Tag Archives: Vancouver

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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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.

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On aging eyes, secret drawers and a long lost neighbourhood

My eyes are a mess. I stare at computer screens for a ridiculous and unhealthy amount of my life so it’s no wonder I have chronic dry eye and issues with my vision. I take the equivalent to a salmon farm’s worth of Omega vitamins and all sorts of potions and concoctions to no avail. While visiting my ophthalmologist the other day, she pointed out my lenses didn’t have a very big reading area (they have three sections to them for people who are aging but not yet ‘old’ I guess). She pointed out I should get some reading glasses and I said, Well, I just spent the same amount on these glasses (indicating to the ones on my face) that I spent buying my first car. Her face remained passive. I realized in that moment she had clients that had glasses for different parts of their life like brunch or the opera or driving and who didn’t have a budget for just one pair as I did.

She astutely picked up on the fact that I was unable to afford another pair of fancy glasses as in not one of her regular clients and ushered me over to the far end of the store. In a hushed tone she signaled to a drawer below us. “We do have some glasses for (in sotto voice) only $75.00.” She nudged open the drawer then put her hand on my shoulder and said I could take as long as I needed. It was as though she’d just delivered some heart wrenching news about a loved one and it was likely I’d need some time by myself. Or as in this drawer does not qualify for a sales person to help you.

So, this was the poor drawer.

I looked around the waiting room. It had Herman Miller furniture and was bright and airy with orange and gray accents that mirrored the brand colours. A woman was sitting with a Hermes scarf and coiffed as in I don’t do rain hair and had the largest diamond ring on that I’d ever seen in my life. Another woman had the Point Grey look of “I don’t work, I just workout” complete with a body entirely clad in Lululemon which hugged her like a green screen suit. I quickly turned away should either woman see me scrounging around in the poor drawer.

And yet, here were some nice frames in the back of the drawer. Albeit they were for children but since I am roughly the size of a nine-year-old boy, they worked for me. I found a very nice pair and walked up to the counter. The woman smiled and then frowned as there was no Fendi, Channel or Tom Ford to indicate what to charge me. I whispered, “They’re from the drawer.”

She nodded solemnly, thrilled she could be so discreet and I smiled limply, feeling shame somehow clinging to my aura as I made an appointment to pick them up the following week.

As I drove away, I thought of how much this neighborhood had changed since I was a child. Across the street from that optometrist was a hairdressing shop my mother used to go to when I was little. Her hairdresser’s name was Phillip. Not Phil. Phillip said with a real emphasis on the last p. No slang for him. My mother clearly loved this man who gave her some dignity every four weeks. The salon still exists though it’s lost it’s seventies fabulousness. I loved hanging out with her in that shop. None of the woman who went there wore giant diamonds or ever had designer clothing on. They were local women, women I’d seen at bake sales and in the basement of our church or answering friends’ doors. They were moms and grandmothers yakking and sharing stories. Point Grey was a community, not a real estate listing whose subtext was: please tear me down. Okay, maybe that’s going too far but it’s hard not to wonder what happened to Point Grey in the last 30 years and what it will look like in the next quarter century if we keep developing and tearing down our heritage at the rate we’re going. Point Greyers (my own name, let’s start a club?) who remember when underprivileged, over populated families could still live on West 11th and West 8th and West 13th on Crown and Trimble and Discovery and Wallace will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Something’s been lost and I’m not sure we’ll find it again except in our memories.

Dadvs2

West 11th, circa 1973. My dad and a long lost Vancouver.

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September

20140804-IMG_2326

You notice the cooling of the air, just a brush against your cheek and you turn, as though someone had called your name but there is nothing–only a slight shaking of the trees, as though they know something you do not. They always do. You begin to have a sense of missing something, someone. There is a slow tide pulling out. There is a conspiracy happening, ancient, sure of itself, and inevitable. It doesn’t ask your permission. It doesn’t care that you remember the night you fell in love, thinking it was still summer, wearing a short black cocktail dress–a dress you never wore again–believing everything was touched in the last long lapis blue of an August night. Only, it hadn’t been August and the blue was a reflection of neon and a city heaving its last hot sigh of summer.

