Why didn’t I pursue the Smart Person ticket? I was the studious one of the family, I even wore glasses. I got good marks at school, was the only one to go to college and did not seem to have much else going for me. Why wouldn’t I have gone ahead in the academic world, as my Dad would have loved?
I have a contemplative mind, I am an excellent and thorough researcher and thinker, and I can take criticism (sort of). I even have the ideal academic personality, if you want to be a bit brutal about the ubiquitous beginnings of most academics as a loner and outsider.
I remember moments when the obvious path in front of me became littered with obstacles: a fellow student saying I wasn’t made for academics, too flighty and creative. I took it to heart, for some reason, maybe even proud that I could be considered creative when my family had me locked into smart and sensible since I could walk.
Why I would let a comment like this affect me I don’t know, but then again I was desperately looking for some sort of confirmation. I did lack confidence, but I could have pushed through, as I have seen many people do since.
One of the academic critiques of my writing was that it was a bit undisciplined; I remember the red pen comment on an essay on Chaucer in the qualifying year before graduate school, “Circular argument”. I was not linear enough, not forceful, sometimes writing, even now, in the passive. I was also told that my style was ‘conversational’, but that was not a compliment at the time.
Then again, that year I received my only A+ for a paper on The Faerie Queen in Renaissance Literature, maybe this professor liked my style, I don’t know. I think I put more effort into a clear argument because I had to read it aloud.
I have learnt a lot since then but my ears still twitch at that criticism, brow furrows, who is telling me how to write? I need to be more linear, more forceful, and more muscular in my argument, you’re telling me what?
In my last year of my BA I took all Women’s Studies courses and won the award for the highest grades in Women’s Studies that year. I thought about grad school, and felt it was possible. My dream was to do a Masters at Concordia and learn French on the side. But when I looked at the forms I realized I needed a professor to back my proposed thesis, and I didn’t have either a professor or a thesis.
The women professors at University of Toronto were, to a woman, cold and unsupportive. Except for Janice Williamson, but she went off to the west and never came back. But I can vividly recall sitting down with a professor to talk about an essay. She sat silently and stared at me as I nervously babbled. The long cold pauses discouraged me from going further in that field.
By the time I applied for grad school I had given up on Women’s Studies. The women professors that I encountered seemed to have been damaged by the process of becoming a professor, as if they had gone through some sort of initiation that had made them forgo their little sisters.
When I applied for grad school I had to have an interview with a man in a peaked cap and an attitude. I was working as a waitress at the time and came to the interview in my usual honest manner. I told the professor that I did not think that BA had given me much of an education, because I had just taken whatever I liked and had huge holes in my knowledge of literature. He said, “Don’t say that!” It was as if I had told my minister that I did not believe in God.
I loved my undergraduate years, and enjoyed all my classes, but grad school was not the same. When I went to Simon Fraser for a few weeks in the English Literature MA I found the atmosphere had changed drastically from the undergraduate world; there was a competitiveness in conversation that I found unpleasant, and a ringing of false bravado about everything. As I forced my writing into an acceptable academic form my essays became more lifeless.
I felt a deep dislike for being with people who grade you as you speak. But as I grow older and older I see that many academic type people are like that, maybe all of them are like that. And that their cold pauses as they watch you squirm and search for words, is just a power trip. I could have learnt how to do that. And then I could have become one of those professors I talked to over the years, who sat back in their chair and waited for the student to sweat.
I thought for a while that I should have stayed in my beloved Women’s Studies program. But the thought of writing a massive MA thesis on some sort of dry topic on gender relations made me feel exhausted before I started. And although I enjoyed my foray into feminist theory I emphatically did not want to write about conceptual thinking for endless pages.
In the end I thought to myself, if I want to write I’ll write. And I got a regular job serving pizza and wrote for Kinesis, a paper published by the Status of Women in British Colombia as well as writing for Co-op Radio. And I took a Creative Writing course and loved it.
It is funny that when I look back over my life, and start wondering if I made wrong decisions, I generally come to the same decision I did when I was younger. I remember thinking in high school that I would never want to be a teacher, not because of the kids, but because of the school itself and the mostly dull company. I was right about that.
I know what it takes to be an academic, and even now I resist the path. Writing has always been my salvation, and it is my own voice that I want. I know what my voice is, and I have always known what it is. It is a fairly quiet voice and a bit circular at times, but it comes directly from me.
I potter around in the garden of my mind, winding around an idea, digging about in the leaves and roots, leaving bulbs that will blossom at a later time. It is not neat or symmetrical, but there are surprising little paths and ponds, and I like it that way.
When I do call we have fun calls about writing, thinking, dreaming, regrets, and relationships.
