January 16th, 2015
Back when my mother was in high school in Mississauga, at Gordon Graydon, she wore a kilt–the one on the attached photo. She’s standing on the far end, next to my grandmother, and both great-grandmothers, with my uncle in front. They lived not far away from where my in-laws live to this day, in the house where my husband grew up. After my mother had her accident, so much of her old clothing ended up folded and away in the closet in our spare room, the sewing room, the one my grandmother would sleep in on the nights she would stay with us if my father was working. I like to think I would have discovered the kilt anyway, would have worn it regardless, because I loved it and wore it all through high school with black tights, liquid eyeliner and big, clunky black shoes. I wore in waiting for the bus in sub-zero temperatures that would meander all around the neighbourhood, eventually picking Katrina up, and we’d spend an hour, even more, in transit to get downtown where we’d walk up and down Queen Street like we knew what we were doing. Oh, that bus ride, it was killer, it took ages and ages, transferring at Square One, which, back then, was just rows and rows of orange-striped buses that were never remotely on time. I wore that kilt out dancing until all hours of the night after Lesley got her license, and we’d end up downtown at RPM after filling up on Diet Coke and Mars bars, which masqueraded for dinner. I wore that kilt late at night, hanging out with the skinheads at Michael’s with my friend Amanda, terrified at the conversation, and thrilled to be there at all, sipping a tiny class of ridiculously warm and watered down draft, and wondering if it was a good thing that a fellow named Chad had my phone number (it ended up being fine, really thanks to Jay, who bailed me out of so many situations when we were in high school). I wore that kilt rolled up so it would appear shorter, and never dry-cleaned it–wore it until the buckle wore through the leather. Maybe I wore that kilt because it was my mother’s. Wore it because it belonged to her, and I could thread my way back to her, ever so slightly, even though we were not remotely the same size, same build, or even really had the same colouring.
It’s a strange thing to raid the closet of a ghost, in a way. My mother wasn’t there to tell me not to cut down her suede skirt or to how not to royally mess up “sewing” a skirt with this phenomenal black-patterned material she was planning to use. My mother wasn’t there to make sure I took care of her clothes, but I did in my own way, just by pulling them out of their ghost-like status, and breathing new life into them. I forgot to ask my aunt where her family might be going on this occasion. My paternal great-grandmother in her splendid pink outfit with that glorious hat. My uncle’s hair is so tidy. My mother is probably in grade nine or ten here, her hair in a bangs-with-bob style that I wore through much of high school, too. I still have this kilt, tucked away in a box in our basement, yet another reminder of stuff I’m not quite sure what to do with, like my prom dress, which I’ll never part with simply because my grandmother hand-sewed it in places, and it’s still beautiful, to me. Maybe my son will have a daughter, and I can hand her a musty pile of 70s & 80s & 90s clothes for when she’s a teenager striving out on her own to define herself by how she looks instead of what she feels inside–I wanted so badly to be different, never really internalizing the fact that we are all inherently our own snowflake. I remember a bus ride, early on in my time at high school, still reeling from the loss of my mother, still beside myself at the weekends visiting her in the hospital, trying to cope with the sheer weight of the loss of her from our everyday lives, our house so quiet, slowly losing furniture, and never really coming back to life, when I got into a fight with someone about something as asinine as whether or not INXS was better than U2, and then burst into tears. “It’s okay,” someone whispered to someone, “her mother was in a car accident.”
And that became the rallying cry. The only story. The whisper between teachers and parents and other kids who knew me before–the girl whose mother was in a car accident. It explained so much and described so little, a definition beside my name in the dictionary of my life. There’s nowhere to go from there. You can’t explain or push it away, it sits there, lump-like, waiting to be unparsed by legions of therapists over the course of a lifetime. We are nine full years away from having a teenager. Our boy, still giddy with the thought of school, of doing his activities, of learning how to swim, of learning about life, only understands the bits and pieces of what’s come before, and he certainly doesn’t grasp the sadness. There’s a wonderful book by Oliver Jeffers called The Heart and the Bottle. It’s about love and the loss of a parent, and the young girl who closes her heart up in a bottle to survive it all. I read that book to him because I think it comes close to explaining what that kind of loss feels like when you’re a young girl who loses her mother. And I cry a lot when I read it to him. Not big, wet sloppy crying, but just some tears that leak out because that’s sometimes what tears do. They’re there just to remind you that the sadness stays sometimes even when you’ve dealt with the loss, and talked about it, and remembered, and filled up some of the spaces in your life.
I never got to fight with my mother over that kilt. Never got to ask her permission to wear it. I just took it out of her ghost closet and put it on, claimed it for myself, a strike in my individuality column, or so I thought. Maybe she’d have been fine with it. Most likely yes. But she was keeping it for her own reasons I’ll never know. Whether it was to remind her of high school or because she did want me to have it at some point, or because she had a hard time giving old clothes away. And because it’s hers, I have a hard time passing it along too, even though it doesn’t fit me anymore and probably never will again, and I don’t need to look like a school girl anymore, anyway. I can walk down Queen Street and know exactly where I’m going. That’s the gift of growing older, being able to look at how silly you were to brave the frigid temperatures just to visit Pages, but knowing you’d have probably not turned out the way you had if you hadn’t read those books or played those records or raided your mother’s closet.