 

It’s an in-between place. Everyone rushes to the park, to the air mattress, the pool, the lounger, for one last long bronzing afternoon of feeling carefree marked by sandwiches in a small cooler and warm soda.

Jericho 2014 (30 of 77)

 

The gold of early September isn’t tinny or plastic–it’s a burnished, warm, oozing gold that saturates the horizon. It’s giving you its best. It knows there’s just a few more days and it will be gone again. It rolls along the coastline, painting beach bodies, lifeguard chairs, cardboard fish and chip containers that tumble out of city garbage cans, and crows perch, pecking at leftover fries while the sand soaks it all in, humming its last summer song before it goes to gray.

 

Everyone longs for the summer nights to go on, even knowing they won’t–with absolute certainty they know they won’t–still they long for it, lean towards it, gathering together to twist out of the rays every molecule of warmth, as charcoal smoke blots out the dying sun, and small dusty feet run towards grandparents who have seen in the distance a leaf float and drop and feel relieved. They alone wish for the coming cold.

Jericho 2014 (1 of 1)-2

 

Summer and fall meet at the beginning of September and for a short time, have a kind of exchange–silent, done at night, finished by morning. My son was born after one of these nights and we woke to a deep cloud, the forest shrouded in fog and the first cold rain. His birthday is always a day I never want to end. He, deeply tanned now with a single lock of blonde dappling his forehead, shoulders strong from early morning weight sessions and ocean swimming, with a new tattoo that holds secrets I will never know, doesn’t care as much. He shrugs, accepts it is time to wear pants again. Me, knowing it is time to let go, stand in the sunset and listen to the shore sounds, now quiet as fall brings in faint whitecaps and wind, and I realize the way forward is always like this–a receding tide, a falling leaf, a new season.

Jericho 2014 (74 of 77)

 

All pictures and words © Margaret Doyle 2014

 

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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.

 

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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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Inspiration Through a Blue Lens

I ran away from my life this weekend and it felt wonderful. I admire people who can stay put for decades in their lives, I do, but I can only take it for so long. I suppose I always find myself running away to a hotel alone because I’m searching for–what? Maybe it’s the closest thing to parents I have. Isn’t that sad you are thinking. Not really. I was an orphan by the time I was 30 and hotels for me have always been a place I felt comforted and at ease. It may also be I can have guaranteed uninterrupted silence and writing time in a hotel room. Ironically, that is harder and harder to come by it seems now that I write for a living during daylight hours.

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But perhaps it isn’t so much as running away as a kind of returning. Returning to what is nudging me from under the surface while I race around life, never stopping long enough to listen to what is calling to me. For a writer, it is impossible not to start to resent all the noise keeping you from the stories that are quietly whispering for your attention. It was heaven to stare out at the city, think about my novel and lose track of time

At the end of my little tryst with myself, I didn’t feel like going back to real life  just yet and instead went to see the Palme d’Or winning movie, Blue is the Warmest Colour. I’m still in a state of speechlessness from this movie but all I can say is if you want to see a brilliant exploration of human love and the complex, interior landscape of what a broken heart looks like laid open in all its fragmented, shattered pieces, then rush to your theatre and see it before it goes to the small screen. There are few movies where an entire theatre weeps in unison with understanding and sorrow over the protagonist’s fate; this is one of them. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux who play the couple in the movie, clearly suffered during the making of it. After the production they would both comment on the horrendous conditions, the grueling emotional toll of the love scenes, and the uncharted territory of making a film about love between two women when both were heterosexual. In an unprecedented move, the jury at Cannes awarded both actresses and the director with the best picture award. When you see this story you will understand why. Here is a scene that captures their first kiss, which anyone can relate to as it contains all the emotions of new love so poignantly in a simple moment.

Seeing Blue is the Warmest Colour reminded me that nothing of real artistic worth comes without some suffering. If it is fluid, easy to buy, grab, consume, take or give away, it is a story that can’t affect you. When I left the theatre , still wiping my face from my tears, I realized that story would stay with me forever. I hope life gives me the time to write something of worth. I won’t mind suffering for it.

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