Welcome Back, Mississauga

This was my 2019 entry to CBC creative non-fiction contest, which as you may gather since it’s published here, did not make the long list. That’s fine, it will be in my book of essays I intend to publish in the not-to-distant future. This was an essay that took me a mere 15 years to write. Enjoy 🙂
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With the power back on and the house officially mine, I could finally get the trailer of furniture delivered. This was a good thing because at the moment we only had a kitchen full of tropical plants plus a cage of renegade birds that had been exiled from the hotel we were staying in. We killed the time between closing on the house and the arrival of the furniture by painting the living room walls three different shades of blue.

The deadline for delivery was extremely tight – the movers had to drop off everything at which point we needed to jump in the car and drive back to Mississauga to make it for the appointment I learned was scheduled for the day after. When I was told of the appointment the date and time seemed reasonable if quite annoying but here we were. It was August of 2003 and my big move back to the Ottawa area was quite literally darkened by the great power outage of eastern Canada and the US.

That I was coming back was a bit of a marvel in itself. I had relocated to Mississauga in 1988 and 15 years later it seemed to me that coming home would be a bit of an impossibility. When I moved there it was after the discovery of my boyfriend being transferred to Toronto in six weeks who promptly proposed. Then it was a very quick wedding, a house hunting trip I didn’t go on, a pack and move of 2 apartments and 2 cats, a honeymoon in Montreal with its own power outage that lasted nearly a day and a bad case of the flu for the both of us.

This time it was two children, one ex and a new common-law spouse later. I was living in a townhouse in a co-operative that had the world’s best babysitter-slash-surrogate grandma on one side. On the other, a strange woman with 2 children who didn’t speak to me but took a shine to my fellow and had him building furniture and mowing the lawn for her. She wasn’t too fond of me though. That she would shovel one half of the single sidewalk paver width entryway and took offense if anybody stepped a toe on her lawn didn’t help me warm to her either.

It had been a long 15 years for me. My dreams of leaving my hometown and the civil service to go to university in Toronto didn’t quite pan out. We discovered a couple of days after arriving exactly how expensive this area was; looking at our combined single person credit debt foolishness we realized that even though this new job brought a better salary, his wouldn’t be enough. Full-time university got put on the shelf for me for what seemed like – and so far is – forever.

I swore I wouldn’t go back to work for the government again, that is until my dad told his boss I’d moved to Mississauga. They knew me from my previous job so no sooner had he mentioned that I was there, she said, “We need someone who knows how to run a warehouse! What’s her number?”

Well, there were thousands of hours spent staring at taillights on the 401 in the end. But I knew six months in that this wouldn’t be my forever place. Thirty-one years and two cities later I have come to ask myself: will I ever find a spot that truly feels like home, someplace I never want to leave? Something tells me such a place just doesn’t exist and that’s fine with me. I was born with wandering feet, though my feet are slower than some peoples’ are.

At this time and place though, it was a case of me saying I wanted to go back to Ottawa, and Ottawa needing my skills perhaps more than where I was. This was confirmed by means of a phone call while my partner and I were enjoying a bite at a restaurant. I hung up and I’m told all the blood had drained from my face. “We’re moving to Ottawa,” I announced. My dream had come true.

Be careful what you wish for, they say. In the end it was the right thing to do but my complicated life became considerably more so in the coming days. I had to tell people. That was one thing, but when you have children there’s the added element of schools and babysitters and friends. One of those children was on the verge of becoming a teen, the other still small and needing of a babysitter with patience for my little spitfire.

With the childrens’ father remaining in Mississauga there was the daunting thought that oh no, what about the weekends? Just the idea of driving that distance two ways twice a month freaked me out but it was something that was going to need to be done. One thing that would be helpful was that the kids spent their summers in the Maritimes so much of this would happen while they were away. That was a bonus.

It took what felt like forever to get the go ahead which meant a whirlwind house hunting trip and then an equally frantic packing and cleaning session. Before that I had to let my current employers know that not only was I serious that I wanted to go home but now I was actually doing it. That also meant a great deal of clearing up work things and explaining everything I knew about my field to someone quickly chosen to fill in and hand off things left in midstream.

