Dear mum

25 01 2016
MollyBrownPoster

Well, Margaret Warner, actually. Unsinkable, certainly.

I’m thinking of you today. I’m not sure why this bright winter day brings you to mind, but maybe it’s a confluence of two things I’ve read. The first was “Dear Fatty”, by Dawn French – her memoir, written as a series of letters to people she knows and loves. We never shared Dawn – she came on the scene here a little bit after you left. I know you’d have loved her, her crazy humour – that is, if you could get past her being so round and the occasional shocking bit.  I can hear your voice saying something like, “She’d be so pretty if she weren’t so heavy,” much as you said to me on more than one occasion that I needed to lose weight but, I “could still move well.” And I had “such lovely skin.” I think you’d have loved her parish council in The Vicar of Dibley, given your work with the church and probably a very similar council.

I don’t think you’d have liked French and Saunders – I think something about their drinking and fooling around would have left you profoundly uncomfortable, as you seemed to be with Monty Python. Do you remember when Life of Brian came out and there was all this fuss about the sacrilege? You came down on the “not to be seen” side, as I recall, but I saw it anyways and it remains one of my favourite movies.

Thank you for being that someone I could test myself against, push my ideas against, form myself against. We didn’t think alike in most ways, and now that I am about your age when you discovered your cancer, I realize that I missed getting to really know you. We spent so much time butting heads, politely, always politely, but I missed getting to know the fun you you shared with my cousins and your friends.

You had mothering goals with me and I suppose I am the same with my kids, trying to be accepting and encouraging and laugh endlessly with them but always having that motherhood light attached, blinking concern at the wrong moment, putting my foot wrong. I used to think I was such a good mom. Funny how that changes as you grow older, how you see the gaps where you could have done better, where you missed that bit, where that little bit of mothering knitting dropped a stitch, purled when it should have knitted. I wonder if you ever felt that.

You always seemed supremely confident. But maybe you, like me, sang “Whistle a Happy Tune” as you stepped into new situations, faking confidence, you with such élan. I wish I knew. Maybe if I thought you’d had doubts I would have felt closer to you, as I fought my way to adulthood. As it is, I felt all weakness was an embarrassment to you. God knows how you would have taken my bouts of depression. Mental illness, to you, was a sign of weakness. And scary as hell. Because of this we barely saw my father’s family with their admitted mental health problems – though to tell the truth I often thought your family could have done with a little counselling now and again.

But maybe, maybe, it was so scary to you because you knew it, fought against it, dreaded the contagion that comes when a depressed person gets pulled into another depressed person’s circle. I know that feeling. I hide, too.

The other thing that brings you to mind is a short story, “The Woman who Sold Communion” by Kate Braverman (McSweeney’s early fall, 2004). In this, a woman is denied tenure and falls apart, heads down to meet up with her mother, a woman she ran away from, a woman who lives like a hippie out in the desert. She goes there because she knows she is safe there, even though she and her mum don’t seem to have much in common.

Once, when my marriage was falling apart, in the early days when I was expecting my youngest, I called you. I had had enough, I said. I couldn’t bear being with such an angry man. Your response was: “Come home.” I was shocked. You were, above all, a staunch Catholic. Leaving a marriage was a big thing.

I sometimes wish I had trusted you and perhaps taken that step. Instead I thought you were looking for company, and resisted. But the fact that you said what you did to me made it safe for me to continue on, to stick it out for another 15 years, some good, some bad. Because you gave me permission not to, and a safe place to go.

Miss you.

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Serpent’s teeth and the brilliance of Shakespeare

30 08 2015

db-0100I hated reading Shakespeare as I grew up. The language seemed difficult, the concepts dry and old. I was, of course, ignorant. And a philistine. Now I know better, and am continually gobsmacked by what Shakespeare was able to contain in his works.

I wonder who I was when I was younger – so sure of myself, so sure I knew things, terrified of being caught out yet pushing my way through, singing “Whistle a Happy Tune” and “You’ll never walk alone” to keep my chin up – but as an old friend said, it WAS up. Though I knew nothing, and inside I knew I knew nothing. I knew enough to fake it til I made it, just about. So I did.

I blame my mother. She told us we were special, and though we never really believed it, we carried it around. My adopted aunt once gave me a book which had a marvelous poem in it about “Mary-Alice”, who had great potential, and because she was so afraid of losing that potential, she kept it hidden under her bed in a very secure box and got it out now and again to look at it but never showed it to anyone.

