My Life in Paintings

Here’s my 2018 CBC contest non-fiction entry – didn’t make the cut but here it is for you to read and decide for yourself whether it’s a worthy essay.  Enjoy 🙂


MY LIFE IN PAINTINGS

There’s a painting on an easel in my living room right now.  It’s half finished.  A little boy is splashing a skipping rope in puddles in our driveway and the splashes are flying up into the air.  I love the photo it comes from, and that young fellow is my son fifteen years ago.  I started the painting last fall for a contest then life got in the way.  It hurts to continue right now and that’s why the brush got put down.  My son is grown and living elsewhere.  I will finish it though, regardless of whether he’s around or not.  I am his mother after all, and nothing can diminish or erase the fact that I have a son I love beyond measure because I am his mother, no matter how old or distant he is.

 

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I have a painting in my spare room that is leaning on the wall, sitting on a shelf.  It’s big – 18×24 – and it’s a portrait of my mother.  It’s pretty much finished but it hasn’t got a frame.  Someday soon I plan to put a frame on it; it’s expensive so that purchase has fallen to the bottom of the list for years.  This painting I made for my mom at her request – she liked a photo that was taken of her while she was visiting a cousin in B.C.

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My mom loves to travel.  I was going to say loved but I won’t because she’s still with us.  She’s almost 99 and is in a nursing home, a small shadow of herself brightened by occasional glimmers of memory.  This painting though, she liked it except for one thing:  her chin is too long.  So here it is in my house, many years after she asked and long since forgotten.  She was right. Her chin is a little too long so I will fix that and frame it and put it on my wall.  It kind of makes me sad to work on it at the moment so I haven’t yet.  But I will.  I promise.  It’s also the last portrait I completed, mainly because I haven’t been asked again but also because I discovered it’s hard to make a portrait perfect enough to suit other people.

jen&kidspainting

 

 

 

 

I say this because when I was single I used to visit my young nephews (I had two then) fairly frequently and I took a lot of pictures at that time.  One photo I really liked was my sister in a chair with the baby in her arms and the oldest at her feet reaching up.  Kind of Madonna and Child if you will.  So I did an acrylic painting of that photo.  It took me a few months and then I had it framed in glass and wood.  At the time I thought I’d done a good job and gave it to her for Christmas.  She didn’t like how I made her legs look so that was that.  I have no idea what happened to it.  The thing is that’s probably the best portrait I’ve done and you know, it was a sweet moment in time.  I hope someday she comes across it and realizes that – if she still has it after several moves and all this time.

In my basement I have a painting that I call 26.  It is the only self-portrait I’ve done and I was newly married when I did that.  It’s me in a summer dress with a pattern I loved, sitting in a hanging swing in the gazebo of my ex-husband’s mother’s cottage in New Brunswick.  What’s not in the picture is the guitar on the floor – I had gone there for a bit of space and to play my guitar which I did a lot in those days.  I used to write songs and work out the chords for favourite tunes then I’d record them and give copies to people who wanted one which at the time was pretty much only my dad.

26

I appreciated the colour of the trees and the wood and my dress so for fun I put my 35mm camera on a beam and took a few timed exposures.  One photo stood out so I painted it.  This one I put on show in Mississauga once.  The only comment I got was “Why is this called 26?”

It lives in my basement because it’s big and it’s me and maybe if I had a larger house I’d find a wall to put it on but for right now it feels a little self-aggrandizing to hang it somewhere prominent.  Regardless, I like it.  I think I looked my best around that age.  It’s a nice reminder.

I had one painting come back to me.  This one doesn’t have people in it but it does have trees.  It’s quite large and it is of an entrance way to Apfeldoorn Het Loo castle at the end of a long archway of trees – the play of shadow and light and the arching branches were striking, and this is one photo I have from the time when my aunt took me on a National Art Centre trip to Holland and Belgium.  Auntie traveled often and this was the only time she took me on one of her trips.  She usually took my mother but for this one she knew I’d appreciate the outstanding artwork in the Netherlands. Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists. I was in my early 20’s and I had had a horrible year.

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A dear friend died suddenly and a few months later I came down with walking pneumonia so between the two I was emotionally and physically knocked flat.  Auntie thought this would make me happy and she was also pleased that I was old enough to travel with her.  I gladly went and the trip was just what I needed; it was wonderful to spend all this time with her getting to know her in an environment experiencing something we both had in common:  a love of art.

When we came home I made her a photo album of our trip and for Christmas I gave her the framed painting of Apfeldoorn.  She proudly hung it over her bed – she collected original artwork and displayed it all over her apartment so for me that meant a lot that she liked it that much.  That painting stayed there for a few years but it was also at this time her health started declining and she only went on a few trips after the one with me.