Days before I was set to leave I get a phone call from the City of Toronto. Somebody had given them my name and they said, hey, would you like to try for a job? It was in my field and paid $30,000 more. I sighed and explained I was moving in two weeks and asked: where were you three months ago?

House hunting was fun; I fell in love with a place half an hour out of town that sadly turned out to require a complete electrical upgrade from spool and wire; another was very much like walking into a museum. The voices we heard talking in an empty upstairs room were a little disconcerting. One townhouse was close to my family but had no backyard, was expensive with condo fees; then lastly on the final hour of an open house we walked into a cottage style 80 year old house in Arnprior.

It felt like home, had a big back yard and a two-story garage – we were hooked. That it had character and was detached with more than a Brazilian landing strip of grass sold me. No more neighbours calling the police for young child temper tantrums at midnight for us!

The quiet lifestyle and relaxing fields of cows on the way into town were added bonuses. Not minding the dire warnings from my family of having to drive forever each way, I signed on the dotted line. Thing is, until you’ve been eight months pregnant in summer in a car with no air conditioning on the 401 after a truck has rolled over trapping you there for three hours until you reach your off-ramp you can’t understand how 45 minutes of cows with 15 of those being city highway traffic seems easy. It’s not for nothing that people in Toronto drive with empty bottles under their seats just in case.

Anyway I soon discovered that my delightful co-op gleefully rubbed their hands at my relocation. This would mean an inspection and that townhouse better be spic and span with not a hint of dirt or damage or there’d be hell to pay. Or maybe just the first and last month rent deposit.

I painted, I cleaned, I shampooed the carpets. They did an inspection the day before the move that had me painting the hallway again. The inspection days after I moved was the hell that cost me the deposit in order to replace a damaged carpet that I found out later was never removed.

My last day of work was both touching and silly with the gift a gigantic bouquet of flowers which, had I not been moving 500 km away would have made me so happy. At this point all I could think of was how the heck am I going to bring this with me? My two vehicles were already packed to the brim but after 15 years working there those flowers were coming with me. I put them in the back, hoping my allergy medicine would hold out for the whole trip.

Moving day came with movers who needed to put stuff on the lawn while loading the truck. Lady next door comes flying out complaining. Something was on her grass! This went on several times until late afternoon when a bicycle and a few choice words were tossed and she marched off to the manager’s office. One of the last things left in the house was the phone which I promptly unplugged when it started ringing a few minutes after she left. With hugs and a few tears we said goodbye to our special friends on the other side and we were off!

One quick night in a hotel and the next morning we headed out. Nothing could stop us now! Except for the rain that is. I got a little worried when it got hard to see, partner following behind me got worried when I’d slowed down enough that I should have had my blinkers on, and on top of it all my phone kept ringing.

Just outside of Kingston I answered what turned out to be my doctor’s office. The results of my mammogram meant I needed to have an ultrasound in a week. Damn. Now add me shaking from that on top of the shaking I was already doing from the heavy downpour. Nevertheless we made it in time to check into the hotel mid-afternoon.

Our birds were settled on the dresser beside my bouquet of flowers in this animal-friendly room. We ate, had a nap and were watching t.v. when … nothing. The power was out. Our battery radio told us that the hydro was down all over the east.

The next morning we knew two things: that we couldn’t close on the house, and that the only place we could find to eat that cooked with gas was a pizza place downtown. So pizza followed by a bicycle ice-cream vendor cone was our treat for that day.

We were able to close the day after the power came on but not before the movers had had to put the trailerful of stuff into storage until they could retrieve it. By this time a visiting baseball team at the hotel had complained about us. It seems our chirping was more disturbing than their yelling up and down the hallways and the birds were asked to leave. Fortunately we weren’t asked to leave with them so they graced the kitchen in the new house while we got rid of all of that pink paint which is not one of my favorite colours from the living room walls.

As the sun started to set on our moving truck a few days later we hopped into the van and back we went, me worried about getting to the appointment on time. That we couldn’t get the doctor’s note when we got there because the office was closed was nicely solved by my near tears and shakingly told tale of the move.

