So, this woman changed my life. She probably doesn’t know it, and she probably does it all the time without realizing it. Continue reading
Category Archives: Personal
I admit it. One of my indulgences is watching reality TV. One of the shows that I used to watch was Celebrity Rehab. It wasn’t to participate in any schadenfraude, but having a family with a history of substance abuse, it’s something interesting for me to watch, safely removed.
This will be my eighth Mother’s Day without my Mum. It’s been nine years since she left us, and inevitably, every year as this day approaches, I’m pretty much consumed with thoughts of her. It’s Mother’s Day and my children’s birthdays that make me think of her most actually, namely because she always called me on my daughter’s birthday to wish me a happy birthday. “It’s our birthday too”, she would say. She never met her grandsons.
Today, I sit here, on the same back deck, with the same view, more or less, at nearly the same time off year, writing about my Mum again. Except, I’m not writing a missive about Mother’s Day. No, today I’ll be writing something different. The day today is as grey as it was the day I sat down to write my mother’s eulogy. It was much quieter day in my neighbourhood then though, as if everyone knew and they left me in peace to write. The low, heavy air made it a muted type of day. Eerily quiet, now that I look back.
Whenever the talk of mothers comes up, and I mention that my mum has died, it’s predictable that someone will ask me the “how did she die” question. Since my mum’s death, I’ve watched everyone and anyone, myself included, ask after someone’s cause of death. I don’t know if it’s just morbid curiosity, because we’re all facing that inevitability, or if it’s because we’re all sadistically voyeuristic to some degree; we want to know, but we don’t really want to know. Like, when we while watch scary films. We sit in our chairs, rapt, not wanting to look, but not wanting to look away, so we cover our eyes, but peek through our fingers up until the moment of reveal. It’s like we’re all looking for a post-mortem club of sorts to belong to. Oh, your parent died of cancer? MY parent died of cancer. Oh, your parent died in a tragic car crash? MY parent died in a tragic car crash. Except, no one wants to join my club. Not that I blame them.
This is how the conversation usually goes for me.
Other: “Oh, I’m sorry your mum’s not here. How’d she die?”
Me: (taking a deep breath) “She committed suicide.”
Other: (grimacing, physically recoiling and then immediately looking at you with a great, overwhelming look of pity) “OH, I am SO sorry! That’s horrible!”
…and then they share a story with me about a friend’s spouse, or a distant uncle or “someone’s someone” that they knew or knew of that had also committed suicide, in an attempt to show that we’re part of that same club, that they share some sort of empathetic connection there, but very few actually do. And that slight, frowning grimace never really leaves their face, and honestly, I see the ghost of it every time I see them hence.
Suicide is a weird thing. People don’t know how to react to it. Eight days after my mother died, my husband and I attended a wedding of friends of his. Every person at that wedding knew that my mother had committed suicide, but instead of acknowledging it, everyone simply chose to ignore it. Not one person came up to me and offered me any condolences. Not one.
I had a friend, whose mother’s story was very similar to mine. She called me one day to ask me how I dealt with it when people asked me about my mother’s death. I told her that I had learned, much like I had when I was a young girl and I had accepted that my mother’s alcoholism was hers and not mine, that I had to do the same when it came to sharing her choice for her death. I would take that deep breath and let it be said, after all, it was her suicide and not mine; not to sound too Britney about it, but it is what it is.
She told me about making that choice with a new friend and neighbour that she had met while she was on maternity leave. After being invited to that woman’s daughter’s first birthday party, she called me in tears afterward sharing, “as soon as I walked into the room, I knew every person in there was looking at me as “that woman whose mother had committed suicide”.” I got it instantly.
Being the survivors of suicide (seriously, a term that I hate) gives you membership in an exclusive kind of club too. A new friend of mine and I sat one day having coffee as we were just really getting to know one another. I shared with her that my mother had committed suicide, and then she had shared that her twin sister had. Any one watching this conversation from afar would likely have been appalled as we both laughed, and pointed and said to one another, “oh, yours is worse…no, no yours is worse!”. It’s hard to describe what we share by experiencing this in our lives. There’s an unspoken knowing of the pain, the tragedy, the selfishness, the relief, all rolled up together.
