Maybe it started on June 28th, 2019. That’s when the kids began their first day of summer holidays. Anticipation melted off of them like an ice cream cone left for dead on a hot summer sidewalk. My husband, Jamie, was smack dab in the middle of his railroad conductor training. I was wrapping things up from another life, assuring that this previous existence would not stretch out and grab us. I didn’t realize then that it would take a lot more than some paperwork and bread ties to close that chapter of our lives.
No, the real trouble started earlier than that. December 2018, let’s say. That’s when the hard decisions were laid down in front of us.
Globules of tears run down my mascara lined face. I am hyperventilating. I cannot breathe. Jamie sits on the opposite side of our kitchen table, he too has tears rolling down his cheeks, bloodshot eyes, and that familiar furrow to his brow. Between us is a kitchen table full of debt. The lines of credit, the overdue bills, the overdraft notices we have accumulated since starting our business.
“We can’t keep going like this,” he says.
“We can’t stop,” I say, “we can’t just quit.”
“It’s not working. The business plan isn’t working. We just don’t have the clientele coming in. We will have to go bankrupt by year-end if this keeps up.” He sweeps his hand over the table as if he showing off a pile of precious goods.
“But the business is good. People love it.” I am pleading now. There is something in my voice that I hate. Something pensive and fussy that I’ve never heard before. It exposes my desperation.
If we shut down our business, our little sandwich shop/bakery that we have poured so much into, what will I have then? What will make me unique? I am disgusted by this revelation—this pathetic expose of Lindsay Rae Brown. The girl who craves the limelight.
At this moment, as my husband and I delve into the severe shit-storm we have found ourselves in, I realize what exactly it is that I’m so worried about. This thing that’s been pulling at my conscience since becoming fully aware of our financial problems.
“What will I do after it’s gone?” I ask with surprising clarity. My husband is a Red Seal Chef, he has options. He has an education and a degree under his belt. For the last ten years, I have focused on raising children. I’ve had the occasional part-time job here and there, but nothing substantial. Nothing to proudly place on a resume. Maybe it’s not the limelight I seek, but something meaningful.
The kids are growing fast and will soon be working on their own life projects. Although their dad and I will always be there for them first and foremost, I am a firm believer that we, as parents, must continue to carve out our own hopes and desires during the child-rearing years. You know, so not to become one of those, live-vicariously-through-your-kid type people. If we do not have a business to coddle where that does leave me?
Jamie takes me in his arms and kisses my forehead in the same way he has always done. The way he did when we first stood in his mother’s basement, young, stoned, and unaffected by the ways of this world, and he told me he loved me for the first time.
“You’ll write. You can finally focus on your writing. Do something with it now.” He is whispering this in my ear, as though to keep a secret from the reality we are threatening to leave. “We’ve spent so much time trying to make my dream come to life, you’ve never had the chance to try at yours.” His voice hitches and I know he is just as terrified at the prospect of a new life as I am. We hold each other in our kitchen, unease leaking out our brains and onto a dirty floor, and we wonder how it ended up like this.
Small business is complicated in the best of times. Ideally, one would want to have a secondary income to live off of while building their business up. Allowing all monies that come into the company to stay there to enable growth and development.
We moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, to start a sandwich shop. And to all intents and purposes, it was a success. Even the books said so. After the first full year, we had turned a small profit. Granted, the only way we did this was by naming the thing a mom and pop shop and powering it solely through us. No staff, just Jamie and me. However, the profit was little, I mean very little, and that small profit is what we, a family of four, used to live.
As a growing household in this modern age, it simply wasn’t enough. However, with our business model, both Jamie and I needed to be at the shop, nearly 12 hours a day. So getting secondary jobs was out of the question.
We did this for three years. We did what any great entrepreneur tells a new business owner not to do. We made the thing our baby. We sacrificed for it. We, as a family unit, went without in order to feed the business.