In the end I was fine. I’d escaped the family cancer scourge this time thankfully and headed back to continue our latest adventure.

Home again. For now.

Catherine M. Harris
2019

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Memorial for Mom

Freda B. Harris 13-May-1919 to 5-Apr-2019. Mom.

Mom, what a long and wonderful life she lived.  99 years, nearly 100.  Can you imagine?  She was a fair bit older than her contemporaries when she got married and had children and while it was challenging she did the best she could and I am so grateful for that.  We were unconventional but I wouldn’t trade that for anything because what I learned from this was priceless.  I had the great good fortune to be raised with two very strong and accomplished women in my life:  my mother and my aunt Lorna.  Both of them challenged what society’s determination of what a woman should be and did so with grace. 

My mother was born in 1919, just after World War I ended and during the time of the Great Flu pandemic – she was one of the few people alive who probably had immunity to that.  She told me stories of the time when telephones were party lines, the milk came by horse wagon in glass bottles with cream on the top, of ice boxes cooled by blocks of ice cut from the Ottawa River, of the Great Depression and the weird symbols that vagrants carved on their fence posts letting others know they had a pot of soup on the stove to share.  Listening to her gave me a fondness of the past and of learning about genealogy I carry to this day.  Life was precarious growing up in the time before penicillin and vaccinations and she came of age sandwiched between two world wars.  To grow up in that time was an era of loss and life and death was much more a reality for them than it is today.  She remembered family members lying in state in the living room of their house. 

When WWII started my uncle went to war and my aunt joined the WRENS while my mom stayed home and worked for the Bank of Canada while getting her BA.  She later got a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Toronto. 

When the war ended this was my mom’s time to see the world so she joined External Affairs and was posted to Dublin.  One of mom’s memories was watching Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on t.v. which was one of the first big events that was televised.  She was posted to Rome where she met my dad. 

My mom was a career woman.  She was the main breadwinner and she had a solid career which was remarkable for that time – I honestly can say she must have faced huge hurdles – it’s still a difficult slog for a woman in the civil service and I can’t imagine how it would have been for her when discrimination was allowed to be blatant as it was in the 60s and 70s.  Add to that that most women weren’t career women with families and she had the challenge of child care in a much less friendly environment. 

When she was the Chief Librarian for the Department of the Solicitor General I would do my homework in the library; because she travelled a lot she would often take one of us with her.  She went to many conferences which is when we usually went but she also inspected libraries in the Federal Penitentiaries across Canada.  One of her favorite stories (and mine) was the time she got snowed in at Dorchester Penitentiary – a men’s maximum security prison. 

For me, growing up with these trips and with all my parents’ friends visiting who were still in External Affairs made me think for the longest time that what you did when you grew up was get a job where you travel and live in exotic places.  I haven’t had the pleasure of that but I am lucky enough to have had a couple of jobs where I got to see Canada.  I think this travel bug is genetic; my daughter so far is busy visiting amazing places with her husband, and who knows what my son decides to come up with.

So you see, my mom essentially packed two lives into one; a full career as a single woman then the married career mother.  She was inclusive and she would do things with my sister and I that suited each of us and for me that meant swimming and being in the choir which was the only way she could get me to go to church – we both loved music and singing so there we had it.

One of the reasons my mom was so determined to make us a part of what she did was because her own mother had died at age 60 and our other grandmother at age 50.  That she was 42 when she had me, she wasn’t sure that she would live to see us grow up.  This weighed on her mind.  Every day beyond that accomplishment was icing on the cake for her and she was thrilled to become a grandmother – not just once but 6 times and to live long enough to see them grow up. 

My mom was a sweet, kind, considerate and thoughtful person who loved people unconditionally and who always tried to see people in their best light.  On the surface she portrayed herself as a gentle soul but inside she did have a band of steel to be able to live her life according to her truth which in many senses was very contrary to the way of life in her time.  She didn’t kowtow to convention, she did what was right for her. She was understanding that people need to follow their own hearts even if it isn’t what is expected of them.  I really appreciated that consideration. 

