroller with the inexorability of an icebreaker.

“You know he died,” said Dolly.

“Who?” asked Mary Rose.

“Mark, Mick, Mike.”

A laugh escaped Mary Rose, dry and humourless no more, she felt suddenly like herself. But her father’s tone was reverent. “Mike Boutillier. Heart attack, just like that.” He snapped his fingers — no mean feat, considering he’d lost the tip of his middle one during a stint in the coal mine more than sixty years ago. “He’s the one got the condo association to sue for new magnolias to compensate us after I discovered the cracks in the foundation.”

Sobered, she nodded; a man’s dignity was at stake.

“A great bear of a man. You wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley, boy, but you couldn’t ask to meet a nicer fella, give you the shirt off his back.” He cleared his throat.

“Druggers Shop Mart,” said Dolly.

Duncan and Mary Rose turned and stared at her as she continued, “Druggers . . . Shoppers Drug Mart!” she exclaimed.

Duncan grinned from ear to ear, his gold tooth flashed. Dolly went silent, overcome with mirth, her face a carnival freeze-frame.

“Breathe, Mum.”

Dolly bent and grasped her knees with her hands.

“Dad?” There had to be a defibrillator in the vicinity, they were under three bank towers.

Finally they laughed out loud — they were breathing. They wiped their eyes and walked on.

Dolly described how she stood in the train aisle and sang “My Best to You” for the newlyweds and everyone clapped, including the head porter, “a lovely French-Canadian gal, she remembered us from last year, soI said, ‘Then you probably remember we had the stateroom west of Toronto,’ and she upgraded us on the spot.”

“I should have bought stock inVia Rail when I had the chance,” said Duncan. “Your mother’s got customer service whipped into shape and, if you’ll notice, our train arrived on time.”

“Yeah.” Mary Rose smiled. “Only Hitler and Mussolini were able to do that.”

He laughed.

“‘Puddle Duddle Rain Wear,’” said Dolly. “Look, Mary Rose, will I buy you a pair of rubber boots?”

In the shop window were bootswith dots, boots with stripes, boots with triangles and zigzags that looked like the scintillations she used to see prior to panic attacks. She looked away. “That’s okay, Mum, I’m pretty much fixed for boots.”

“Not for you, for the kids, oh, look at the ladybugs!” Dolly stopped in her tracks.

“Maggie already has rubber boots,” said killjoy Mary Rose.

“Boots!” cried Maggie, reaching toward the ladybugs in the window.

Dolly leaned down, eyes wide, clapping and chanting, “‘Ladybug ladybug fly away home! Your house is on fire, your children at home!’”

“Adybug adybug!” Maggie drummed her heels wildly.

Duncan steered the stroller into the store, Dolly followed, still chanting.

Mary Rose stayed outside and watched them hunt forthe right size. Watched Maggie patiently submit to the trying-on process.

Maggie had her legs extended when they came back out, engaged in a staring contest with the big black ladybug eyes.

“We haven’t got anything for Matthew!” cried Dolly.

“It’s okay, Mum, we can shop later.”

“I’ll buy you an outfit, Mary Rose.”

They headed for the sign marked P and an arrow pointing down.

Duncan asked, “How’s big Matt doing, you got him up on skates yet?”

“He’s getting there.”

“No rush. Gordie Howe didn’t own a pair of skates till he was twelve.”

“Although Maggie might play hockey — ”

“‘Wokking on Wheels,’” said Dolly.

“Mum, do you need a snack before we get in the car?”

Duncan said, “Women’s hockey is better than some of the nonsense you see in the NHL nowadays. I remember Gordie Howe’s last game at the Montreal Forum . . . ”

Mary Rose knew this story like the back of her hand, but she also knew her father didn’t talk hockey with her sister, and even A&P wasn’t much of a hockey fan — which, according to some, made him virtually gay. She savoured her position as honorary straight son. “Wow, he went the whole length of the ice like that?” she enthused.

Dolly bobbed between them. “Have you heard from your brother?”

“Not recently,” said Mary Rose.

“Is he still seeing that nice little gal, what’s her name?”asked Duncan.

“Shereen,” said Mary Rose.

“He lives here now,” said Dolly with an air of suddenrealization.

Was it just a blood sugar thing? Even Mary Rose had trouble remembering he lived in the same city as she did — not to mention the name of his latest squeeze — did she have early onset? Her mother had always done ten things at once, got hilariously confused, interrupted herself and everyone else. Apart from how much her mother had mellowed — which was a good thing — what was the difference?

Excerpted from Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Copyright © 2014 A.M. MacDonald Holdings Inc. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd, a Penguin Random House company. All rights reserved.