The hard part is saying good bye because I can tell that she could stay on the line forever, just chatting and falling to sleep and waking to chat some more.
Just like when you have to leave a crying child, you promise, I’ll be right back.
I spent a week end with her last month. We ate, lay around, went for walk, ate, and watched TV. It was very peaceful and I did not try to ‘do’ anything specific.
We did not talk about death or illness and by the time I left she was talking about changing her routine to include more exercise and socializing. She might not have the energy to do that but I was glad that she was talking in the positive manner that I think of as hers.
She always has plans and things to do. But as she creeps towards the grave, in constant pain, her back curved with scoliosis, her mind wandering, hallucinations crowding her world, she might be beginning to accept death.
I want her to be with me, so talking on the phone is not a good replacement. I want to tend her as she tended me. I want to offer her the peace and care that she offered me.
When I was in her home, it was a bit like caring for a child. I became my calm nurturing self who is on watch for what the child or baby needs. She woke really early the first morning, and I just lay down on her bed to see if she would want to get up and eat, or go back to bed. She crept back into bed, with the slow deliberate moves of a very old cat, put her hand over mine, and fell asleep again.
Eventually we did get up and I made a big breakfast, which she loved. And just like a sweet contented baby, she feels like sleeping as soon as she finishes eating. Eventually we watched a movie, Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, the best thing that came on her movie channel the entire weekend, so I settled down with her to watch it.
Unfortunately, she can’t really see or hear that well so when she woke from that nap she slowly became bored and irritated, fussing, moving herself back and forth from the discomfort of her constant pain. I thought to myself, there is about five minutes more to this movie and I want to see it to the end. So I paid no attention to the huffs and puffs beside me and then when the movie ended I said, “So how about a walk to that new art gallery on Parliament”? She was very much up to it.
My handling of that reminded me of parenting toddlers. Patience and strategy, offering the adventure or treat just at the right moment. We had a long walk; she used her cane with great determination and I dragged the unused walker behind us. She did at times sit on the seat of the walker for a break, and that worked well. We talked and chatted the whole way. Again, memories of trailing strollers awkwardly down the road when the baby prefers to walk or be held, came back to me.
When we got to the art gallery the sweet young man who has put his idealism into his own gallery, helped us in and offered us cookies. This was good as we did need the sweet kick to recover from our adventure. With my Mom comfortably seated we talked of this and that and by the way I told him about my Mom’s career as a journalist and the different places she had worked.
It was a fun afternoon out and I appreciated the attention that the young man gave my Mom, just as I always loved it when a stranger would smile at my child and say, “Aren’t you wonderful”.
On the way home, trailing the constantly unfolding walker behind me I was amazed to come across people on the street that were impatient for my Mom and me to creep by at our glacial pace.
Just as I have experienced the cold big city vibe in Toronto when out with children and babies, I saw it with my Mom. People sighed and looked irritated that we had slowed down their day and I remembered a woman sucking her teeth and impatiently waiting for me to carry my kid and stroller up a flight of stairs out of the subway.
We had a lovely visit. I will treasure it forever. It took a lot of my own Mom organizing to get that trip sorted, including explaining to a very attached seven year old that I had to see my Mom. She cried and cried, wanting to come with me.
I did not cry for a second on that trip, and when I left Mom in the hands of a lovely care worker who would keep her company until her boyfriend came over, I was not worried about her.
She is serene, thoughtful, and philosophical. Her curious mind is contemplating her situation, and not only does she still have a sense of humor, she still has that tough ‘prairie girl born in war time’ attitude.
She is still my Mom, and I can tell she is sorting out her emotions and organizing her thoughts in that very Mom way, checking to see if I am happy, worrying over the health and moods of her fourth baby.
We really do have a laugh together, and I really do admire her, even when she drives me crazy. And besides, she is my one and only Mom.
When I had a moment alone after the trip, and I pictured her tending me as a baby, washing me, comforting me, saving me special books for when I was sick, the images set me off for a big wailing cry alone in my car.
I am at once a child and a mother. I want to care for her as she cared for me, and I know that this is what my sister and I feel deeply in our hearts. We want to mother our mother.
But I am her child, and it is my Mom who is leaving, and she still is my Mom, and I won’t have any Mom when she is gone. And it is lonely thinking of having no Mom.
After 27 years it is clear that they don’t really like me.
And it is not so much that they don’t like me, as I will always be foreign to them. It is deep down prejudice, and it often makes me feel sad and strange when I am with them.
As a group, I know that they feel as if they are the ones who are discounted and mocked. But when I am in their house, it is me who is made to feel as if my background is an embarrassment.
It could be that they just don’t like my British reserve, which is a pretty huge part of me and not something I can change. I have sat with them when they mocked Canadians/British. So I know what it is they don’t like.