When I moved out on my own we would visit each other; she loved going to lunch with me when were both working downtown; we would spend evenings chatting and later when I moved to Mississauga we would spend hours on the phone chatting, something that we continued to do right up until 4 years ago.  I loved our long conversations – it was our safe space to talk about life.  When I learned that I could no longer call her, to me that was the first of the long heartbreaking goodbye. 

I will never forget the relationship we had and I am very grateful that I had a mother I knew loved me whether or not she agreed with my decisions.  She was the truest example of unconditional love and I am a stronger person because of that.

I learned a lot from my parents.  They were both good at relating to people and not being overly judgmental.  My mom was a wonderful force with the most beautiful light and I am so blessed to be able to say I am her daughter.  I couldn’t have asked for a better mom.

Cathi.

Easter 2019

Easter is a time of the ending of winter and the regrowth of spring. If you are Christian it is a time of rebirth, of triumph in the face of death. The long cold has succumbed to the warmth of the sun and the rain washes away all the dirt and detritus that has come before and to start fresh.

We put away the somber colours, open the windows and let out the stale air – we clean the house from top to bottom and put away the heavy outerwear. Soon the air will smell of fresh grass and leaves and the heady brief scent of lilac, my favorite flower.

I think about my past at celebrations such as these. Easter was one of the fun church events – my favorite was Good Friday where the church was draped in purple and we had the candlelight service, incense being swung down the aisle.

I grew up in what my mom called a mixed marriage – she was high Anglican, my dad Catholic. We attended both churches but were mainly Anglican back then.

I left church many years ago and I’m not really religious in the traditional sense: I liked being in the choir and the music but even as a child I had trouble with being asked to suspend my free will to abide by rules that seemed remarkably unfair to women.

I live my spiritual life quietly and in my own way. I’m fortunate that my parents raised me in both their different styles but each one loved me enough to know that the right path for me was the one that I chose to live, the one they hoped would make me happy. There’s been some pretty deep dips in my life for sure, however I am happy that I did have the strength of will and the resolve to live my life the way I thought best – not just for myself but for my own little circle such as it is.

I am grateful that my father and I were so close for so many years until he passed in 1995. So while times like Easter remind me of what I no longer have it also brings back flashes of when I was small wearing fancy Easter dresses with white gloves and wide brimmed hats that blew off in the wind; later, of he and I singing together after the dinner he’d cooked – usually ham and pineapple – and sipping a glass of wine.

My mom’s relationship to me was more subtle because my path led me to be autonomous and that meant working full time while raising children, living 3 other places with demands of life that meant trips for work and staying at her place or going out for dinner, long telephone conversations and letters and cards sent by mail.

My long good bye for her came about four years ago when it was not possible to talk on the phone anymore and letters could no longer be written or read by her. So I treasure with all my heart a letter she wrote to me for Valentines Day 2014 where she told me how proud she was of me. I’ve photocopied it and scanned it and after 5 years in my purse, I put the original away for safekeeping.

My mom was always amazed how she could create such different daughters: one fair and one brunette, one traditional and one “mod” as my aunt used to call me, both of us mothers ourselves.

Time can steal our health, our eyesight, our hearing, our minds. But what time cannot steal is the love that parents have for their children.

As a child I knew comfort in their words and their arms; as an adult as a friend and confidante to both. I am so glad to be the progeny of these two remarkable people. So as the days pass by and I myself grow older, I remember that there is nothing that can ever take away the one thing that brought me here to begin with: my parent’s love. I can no longer converse with either of them but I do, in quiet moments, in my heart.

And so my Easter message for 2019 is this: A parent’s love is everlasting, no matter where your path will lead you. The love lives on in your children and your children’s children and beyond. There is no one and nothing that can ever truly remove the love a parent has for their children and it is the passing forward of this to our own that is eternal. All that came before us lives in our cells. As such we are the embodiment of creation and light from the love our parents, and our parent’s parents, through time immemorial to the future. Long past the days where we are remembered , the light lives on.

Happy Easter everyone.

