Tag Archives: memory

Mother’s Day Isn’t For Everyone

ScanA week after my son was born my mother called me and said, “Where have I been for the last week?”

It was the beginning of a long letting go.

Now, my son is 21 years old and has no memory of his grandma but knows, I think, that she was one of the greats. As in mothers. I tell him stories about her, try to bring her alive for him so he has a faint outline of her in his mind that can serve as a proxy for a grandma.

The fact is, Mother’s Day isn’t for everyone. I well up in tears a lot during May because I lost my mother when my son was not yet three years old. I mourn the loss of him never having heard her gut laugh, or been fed by her or been able to turn to her with secrets that would be kept from me. He was born on the cusp of a mind slipping away, but during the months she was still present, she loved him fiercely. She wanted to hold him though her hands didn’t have much strength left in them. She tried to balance him on her hip and I crossed the room just in time to catch him before he hit the hardwood floor. It broke my heart. It broke hers. We just tried to love as much as we could before the fog crept in and muted everything.

I have failed in so many ways as a mother, countless really, and have spent thousands of moments asking myself, what would she do in this moment?

If you are like me and have scar tissue that gets pulled in painful ways today, just focus on the lessons you’ve been given —by men, children, animals, nature, art — and feel blessed you’re learning and being taught, and mothered in some way by life. And extend this back to your circle. Maybe that is to someone who needs help in a lineup or a tourist who needs directions or is a younger co-worker lost in a miasma of twenty-something angst. No matter. Just be mothering. Be loving. This might make Mother’s Day less specific and hopefully, a little less Hallmark hell full of should’s and thickly sweet Facebook posts of intact families.

To all of you without mother’s today, be overly kind to yourselves. Forget calories. Eat something you love. Wear something soft and enveloping. Write something loving with no expectation of hearing anything in return. Listen to a piano concerto. Or birds. Lie down and watch sparrows. Find some innocence— the world will come back tomorrow and ask you to be a grown-up. Love the minor note you feel playing inside you today. Whistle it out loud, even if no one is around to hear it. And of course, be a good mother to your self.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Non-fiction

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.

 

Leave a comment

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.

 

5 Comments

Filed under Memoir

Your Life: Sit Up and Take Notice

When I was five, my mother took me for a test at the school near our house. I remember it was a sunny day and I wore a dress, hoping to add to the impression that I was capable of going into grade one instead of kindergarten. Why I was taking the test in the first place remains a mystery but I suspect my mother wanted me to start grade one early because after eleven children she simply needed her days alone and silent. I remember walking across the black asphalt of the playground afterwards and my mother beaming as she told me I had passed with ‘flying colours’.

Scan 1

So, at the age of five I entered grade one. Unfortunately, the night before my father cut off all my hair and I was crestfallen when I walked to school with a boy’s hairstyle. I’d had high hopes for my debut in grade one. Instead, I slinked along the back wall, furtively searching for my name on a desk and secretly hoping there’d been a mistake and that I hadn’t gained entry into this new and bewildering world and could go home and help my mom with washing the floor or laundry or sorting socks. And yet, there was my name, second row in, two desks from the end. MARGARET spelled neatly on an index card.

Behind me sat a boisterous girl with shiny thick black hair and luminous brown skin and mischievous eyes. She didn’t hesitate to speak up and raise her hand, unlike me who prayed I wasn’t singled out by the teacher for anything and hung my head low behind the student ahead of me. She quickly surmised I could be teased and with tremendous entertaining results. Her name was Sharon. She spoke fast and had a sharp wit and wielded it confidently like an adult; she noticed everything including my crappy shoes and the fact I’d forgotten the belt on my uniform. I longed to be her friend, mostly to avoid any deeper insights into my character becoming known to the rest of the class. Thankfully, she seemed to sense my desperation and let me into her safe zone as an ally despite my shortcomings.

Forty-three years later: we are sitting and drinking in the middle of the afternoon on a sunny day beside the ocean. I find myself once again admiring her way with words, just as I had at age five, the sure and confident manner as she speaks to the waitress, her still beautiful brown eyes that are full of life, intelligence and humour. I notice they have more ‘life’ behind them now though, one that I am hearing as we, at first cautiously then with abandon, pull threads out of the stories of our lives and stitch together our past into a new shared story.

