My mother gave me a gift, but I didn’t open it until I became a mother. And now that I have children of my own, I know that I took advantage of her generosity. I never realized the sacrifice she was making to be there, for me. It never occurred to me that she might have dreams that reached beyond the bounds of her reality.
My mother’s journey has taken her on a winding path, away from the shores of England, where she was born and raised, to a new life in Canada. She is a classic English rose – lovely and delicate – transplanted into North American soil.
My mom was born of a darwinian dad and a distant mother who owned a well-to-do boys school in England. When she was ten she was sent to boarding school in Scotland, where she toughed out the war years worrying about her parents being bombed down in England, and being sick with diptheria and polio. Then she went on to university at St Andrews, where she gained a degree in Biology and an m.r.s. from my dad. By all accounts, she was quite a catch: beautiful, smart, athletic. They tell a wonderful story about how each of them was going out with the other’s best friend. At some point, they all said ‘switch’. And it stuck. The other couple got married and had a very happy life together too.
My father went on to medical school and my mother gave up all ambitions of pursuing anything remotely related to her field of study. Instead, she took a job as a secretary at a battery factory to pay the bills.
And then there were babies. My oldest sister was born while my dad was still doing his internship and only saw my mom on his one half day off a week. She is the camellia – fair skinned and sparkling eyed. They lived in medical student squalor in a little town in Scotland.
Then my mother had three miscarriages. All in a row. Home alone with my oldest sister for most of her time, she dealt with each painful loss pretty much on her own. She lost the first in Scotland, and the next two in northern Canada. In those days there was no grief counselling. But, it helped that my dad was in the business, so she could talk to him, and eventually whatever was on the fritz got sorted out.
They decided to leave England. It was a pretty big decision. My mother’s older sister had already jumped ship for New Zealand where she would spend the rest of her life. My mother found the courage to leave her parents behind, who were not happy with their decision, and together with my father, set sail for Canada.
They lived on an Air Force base in northern Ontario where the cold shocked her. Although Scotland had been wet and chilling, the forty-below arctic weather was a blow to the face. But despite the numbing cold of winter, the B-52 mosquitoes in the summer, and the isolation she must have felt being so far from her native land, she managed. Then they were transferred to Cold Lake in northern Alberta, where their second daughter was born after the three non-flowering pregnancies. This most northerly latitudinal child, the snowdrop, is her fairest one.
After completing their three year mandatory stint with the sub-arctic Air Force – the price of their admission to Canada – my parents leapt over the Rockies, not stopping until they ran into the ocean. Dad decided to go back to school for four more years, to specialize in Ob/Gyn. Mom lived alone in their house with two children, one of them worringly sick, and pregnant with me, while my father lived at the hospital in town, putting in eighteen plus hour stints and coming home for his one meager day off per week.
She had me and then my next sister, the marigold, two years apart. Then she took a bit of a breather, until six years later, on the eve of her fortieth birthday, she produced her last blossom, the sweet pea. Her after-thought. She had a full house with us five of a kind. She had created a big garden.
I know that few of us were planned. It makes you realize how tough it was, pre-Pill, to keep the seeds from being planted, even though her husband had professional access to all the leading-edge technology. But she embraced each of us, surprise or no, with love and patience.
She had good friends, a devoted and loving husband, and she had a lot of daughters who adored her. She took care of the five of us, and she looked after our dad too. She cleaned and she cooked and she baked and did dishes. She washed and she dried and she ironed and she put away. She knitted and she sewed. She canned fruit from the garden for a little taste of summer on those wet winter days. She drove. She applied bandaids and smoothed over ruffled edges. She was always there. Always kind. Rarely frazzled. Never ranting.
Yep, she had a husband who worked crazy hours. Yep, she had a husband who, by the account of almost every woman he encountered, walked on water. Yep, her husband had seen a large percentage of the women she knew socially stark nakers. Yep, she had five kids and no help. She bought their first house, thanks to a little inheritance left to her by a maiden aunt. It took a long time for my dad to get up to speed, the road to physician being a long, expensive one.