Let’s Be Civil

My mom taught me that no matter who or what someone was, you never say nasty things to people or treat them badly or make them feel like they don’t belong, especially if they are family. If they are too difficult, well, you keep your space but you don’t exclude them, make them feel “less than” or be cruel to them. It doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat, but it does mean that even if you don’t get along you treat them with respect. I’ve tried to live up to that in my life – it isn’t always easy. It’s called civility. I wish more people were like that.#letsbecivil

Sunday Snow

20190101_155614

Headstones are wearing winter caps
Trees weighed down by yesterday’s snowfall
Have branches bowed to the ground
Honouring one very rotund squirrel
Happily munching on oats for the deer
In the early Sunday sunshine.

Ghosts and Ancestors, a Farewell to 2018

I started writing this on the eve of Christmas Eve, a little earlier than my usual New Years Eve missive and that’s fine.  I thought I’d take some time and really think through what I want to say because this past year and a half have been hard for me.  Not long ago Jim and I were in the car and it was a sad day for us because we had just lost our old dog but as we drove the sun was shining and rays of light were beaming through the clouds and Jim says, “It feels like we’ve turned a corner today.”  I agreed, it was just a feeling but it did seem like we’d entered a new phase or something.  I don’t know why but I hope it’s true.  We’re due for a bit of good I think.

More than anything I have really felt the fact that I’m over 50, though physically and mentally I don’t.  Still, the world doesn’t operate on how you feel, it operates on what it sees and yes, I’m sorry to say I do look a bit like your basic middle aged lady.  The days of doctors telling me I really should gain weight are long since over.  There’s an entire essay on being 50 begging to be written someday soon, so for now here’s just a bit of what’s been on my mind.

Being 50 is a lot like being a teenager.  Seriously.  The hormone changes that usher you into your next half century is similar to 13:  you have mood swings, you feel weepy sometimes, angry other times, a little lost and awkward.  You feel invisible.  Powerless.  Not always, but enough. I don’t know when exactly I started feeling that way but taking an early retirement for a few months when I turned 50 was probably it.  That and menopause.  I remember my dad going through something similar and me doing my twenty-year-old best to reassure him that he wasn’t worthless, that people did want him and there were still opportunities.  My dad was fatalistic about things though so no matter what I said often he felt he was on the downhill slide to oblivion.

That he died at aged 63 isn’t lost on me, and perhaps that weighs more on my mind than it should.  What I also remember is that my paternal grandmother died at age 50 and my maternal grandmother at age 61.  I look at those 3 people who lost their lives to cancer and I know that even though the two grandmothers died more than 50 years ago, only one would have possibly survived longer today.  My mom’s mom died of the same type of tumour that Gord Downey had – only she died a few weeks after VE day.  I like to think that I take after my mom in this; at 99 she is still with us, though she is lost in dementia these past few years.   She, like her sister who lived to 86 or her grandfather who lived into his 90s has the good genes.  I cross my fingers and hope I do too because most of the time I feel like there just isn’t enough of it to do everything I want to.  And I don’t know how time has sped by so fast.  I don’t want to admit it, but maybe I am getting older.

The other night I watched Bruce Springsteen on Broadway.  Wonderful autobiographical piece from an artist I truly admire.  He’s an icon of my generation and I remember my friend Russell’s wife Robin – a New Jersey girl herself – wore a black arm band for days after he married his first wife.  Now Russell is another one who never made it beyond 50; it was such a shock to me when he died (I was in my early 20s) that I became ill for several weeks and still have the allergies that cropped up after I got over the walking pneumonia.  Death was not a secret to me, my mother being so much older I was forever being taken to funerals with her mostly I think for the company and because I was brave enough to do it.  But this one oh how it broke my heart.  To this day I miss him.  He had so many plans for the great day he could retire and write those funny stories he was so good at.  I wish I’d kept a copy of the ones I’d typed up for him.  Life was more complicated when we were dealing with IBM typewriter balls and white out and carbon paper.  It really was that long ago.   But it was also only yesterday.

