In many tiny moments I think about life and death. If I am carefully pouring sugar water into a small glass bottle for hummingbirds, I think about my Dad and how he would have done this, when he was alive. How my Dad would have enjoyed my bird feeders, and laughed with me about the bird battles over seeds and sugar water. When I smell sweet wild flowers in the air, I think about how this is something we can only do when we are alive, or when I feel a perfect breeze while taking in the laundry off the line. Mundane tasks make the strongest impression in my mind. Making toast, going through books on a shelf, small mundane tasks make me think about what it is to be alive. Daily or weekly tasks that make us feel as if we are getting something done, they are the most potent. As I roll the smelly garbage can to the road, and it makes a trundling sound and I feel the satisfaction of not having forgotten to get the garbage out, I think of what it means to be alive and functioning in our world. Our tasks and thoughts are so very arbitrary, nothing much will matter when we are dead, but everything must matter when we are alive. I think of my Mom who can’t do the smallest chore due to pain and exhaustion. She can’t cook a meal and say ‘there’s lots more’ as she always does, did. She can’t wipe down her table and set out plates and tell an anecdote and open a bottle of wine simultaneously, as I can picture her doing in my mind. She is too tired and her life is slowly coming to an end. Every little part of my life, my child saying, ‘Mama’, calls from my eldest looking for advice, hugs from my muscle bound teenage boy, every weed I pull and bill I pay, reverberates, like the sound of a low bell. Reflecting on being alive while one is alive is not a youthful state. I am not in the sensual moment, free of perspective. I am standing beside myself seeing my hands pouring sugar water. I am not unhappy, just seriously reflective. Lying in my comfortable bed without immediate fear of death or illness, I remember what it felt like to be twenty. The luxury of sleeping when young, when the future is a blank and expectant canvas and all one had to do was move forward. Now I seem to think and fret in bed, thinking of all the things I have to do. I want to bring back that careless mind because my fretful thoughts are unnecessary. I am young now, if I manage to grow old. We are living with death and loss when our parents are sick or dying. This is a predictable phase of middle age, where some of us will act out and grasp our youth, and others may become depressed. I feel fine, though stretched out. My heart and my capable mind are busy planning, scheming, paying bills or putting off paying bills, planning for the very young and very old. What will make all these people around me the happiest, what can I do to facilitate the lives in my small universe. I remember when my mother was in this role, and how she played it. Now her practical life has faded and her best moments are with her vivid memories. My memories collect on dusty shelves; a little child’s humming as she draws, a loving mustache kiss, and the kettle boiling in the morning.
There was a time in my youth when I wished my Mom was dead.
As soon as I wished it I realized that it was a terrible solution. I knew that my Mom drove me crazy in various ways but it was certainly not fair to request her death in order to set me free from my reactions to her.
I knew that she enjoyed living and I did not begrudge her that. I did not actually wish harm to her. She did not need to die, I knew that. I just needed to separate myself from her.
Mom was always there for me but sometimes her love or maternal attention felt destructive. I would inevitably regret reaching out for help. Whether it was emotional or financial, her help was like the well intentioned rock walls that people put up to save their sea shores, the effect of her attention sometimes caused more erosion than protection.
There was something about my relationship with my mom that was claustrophobic and dangerous. She had a way of watching and commenting on my life that was suffocating. And while she could be maternal and caring, even almost doting at times, she could also be cool and dismissive.
If there was a battle of the wills then she had to win, and she would use whatever tools necessary, mockery, sarcasm or even physical power in order to rule supreme. She was competitive and fiery.
If I was in pain she assumed I was exaggerating and would imply that I was weak. If I was in love she would question my judgment. If I wanted anything at all she would suggest I was greedy.
Maybe I made our relationship more painful by wishing she was something that she was not. She could only be who she was. When I read about Martin Amis talking about his relationship with his father, Kingsley Amis, I saw that what I had with my mother was not unlike this relationship. It was more competitive than maternal; it had a manly air about it. She nurtured and then she fought. She prepared us to fight.
I kept wishing for a soft mom with soft arms who was a refuge against the world, but I did not have that. And in fact my Mom did not have that either, with her steely blue eyed librarian mother with the feminist leanings. As I age, my sense of certainty that I have managed to avoid the same pitfalls and personality faults of my mother fades into a more sympathetic notion that maybe my Mom did not fail.
Maybe mothering is not about constant nurturing and altruistic sacrifice at all times. Part of what we do in weaning our children is push then away from our breasts, even when they cry. If they don’t learn to survive without us then we will have failed.
We may sometimes push our children away in order to set them free. That might be true. But we also make stupid mistakes and have moods. No one’s fault, no one deserves it, it just happened. Not only do I not know what I have done already that has hurt my children, I don’t know what I will do in the future. I will try very hard to be a good mom, but at times I will fail, quite by accident.
As the grains of sand drop one by one into the hourglass, the witch watches us and laughs. This image, from the family favorite, The Wizard of Oz, is definitive of my mother’s effect on us. My Mom was not the bad witch, she was kind hearted and fairly powerless, but she conjured witches.
Mom created a feckless and humorous God-like character, the Old Bitch Above; this mythical creature had a looming presence over our lives. OBA, as she was known in our home, would punish those who became too confident. OBA may give you a bad hair day just when you thought you were pretty, or make you trip when you were proud of your shoes. She had that kind of power. She brought you down off your high horse. Like a Greek God, or even the emotional Hebrew God, OBA had moods and emotions and you never knew what she would throw at you next.
