Tag Archives: daughter

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.


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

Another kind of Father’s Day

Much of what I remember of my father is steeped in fear. His mythical reputation for losing his temper was handed down to me from my 10 older siblings through epic tales of survival to cautionary tales from my younger siblings on how to carefully navigate that temper.

I resented it. I wanted to be free of the yoke of his glowering persona. I longed to be free of the hard and terrible consequences that came with being a child in his world. So, I started up a small revolution in my heart against him. I knew I was the youngest, the smallest and female in a family of nine boys–with the only other female my sister who was the seeming apple in his eye–and because of this, knew there was little I could do other than to take a stand against the monster who seemed to dictate life in our home.

I couldn’t stop the blows that rained down on my brothers but when it was my turn, I was prepared. I was in trouble for coming late to dinner and it was time for my reckoning. I walked solemnly over to the drawer where the spatulas and serving spoons were kept, that were, up until that moment, loving symbols of my mom’s cooking, and pulled out one of the less dangerous looking utensils and walked over to him. This ritual was part of the torture: You had to pick the weapon you wanted to be hit with.

“Here.” I handed him the spatula, which was metal (for some reason my mom had no wooden spoons in the drawer that day, why Mom, why?) and he took it and began to slap my open palms with it. Hard and with fire behind it. I stood firm like a soldier and stared him straight in the eye without flinching. I was four. I was fierce. I would not be broken.

My dad never hit me again. But what was lost in that moment was never regained. He died only six years later when I was ten. I didn’t mourn him. I didn’t know him. I was glad the reign of fear was over.

Many years later now, I am able to look back with more compassion on my father who was, at the time of my childhood, dying. He was dying and it was a slow, awful death where his heart was slowly failing him, and he was slipping from life while at the same time trying to control it.

I started to peel back the violence from my memory and searched for moments when he was kind to me. It took some time. But I remembered he bought me a small lamp for the dark when I was 5 or 6 because I was so terrified at night I would creep down into my parents bedroom and crawl slowly up into my mom’s bed (in those days they had separate beds) stopping when I heard his gruff complaint at my presence to which my mom always answered, “It’s only Margaret, dear, go back to sleep.”

I remember another time I was dancing in our dining room to some music in my head and he snuck a photo of me. I was really shocked that he’d cared enough to capture the moment but also didn’t know how to act–it was too intimate for such a distant relationship. Or the time he let me keep the kitten I found in a box–begrudingly, with complaints of future fleas and cost, and a Pinteresque pause before yes–then his small gesture to bring the kitten to him as he peered in the box and petted his small head. I can see now he was there, albeit far away, trying to be a father to me, but I was running in the opposite direction and he never had the emotional or physical ability to run after me.

More recently, I found an old letter of his to his older brother in a pile of photos, from a year or so before his death. He acknowledges he’s dying and is clearly sorrowful; at the end of the letter he writes about me, saying “Most of all, I think about little Margaret. That Margaret is really something, full of beans and always surprising me.” That I was in his mind at all came as a complete surprise to me but the tone is even more surprising–one of delight, tinged with deep regret and sorrow, knowing he will never see his daughter grow up, and perhaps having never really been a father to her at all.

Now, a single parent for two decades, I have a much better understanding of what my father must have been feeling and the challenges he faced during that time and wish I could sit with him now and pour us a stiff drink. I think I’d see that he wasn’t a villain. I think I’d see that I’m full of his best qualities: Courage, leadership, tenacity, vision. In fact, I think we’d be close friends.

Here’s to you Frank, wherever you are, bottoms up. See you on the other side.

My dad in 1977, the year he died.

My dad in 1977, the year he died.



Filed under Non-fiction

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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Filed under Memoir

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.


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


Filed under Memoir

My mom in her underpants at the Hudson’s Bay

Ok, a little bit Princess...but cute right?

My mom was more my pal than my mother. She was older when she had me–48–and she didn’t want to have to discipline or harangue me much which suited me just fine. I was her last child and she wanted to spoil me which also suited me just fine. It could be perhaps why recently a friend told me to repeat after him: I am a princess. I did so reluctantly but only because I needed a ride.