In the end, the business sank us. Although the company looked okay (not great, but okay) on paper, if anyone were to take a look into our personal finances, they would likely pull a Wile E. Coyote and run for the hills through a brick wall. We had been living off credit for three years, and finally, the credit had run out. Whether it was our lack of startup capital, shortage of business know-how, or maybe, mom and pop shops were simply becoming a thing of that past; survival was becoming increasingly difficult.
I do know that our following was solid, and the customer base we had was loyal and loving. We had 5-star ratings on both Google and Facebook. Trip Advisor loved us as we were continually receiving rave reviews from hungry travelers. We seldom had a customer leave unhappy. I don’t want to sound braggy, but I need to include this part. It’s more for me than it is for you. I need to reiterate that despite the heartache this business and the loss of it caused, it did some good too. We fed our community; we donated to local causes and, in turn, made lasting friendships with incredible people. We were welcomed into the local community with open arms. It was an excellent time to be a small business owner as far as friendships go. As far as business goes, the chain stores and online ordering sites had us dog-tired and waving the white flag.
Six months after our kitchen table realization, I am clearing out the last of the bay. We have not sold the business but, instead, are dissolving it. What a morbid turn of phrase. It reminds me of murdering a thing and liquefying the body in a tub of acid. I mean it works though, it’s an accurate description of how dissolving a business feels. We were unsuccessful in selling the company, which begs the question, was it as great as we thought it was?
At this time, emotions whip through the air on invisible jet streams, waiting to strike at any given moment. I might be scrubbing a particularly tough stain off of the floor where the deep freeze once sat, wondering what next is in store for me, when the desperation hits me. It slips in through my ear and burrows into my consciousness. There it pecks away, eventually bringing to light the failure, the colossal botch this endeavor has become.
I have never been less confident than the day I handed over the keys to an empty bay, which once housed our budding little business.
Jamie has found a job on the railroad. Cooking is his passion, but in the world of Southern Alberta, cooking is not realistic in the ways of raising a family. It is a grim verdict, I know. One that tells you, the reader, where my, the teller, priorities lay.
It is yet another reason why the guilt splashes over me like those droplets of tub acid on any given day, burning into the deepest part of me and sticking there for later use. The priority is money. There, I said it. This debt hangs not over us but beneath us and is dragging my husband and me down into the pit of despair. You remember the pit of despair from The Princess Bride. In this scenario, our mounting stress is akin to the albino, and it is indeed taking years off our life.
But that part, the first part, is over now. I want to tell you about our real babies. The sentient ones. The kids I birthed and have rather enjoyed raising into the weird little wonders they are today. Lars and Sophie Brown.
When we told Lars and Sophie that we were closing the shop, they jumped for joy. Literally. Jamie and I had sat them down on Lars’ bed and told them gently that the shop wasn’t working, so we’d have to shut it down. The closest thing we received to sadness was Lars tentatively asking if we’d have to move away from Lethbridge because he did not want to leave his friends. We told them no, we were not moving, and then our ten and eight-year-olds then proceeded to get feet-side on Lars’ bed and do happy dances.
Never would they have to sit through a busy lunch rush in the cramped and sort of smelly office of the shop again. No longer would we miss school functions or have to decline volunteering obligations because of our responsibilities to the shop. These kids were ecstatic.
I keep this memory wound tight in my mind. I will never let it go. It guards me against moments of self-doubt when wondering if we did the right thing in closing our business. When the what if’s start to consume me. What if we had fought just a little harder? What if we had pursued financial counsel instead of throwing in the towel? What if we had dug deeper to find a way out of the hole? Out of the pit. I think of that happy dance, and that helps me move my family forward.
Then it was summer. We had closed the business accounts and wrapped up what we could before our accounting year-end. The summer was ours. It had been years since I have spent the summer with Lars and Sophie. And I’m not going to lie, it was strange. What would I do? How could I fill the day without working a ten-hour shift? There I was with these two young individuals who were teeming with the exhilaration, and I was at a loss.