Looking back, I see that my Mom was the physical form of OBA. She was unpredictable; you had to watch your step. Sometimes she was nurturing and sometimes she was harsh. And she never said sorry. I learned to keep my dreams or opinions to myself because if I turned to her for comfort it would come back at me like a boomerang at another time, with a sudden attacking reference to that private conversation.
Even now, while we embrace in love and forgiveness as her energy drains out of her body, she can still throw a knife. While I was telling her about a business idea that I had (once again forgetting what this admission would lead to) I said, “If it is any success at all…” and she said without thinking, “Well, that’s not likely”.
I laughed in my head, back on the same ground, aware now that the constant negativity that had accompanied me all my life was just under the surface. She was aware that she had done it again, but, true to fashion, would not take it back. We let it go. But sometimes I see my life, and those of my siblings, as plants struggling for light, twisting and contorting to find the nourishment that we need to thrive.
As I accompany my Mom around the track, on her last lap, our faults are forgotten and our desire is to show love and acceptance. She says wonderful things about my writing; we talk about philosophy, writing and ideas. In fact, even in our hardest times we have always been able to talk about ideas. That has always been our connection.
Sometimes her past rises up to torture her, she feels ashamed and irritated with herself, acknowledging that her strong pride and stubborn nature may have been unnecessary or harmful to herself or others during her life.
But I have no argument or anger anymore. Life is like one of those mysterious Irish folktales that show life as a meaningless struggle punctuated by madness and magic. My Mom likes to quote from some tale that she studied, lost now, “A man longs and longs and nothing comes of it”. She likes this line; it satisfies her on some deep level.
This was my daughter’s mantra on my weekend visit into Halifax, the city of students.
For us, a brunch out, a day of shopping and a dinner out were the extent of our madness, but was it was great to do whatever we wanted and take all the time we wanted eating and talking.
What could be more fun than spending time with a beloved child who has grown into a magnificent adult?
We even traded roles at one point as she led me through a maze of malls in order to catch our second bus to the destination mall. I needed to pee and I was hot and tired, and started moaning about how we could have just stayed in the North End and looked at the second hand shops.
She wisely paid no attention to me, made a short stop into a chocolate shop where we jammed lots of sweets into our mouths and carried on. The clerk at the store expressed shock that we did not need a bag for our bonbons, but we were on our giggling way before his comment about the number of treats sunk in.
She got me to Winners, where I did in fact find a dress for the upcoming wedding at the happy price of $29. This was not the only time when I felt like my Mama role of doting benign dictator was floating away.
She had been right about the shopping and I was the whiney kid! And I saw how gradually I will not be the one in control anymore. Just as it is with me and my Mom now, I told myself to just let it happen, and enjoy the blessing of real friendship with a daughter.
She is a marvelous person, such a person. But she has some odd struggles, such as thinking that Joe and I would ever be disappointed in her for not becoming an academic or the classic hipster kid, lost, angst ridden and pessimistic.
I am not sure why we would want this for here, just so that she could be like us when we were younger? When I talk about my behavior in high school I remind her that my parents had split up and my sister had jumped off a bridge, just for starts, so I was in a different space, and the seventies were undeniably a different time.
I really don’t know any kids her age with as much drive or moral certitude. She is a bright light, and I take no credit for this. When people meet her they see what they want to see, a bright eyed and optimistic young woman in a nice outfit. They assume she comes from a suburban home with pushy parents and has not had many life experiences.
In high school, clean cut, ambitious and hardworking, she edited the school year book and started her career as a freelance writer. But she would sometimes find herself defending and explaining her life style up to that point, a life history that included moving every few years, no home ownership, travel, home birth, home schooling and non-vaccinating. She didn’t even have antibiotics until she was 16 years old.
She may have thought for a short time that Joe and I would judge her for becoming a business woman, but we have been pretty clear that we admire her abilities and just happen to be bad at it ourselves.
She is now studying business with even more energy and enthusiasm than she applied to journalism for the last five years. Just the thought of my daughter in a position of power makes me happy, because I know that a woman who volunteers to look after children in a North End school every day is going to be a responsible company owner.
A thoughtful democratic feminist who relates to the disenfranchised and yet wants to be actively involved in the ‘real world’, well, good on her!
We only want her to be happy, which is in itself a rather unreasonable expectations considering the regular grind of hormones mixed with real life.
We have always let her decide what she wanted to do. No school, fine. No swimming lessons, fine. Quite by accident we may have created a driven and ambitious woman with high expectations for life.
But then again, I don’t think we can egotistically blame or credit ourselves for who she has become.
We have done our part in the nurture department, she was the first child and god knows what our peripatetic life and scrambles for money did to her. We had a lot of fun too, parties, travel and excitement.
Her nature as it emerges, speaks of all her grandparents in equal parts; Safta’s enthusiasm for personal challenges, Nana’s interest in fashion, Saba’s cool good manners in all occasions, and Grandpa’s enthusiasm for work.
When I told her about her slacker parent’s time on the beach in Thailand a few decades ago, she surprised me by saying, I couldn’t do that, I‘d have to have something to do.
Those were my Dad’s words! He would be so proud of her. I know I am.