Friday, 23 January 2015

My Mother

Four years ago today, my mom died.

As the youngest child of Icelandic immigrants raised in rural British Columbia through the Thirties and Forties, she was resilient. She saw the privations of the Great Depression echo in her small farming community and saw the Second World War sweep her oldest brothers off to the Pacific Theatre. She lost her father at fourteen, and her mother at twenty-one. In a time when most women were homemakers, she worked in shops through her teens and by twenty, had completed college and taught her first elementary class. She would continue teaching for the next forty years. In an era when most women were married by nineteen, she didn't settle down until she found a man that she "couldn't push around." She was thirty. She didn't have children for almost another decade. And in all this, she saw nothing remarkable. Maybe because of her Icelandic roots, maybe due to her natural humility.

Mom was a true lady. Perhaps she was just a product of her era, but she never complained and I rarely heard her speak ill of anyone. Mom didn’t believe in raising her voice. She stood straight, dressed well, and had lovely handwriting. When she spoke she sounded straight out of a movie from the Fifties. I only once heard her drop the F-bomb in a heated argument- and when she did I dropped my glass of orange juice in shock. (She was prone to saying "oh, shit!" though, whenever she forgot something, which was a lot.) She was an avid reader, and by the age of three we knew that the best time to ask for and receive permission to do just about anything, or go just about anywhere was when she had her nose buried in a good novel.  She instilled a love of reading in her both her children, and now that I have my own kids, I understand – we book-addicts will say anything to get the kids to leave us alone long enough to finish the chapter.

She was stubborn, too, but arguing with Mom was like punching a pillow. She would listen calmly and attentively, then go do her own thing her own way regardless. The only time she could be swayed was when the argument was political or social in nature, and throughout her life I saw her let go of a lot of outdated notions about race and sexuality. One misconception that she held onto for a really long time was that all police everywhere were entirely good people, and she wasn't able to let that go until she herself was bullied into putting down her pregnant dog, which under provocation had snapped at a child. "I didn't think the police would ever be like that, be so threatening," she said to me. I remember giving her an incredulous look and telling her that I had known it since I was twelve. "I know," she responded a little sadly, "I guess you grew up faster than I did." She was sixty-seven.

Of course, no one is without her  faults. She was almost aggressively absent-minded and chronically late. She  forgot to pick us up from Girl Guides on more than one occasion, and only noticed when my father came home and asked where the kids were. We never panicked though, because we assumed she was just later than usual. Her parenting style can best be described as benign neglect – I don’t remember her ever helping me with my homework, or even checking that I’d done it at all.. She never asked to meet our friends’ parents. She often skipped our school events. Part of me thinks that as a primary school teacher, she was just exhausted by little kids by the time she got home to her own. But we never questioned that she loved us.

She drank too frequently, although she was never  drunk. In the long and quiet unscheduled days of retirement, it became clear that the two beer she’d always had when she arrived home in the evening was not a choice, but a need. She did eventually conquer it though, and her smoking habit as well.

She could tell a long rambling story about nothing for hours, and get snippy when we tried to get her to the point. She lived most of her life in a styrofoam bubble where nothing bad ever happened, and if it did, it had better have the good taste not to let itself be discussed in her hearing. I have slowly come to the realization that she found the experience of moving through a violent and unpredictable world to be profoundly upsetting.  She was about as far from sex-positive as one can possibly be, and the only time I ever heard her say anything on the subject was to say that she “tried it twice and didn’t like it.” I have one older sister.  (Which was fortunate, because I had a whole lot of bizarre notions about the birds and the bees that needed dispelling.)

What can I say? She had a lead foot on long drives, occasionally smacked me for sassiness, and gave advice like “Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” She taught my nephew the phrase “ass over teakettle” and never forgot a birthday. She had the same three best friends since eighth grade until her death, and she could beat anybody’s ass at Scrabble or cribbage.

She was the best mother I could have had. Maybe she wasn’t perfect, but she was more than good enough. Being motherless is a particularly unmooring experience. I find I still need to ask her something almost daily. Who is that person in this old photo? Did I eat as slowly as Panda does? How much homework did we have in elementary school, and what grade did it start? And am I doing okay at the mothering thing?

Eventually you find a new normal, but it's never the normal you knew. And I guess it has to be this way, has always been that way. I'll be raising a glass of red to you tonight, Mom; I miss you.

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