Category Archives: Memoir

Memories and Melancholia

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here and I’m sorry for that readers—I was working on a major writing project that took up all my spare time outside my day job.

But today I have a fever and am home sick. And what comes with fevers are always those strange hyper-real dreams, you know the ones where you think you are awake they are so tangible? I had one of those today about my mom and it brought me back to the years I was looking after her while slowly losing her to dementia.

Also woven into these dreams were the poems of Ulrikka S. Gernes, a Danish poet, who read at the Vancouver Writers Festival this past Saturday. Her poems have been singing in my head ever since. They surfaced in my fevered dreams like ocean glass and I wasn’t so sad to be sick if you want to know the truth.

She writes in her book, Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments,  that “Melancholia has a wide spectrum of nuances and tones and it often evokes a heightened sensitivity.” I felt these nuances today, the curtains drawn, quilt pulled up, dreaming of my mother, her small dog Max, her brittle collarbone against me as I held her towards the end. Don’t think ‘depression’, it’s just a daughter missing her mother when she’s sick. People like to make more of these things than they are—just human moments we all experience and sometimes the way into them, to really feel them, is through a fevered dream.

Ulrikka’s says she will “forever defend melancholia; it has an inherent power to sharpen certain senses that are beneficial to art, to life.” I couldn’t agree more. Herewith, a little poem that came from my memory dream with my mom and her little dog Max and myself towards the end when she was slipping in and out of the now and I was trying to pretend everything was just fine and hold onto her.

Moustache 

I look at your dark moustache as your coffee cup dangles

From your bony fingers, smoke curling into the air

through the dust as it floats

Through a shaft of morning light.

The hairs move like cheerful whiskers,

black and wiry, poking down into your cup

as we talk about the dog , how he likes to bark especially hard

at the man in the motorized wheelchair.

You tell me you sometimes duck your head

under the window to avoid him

or let the dog out to attack his wheels.

This was some time ago but I don’t bring it up.

I help you walk to the bathroom, undo your pants,

let you down slowly onto the toilet

then slip out for a second so you can be alone.

Okay? I say then come back, place your hands on my shoulders

And pull you up. We laugh a little as your pants drop

To the floor and I have to balance you and pull them up in one motion.

I close the lid on the toilet and sit you gently back down.

I’m going to dye your moustache okay?

You seem a bit embarassed but not sure why and

cluck at the dog to come and he circles then sits down at your feet.

I mix the Jolen powder and cream together and apply

the white paste to your wiry scruff.

I set a small kitchen timer for five minutes.

I lean back against the sink and tell you about my son.

He’s four months old now. You exclaim oh oh—

Most of the time you forget he’s been born.

Sometimes you remember and admonish me,

saying  of course, of course.

I take the face cloth and gently wipe the paste off then

take you to the mirror. You’re not sure

what you should be looking at but smile at me as though

I have just given you the news we were going on a holiday.

You will have no memory of this tomorrow.

I will hold it inside long after you are gone

like a snowglobe

shaking it whenever I need you.

 

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Filed under Memoir, Non-fiction, Poetry

On mothers, imperfection and love

It is Mother’s Day and I’ve been very blessed with a son who not only took me to lunch but to an art gallery then dinner! Can you imagine doing all that for your mom? I know. But it isn’t all bliss on the parenting front. In fact, being a mother means your worst self will be scrutinized and commented on for as long as you are alive. Your children, in all their innocent and not so innocent honesty, will bring you face to face with your shortcomings like no one else.

Recently my son said he felt like I didn’t teach him enough tasks and that I was annoyingly positive. Well, there you are. But as I ruminated on my failings at 3 am, I thought of my own mother and her imperfections and how they now endear me to her even more. Where once I was a critical 20 something I am not a not-so-smug 40 something who can, with empathy and love, look back on some of situations I was in with my mom and hold them close as cherished memories instead of damning her for being, well, human. To that end, I wrote a poem about a time when, in today’s politically correct world, my mom would have been seen as lax or worse, negligent. But I see it very differently. I my son will too some day.