My mother and I often went shopping together. It was a social thing which inevitably ended up in a restaurant because, growing up in a family of 13, eating in a restaurant to me was so much more civilized than say having my brother steal my food off my plate or some fight breaking out over who was doing the dishes and I was comforted  knowing there was life outside our war-zone eatery.

When I was in my third trimester of my pregnancy, my mom thought a trip to the Hudson’s Bay in North Vancouver would be a good thing to do. I was as large as an oil tanker by then and though I still did some stage management at the Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt, I was doing a lot of lying around reading about what could go wrong during a birth.

We parked on the upper level of The Hudson’s Bay and wandered, very slowly, because remember, I was taking up two aisle widths and my mother was ancient so nobody was beetling around anywhere in a hurry. Instead, we bought some baby clothes, had the inevitable lunch, then headed back upstairs to leave. Now, my mother was getting on in her years, and she wasn’t the type of woman to put much care into herself. She cared for everyone else around her. That is what made her the female version of Gandhi. However, on this day, she might have put in a little more effort.

I was walking ahead of her through the second set of doors to the upstairs parkade when, by habit, I stopped and turned, and as I did, I saw my mother’s wide, white underpants drop softly down around her ankles. I looked at the underpants then back up at her. She was stuck between the two glass set of doors so eternally in my mind is a diluted image of my mother, her face looking back at me in slow time, both of us realizing in that moment that we were not, in fact, alone in the busy department store, but surrounded by others, who also were able to see the innocent flop of polyester fabric that now was being clumsily yanked up and held by my mother’s shaking hands. She was convulsed in laughter, struggling to get out, while I struggled to get to her, feeling hysteria rising up from my toes and we limped across towards the car, stopping, leaning over, silently laughing so hard I thought either my baby would be born there and then or my mother would die from the convulsions.

I had never seen my mother laugh that hard and never did again. I said, what in hell are you doing wearing underpants with no bloody elastic left? She only kept laughing and laughing all the way home, on the ferry, then on the long slow drive up the coast and into the evening, periodically looking over at me, and bursting out in another round of glee. I think it was because she knew it was something that horrified me to my core and it was the look on my face that kept making her laugh so hard. It was her knowing me and me knowing this that made me laugh. This is the way with that kind of love, you don’t have to say a word. You can just laugh.

Some days, when I get bogged down by the weight of things, I remember that moment, our eyes meeting through those glass doors, the image of my mother in her simple skirt, worn wool sweater, curled grey hair, and of course, her underwear around her ankles, staring helplessly back at me. And I laugh out loud.

It was my mom’s birthday last Saturday. She would have been 93. Love you, miss you every day Mom.


Filed under Humour, Memoir

The Fickleness of Desire

*This is an excerpt from a book of fiction I am working on in draft form. This is some background to the main character, Sam.* You can see other chapters on this blog.
Her father was a tall thin man with fine soft skin and equally thin hair he absently ran his hand through ending this movement with a sort of swoop of his long fingers that signalled the end of a thought. He was an isolated man, full of regrets and sorrows he carefully managed like cutlery in a drawer. He was reticent to accept any kind of emotional expression and rejected assumption as a failure of research. Facts. He hung his hat on the concrete, the tangible and life precisely as it was and not what anyone reconfigured it to be in a metaphor. Euphemistic was an insult he used with glowering disdain.
For Sam, growing up in this environment had twisted her ordered genes into roiling knots of subterranean desires, secrets and dramas she longed to chase down, like phosphorescence, glinting always there on the edge of the room, past the neatly arranged fixtures of their ordered home.
Her father once looked at her across the table and quietly announced that she would ‘never marry because she was too fickle’.
She had shifted uncomfortably on her chair not because she was sentenced to a life as a spinster but rather that she was fickle in her father’s eyes, a sin of a weak character surely.
She stared down at her toes to avoid his eyes, noticing that the sun had tattooed a V pattern on the tops of her feet from her thongs.
She knew there was something inherently wrong with her, confirmed by the quiet but firm way her father had set his coffee cup down, folded his newspaper with deliberate care and left the room.
Despite his best efforts, however, her fickleness could not be beaten, could not be shamed, screamed or humiliated out of her. Her mother, in a last effort to dampen the escalating conflict, told her to stop wanting everything so badly; it would only hurt her to be so riddled with desire.  But no matter how hard she tried to be invisible, to become absolutely content with their small house, small town, small dreams for her, she stubbornly shone, unable to be scheduled into the subtle dying of her mother’s spirit, the 9 pm medicine delivery her father divided into her hand in manageable swallows for a mother that never suffered from wanting, but rather, from never having known she hadn’t needed someone’s permission before asking for anything in life.
Her mother had died ‘a saint’, and she longed now for her softness, her ability to placate her father’s insistent realism, her small cluck at him from across the room that would re-align the tracks of their family, righting their path into instant goodness that neither her father nor she had been able to do since.
She had burned with a kind of fever to escape from the stillness of the house after her mother had gone. She knew, more than other girls in her school, that fevers were for the dying and yet she had never felt so alive, lying there in her single bed, the phosphorescence of her imagination tugging her out from under the painful oppression of her father’s grief, towards open doors and kicked off shoes and music and words full of metaphors and she had known deep inside her, somewhere, there were people like her, feeling just this way, lying under a cool sheet in the middle of summer, burning up with an unfettered desire for their own life to begin.


