Like most everyone when we think of our mothers, I have a certain specific image which comes to mind. Something we quickly go to, without thinking, that seems to reflect who they are or were. For me, it is her sitting in a brownish green, worn, La-z-Boy chair, next to the picture window in the living room. The room is tidy, with couch and other chairs, a few knickknacks, but nothing which catches the eye more so than the windows. This particular window, looks out onto a large bay, part of Lake Ontario. And as you look out, through a mid size birch tree and a maple or two, you also notice a somewhat imposing cement government wharf in the foreground. It is seldom used for its intended purpose, which is a customs stop for any Americans boating across the Lakes to the Canadian side. It is better known as a swimming platform for local teenagers, or for fishing for small pan-size perch and sunfish. It is the platform for many a small child’s first caught fish.
My mother’s chair is worn but comfortable. It is like her preferred clothes, some sort of stretched working style sweatpants, a popular garment of the older crowd, and usually a sweatshirt from a big store brand like the Bay or Sears, so no logos, or sayings in bold letters. She is sitting with her over-sized 1990’s headphones, eyes partially closed, listening to either a French broadcast, the news, a classical music station, or the latest business report out of Toronto.
Of course this is an image which comes about from the last twenty or thirty years; in easy memory range, as it is much more difficult for me to remember her when I was a small child, or even a teenager. In the overall time spent in life, I lived with my mother for 18 years, and have been away from her, unable to observe her on a regular basis, for more than 40 years.
It is much more difficult to know of those younger years, as Edan Lepucki wrote about in the NY Times recently, those years “before they were a mother”. Pictures from those times help and allow us to put some substance to our image, but for the most part we rely on a string of stories, heard at off times, always accepted to be true, and with little corroboration from others. My mother did not even have a lot of photos, none on display in the usual mantel or bedside table.
So I needed to rely on stories. And as best as I can tell, in those more formative younger times, she was not atypical of women of her generation; a stay at home housekeeper performing all the normal assignments of her generation. Cleaning, laundry, making meals, and making beds were the regimen.
There was little that disrupted or interrupted this routine. We, even as a family, rarely went out for dinner, never went to church, never went to the movies or to sporting events. So I never saw her outside that achingly routine element. I have no recollection of me being out with just my mother, none of the usual mother son interconnection, and I am not sure about this, but I don’t think that there were many kids of this generation who did. However, we did go on vacation in the summers to our cottage, but even for those two months, she would fall into that familiar role of meals and cleaning regardless of where we were. We kids, running, swimming, and fishing, always on the move with friends, always banging in and out of the cottage doors on our latest mission. And she would always be there.
Everything seemed inevitable. Meals was fish on Fridays when we were going through the charade of being good Catholics, and on the other days, always meat and two vegetables.
There was no shepherding of children from one “activity” to another like today. I played a lot of sports, but can not remember my mother or my father for that matter, at a game, or even having driven me to a rink or a playing field. Even if she had been there, I can not imagine my mother jumping up and down on the sidelines as is required by the overly enthusiastic driven parents of today.
It was the day and age when families had one car, and that was taken to work in most households by the father or in the terminology of the day the “breadwinner”. So in practical terms, by necessity the home maker was stranded on this island of domesticity, with a front and back yard. Stepford wife like, but without the pearl necklaces and dinner dresses, and they were real of course, not robots. This was the 1950’s and the 1960’s where the custom of the day seems now so bland and accepting of the routine that it is often difficult to imagine.
In my mind’s eye she was always serious, determined, but maybe confused about the ultimate goal. She grew up of course where custom dictated marriage, family, loyalty, and that your role in life was to move your family further along the economic ladder and to let your children have it better than yourself.
I do have slivers of memory, brighter, and pronounced surrounding certain moments of time.
For example, my mother crying sitting on the sofa, dishcloth in hand, not saying anything when I came in the door from school. The assassination of John Kennedy had just occurred in Dallas, gunned down in the back of convertible while he waved at the crowds. It seemed to stop time, even for me as a 9 year old. Something was gravely wrong, my mother never cried, and here she was crying real tears as Walter Cronkite intoned the news of his death. I didn’t understand a lot, but it showed a side of my mother I didn’t know, a side which seemed foreign to me.
Her younger pre-motherhood personality is even more difficult for me, as I try to put pieces of the fragmented memories into an overall picture, like a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. To even envision her being single, and acting with the frenetic pace of someone in their early 20’s, nor can I conjure up her being frivolous, or lackadaisical, as only younger people are allowed to be.
She went off to the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto after high school, where she studied piano and trumpet, but she spoke little about it in terms of enjoying or hating it. I have seen clippings of her public piano recitals, with small town newspaper write ups of a few column inches. But, I do know that she cherished her graduation ring, and it was one of the very few things she kept in a 3″ x 6″ wooden jewelry box, one of maybe five or six items.