So, I asked them, “Do you guys want to go swimming or something?”
I’d like to tell you that we had one specific pool or lake that we went to. Our summer spent at this particular place, soaking up the sun and living a water baby life, but that’s not exactly true. The truth is more like this: we scoured the city; we tried out pools the way teenagers try on extravagant fashions for prom. On days when Jamie was off work, we’d hop in the car and journey to new towns to find new pools. We gobbled up swim facilities without remorse or a second thought.
And once we were in the water, having found the lake or pool or swimmin’ hole for that day, the feeling that we might drown would float away.
Our first swimming excursion opened my eyes to what I had been missing in my children’s lives. As we left the change room, the kids moved toward the deep end of the pool. My heart bloomed, and I was just about to holler, “wait, what are you doing? You guys can’t jump in there!” When they did jump in there. They cannon-balled off the edge of that pool into the water, where not even their tippy-toes could touch the bottom.
The lifeguard must have noted the stricken look on my face as she readied herself to save a couple of idiot kids who couldn’t tell the deep-end from the shallows. But low and behold, they popped back up and quickly stroked their way to the side of the pool. They could swim? When the hell did that happen? I hadn’t been looking, and there they were, teaching themselves to swim.
While in the water, our carefreeness held us afloat. Well, actually it was buoyancy which kept us afloat, but let’s call it carefreeness. The verb ‘swim’ changed into something more like a proper noun, a self-standing entity that slowly began to restore this broken family unit. Swim taught us to trust as we made our way into the murkiness of a dugout lake. The four of us holding hands as we explored the unknown water, the sun darkening our exposed shoulders.
Together we laughed and gasped when tadpoles tickled our toes. Then, Sophie, it was always Sophie, would dive in. Her hair stretched out over her back, she cut through the frigid water.
Swim gave us the joy we so desperately needed that summer. After defeat, it was our reawakening. Jamie and I could have been mulling over our life, over mistakes made and worries yet to come only hours before, but when we jumped into the water and watched these babes swim and play and laugh in a way that told us we are doing okay, everything else drifted away. Waxed paper sailboats on a river current. We were, for a few hours, allowed to live in the moment.
The summer of 2019 was strange and beautiful and healing. Jamie and I would lay in bed with tears running down our cheeks, musing over a dream that was ended too soon. However, we’d laugh too. We made quiet, lazy love on warm afternoons, and he’d kiss my forehead, and we’d talk about one day.
With Jamie’s new trade came an entirely new lifestyle for our family. We took the summer to learn how to live on a railroader’s schedule. On-call and waiting for the phone, and while we waited, we swam. Swim helped us navigate through all kinds of new waters.
The leaves began to turn. It was immediate and jarring. The ash tree, who lives outside our living room window, revealed a lonely yellow leaf amidst a sea of green. Soon we would be raking together colossal piles of desiccated leaves to take hackneyed photographs, later to be stored away in a computer file called, “Fall 2019.” Soon we’d be making snow-people who go by the names of Frank and Mrs. Shovelton. In no time, we’d be opening Christmas presents and sledding down icy hills with mugs of hot chocolate perched at the top, promising to keep us warm.
Soon that life, which once gave us so much happiness and so much strife, would be behind us. A memory that we could look back on and smile. “Remember when we owned that sandwich shop.” Jamie will say to me as I read my favorite Margaret Atwood story, and he catches up on current events. We will laugh and wonder what we were thinking.
This thought will lead to another, and I will say, “But remember the swimming? Remember how much we swam with the kids that following summer?” Because it was a lot. Enough to jar that single season out of the depths of memory and into present days. Sufficiently dredging up our old pal, Swim.
My husband will kiss me on the forehead, as he always has, and tell me he does remember. He will say, “That was a good summer.” And I will agree.
The worries and the stress of that period of our lives will have long been forgotten. Carried away and scattered by the waves of that once upon summer of Swim.