It’s hard to explain to people that I’m okay with my mother’s suicide. For her, suicide was a release. My mum was a tortured soul that had survived an horrific childhood and gave all that she had to my sister, myself, my daughter and my dad for as long as she could. She looked at me, quite serenely one Christmas, when my daughter was three and said, “yah, I’m done” and I knew what she meant. “Well, we’re not done with you yet Grandma”, I whispered to her. I consider us lucky that we got six more years out of her. Still, while I miss her daily and will readily say that 53 was far too young, it’s because I’m being selfish. It was too little for me, but it was years too long for her.
For my mum, her suicide was a matter of when, not if. I had grown up catching her in various attempts throughout my whole life, as she battled with her alcoholism and mental health. It has certainly left an imprint on me, but I’m positive it’s why crises never throw me. I get immediately calm and am able to move straight into action. I’ve been conditioned that way.
So, why am I writing about it now? Because I have to. It’s still with me, as it is every single day. And because Mother’s Day still makes me innately sad and melancholy. When my children are squishing me, and bouncing on me, and plying me with kisses, I am truly loving it and relishing it, but quietly, I am missing making my call to my mum to let her know that I love her, and that I’m thinking of her.
So, to all of us that have lost our mums, no matter how, no matter when, I wanted to reach out on this Mother’s Day and let you know that I won’t ask how, but I’ll listen in case you want to share.
When I was 24, I went to university. I was a single mother, with a two and a half year old daughter. Before I started at York U., I spent one year at an adult day school in Toronto called CALC: City Adult Learning Centre. I wanted to upgrade my OACs so that I wouldn’t be restricted into the adult learning stream once I started my university studies. My daughter was in daycare at the same site that I was, and I was supported, and encouraged by wonderful teachers and mentors that cared and saw my potential.
There were generally three types of students during my time at CALC; many refugees and new immigrants to the city, whom I always had such a great respect for as they were working hard to create a new life and already knew two or more languages. There were also those that spent their time mostly smoking joints in the back of the field and were biding their time, ensuring they were getting their welfare cheques. Then there those like me, working on their upgrades, vying for the opportunity to head to university and get on with it.
In spring of that year, the news was reporting about a particularly violent weekend in Toronto. I didn’t realize why it stuck out to me at first, but there were a number of reports about multiple assaults and murders. Notably, the victims were all women. I remember thinking of this as I headed into my first class on Monday morning, when the head of the Social Sciences department pulled me aside and let me know that one of our classmates and her mother were in fact two of the victims that I had heard about on the news.
This woman was a recent immigrant from Poland. She was probably my age, and although we didn’t agree on a number of issues in our World Issues class, I respected the fact that she was vocal, opinionated, and strong-willed. Her boyfriend had apparently attacked her, her mother and her father, and only her father ended up surviving the assault.
It was around this time that I was starting to investigate what it meant to be a “feminist”. I actually went to the dictionary to look it up. Webster’s defined it for me as “one who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of women.” Easy. I was a feminist. Really, I always had been. I had the “When God Created Man, She Was Only Joking” t-shirt when I was a kid, and my mother had always instilled in me a great sense of pride in being a woman, but it wasn’t until I was about 23 that I started to really educate myself and self declare.
I started to read Ms. Magazine, Marilyn French, Gloria Steinem (seriously, have you ever read If Men Could Menstruate?), Susan Faludi, and Naomi Wolf. Then I started talking about being a feminist. Inevitably, the response I would get from most was “I’m a humanist”. Funny thing was, as soon as I would provide the actual definition of feminist, it wasn’t really surprising to me how many would say, “Oh, then I’m a feminist”.
Labels are scary. They can pigeon hole us, restrict us, cause judgments that we may or may not welcome.
I feel that one of the most important things that define us as human beings is our use of language. It is our language that frames our thoughts, and expresses our emotions. When my daughter was six years old she asked me one day, “Mummy, why do you use ten dollar words when two dollar words will do?” “Oh, because I love those ten dollar words,” I would respond.
So, I choose to use those ten dollars words, and I certainly choose to call myself a feminist. (It’s also not a surprise that my daughter, now 19, does the same. ) And I do it for many reasons; for the women that are afraid to, the women that no longer can, the next generation of women who deserve to see examples of what feminism look like across all the demographics, and most importantly, for myself.
Oh yah, I am feminist, hear me roar. You betcha.