Bruce Springsteen has a part in his show where he’s describing sitting at a table with his father. He’s expecting his first child and his father has come to him to set their relationship on a new footing.  He said we have family who are ghosts – they’re just names who have no lasting effect, and we have ancestors.  These are the people whose influence is profound and lasts for generations – hopefully in a good way – and that’s what we should aspire to be.  I have made sure that my children know my father even though he died when my daughter was small and my son was born after.  My dad was a complicated man, and it’s too easy to focus on what was difficult.  What I want them to know is how smart, charming, funny and handsome he was.  He admitted that he wasn’t the world’s best father but he was a best friend for 20 years.  Some of my happiest memories are the two of us singing together.  It’s funny, singing in the choir with my mother is also one of my favorite memories.

I love researching my ancestry because for me, I grew up in a family divided and there was my mom’s side of the family and my dad’s side and I was placed firmly in the camp of my dad’s side from birth because of how I look.  I am not even remotely blonde so there we have it.  Me, I like to think I come from both sides of the family and that both sides have merit.  They’re both mostly Irish though from different sides of the religious battle and I grew up both. I walked away from that a long time ago.

Faith should never be used a weapon.  I’ve spent way too much mental effort trying to figure out how to be true to myself and please others when the reality is I can’t.  I want to be an ancestor but my creeping fear is that really I’m not.  It’s hard knowing that somewhere I crossed the Rubicon between belonging and not.  So be it.  A little bit of misunderstanding can go a long, long way and sadly, it morphs which is what has happened and since no one wants to hear the truth from the person who lived it, it is what it is.  Still hurts a bit though.  My mom and I always got along well; she understood why I’ve got the life I have and was accepting… so … yeah.

My mom. Definitely an ancestor.  A lot of who I am is because of how she raised me and by that I mean in a very good way.  She had two degrees and was a career woman when my friends’ moms were all at home; in fact she was the main breadwinner and married a man 13 years her junior.  She started her family when her contemporaries were becoming grandparents.  She lived in several places around the world and she traveled Canada. She made sure to take one of us with her on those trips.  She was always compassionate and accepted people for who they are.  I like to believe I learned that too.

One of the hardest things in the last 5 years has been the loss of the compassion and concern of my mother.  I miss our hour long phone calls where we’d talk about everything.  In me she knew she could tell me stuff when she worried how others would react and I appreciated her telling me those things.  She didn’t always like my decisions but she always understood me.  I feel a little adrift without that to be honest, but here we are.  I am fortunate indeed to have had her as long as I have even if I’m not in a position to visit right now since I’m not close by anymore.

In the last 5 years I feel like I’ve lost so much that things have to turn around.  Really.  We’ve seen the passing of all of our animals to various forms of old age (3 cats and a dog), Jim’s mom and his cousin, 1 pre-teen best friend and a 20 year friend of mine, my former mother-in-law.  For most of last year I had to exist on about 35% of my pay which was a whole special kind of fun.  Selling my jeep that I couldn’t afford to keep fixing.  My children are grown which is a good thing but it also means there’s a huge part of my life that’s done now, and it’s hard not to feel a little irrelevant.  Family rifts have gotten deeper and wider.  All of this is stuff that is outside of my control.

So going forward I need to concentrate on what makes me happy regardless.  That means not worrying about the unchangeable, of missing things I can’t get back, of feeling like I don’t belong.  I belong wherever I am, and if people don’t always understand me, that’s fine too.  The people who truly know me are the ones who matter.  The ones who know that I’m a writer first, a painter, a singer song-writer; the little girl who could be found up high in trees is still up high on ladders fixing things and under cabinets installing sinks or building pallet furniture.

Since I can’t change the past or erase unhappy memories, for 2019 I’m going to start my year with gratitude.  I am grateful for my little house, the big-boat van that stills runs, I have my children,  I have my partner of 16 years now, I have a regular pay cheque,  I have my health, I still have a mom on this Earth, I have my gifts and I have a little hope.  That is most of all what matters.

Take care in this new year, and please people live your life with compassion.  Now more than ever we need to put aside our differences and embrace our truths.  The divisions we see are mainly manufactured for somebody elses’ gains, not yours.  So how about making this the year we listen and we treat each other with kindness and respect.  You don’t have to always understand why people behave the way they do, but you can’t expect them to live it your way either just because what you do suits you.  Remember that.

À la prochaine,

Cathi

©Catherine M. Harris 31/12/2018