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

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