They say you can start life over at thirty. Saturn pays you a visit and grants you a second chance before he sets off for another lap around the sun.
It was spring, 2003, and I was visiting my mother in Winnipeg. She’d made an appointment for me to go talk to her therapist in an attempt to help the doctor understand my mother’s crippling depression. But after 45 minutes, it was clear that the therapist was my Saturn in disguise. “Make a new family. Your mother can’t give you the love that you need.” I tipped my head back and stared at the stucco. I knew she was right, but I didn’t know what to do next. How do you make a new family? Shouldn’t the first one be enough? I stood up and walked out. My next lap had begun.
Lola was a homewrecker. She was also the character I played in Manitoba Opera’s 2004 production of Cavalleria Rusticana, a role so small the composer called her aria a ditty. But I didn’t care, I was smitten. For years I’d portrayed little boys, teenage boys, and every once in a while, an old woman, and I was more than ready to sing in a skirt and flirt. I was also nervous. The cast was full of big names with even bigger voices. The only thing big about me was the list of names I gave to stage management for comps. I was such a puppy, slobbering all over everyone. Fortunately, everyone loves a puppy. Those big voices took me in on day one, and by the end of our first week of rehearsals, my new friends had asked me (me!) to join them for dinner, “Michel is cooking for us at the hotel. Surely, you’ve met him.” I hadn't. I only knew he was cast as Beppe in Pagliacci and his headshot looked like he played the bad guy often. When I followed the big voices into Michel’s suite he blocked the door and stared at me. I waited and stared back. One, two, three beats later the guy in the Hustler t-shirt finally burst into a smile, “Oui, Marcia, of course, yes, yes, come in, it’s so nice to meet you!”He didn’t seem to remember that I was coming. I hoped he didn’t mind that I was there.
Two days later, Michel and I started making out. A week after that, we got tattoos. By closing night I was a basket case knowing we’d fly home to different cities in the morning. I convinced myself that he’d forget me, Marcia, who? Never heard of her. But as I walked into my apartment the phone was already ringing. I dumped my suitcase and ran, “Hello...?” My roommate grinned at me as I skipped back to my bedroom.
I quickly ditched my Grey’s Anatomy marathons for handwritten letters that smelled like cologne. My circle of friends with big voices grew. I even got an agent. Two years later, Michel and I swapped out the planes, trains, and automobiles for an apartment in Toronto. Two years after that we bought a house. Then, in 2010, we got engaged by accident.
Over lunch, I wrinkled my nose at being called boyfriend and girlfriend, “It’s so juvenile.” But Common Law Partner didn’t sound any sexier, “And, it’s not like we’re getting married or anything,” I said.
He took another bite, “Well, I’d like to get married.”
“You would?” I put my fork down.
“Of course. I’d love for you to be my wife,” he said, still chewing.
“Yesss,” exasperated, he put his fork down.
I whispered, “Baby, did we just get engaged?”
The day after I said yes to Michel, my inbox exploded with more proposals. This time, from opera companies. “Take the cookies when they’re passed,” they say. And I did. I crammed music into my head and clothes into my suitcase. But three days into a whirlwind gig my body decided to crash the opera party and sent me to Dr. Schacter the Chiropractor. He cracked my back twice a day for two solid weeks. It worked, mostly. I kept singing, moved carefully, and thanked my lucky stars for union benefits.
Three months later I went to Winnipeg. I begged the universe for an easy visit with my mother. Maybe we’d celebrate my engagement by going out for cheesecake. I stepped out of the elevator and rolled my suitcase straight into my mother, who had the engagement ring in one hand, and a broken vacuum cleaner in the other. “Can you fix this?” She asked, “I can’t clean the apartment.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I put on my grandmother’s engagement ring, something I’d coveted for years, and dragged the vacuum and suitcase back to her suite.
She opened the door. The scent of cat and air freshener hit the back of my throat. Angels, porcelain ladies, and fashion magazines overwhelmed her furniture. Inspirational quotes and sticky notes wallpapered the kitchen. A cat’s paw lashed out at me, “Where have you been?” In her bedroom, clothes were pristinely piled on chairs and necklaces hung from decorative pins on the wall. I tripped, “Why don’t you put your shoes in the closet, mum?” I opened the door and saw that the closet was jammed full. I realized that my mother’s mental state had reached the point of no return. She was not well enough to travel. I would be without any blood relatives on my wedding day. I wanted to set the apartment fire. Instead, I cleaned like a maniac. Both of us in tears the whole time; me lying that everything would be OK. Everything would not be OK. I had been so wrapped up in my own life that I hadn’t realized hers was unraveling.
It took six months to find my mother a spot in the nicest assisted living centre in Winnipeg, but no pets were allowed. I’d have to find a home for Timothy and Cynthia, her two cats. By some miracle, I got hooked up with a crazy cat lady who took them, which was a relief to me but shattered my mother. By the spring of 2011, she no longer knew how to use a phone. One time, when Michel and I were in town to sing in The Magic Flute with Manitoba Opera, we took her out for lunch. She sat there with vacant eyes like a ghost. Those eyes still haunt me to this day.
Considering everything, Michel and I chose to keep the wedding small. It would be us, and two big-voiced witnesses at City Hall. But when my friends Brad and Dan found out, they badgered me to invite a few more people. But my thought was, if my mother couldn’t be there, how could I invite a whole bunch of people? Eventually, I gave in. We’d invite twelve guests and then go for drinks after. Once that had been decided, Brad and Dan invited us over for dinner, “We’ve been discussing your wedding and we’re not satisfied with the idea of going-for-drinks-after. So! We’ve decided to Cater your wedding and host it on our terrace. We’ll plant pink bulbs now and they’ll come up just in time for your wedding!” When my friend Dahla heard the news, she insisted on creating mini-bouquets to decorate the condo. “Don’t argue,” she laughed. Then, I was gifted not one, but two gorgeous cakes for the big day. Decades of my mother’s extravagance had made me the polar opposite to her. The real gift my friends gave me was permission to find the middle ground. Everyone deserves to celebrate love.
I had made a new family.
Cake photo by @Rothbauerstudio