That poem has haunted my entire life. Thanks, Aunt Shirlianne. (Love her so much, and there’s no reason she should have expected that that poem would have such an effect on me). Between my mother assuring me I was meant to do great things and my aunt inflicting overly wise poetry on me, I was and probably still am, a mess. I figure I still have to contribute – have to have an effect on the world, have to use my potential before it vanishes like Mary-Alice’s.

potential

It’s encouraging in one way, terrifying in another. Here I am, gently losing my mind with the cognitive effects of MS, and I am flogging myself to write, to agitate, to exercise, to model healthy behaviour, blah blah blah. Add in a generous dose of Roman Catholic guilt and it’s almost unbearable in here. Wine helps. And chocolate.

Sad thing is, I seem to have visited it upon my kids, this same sense of “you have great gifts and you’d better use them to better the world or else”. It’s a lot of pressure, and I didn’t mean to make their lives the same living ratrace mentally that I spin upon, but I did.

So now they have secret lives, and are afraid to tell me their plans and are snarky at me so they don’t have to feel that I am judging them.

Which, of course, I am NOT. Funny thing about parenting. That unconditional love thing is the code.You get it through the umbilical cord, I think. So I don’t care what they do, though of course I would be sad if they got arrested or hurt somebody or sat about being unhappy and unfulfilled. But then I think they wouldn’t like that, either, so I assume we are on the same page, sort of. Maybe.

I have to guess, though, because, like those ungrateful children in Shakespeare, two out of my three wonderful offspring speak rarely to me. It hurts me, yes it does. I’m sure they have reasons to avoid me, and it’s pretty much due me as I recall I kind avoided my mother for a spell, and still argue with her though she is 24 years gone. I guess I also passed on the serpent’s tooth.

In a way, it’s good – I raised my kids to be independent, questioning individuals, and so they are. Just wish a bit that they’d be a little less questioning of me, sometimes.

Ah well, at least when we DO talk, they are interesting, witty, intelligent, and worth the wait. Perhaps you can’t have that without the tooth…

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Father’s Day, or one more day I know I’m an orphan

16 06 2013

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There once was a father names Chris
Whose puns would so often miss
He’d tell them, we’d moan
He’d tell more, we’d groan
It’s strange how I wish he still did this…

My dad, my superhero, passed away the Christmas before my first child was born. He never got to enjoy his grand kids or see how impressive all of them are (not just mine). It is the sort of unfairness that really grabs my throat when I think about it, because my dad was made to be a father/grandfather. He loved kids. He loved us. His day wasn’t complete without some sort of interaction with us, and while my siblings might have a different remembrance, to me he was always the guy who gave me my self-esteem, made me feel important and worth being.

He’d do crazy things like tell one of our friends that green stripey caterpillars tasted like peppermint, and then yowl with horror when the daring child ate it, shrugged, said, “naw it doesn’t”, and then went off to play.

He’d spend hours teaching us how to do things like painting or photography or ceramics or fixing things, and then recoil in mock horror when we’d supersede him at the task. While being proud as anything about us.

He taught me about ladylike behaviour, or tried to- sorry Dad! Tried to get me to soften my loud laugh, reminded me gently that ladies didn’t use that language, showed me what a gentleman could be (perhaps this explains my fondness for older men who still do that walking on the outside of the sidewalk thing?).

He’s been gone over half my life now, and I still miss him. I’m at the age he was when he was fighting his lymphoma the most diligently, being whacked with chemo until he almost died. Actually he was younger than I am now when he went through that. Amazing to think about.

I wonder if I would have had his grace in dealing with things.

Maybe.

He taught me well.

Fathers, don’t underestimate he effect you have on your kids. They know their mothers love ’em, mostly. But fathers? Those guys have to be persuaded, in my experience. I was so lucky to have my dad’s unconditional love. I can never ever thank him enough.

Except that, on my 60th birthday, the age he was when he left us, I’ll be sure to raise a toast. And, with any luck, a book, and a completed model ship.

But that’s another story…





Motherless daughters and sons…or why I avoid card shops in May

10 05 2013

I might have said before about how much I hate Mother’s Day.
First, I hate it cos I always review how I coulda, shoulda, woulda been a better mother. It’s kind of like New Years Day resolutions with no way for recovery. I mean, I tried to be a good mum – I used to feel pride in it, felt I knew something about it.