We had gone to school together until grade nine, during which time we’d shared dozens of sleepless sleepovers, elementary school dramas, walkathons, endless hours of Catholic prayers and the uncertainty of hormones and fears of growing from little girls into young women. Our friendship had started to wane just before we both left to go to the all-girl private school our mothers sent us to for grade eight. But I got caught up with ‘public school kids’, which was seen by my mother as the surest way to hell and, looking back, in some ways it was true.

My childhood seemed to have suddenly vanished and I was lost in a world without boys and the seemingly endless unspoken politics of daughters from the wealthy elite of Vancouver where my non-working-widow-mom and less-than clothes and accessories were wincingly noticed and graded as a fail. Eventually the wagons circled with me on the outside. By the second term of grade eight, I was defiantly taking off my uniform and dressing into jeans and a jean jacket in the bushes after school so I wouldn’t have to be ‘seen’ by my public school friends in the telltale uniform of Little Flower Academy. The fact was, I never could quite fit in and didn’t know how to but Sharon managed to find community and a place at the academy and made a success of her high school years there.

As we sat across from one another in the busy restaurant and slowly unravelled our lives I felt like almost no time had passed while simultaneously trying to take in the enormity of all that had happened to us over the many decades.

With more scar tissue than either one of us would liked to have acquired, we shared one story after another after another with ease and a frankness that was unexpected. The afternoon light changed, food plates were stacked and taken and replaced by drinks. A one-hour lunch stretched into three as our lives and the people in them were introduced or re-visited. Deaths, break-ups, love, children, parents—all got covered off in a matter-of-fact way but it was the small details, the understanding between us of the hopes and dreams we had as young children set against the tableaux of where we were now, sitting across from one another as women in the middle of our lives that kept me thinking for days after about the past.

In fact, the past had been calling me to pay attention all week, nudging me to listen, just as I was trying to let it go. Only the day before my lunch with Sharon, I had re-connected with my boyfriend I had been madly in love with in university. We met for lunch and appraised one another with smiles and delight, me noticing more crows feet and gray hair and the gestures I used to be so smitten with, he well, hopefully not noticing the crows feet so much. There’s a sweetness to seeing an old love, a tinge of melancholy mixed with joy and remembrance accentuated by oh fuck’s and awww’s and sighs and long looks of remembering what was and a quiet listening for what is.

My sister-in-law is always telling me to stop living in the past and I’ve come to see that not dwelling in the past makes the present so much more lived and full of potential. To be present is to edit your life with ferocity. Staying present is like working on the ab muscles of the soul. You have to practice it daily to have any strength in resisting maudlin moments.

Yet this week the past found me in my present and the movie of my life suddenly enlarged, went wide-screen, became richer with more characters and synapses and discoveries that didn’t pull me back into sadness or regret but instead, opened up like a new canvas. After all, I was alive wasn’t I? And my old friends were too. How lucky are we to get to share a meal with one another! This is the sweet grace of the past coming to revisit you. Life itself winks and you finally get it. Oh right, time is passing—forty five years just went by like that—so I’d better get on with it and do the absolute best I can with what remains.

I’d better sit up and take notice. What story do I want to tell forty years from now? This is the work at hand. Now.

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction

Let the sun find its way to you

HARRISON LAKE 1I used to always feel nostalgic about love during summer. I think the kisses I had in a little park with my first boyfriend made it that way. I would lay with my head on his chest and he’d lazily draw a blade of grass over my shoulder, then slowly along my neck then gently over my ear, finally making me giggle and turn away. And we’d do that for hours. So innocent. So perfect. So sweet.

Lately, I’ve been hugging summer close to me, stretching out in its warm embrace and letting it romance me like I was fourteen again. It isn’t always easy to move towards the present, to really be in it and let go of the past, but once you have life feels as it was meant to.

It feels like the sun can make its way to me without any need for someone else to improve it or a song to score the sunset so I can enjoy it or a book to describe the feeling for me or lover to whisper in the night and tell me what it really is.

No, it’s just seeping into my skin and heart, fully saturated with ripe possibility.

Sweet Sun

 

The sun bleaches all the bruises–

sweat hard, forgive the sun

she’s a guest here, she’ll be gone.

 

Moon gives you blue light

just blue light with no strings–

hold it in, let it go with your lungs

at ease at last in bed alone.

 

Summer

lazy as a cat on a couch

coy and calling in a bowl of berries

finally

you sit down too

content it’s only you.

4 Comments

Filed under 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.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Non-fiction

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Memoir, Non-fiction