Imperfect Mother

It is the imperfections of my mother

I hold dearest—

The time for instance when turning off of

West 16th near UBC in her red Beetle the

door beside me swung open and since it was the seventies

I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt

and I went with the door, grasping the handle to

avoid the road rushing below me.

I looked back at my mother who

while still turning with her left hand lunged across to snatch my

flimsy t-shirt with her right and pulled me back into the car.

It was a one shot deal but she managed it. The door banged shut as

she completed the sharp turn and we kept on driving as though

I hadn’t just about fell out of the car and onto the road.

 

A block later a small eruption of laughter burst

From my mother. It made me clap my hands together

In gleeful loopy agreement of what I wasn’t sure but

The sun was streaming through oak leaves as we drove

Creating a beautiful pattern on my mother and I kicked my legs

Out from the edge of the sticky car seat to the radio played

 

Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city

 

I could say my mother was negligent

I could get maudlin, drink myself silly

Recount her imperfections that had caused

My life to zig zag like a silverfish on the run

 

But then I remember how she didn’t pull over

And fuss and fawn and make a big deal of

My near death fall and how years later this

Would give me courage when real death

And real heartbreak would pull me pull me down

 

And I would swim up to the surface, clapping my hands

Ecstatic for life’s small moments of survival.

 

*Song lyric from Summer in the City by Lovin Spoonful, 1966.

 

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Books, Bras and Coming of Age

I am working on a digital story series called Summer Reads with some writers (many famous, lucky me) and I’ve asked them to write a memory piece on a book that changed their lives one summer. Then I’m going to film them reading from it. So it will be a sweet little interactive experience when I’m done with it. But my interaction designer and story partner said, ‘just send me exactly what one of the pieces will look like‘ as she is prone to do (being precise and logical).  I always forget that she isn’t wired into the pictures that appear in my head. So to that end, I wrote one myself. Enjoy.

*****

I was eleven years old when I read Judy Blume’s ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ It was a book my friends had read before me so I was pretty late to the Blume party and often felt self-conscious at sleepovers when quotes from the book were read out loud with a display of tween pride mixed with a nuanced air of a just blooming (no pun intended) awareness of sex.

But my house wasn’t the kind of house where you’d ever find Judy Blume. No, in my house you might find Steinbeck or Lord of the Rings or Farley Mowat or more commonly, technical manuals on how to make your own kayak, weld, or build a boat engine. Owning a Judy Blume novel would have landed me in some serious trouble in my household and so on my bike I went to the Kitsilano library. I slid the Blume between books on Ancient Egypt (I was after all doing a book report on Sphinxes) and some innocent looking P.D. James mystery books for my mom.

Nothing happened when they scanned the book. No alarms, no ‘Are you old enough for this material young lady?’ from the librarian. I was scot-free and peeled out of there on my scuffed up second-hand Raleigh straight to the beach with my literary contraband. That day under a willow tree at Jericho, I saw my own world, a secret world hidden from my parents and my nine brothers, unfold like a mirror where I could see mood for mood, experience by experience, a character just like me, even with the same name, the same internal struggles and worries and physical doubts I was having that I couldn’t share with anyone in my world.

My father had just died from a long illness and I was adrift in a home with no rules or structure or even a parent. My mom had essentially checked out. When I did get my period that year it was alone in a bathroom with no supplies and no one to tell me what to do and it was terrifying. Judy Blume’s Margaret became my surrogate sister and Judy my surrogate mother. As I flipped the pages hungrily, with french-fry and vinegar-soaked fingers staining each page, I half expected a flock of priests to descend on me from my local Catholic church and rip the book from my pre-adolescent hands but no one busted me and I read the entire book in one uninterrupted day at the beach.

That night at Sharon Bideshi’s sleepover I quoted effortlessly from the book, skimmed scented grape gloss across my lips and posed in my faded hand-me-down Queen t-shirt, and admitted I’d bought a bra by myself that didn’t quite fit. Then we all mimicked the book’s now-famous mantra and exercise ‘we must, we must, we must increase our bust‘ and I peed my pants a little laughing so hard. I’d unhinged myself from my family, the church, and perhaps even childhood. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was but it was a better place that included boys, bras and makeup. And still a little bit of God for good measure.