Truth was, my kids did ok because they are pretty fantastic people and probably the best thing I did was to get out of their way. Well, and maybe lay a few crumbs to show them some optional paths.
And of course love them, fiercely and unconditionally and with every cell of my being.
But that’s not to say I don’t regularly wish I’d done better. What mom doesn’t? It’s part of he placental hormones…

The second reason I hate Mother’s Day is that other people still have mothers and I haven’t had mine for the past twenty-one years. For the past many years, every Mother’s Day feels like a cavity, the more so because my mum, in one last fit of competition with my dad, passed away on May 10th. Right around Mother’s Day. (My dad had left us a few years earlier on Christmas Eve) I’d like to say she didn’t make it then deliberately, but my mum was a very organized person. Once it was apparent she would lose her battle with cancer, I’m sure she thought hard about a time when her passing would have the most impact. She always liked to make a grand entrance and exit…and could do both, anytime, with the lift of an eyebrow or a turn of a phrase. She knew the art of pausing at the entry of a room, waiting for heads to turn toward her before moving into the centre.

She was formidable, funny, smart as anything, and fierce. And yet, I think, a bit afraid under it all.
She never went back to the law after I was born and the family moved to the US. She would have had to write the Massachusetts Bar, something she likely could have done with ease. For some reason she never tried. I suppose my father’s verbal support didn’t translate to real support. Who knows? Sadly, I never really asked her about things. Too busy trying to live my own life.

I wish I’d asked. I wish I’d known her better. I wish we’d been able to get past out mother/child boundaries to talk more, woman to woman.

So every Mother’s Day I think about those missed opportunities, as mother and daughter, and wish I’d done better. Seeing all the pink-framed schmaltzy sentiments and discounts on shopping trips and spa treatments (something that wouldn’t appeal to either me or my mother) doesn’t help.

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When love goes awry…

5 02 2013

“And you know what? To protect my kids, I’d lie, too. I’d lie on a stack of Bibles.”

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/02/11/130211fa_fact_keefe#ixzz2K2jZqwHp

This story is about a woman who murdered all of her colleagues, supposedly over tenure at a university. And about the “accident” years earlier, where she shot her brother, killing him.

It’s a fascinating story, terrifying in its implications, sad in the lack of help for someone who could surely have used it. And worrying for the children of such a set of parents.

But the quote I selected above is the scariest of all. What’s happened here?

Back in the time of responsibility, parents were the ones who took their children to the shopkeeper and made them return what they had stolen. I remember once having done something mean to a friend and my mother MADE me go and apologize. I had to walk the mile there and back, squirming in embarrassment, upset that I had to take the blame for what had been a joint girlfriend attack. But I never bullied again. (Well, until I got into management, and then it was only incompetence that drove me).

My parents made me wear my decisions, and I think I’m better for it.

Now, I’ve covered for my kids at times, but I would never cover for such a thing. Even when they were in school and their teachers would call me to wail about how my kids weren’t doing this or that assignment, I’d tell them – so FAIL them! I’m cool with that, I said. They have to learn consequences. The teachers never did, saying that the final result on the assignment was too good for them to be able to fail them. Unacceptable. How was I supposed to hold the kids accountable when their teachers wouldn’t?

In the real world, when you f*** up, you pay. You get a ticket, you lose your job, you go broke or bankrupt, you lose a friend or a lover. I find it appalling that now people seem to think that it is totally inappropriate to subject kids to consequences, leaving them unprepared to deal with life.

ImageAnd with a flexible sense of the truth.

I adore my kids. I’d walk over burning coals to support them, even the ungrateful one who still won’t speak to me. (Well, maybe not that one. I’m fed up.) But I wouldn’t lie for them.

I know they have their faults, as do I. But I expect to be held accountable for my faults, as they should.

Would I lie if they were threatened with a jail sentence, if they committed a crime? My heart would break, but I wouldn’t. We live as a part of society, and as parts of society, we’re expected to play at least close to the rules.

I hope never to have to deal with this, and my heart goes out to any parent who has to try to understand a monstrous child. I know I blame myself for my kids’ every fault already, so I can imagine how they must feel. But surely, lying for your kid, letting them off the hook, allowing them to turn into more horrific and self-centred creatures isn’t love.