When she finished at the Conservatory, my mother went to work in a music store in downtown Montreal. I never determined why she went to Montreal, there was no reason ever given but this would not have been a logical choice for someone from rural Ontario. But, this was my youthful mother, who at that time must have had the same stirrings of any person in their 20’s. She must have met friends, socialized, fallen in love, or woken up hung over. I can’t be sure, but there were hints. There was even shadowy talk amongst relatives, of having had a possible abortion.
In those days the music stores often contained musical instruments where patrons could come and try them out, or practise when they could not afford to buy. One day, a large black male piano player, came into the store where my mother worked, and sat at the piano to practise. The free piano and place to practise in a quiet space, meant that he, and the single female employee, developed a friendship, and as the story goes, it became an ongoing meeting. He would often ask my mother to play with him, affectionately calling her “Ruthie”. This bear of a man, with a natural but dour smile was Oscar Petersen. He went on to a rather remarkable career throughout the 1950’s to the 1970’s, playing Carnegie Hall in New York, and becoming one of Canada’s iconic figures in music.
I have no idea whether he fully appreciated the long-lasting affect that he had on my mother, it is unlikely. This was a time in the 1940’s, that my mother spoke softly about, with a seeming tenderness. It was a remembrance, that she would recall and bring out at those sporadic family story times. They were the same age, and I have no idea whether this was anything more than a meeting, or a rehearsal, but I like to think at the very least, there was a fondness between the two. A shared laugh, or a shared sidelong glance, an implied romance and that my mother was happy.
Of course real life intervenes, and my mother went off on the well worn path to marriage, children, and saving for the eventual retirement. She married my father after the War Years, becoming a maternal head of an Air Force family, living in squat and square private military residences.
We were an Air Force family and therefore moved every three or four years, and even had a stint living in France. Of course this meant new friends needed to be made, easier for us children, not so easy I suspect for my mother. She was somewhat aloof, or distant, and had only a passing interest in those people who would be in our Air Force dictated social collective. She never seemed interested in the “normal” wives circles. I often speculate that my mother was born and lived a few decades too early. She would have fit into my generation easier I believe, maybe even more at home with the Millennials of today.
An obvious side affect was that quite naturally she began to slowly withdraw, entering into a more insular world, a naturally fermenting process, maybe due to the boring sameness of her routine, or her square peg trying to fit into the round hole that had been dealt to her.
Although excluding herself from others, she often used the time to pursue her interests. She was a person who taught herself French by listening to cassette tapes and by listening to the Francophone news. She had a broader interest in the world, in economics and politics, which as I got older often launched us into long political debates at the dinner table.
There was another significant factor in her life. You see, my father was prone to violence. I never saw him violent to my mother but he never held back on me though. It was a day when any kind of domestic abuse was hidden, kept from the neighbours, blinds pulled down. My mother of course was the silent witness to these beatings and I believe it drove a wedge between her and my father that could never be fully repaired. As for myself, I was saved when I physically got bigger than my father, and left the house at 18. I left with a sickly guilt of leaving the my mother and younger brother behind, like the wounded soldier leaving the battlefield to let the others continue the fight.
When I did return home for a visit, I was often updated about the continuing dysfunction between my parents. My mother and I would take long walks and have conversations, the recurring theme being her unhappiness, and the need to escape. She told me she was going to leave “him”, that it was finally over, that she could not take it any longer. She never did leave him. It was rarely done in those days.
As time marched on, the family group evolved, and then there were just my two parents living together, children gone, and a seemingly more peaceful air, however stagnant, seemed to settle over the house. My mother continued to withdraw, not wanting to socialize or even remain in communication with the few friends she had made over the years.
While at the same time holding a mysterious sway and control over my father. Routine became the god they both worshipped, with my mother sitting next to God. Maintaining that routine — with meals, breakfast, lunch at 12, dinner at 5:30 setting the parameters under which everything needed to fit. My parents seemed aware of each others existence, but just barely. Coming together to eat, and then once again retreating into their own apparently cloistered but contented spaces.
This almost hermit like existence, meant reading or watching tv, or listening to the radio, and sitting for long hours at a time. Her short afternoon naps became longer and like many older people, her maladies began to exponentially increase with the years, spurred on of course by the latest reading of the medical encyclopedia.
She never delved into or questioned what my actual work entailed over those many years. She seemed content to pictured me in some form of uniform, writing tickets. She did not believe that policing was a righteous living, it was a blue collar job and not the one she envisioned for me. She refused to come to the police graduation as she did not equate it with some sort of accomplishment.
Always at the end of the weekly Sunday long-distance conversation which went on for many years, she always expressed concern and that it would be good if I could get “off the street” but I do not think the danger was really known to her. It was likely imagined from some television version of policing.