The other day, I was carrying our boy up the stairs for his bath/bedtime routine. He had the hiccups. He pressed himself to me, monkey-like, as we went upstairs, his “hic hic hic hic” right against my chest. And for a moment, it felt like he was back inside, “hic hic hic hic” was what I felt for almost the entire eight months he was in there. I didn’t know it was possible to be reminded of my pregnancy in such a vivid way–it was pretty great. And I wanted, at that moment, to tell my mom, one of the many things I’ve stored up over the years–put away into stories or tales or hidden way into the hinterland of my subconscious–and ached to be able to let out. Maybe that’s what I’m finally doing here.
October 21st, 2014
We spent the Thanksgiving long weekend at the cottage. It’s a bittersweet moment–closing the cabin down for the winter. Getting all the laundry into bags, emptying the kitchen, pulling everything out of the drawers and bagging it. The whole process marks the end of a season for me. Summer, well and truly over, the kids picking up multi-coloured leaves for crafts, apple picking, playing ball outside, still, fall has its charms. But what we lose in those deep winter months that the cottage is uninhabitable is our escape. Even getting out of the city for a day or two does wonders for your brain, reset, rewind, however you want to describe it, there’s something about being there that allows my mind to rest. For years, before I had kids or my cousins had kids, I would spend a late-summer, early fall weekend up at the cottage with a fire on all the time, reading, sleeping, reading, sleeping, eating, playing cards, reading, sleeping, writing. It’s odd, but I am more myself there than anywhere else in the world.
The theme from my last post, the idea of being set adrift from the expected course of my life by the death of my mother, is still resonating through me, and my thoughts. My aunt sent me some more photos of my mother, and I find the one attached profound. I have no memory of the photo itself, I didn’t take it, and it’s not familiar to me. Except that it is, intimately, in a sense, because I know exactly where my mother is sitting and the landscape she’s looking at. It’s been unchanged for as long as we’ve owned the cottage. The sun deck looks out at the lake, and this is what you see–the big island straight ahead, the bay to the right, pickerel bay behind the big islands, the dam at the end, and way at the other end, a beach. Cottages dot the shore, and there’s a small island that’s within reasonable swimming distance, if you’re wearing flippers or feeling strong.
The facts are the facts. The view is the view. But the intangibles are what catch me up. What is she thinking about? What happened before, or after this photo? The light looks like it might be later on in the afternoon, which means we’ve had lunch, probably on the deck. Maybe we’re in the water or running around somewhere outside. It’s that magical time when the kids are all fed, occupied with summer-stuff, and it’s not time to make dinner or do something. As a mother, now, I know this time well, or the gift of this time. Back then I would have been off with my cousins somewhere, not thinking about what my mother was thinking about, at all. Now, I wish I could ask her what was on her mind, not only that day, but in every picture we have of her. It’s the loss of a relationship with my mother as an adult that I acutely miss these days. Fourteen years is a good long time to spend with another human. Using my most successful relationship with my RRHB as an example, those years have flown by, but they are also punctuated with vivid memories, and I can crawl back through them at any point. But so much of the time with my mother was forgotten moments, too young to remember conversations, caring, cuddles, and all of the bits and pieces that punctuate my life with my son.
And this is tragedy. Standing in an ocean of your life, maybe a bit too far out for safety’s sake. A big wave crashes into you–a wall of water and you are swallowed up, salt stinging your eyes, scraping your feet on shells and other sandy detritus, until it’s passed, and you can find your bearings again. We don’t have waves that strong at the cottage. The biggest boat going by will barely make a ripple that doesn’t even throw you off your floaty. Still, this view, the one my mother’s staring out at, is our compass. We come to it again and again in our family. It’s comfortable and the closest thing to home we have. The landscape has not changed and nor has the meditative quality of a summer day at the lake. Of a life lived in bathing suits, in the water, out of the water, on the dock, and right up until you go to bed. I love that we spend the summer in bathing suits. I love that we dangle our feet off sun decks and docks, and that we feel as much love for this place as have for one another.
I am lucky. To have been loved by someone so much that still, decades later, the space they occupied in my life has never been absorbed by anyone else. Still, these places are never the same once they are left. An an echo of laughter is missing. Their contribution to a card game is an empty seat. For us, that emptiness became obvious in our everyday lives. For years we lived without furniture in our living room. I missed my mother’s parenting. The simple, stubborn fact of life never letting you forget that you are walking around while she was trapped in a hospital room–the dreary and dull air surrounding her in stark contrast to where she wanted to spend her time, I’m sure.
The summer swings by so fast. In a moment we’ve packed our bathing suits away and closed up the cottage. It’s too cold to sleep there in the late fall, takes too much to heat it up, and it won’t stay warm for long periods of time. We spend so much more time indoors in the colder months; it’s the nature of being Canadian. I don’t think that’s what my mother was contemplating in this photo. I’ll never know what she was. But I can take comfort in knowing what she was looking at is the same as the one I see all summer. There’s continuity there, and that will have to be enough.