I remember my mother being tired. Late dinners, late bedtimes, phone calls from the hospital for my father in the middle of dinner, in the middle of the night, in the middle of…, single parenting overtime, a lot, and so little time that she found for herself took their toll. As a young woman, she played tennis, well, it is told, and many other sports at school. But when she had us, she gave up all that. Instead she went with the family on meandering marches in the rain forest every Sunday. With family bedrooms spread out over four rambling floors, she was the original stairmaster. She read the paper, cover to cover, every day, and devoured books during her few quiet moments. She could do crosswords – the hard, cryptic ones – faster than she could set her hair. She is a wealth of knowledge.
She didn’t get out much, having had those babies over a spread of fourteen years, and she didn’t even learn how to drive until after her fourth daughter was born in 1961. There hadn’t been much point, since they couldn’t afford a car for her.
By the time the sweet pea left home for university, my mom was pretty close to sixty and had been full-time parenting for almost two thirds of her life.
Not the time now to be worrying about what seeds didn’t get planted, about what life could have been. Instead it is a time to sit back and enjoy the garden.
Our lives are, in so many ways, different from the one that she has led. We were raised by our mother and our father, with love. We had sisters encircling us, and a funky old house with its rambling yard that was our home to wander and ponder in. We had summer trips to camp sites on warm lakes and winter skiing holidays via vertiginous roads. Later, there was the little cottage in the Gulf Islands, where we skipped along sandstone beaches and went fishing with our Dad. We had a pretty idyllic childhood.
But, we grew up in the sixties (except for the sweet pea who is a groovy seventies type), during the time when television loomed, and then doomed us to electronic hyperspeed living. It brought into our consciousness and into our rec rooms The Pill and Vietnam and The Bay of Pigs and The Beatles, and introduced us to a whole lot of people, not much older than we were, standing up very publicly in total defiance of authority.
I think she sees the five of us as so iconoclastic, and so North American. It must be. These are the times that we live in. This is where we come from. This is who we are. Her daughters. Her labours of love. Her garden rooted in a foreign soil.
She came of age in the kinder, gentler time of between-wars England, where people in my mom’s sphere courted and married before sharing. In a place where many people sent their children away from home when they were very young to be raised by the system. In a time when stoicism was expected – before people were allowed to express themselves so freely. In a time when elders deserved respect just because they were older. In a time before bombs started flying and the world forever changed.
Like her, we have all chosen to marry, to have children. But as the new millennium gallops on, we are expected to be more than just mothers. Modern society wants us to be supermoms: perfect parent, perfect home, career woman, supportive, sexy, second-income providing wife, juggler extraordinaire. And as we quest for this tenuous, near-impossible balance, she watches and wonders if perhaps she missed an opportunity in her life to be or to do something more. I don’t think career opportunities for her ever really existed. June Cleaver and Carol Brady and Good Housekeeping set the bar for mothers in the sixties and seventies.
But you know, it doesn’t mean that we don’t think she set a good example for us when we don’t follow her exact footsteps. She did. She taught us to be attentive, available, responsible mothers. To be supportive partners to our husbands. To have knowledge. To be resourceful. To see beauty. To love.
She is in her eighties now. I know it has been sometimes hard for her living out her life in the shadow of my father. He has cut a wide swath, his passage marked by many professional successes and recognitions. Her path, though less wide, is equally well travelled.
She is a good mother, a good person. She is a woman whose love, though not invisible, feels sometimes unexpressed. That is where she came from – hard upper crust and all that. Keep it under control. Be embarrassed or be ashamed for showing emotion. Don’t burden others with your stuff. Be stoic.
But the love is there, given in deed. She is a mother who has given her life for her family. It is a life that has been awarded with too little applause.
We used to call her Mummy when we were her English little girls, sharing our lives with just her and our father. Then she sent us out into the new world to make our way. Now she hears us call her ‘Mom’ in our flat North American english. But the delivery doesn’t diminish the meaning. Mom, mum, mummy. She is a beloved mother.
I am grown from an English rose. Thank you, Mum, for all that you have given me.
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Post Script: I first wrote this piece back in 1999, for my mother who, on the eve of turning 70, was experiencing a bit of an existential crisis. She still loves it, as does my dad, and they have encouraged me to share it. I have lightly edited to update, and I share it on the occasion of Mother’s Day 2013.