Her only brother, Royal, was a pilot during WWII, a dashing dark haired man, with the Errol Flynn moustache who as legend had it, cut a large swathe through both the enemy and the ladies on his return home. But he was an alcoholic. He lived in the skid rows of Canada for the vast majority of his life, but it seemed clear to me that my mother missed him dearly. Every few years, my mother would ask if I could confirm where he was, using my police contacts, or where he was living, or just whether in fact he was still alive. He died in the streets of Calgary with the usual grotesquely distended liver, in a single room flop house, as alone in many respects as my mother, never their two worlds managing to come together after the War years.
During the 1980’s my mother was discovered to have a brain tumour, which turned out to be benign, but the operation itself, left her somewhat deaf in one ear, and suffering from partial paralysis on the right side of her face. She no longer needed to have a reason for cancelling any of the usual social interactions as this became the un- spoken and somewhat tenable reason to withdraw. Even going to buy groceries became impossible she explained, due to her “infirmity.” She did not want people to see her, or have to talk to others, happily sending my father to “town” instead.
For me and the kids, living away, birthdays were always a card and a cheque for $100, with a “Love Mother” inscription. No notes or urgings to eat better, or get lots of rest. I was o.k with this, as this was the mother to whom,I had grown accustomed, and I gave it little thought. Clearly the 3000 miles that separated us had become a mental distance as well as physical. She never came to see her grand-children, only visiting Vancouver once from her now closeted life in Ontario.
The tenuous thread to which we clung was that often mandatory Sunday phone call. This call was often brief, punctuated by the “wait until I get your father on the other line”, and ending with “we better let you go, it costs a lot of money for this call”. Curiously though, she seemed to look forward to that call and would always remark on the odd time we could not keep the Sunday deadline.
From her chair, she contented herself by watching the business reports, moving monies around her various accounts, now free to do it from home with the advent of telephone banking. She clearly longed to be a business woman, and she clearly enjoyed the thought of saving money, and listening and debating the latest moves by the Bank of Canada. Predicting the next depression was a favourite topic.
Curiously she also began to divest herself of many of the objects around the house which formed any memories. Objects which would normally be cherished in family circles. The garage was emptied, the storage room equally removed of items big and small; the chess table made by my brother in high school shop classes, old baseball gloves and child toys were without ceremony sent to the dump. She was a hoarder in reverse. It was not talked about, and there did not seem to be an excuse given or felt to be needed.
And then it all ended.
Three years ago today, my mother got up in the middle of the night, walked out the front door, walked down to the dock she used to stare at for years, and at the age of 89, jumped in, drowning herself in the dark frigid water of Lake Ontario. She was eventually located by a search and rescue helicopter, when a diver jumped in and pulled her into the dangled rotor blown basket.
She left a note saying “It was not what you think, it was everything else.”
To this day “everything else” remains inexplicable; was it for an entire life, something that happened in that life, for being unfulfilled, for being unhappy, for not being loved, or all of it together? I don’t have an answer. As much as I cared for my mother, it was difficult for me to grieve. I have been too many suicides, always trying to get in the head of the victim, and to comprehend and put a logical framework around the mental thoughts at the time when they pulled the trigger, put the rope around their necks, or took the clearly fatal dose of pills. I felt guilty that It was just as hard for me to understand my very own mother.
On a recent trip to Ottawa I was strolling with no particular purpose on the sidewalk which lines the Rideau Canal, and I came around a corner at the National Arts Centre. As I rounded the corner, there stood a life size black stone statute of Oscar Petersen. He was seated at the piano, captured with that same smile. Inexplicably, uncontrollably, tears began to run down my face as I stared at it, trying to focus and understand these emotions coming over me. I needed to sit on the cold marble bench to compose myself. It seemed so real, where for a few brief seconds, I had been transformed back to that music store in Montreal, and for a few seconds, I was sitting there with the two of them. “Oscar” and “Ruthie” in the florescent lighted store, after hours, surrounded by vinyl records and instruments.
She was in the end no doubt more courageous than I have ever been, but also burdened by some sort of undiagnosed depression. But, I think she was also scared, and I wish it could have been me who had pulled her from the water. Because of my working life, I am forever burdened by the fact that I am still able to graphically picture her in the water; bluish tinged skin, blank stare, matted clothing and hair. A fragility having taken over, a pallor that comes with death. I wish I could have been able to hold her one last time, that I could have pulled her from the water, to give her back one last somewhat uncomfortable hug, to tell her that it was now o.k. I really did not want her to be alone at the end. But as usual I was a distance away.
Later, my brother and I would put her grey ashes back in the lake, the very same lake she had been pulled unceremoniously from, in front of that very same window, about 100 feet from where she used to sit, physically comfortable, but I think somehow uncomfortable in the life she had been given. As we approach Mother’s day you will forgive me I hope, for having a mixed bag of thoughts, pieces of the cheap life puzzle still unaccounted for, scraps of memory whirling like torn pieces of newspaper never to be re-assembled. Some good some bad. Eighty-nine years, and for sixty of those years she was my somewhat flawed mother, but she was my mother all the same, and I miss her.