I love old things. You can tell by the fact that I live in a house that was built in 1917. I love the imperfect walls (how they made flat walls with plaster & lathe is still beyond me!) and the stories that live in these walls. I love discovering hidden, forgotten things; like newspapers from the 50s which were used as insulation in our fireplace (that was a fun discovery when we had a lining inserted & repointed the chimney), the seven layers of paint and paper that line just about every room (in both directions, ceilings included), the two “Bottled in Stratford, Ontario” Coca~Cola bottle caps that were embedded in the plaster in our master bedroom, behind more painted over wallpaper, and I love living in a City where I find out more about this house from people that visit than I did from the previous owners (“oh, I remember when the tub fell through the ceiling!”; so that’s why the ceiling is wonky there!).
It’s this sensibility that draws me to places like Goodwill, Talize and Value Village. A lot. I have frequent buyer cards for two of the outfits that offer them; that and the fact that I have twin seven-year-old boys, who go through clothes like nobody’s business.
Actually, there are a number of good reasons that I love to stroll through these second hand stores. Need a second DVD? $7, check! Need a VCR to play all those Disney tapes I still have from when my university bound daughter was a toddler? $3, check! Weight scales, air popcorn poppers, cast iron skillets for camping, practically brand new, brand name clothes (a genuine Dolce & Gabbana trench for $14, swear to gawd!) sometimes with their original store tags still on them; I’m so happy when I find something for a few bucks that would’ve usually set me back thrice its value or more.
And then sometimes, I find a real treasure. Not one that’s worth any significant cash value, but ones that are worth much more to me because of their story, their history.
A couple of years ago now, I found a large, black frame (with a lousy picture in it) at my local Goodwill, so I bought it, brought it home and then found this picture behind it.
The gentleman’s name is Sam Cheezo from the Cree Nation who lived in Quebec. I couldn’t find anything online about the man or the photographer, so I searched a little harder and I found an email for the office of the Embassy of the Cree Nation in Ottawa. I forwarded a picture of the photograph to them and they were able to connect me with the Director of Operations for the Cree Nation of Nemaska and he was able to tell me this about Sam Cheezo:
As far I can remember, Sam was one of our village elders at Nemaska Post. I believe he passed away in the mid-fifties. Sam was one of those rare individuals who was quite active in his early years as he was a sought after Foreman for various community projects since he knew how to interact with people. He taught himself English (he never went school) and he became our interpreter at church services and other events.
He was a person of jovial character and he was one of the Cree voyageurs working for the Hudson’s Bay Company during the days of the canoe brigades before the arrival of the bush plane.
There is a reference to him from a manuscript made by the Reverend James Scanlon, titled ‘A Different Time Among the Northern Cree’ which can be purchased from the Highway Book Shop, Cobalt, Ontario.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to discover this smallest snippet of Sam’s story. I was moved that through the effort of a few emails, I was able to be connected to people that not only knew how to get to Sam’s story, but who actually knew Sam himself. Mostly though, I was happiest to send this large photo of Sam back to the Culture Director of the Nemaska First Nation, where it belonged.
Then, a few weeks ago now, I participated in a local, online auction where I purchased an entire box of cameras, lenses and other photography peripheries. The owner of the equipment obviously loved photography and cared for their equipment, because it was in impeccable shape. The best discovery for me though, was the fact that two of the cameras still had film in them. I immediately took them to my local camera shop and you can view the pictures yourself here (a couple of samples are below).
The photos aren’t particularly exceptional, or one of those incredible finds like John Maloof had of Vivian Maier’s work, but I love them. They capture a part of someone’s life. I’m guessing a teacher, a lover of art, a mother. I also found a receipt in the aging box, I’d love to find out more about Katherine Gatto. A Google search revealed nothing, but isn’t too surprising when you realize that the equipment and the pictures reveal a world that existed well before digital photography and just as personal computers were making their way onto the work desk.
My last adventure takes me from again, the Goodwill in Stratford to Cross Creek, New Brunswick. I came across this stunning, hand-stitched leather satchel, for which I paid all of $30 for. That girl was coming home with me.
The leather was not in rough shape, per se, but it’s definitely not as pliable as it would have once been. Thanks to an imprinted piece inside the bag, I was quickly able to find the maker of this beauty; Northern Lights Leathers was kind enough to respond to my email query and let me know that they made this type “school bag” about 10 years ago and it’s original sticker price would’ve been approximately $250. How is it a handmade leather bag from New Brunswick ended up in Stratford, Ontario? I really do hope one day to find that out…
…and that’s just one of those other amazingly beautiful things about using our social media networks and the technology and tools that are available to us. These are the ultimate storytelling tools, which puts the story right in our laps, if we want to take that journey…