It is true that I am too sensitive, something that they are keen to point out. And part of me internalizes their criticism. But I guess I always hoped that they would like me for who I was, eventually.
Over the years we have learned something about each other’s cultures. One, British/Canadian gals like me are a lot tougher than we look. And two, the men in their family are less prejudiced than the women. This discovery was hard for me to admit; naturally feminist and not competitive in nature, I like to connect with other women. But it is the women who are the hardest critics in this family, and I have not impressed them.
We have tried to get to know each other, on both sides, and I give them credit for doing their best. But we are not close. I always feel like a stranger. For years I avoided talking about my family with them because of their obvious prejudices against the non-religious traditional WASP culture.
It is likely that Joe and I have influenced each other over the many years; I am considered too blunt in my own family, and he too reticent in his, so the merging of the cultures has taken us a step away from both of our original cultures.
I like the Israeli characteristics in my husband. My outsider’s view is that Israelis are extremely buoyant, laughing and joking, mocking their enemies and insisting on enjoying life in the face of any difficulties.
I thought I knew the extent of his strength and resilience, but then, 25 years into our time together, I watched Joe pull our family through an incredibly stressful crisis. I saw another level to his strength, powerful resistance and unstoppable buoyancy. This is also an Israeli characteristic: a constant state of cocky ‘fuck you’ that I admire, and a joie de vivre that I love.
He is also more likely to raise his voice in argument than me, more in excitement than anger. And he is pretty talkative. And he loves all sports. And he believes in the communal spirit of human activity, based on the early idealistic days of Israel when many of the immigrants were intellectuals and lived in communal kibbutz style. In fact, his strong political feelings about Israel‘s behavior as a nation make him all the more Israeli and not less so.
His family knows and loves him even though they argue and argue. And I appreciate the fact that although he is a tough humorous guy that cannot be brought down by anyone, he is has a gentle sentimental British side too. At times when I puzzle over his troubles with romantic gestures or little niceties, I have to remember that he was not brought up with those things.
As far as I can see from the outside, there is not a lot of emotional support within his family. People are told not to talk about their problems. And they are constantly openly critical; too much salt in this soup, too much weight, bad haircut; you have to have a thick skin to survive.
When I first met Joe’s Mom she said to me, “Why grow your hair long when it is so thin”? I was amazed. It is no surprise that they want me to change; “What! All I am saying is, try ironing your clothes, you’ll look all nice and neat”. What can you say; it is not said with meanness, just a bit brutal!
And every last one of my Israeli in-laws thinks that they are the best at everything; the best driver, the best cook, the most cool, the smartest, whatever. There is a super ego present that is tiring but impressive.
I have enjoyed their company, laughed and admired their forthright way of expressing themselves, and their easy laughter. I have eaten their good food in their immaculate houses. I have attended dinners, done dishes, bumped babies on my knee. I have traveled for weddings, played with little children who are now adults, and rubbed some sort of arthritic cream into my mother-in-laws’ arm. We even had a bizarre afternoon in which she tore hair from my legs with hot wax.
We have bonded in our way. But when I call or visit, every time it is as if I am starting all over again. Dispassionate questions about my family, remarks that make me feel somewhat inhuman. “Oh, you have people over to your house”? Someone saying my last name was Evans. It makes me feel like a stranger.
My husband argues that their inability to accept me is more about their criticism of him. But in the end it does not matter. We have stuck together, and what drew my husband to me may have been exactly the part of him that his sisters found so annoying.
I loved to see my husband with his family when we were young; the laughter between him and his siblings was great. The suburban life they lived was far from my own, but they were a different culture, a different religion and I did not make any comparisons. And if I did, at first they were positive.
I noted that in my husband’s family the kids could yell at their parents in frustration and it would be quickly forgotten. The parents would just laugh it off. I saw that as an improvement to the WASP style in which kids never get to talk back to their parents, and all battles are buried and more likely to come at you in a passive aggressive attack. I saw the Israeli ability to just say it and get it out more attractive, at first.
Joe and I made our own bed, and we love our life. We have stayed in love and together, much to the surprise of the families, and we have created our own family. We have amazing children created from the far flung mix of genes, and we have a crazy life of rituals and traditions of our own.
We were idealistic when we met, and continue that way. We believe that the exclusionary powers of religion, cultural identification and nationalism
are barriers to universal peace.
Though created to hold groups of people together and give them a communal bond, the false bonds of religion and culture create a limited and exclusive vision. Too often identifying with ‘your own people’ is just an excuse to feel superior to others, and this can easily be translated into indifference or hatred.
We were an idealistic young couple, and now we are sort of crabby and middle aged, but still carrying on in the spirit of our love. Our proudest achievement is our children, a combination of the best of both of our cultures.