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A State of Remembrance

Remembrance Day. It’s always a way for back to my father for me. He died when I was just ten years old and I never knew much about his time as a Spitfire pilot in World War II. He didn’t talk about his personal life; his inner thoughts remained out of reach, as much as his hugs and encouragement to me and I felt on the other side of an immense lake of indifference that I would never cross before his death. At all times he was a man, to me anyway, of decisive action and booming presence until his last few years, when his heart began to fade, and his health declined. He was then a shadow, often asleep in his easy chair in the den, with his head rolled to one side. We were never, ever to wake him so we tiptoed and whispered and I remember often wondering if he was still breathing. It wasn’t if, it was always when and it came as no shock when he finally passed away.

Yet at one time, he fought two Luftwaffe in a dogfight over Italy and was shot down then crawled to refuge in an Italian farm where he recovered and eventually made life-long friendships. The image of him as a pilot, spinning through the air with two German aircraft gunning for him never matched up with the weak and dying man who filled the role of father to my young self.

Today, though, in remembrance, I honour his young, brave self, sailing into the enemy sky, a Canadian boy from the Prairies with a huge heart and generous dose of red hair and gritty Irish nerve.

Lest we forget.

dad war pic

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The Danger of a Metronome

When I was little, I had to take piano lessons with Sister Margaret. Sister Margaret was our music teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on West 10th avenue in Point Grey. Sister Margaret was terribly old. I used to go to lessons in the convent where she lived, just a few blocks up from our house on Crown and 11th. I remember I would be incapable of studying the hard Conservatory lessons and would divert her attention by making up elaborate stories and punctuating them with dramatic notes on the piano.

At first she tried to reel me in by putting the metronome on. As soon as the sharp, precise, demanding tone of the metronome began I sat listlessly on the bench, slumped over, but checked out. To Sister Margaret’s credit, she noticed the effect and stopped the metronome at once. Instead, she embraced my stories and even ignored the Conservatory lessons entirely. (My poor mom, she’d hoped I would follow in her footsteps and be a great pianist.) Most of my stories began with a deep rumbling of bass notes. Usually paired with a storm, a boat, a maiden followed by a heartless family and then a hero would enter. Standard 6-year-old drama stuff.

Sister Margaret delighted in my hour-long story sessions but as the day of the big recital got closer we both guiltily realized that I had little prepared for a performance. She chose an easy one for me which was Bach’s ‘Air’. I had to work hard to memorize it and it was my first experience of  ‘cramming’ for something. It would, of course, become something familiar to me as I got older.

On the day of the recital, I played my little piece but twice forgot where I was to go next and the air around me was devoid of Bach’s light, lilting notes, as I remembered words instead of musical notes and the lines between the bars and the plot made for a fumbled and awkward performance.

Yet, at the end of the year Sister Margaret threw a party at the convent for all her students and she gave me a beautiful Beethoven sculpture, finely wrought in wood, that had always and forever been on her piano. I could feel the sharp stares of her good students furrowing their brows at my fraudulent profile as I accepted her gift in front of everyone. We had an understanding. I think it was that, out of all the students, I was the only who came with the specific purpose to entertain her. And that purity of purpose meant something to her. I think anyway. I was always deeply grateful for her understanding I wasn’t the metronome type. It gave rise to a life of storytelling.

To this day, I can see a metronome type coming towards me at a hundred paces. I used to always think those types were right and I was wrong but as I get older, I am standing up for myself a little more and telling them to put their metronomes away and just listen. Listen to the story for a moment. It really does have its own, fabulous, transformative rhythm.

