First page to last, The Highland Book of Platitudes, originally published in Scotland, does not contain a platitude that addresses a woman falling in love with a woman, and a man falling in love with the same woman. Yet that was the situation with my parents—and this included our next-door neighbor Reese Mac Isaac. In 1941 Reese Mac Isaac was thirty-five years old. Her hair was the color of dark honey, she was slim and dressed smart, and was, to my mind, as lovely and mysterious as any woman you'd see in an advertisement for perfume in the Saturday Evening Post. My family didn't have a subscription, but you could find copies in the lobby of the Lord Nelson Hotel, on Spring Garden Road across from the Public Gardens.
In fact, Reese was employed as a switchboard operator at the hotel. Also, she'd taken acting lessons, and in 1937 had appeared in Widow's Walk. It was a picture about a woman whose husband's fishing boat capsizes in a storm on the same night she'd been dallying with the handsome village doctor. Out of guilt and remorse, the woman goes mad and spends the rest of her nights in a Widow's Walk atop her house. For the few months that it was being filmed, Widow's Walk was all the gossip. Referred to as "an all-Canadian production," most of it was shot near Port Medway—they'd even built a temporary lighthouse.
In the heart of winter the following year, Widow's Walk played in Halifax and I went to see it with my parents. Just after the opening credits, Reese Mac Isaac appeared on screen. She played a hotel switchboard operator! "Hold on, please," she said, and listened through an earpiece. "I'm sorry, your party is not answering. Try again later, please." This scene took all of thirty seconds. Still, I was impressed, and though Widow's Walk had no true movie stars in it and box-office-wise it fell short of popularity, I imagined all sorts of associations. I wondered, Had Reese met Loretta Young? Had she met Tyrone Power? Had she met Jean Harlow? When the meager audience filed out of the theater, I said, "Pretty lucky of them to find someone with firsthand experience with switchboards like Reese has!"
Right there on the sidewalk my parents fell apart laughing. My mother said, "Darling, I hate to point out the obvious, but Reese Mac Isaac's cameo took place in the switchboard cubby she actually works in, six a.m. to three p.m. every day but Sunday."
"Hardly a big stretch," my father said.
"I don't care," I said. "She did well with what she was given."
A week after the funerals, as I lay on the sofa drinking whiskey to try and help me sleep, I realized that I didn't begrudge my father that he loved Reese Mac Isaac. The same went for my mother, all received morality notwithstanding, for which I didn't give a good goddamn, not in the least. I knew that my parents no longer loved each other. Since I was eight or nine I knew it, even earlier. Civility had become their mainstay. Civility bowed and curtsied—"Good night, dear"—as they went to separate bedrooms.
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