Filed under Fiction


I was terribly spoiled by my mother. Not with things but with love. It made me quite intolerable I am sure to the rest of my family, my hoity-toity imperiousness, always protected in the folds of my mother’s skirt. It did not help that my mother would loudly assert that ‘This one is mine’ and end any further discussion around what she could or could not do with her youngest female child.

Me in pink, mom in blue, grandma in purple

I loved when my mother would bring me in to introduce me around to her bridge gang. Both doors to the dining room were closed to indicate that this was a non-family event. I always, however, knew I’d get access to the warren of lady-time-gin-drinking-smoking-card-dealing partying that was happening right under the proverbial family nose. I stood by each lady as they hugged and squeezed me, ooh’ed and ahh’ed and pinched my cheeks. I asked if I could get them anything? I was their child concierge and they ate it up. The smell of smoke, Chanel No. 5, and smart knit suits was intoxicating. Mrs. Miller, one of my mom’s best friends, was stylish beyond belief. My mother would cluck, and smirk in a funny way about the fact she still dyed her hair blonde but I thought well, why wouldn’t you? She looked fabulous and glamorous and twenty years younger than my gray-haired mom. I didn’t love my mother any less but it did sometimes get awkward when we were out and people would lean down to me and say with syrupy kindness, “Oh, how adorable you are out helping your Grandmother shop for her groceries!” I would loudly protest but find my breath cut short as my mother’s sharp knee came up into my back indicating I was to go along with the ruse. Clearly, there was some shame around having me at 48 but I was born to it so I didn’t suffer the social ostracizing that I later found out my mother did at the Point Grey Golf club.

My mom, on her honeymoon, before all the damn kids

I was my mother’s friend from the get go. I was her chattering, dramatic, animated, little Raj that she willingly brought along in her day to visit friends, go to Church, head to $1.99 days at Woodward’s (where she always lost me only to find me dressed in head-to-toe feather boa’s in the women’s lingerie department), lunches with the nuns at the Convent, and even to some of her spiritual retreats where I would cry all day about the children starving in Africa.

I knew the gossip at home was that she was spoiling me into a brat but no one was keeping me from getting in that car with my mother, my only nice pair of nice shoes on, and heading down Seymour street to go to the Vancouver Playhouse every month. Nor would they keep me from sitting in the 10th row at the Vancouver Symphony, the melancholy strains of Debussy drifting my 4-year-old mind off to imaginary worlds where I likely spent far too much time as a child. These were nights that shaped my entire life, sitting in the dark theatre with my mother, her beautiful hands folded over the program, smelling of Chanel, the blue pool of light opening on the actor as the crowd settled into reverent silence. At intermission, we would beeline up to the second floor lounge and stand in line for her glass of wine then walk over to the red velvet benches and she would slowly draw a No. 7 cigarette out, light it, and let out a long, deep sigh. I would watch the people walking by and give her my commentary on what they were wearing and she would say, ‘Oh Margaret‘ when I would cross the line but she was laughing and I knew it made her happy.

My photo of my mom's hands.

All that my creative mind is or ever will be comes from the moments my mother fiercely protected our experience of art together and this gift, above all else, is one I hope I give to my own son now.

Happy Mother’s Day mom, I miss you. I love you.


Filed under Memoir