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The Patterns of Life

The other day I was in a thrift store and stumbled across an old collection of dress patterns. It brought me back to the days when my mother and I would drive down to Gold’s Fabrics at Arbutus and 12th in Vancouver. My mother could sew and knit and despite trying to teach me numerous times, I resisted and instead suggested I just be her model. My mother was quite an accomplished  seamstress and spent countless hours at the sewing machine creating outfits for me, and sometimes my sister, various household items like curtains, and repairing the clothes of her large family in order to save money. The dresses she made for me, despite my creative direction however, never turned out the way I wanted.  I never had the heart to say I didn’t like it as she beamed up at me from cutting a thread off the hem of the finished dress. But I knew in my heart that was how it would always be because of our trips to Gold’s Fabrics.

We would walk in and to the right of the heavy glass doors were row upon row of drawers of patterns organized by designer. At the front were Simplicity, McCall’s, and Butterick, and other what I considered ‘average’ patterns that my mother liked to frequent. At the back were the more expensive patterns; this is where I skidaddled to in my hand-me down clothes and dusty flip-flops I may or may not have inherited from my brother.

I dove into those drawers and pulled out each package, turning it gently over in my hands, looking carefully at the evening dresses, the styling of hair and makeup of each illustration and lost myself in Vogue’s chic style. Sometimes my mother would come around and poke her nose over my shoulder and make her usual tsking sound and sometimes, if I pointed out how she could, if she tried, easily fashion a gown for me, she would start walking away saying with a small shake of her head, “oh no, no, no” as though I had just asked her to drive me in a convertible to the moon.

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I realized I was up against a mountain that wouldn’t move. There was no swaying my mother over to my haute couture world. She was seeking simple, cheap, easy-to-make and I was hoping for Chanel. Sometimes I would try to persuade her to jazz it up with creative buttons or ribbon or coloured zippers which could be found for miles in the centre of the warehouse-size store. She would laugh as though my request was absurd and sometimes I found my foot coming down hard on the linoleum floor in my frustration. This would make her tsk again and say, “Margaret, you have champagne tastes on a beer budget I’m afraid.” This was always her go-to phrase when she felt I was reaching too far. As in a fuchsia zipper or rhinestone button.

Maybe it was because my mom grew up on a farm and lived through the Depression. Maybe because, despite living in Point Grey in a big house, she never had much money. Or maybe she was a simple woman who was content with what she had in life, something I am only now in my forties seeing the value of:  life as it is rather than life as I imagine it in my head.

But just to be clear, I’ll never be a Simplicity woman. I’ll always be Vogue.
vogue mermaid gown pattern

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The Meaning of an Ice Cream Sundae

It was the way my brother made me an ice-cream sundae. He was clear: this wasn’t the time to hold back or go cheap. It was so rare in my world to think this way. The church told us to sacrifice, apologize, kneel down. Repent! My parents told me to be quiet, be happy with less, and do not covet what others had. Even our food was about holding back: no salt, flavour, or fat because my dad was dying of heart disease. It was a world that begged me to be something I was not and I had to hide my inner self that dreamed of being in the theatre and living life as an artist.

When my brother Leo made ice-cream sundae’s he did so with abandon. He defended his right to excess in a world of lack and control. Sundae-making with Leo only ever occurred with the parents and older siblings out of the house and it would be just me and my two brothers who made up the bottom of the family. When we ate those sundae’s we did so with complete glee and abandon. There were no rations; we could have as much as we wanted! It had a kind of Lord of the Flies feel to it during those afternoons with Leo and the ice cream. We’d stepped over the boundary of constraints and into the world of flavour and laughter and joy.

Leo never judged me. He wasn’t threatened by my big drama, unbridled love of adventure, or storytelling obsessions. He saw life as an ice-cream sundae: full of possibility, delight, and simple pleasures. I would always come back to his house from travels afar to feel that same feeling I had as a child. It never left. I always felt free and loved in his presence for exactly who I was.

It’s been seventeen years to the day since he was tragically killed in a biking accident. I always say, there was life before Leo died and after Leo died. It changed me forever. I can’t pretend I feel any better about losing him now all these years later. I would give anything to share a sundae with him again. I’d pour extra chocolate sauce and load up on sprinkles. I wouldn’t scrimp or hold back. I would live in the moment and smile back at his wide, toothy, lovely smile and tell him how much I loved him. And thank him for loving me.

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