Oh, Lance, Lance…

18 10 2012

Way back when I was still married, my young son spent an entire summer getting up at before dawn hours to drag his comforter into the den and curl up and watch the Tour de France. He watched every stage, knew about all the riders, the speed challenges, the mountain climbing. He was so inspired, whether by the athleticism of the riders or the endless ads for exercise machines on the channel, that he wanted to try bike racing. We looked into bikes, I’m sure he dreamt of biking across very pointy peaks and sloping valleys.

Lance Armstrong seemed untouchable, the all-clean American guy with the lantern jaw and a fierce training regimen that allowed him to win. He even had a Harlequin Romance name, one deserving of heroism. He created the Livestrong movement , putting his name on cancer survivors everywhere, yellow bands that expanded to other colour bands and filled the world with arm decorations that will never biodegrade (I like the 7 Deadly Sins ones, myself).

Well, my son and I both older and more cynical now and I hold Lance partly responsible for that. He was so loud about his claims not to have doped, so out there about how he had triumphed over cancer to win that it makes his fall from grace endlessly painful. Demotivating, depressing, destroying. Have we NO heroes anymore? Can no one be an example to others – do we ALL have to cheat to survive and thrive? Surely not, I wail. Is the foundation even real? Or is it a lie, too?

My son wrote a graphic novel about Lance, way back when he was in grade nine. Even then he suspected something amiss. He invested Lance with a bionic testicle. It’s brilliant, as is his take on David Suzuki, a probably honest to goodness hero, but tainted by the same cynicism that all the world gets, unfortunately.It’s called The Wholesome Adventures of Tall Tall Stuart, and he created it all, with his friends, in Word, a tedious experience that showed me that he could really apply himself, provided it led to a cynical attack on someone he was angry about.

Still, today, as more news about Lance filled the airwaves, I couldn’t help but feel grief. For the guy who thought he had to do this fraud to make himself worthwhile. For all the doping athletes who can’t imagine they could be ever good enough to compete without help. For the coaches and their grasping manipulative ways. For all the cancer patients who looked to Lance as a shining example of succeeding despite adversity. And particularly for the kids, everywhere, who look up to sports heroes only to have their hearts trampled when it turns out they’ve doped or gone on strike for more obscene amounts of money, or been selfish, insufficient, and liars liars liars.

Is it so hard to tell the truth?

Even fiction writers do it.

But maybe, this lie does tell a truth. I just don’t want to hear it. It breaks my heart.

 





Mental Health Days

10 05 2012

Before I went back to work, when I was spending my days playing with my kids and doing seemingly endless piles of laundry and arbitrating fights and driving people all over the place, every once and awhile, I’d see that we were getting stressed to the max with school and other commitments. So I’d give us all a mental health day. I’d call the schools, tell them that the kids were sick, and we’d all lounge around in our pyjamas all day and watch Disney movies and eat popcorn and just be messy all day.
It was lovely, especially in the depths of winter when it was too much trouble to get dressed for the weather some days. It’d be -40 or something and the thought of wrapping all of us in the required 10 layers was too much.
Or we’d all be tired and grumpy and a holiday day was a welcome respite for all of us.
I loved those days. Mind you, I loved excuses to play hooky with the kids anytime.

My novel

I still like the playing hooky days, but they are creeping to an end. I have a novel to brush up for June 1st. It needs its hair done, some primping, a lot of education about tenses and structure and plot and characterizations and all that.
What I really want to do is tell it to play hooky with me, to just sit around with it and talk to it and have fun and share secrets. A lot of my writing happens this way.
Every once an awhile, though, I need to tell it to get tidied up and presentable. Like my kids, my novel isn’t all that keen to take to work. It likes being messy.
One of my sons used to live in a pile of his precious items. We argued over it, and I finally told him he needed to tidy it up one day a week so I could vacuum and such and thus prevent bug infestation. He grudgingly agreed. He’d tidy it all up, I’d whip the vacuum through, and within five minutes, it’d be all layered again, looking just the same as before, but less dusty.
It worked for us. He felt more comfortable in the clutter.
Maybe I can tell my novel this – tidy up now, just til June 1st, and then we can play-write again, wallow around in our mental pyjamas, vegetate. I don’t think it’s buying it, though. I think it knows now is the time to grow up.
No more mental health days, not for the moment.
Dang.
On the good side, I can dress in my writer clothes, which are designed to prevent me from being seen in public. Comfy, messy, unattractive. All good.
Time to get to work.
Now, I just need a little Queen to inspire me…








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