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Mothers and Grandmothers

Yesterday was a tough day: my daughter-in-law’s grandmother’s funeral: GIGI -short for great grandmother passed away. Every time the organ played, I wept, memories of my mother rushing in and filling me with sadness. Perhaps thoughts of my mom had also been evoked by my posting her eulogy on my blog.

On the same day as the post, I had sent out her last picture to my sister and cousins. In the photo she looks pretty good, well for a 91 year old, hardly ready for the Grim Reaper although I recall she was not in a good mood the day that picture was snapped. From one day to the next, even in a minute, our lives change. She is like a shadow who is there but whose person I cannot touch, and whose face I cannot kiss. That fixed image captures and reflects one of a thousand moods.

When people ask how old was she when she died, and I respond with the number, they look askance, just as I did when someone else revealed their mom or dad had passed at 80 some. Now I feel embarrassed at my reaction to another’s grief. Although, of course, it is much more terrible for a life to be cut short earlier, a parent is still a parent and no matter how long they have inhabited your world, you will miss them in some way when they are gone.

However, my mother’s mother, the beautiful Layah in her youth, was a tyrant and I have few sweet memories of her, which include her blunt rejection of an African violet that I presented her with one Mother’s Day. My mother’s stories of her own mother’s tirades confounded my distance from this haughty woman. How can you feel close to person who grabs books from her child’s hands, tears them to shreds and throws them in the their face? Or the person who constantly tells you that you are ugly. Although that was not my experience, my mother seemed to relive these tales often enough to make me weary. Somehow in the spirit of resiliency, my mother grew up determined to break that mother-daughter cycle with her children- and so she did.

But as the years accumulated after my grandmother’s passing from emphysema ( she was a smoker), I was amazed to hear my mother intone that my grandmother’s life had been impacted by her coming to Canada, that my grandfather would bring home “landsmen” and relatives arriving from Poland, strangers even, that he had encountered on the street and would lodge them in her parents’ house for many weeks or even months. My grandmother bore the brunt of the cleaning, cooking, and tending to all of the visitors’ personal needs prompted by my kindly grandfather’s open door policy of welcome. This Jewish tradition of treating guests as family often resulted in the children being routed from their beds to sleep toe to jowl with one another. As well, to demonstrate some familial affection, she did look after my cousin when she was a baby, the cousin who dragged the bedraggled Lassie with her everywhere…

Perhaps she was kinder to my aunt, whom she believed prettier than my mother, and her children. An aunt, who by the way, departed for California with her family, as the gossip goes, to escape the wrath of the matriarch. I wondered how my mother could set aside all of the abuse she had endured throughout her life, even after she was married, to view her mother in a kinder light, empathizing with her as immigrant to Canada, accepting a life so vastly different in status from what she had experienced in Europe.

Remarkably, my mother seemed able to hold a longer, wider view, to be able to comprehend the once haughty, beautiful, wealthy woman whose new life was not easy or rewarding. I just scratched my curly head in disbelief. Had my grandmother ever expressed affection to my mother, with a simple kiss or tentative hug, Maybe? However, it is unlikely, for my mother never revealed a moment that would have illuminated her world with the grace or wonder of an uplifting touch or caress.

I did not experience any closeness with my Buby, not even an embrace. I do recall her weighing in on my poor showing in Grade 9 where my math and science teacher, a small and bespeckled Mr. Gauthier did not encourage my studies. My Buby admonished my mother, “Send her to secretarial college.” My father, on crutches, went in to see the junior high school principal, a Mr. Chellew, gentle and soft-spoken, who reaffirmed my mother’s belief that I was not a lost cause and did in deed have potential for university. It is funny how these signposts in our lives make all the difference.

Recently reading Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, she presents her character, Ursula, whose life first goes one way ; and then readers are shown an alternative, another direction that occurs. Throughout Ursula’s life, we observe a diversity of the same life, with some consistencies in terms of locations and people, but as Frost would say paths not taken. Atkinson once wrote books for children and there is that strong element of the fairytale in this telling : children who fly off roofs, shunting down garden lanes, disappearing. It made me think of embroidery that goes sideways. But the possibilities of following or not an experience makes all the difference.

One often wonders, why this? Why that? Why did I meet so and so, and why did his or her words stay with me and help or hinder me in making a decision? Sometimes I think about myself: that I am a Teflon brain in that that only some stuff sticks.

But it does make me ponder why of all the books that I studied in my first year at university, these lodged themselves in me : Pascal’s Les Pensees- where he explains that it is the chase, not the end ; and in particular, Jean-Paul Sartres’ la Nausee -where he says we hold on to our childhood toys and hairbrushes to remind us of our relationships and who were were at certain ages: who/m we loved, what we did, and what we cared for at that age. These books above all have remained my companions even till present day.

And why was I so moved by Le Petit Prince’s ( hmmm- I’m noticing they are all Frenchmen!)? and It is only with the heart one sees correctly; this book one was a friendless girl’s inauguration into a cadre of like-minded young women, so it is surrounded me with more than the warmth of words. As well the lilting poetry of the music of some of W.B Yeat’s ; How can we know dancer from the dance, and When We Are old… along with , Turning and turning … things fall apart…” persist where other lines and authors have fallen aside into a heap of dead leaves.

Even in my late teens these resonated in my head.

True, words echo and we hear them, directing and circumscribing our moves. We make our decisions no matter what, but I believe that so much comes from fate. When I think of how my parents’ world succumbed to his polio. And how ironic that at a young age when his parents had decided to emigrate to California his mother insisted they return to Canada because of an outbreak of polio! Was it his destiny that followed him? Was it chance that he had swam at Sunnyside pool during the polio outbreak? Or repaired radios in ambulances where polio victims had lain and put him in contact with the virus? And on that holiday weekend when his doctor was away and Doris, the rude wife of his cousin, angrily dismissed his phone call—until he collapsed, having spent his muscles mowing the grass instead of resting and conserving the nerves that would be forever destroyed…

We think of connections and missed connections, phone calls and lost letters ( not so much these days, although in Transatlantic Colum McCann works the magic of a letter never delivered!)as in Kate Atkinson’s story of Ursula and her family : lives that might have had different trajectories.

All the what ifs, the could- have- beens.

Often I feel helpless, a victim, unable to battle the co-incidences, the surprises, the onslaught of “ it shouldn’t have happened” but it did and does, as we spin caught in vortexes not propelled by ourselves. I imagine an Arshile Gorky painting of sheer swirling movement that catches one in the whirl and blur of life as it flashes past.

Maybe the ancients were right : the three fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, who spun, drew out and cut the thread of our beginnings so we believe there is magic afoot, things beyond our control, controlling us- falling apart as Yeats would say.

Yet, we are lectured that if we don’t smoke, if we eat beans and fish, if we exercise regularly, we will triumph over death and yet the man who succumbs to lung cancer has never smoked a day in his life. So it goes.

I always hated statistics, for they are numbers. There are no faces, no individualized scenarios- only a so-called set of facts gleaned to prove a thesis. We are like the medieval crew, wandering in the dark, banging our heads against nights of unexplainable confusion. No answers then and even the enlightened 21st Century has not turned on many lights even now.

Perhaps this is a good place to stop: the light has gone off for both GiGI and my mother. Rest in peace good ladies.

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One thought on “Mothers and Grandmothers

  1. Sorry for your loss. I’m sure it was especially rough for someone who conjures comparisons to Arshile Gorky. Sensitive souls recognize the beauty and hurt in a special way. Good cheer to you! –Paul

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