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She died in 2000, and sometime after that I was given back the photo album and the painting with the mat still there but oddly, the outer frame is missing.  That’s okay, it still looks good.  It spent 10 years over the top of a stairway in my house in Arnprior, and now faces a door in my little bungalow in Fredericton.  It reminds me of a person who was important to me, and of a time of my life just before I got married.

Just as important though are the sketches of paintings not yet done.  One is a sketch I did of my daughter as a baby and I have to laugh because its very existence is much like an essay I started writing back then about life as a new mother: it ends mid-sentence after about three paragraphs.  I haven’t tried to finish it because you know what?  That’s what being a new mother is all about, this not enough time to do anything.

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I also have a sketch of Grammie-great.  I promised to paint it for my daughter someday because Grammie-great (her great-grandmother on her father’s side) simply adored her.   She died when my daughter was four and I think she’s her guardian angel. I will do this one soon, now that she is grown.

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I’ve fallen behind in my paintings of people: my dad, my daughter, my spouse.  I’m just looking for the right moment in time and the right inspiration to come.  I may be old and white-haired by that time but hey, that’s what retirement is for isn’t it?  I think George Bush Senior would agree.

My latest printed photo album ends in 2004.  With the advent of digital cameras I now literally have nearly a decade and a half of thousands of images that if I don’t print them or something they will be lost in time.  I’m not alone in this certainly.  A painting can last forever though.  Why not put the really special moments on canvas in a way that maybe will long outlast me?  They might wind up in a dump somewhere, sure, but I hope when the day comes and I’m not here, that for at least one or two somebody will say: “Hey, I like this.  Let’s put it up on the wall.  Who did it?”

Carleton Park at Dusk

“Oh, it was Great-great-grandma.  Cool, eh?”

(c) Catherine M. Harris, 2018.  All rights reserved.

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1967

Well, I didn’t make the long list again for the CBC Creative Non-Fiction contest, but that’s okay, that means you get to read this now.  Here’s my essay on some of my memories of 1967.  It was an incredible time to be 5 in the capital of Canada.


1967

My dreams twirled in front of me dancing like the minnows I caught on the end of my fishing line the year I was five.  I’d spend my days in tomboy glory, my little blonde beagle Cookie that my dad bought me running by my side.  My bicycle was my trusty steed riding me to adventures unknown, or maybe to freezies at the corner store.  I was a bit of a free-range child I will admit.  We lived in a two bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a building very close to the shores of the Rideau River on what is now called old Ottawa South.

In the morning after breakfast of the typical 1960s sugary cereal the dog and I would climb out the window and meet up with our friends in the grounds at the back.  My friends were mostly boys because boys did fun things like fishing and climbing trees.  If a stranger asked me if I was a boy or a girl, I’d say boy.  My long hair had been cut short by this time and I did look like one.  It was a fun change from the frilly dress gloved and hatted girl I would be on Sunday when attending church with my family.  Tea parties weren’t for me; I melted my Barbies on the radiator just to see what would happen and while my dad insisted I wear the pretty dresses he bought for me when he visited, my mom let me be who I wanted to be, which in that year was Stefan.  We lived just us three, my mother, sister and I in the apartment.  My dad lived in an apartment near Rideau Street.  Cookie was a birthday present from him.

On the weekend when he would take my sister and me out we often wound up at the Mayflower Restaurant on Elgin; it had undergone a renovation and I remember it had a colourful maple leaf in tile on the front of the counter where there were stools.  It was put there in honour of the 1967 centennial in Ottawa.

The centennial was a really big deal for Canada, and certainly for Ottawa.  It was an exciting time to be a child, there were numerous parties and celebrations and in addition to that, there was Expo 67.  So many things happened that year for me that I can truly say that this was the first mostly full year I can remember.  A lot of it is in glimpses:  playing on my aunt’s piano in her living room in her apartment upstairs in the same building we lived in.  Standing in line at Dairy Queen on Bank Street near the Mayfair theatre.  Being lectured by a policeman after my friends and me, playing with a Coke bottle accidently threw it through a store window.  Oops.

Some of these are funny:  there was a grassy area on Elgin Street close to where the National Arts Centre was being built.  Ottawa, tourist mecca that it is, was teeming and I was totally enthralled with the colorful fun clothing people wore at that time.  Walking past there one sunny summer day, I saw a guy dozing on the lawn, his curly long red hair flowing behind him.

When I think back I remember a lot of music. I was frequently at my aunt’s where she played the piano often and very well; she had been a concert pianist and played for the precursor of CBC radio during a mine disaster up in Northern Ontario all night one time I was told.  I loved it when she played her version of Onward Christian Soldiers, full of fierce chords and trills, it always made me laugh.  The Beatles were huge at that time and I remember sitting with a baby sitter in a cafeteria somewhere – they had the radio playing the Beatles and they were excitedly talking; one weird thought I had was seeing one of the girls’ hair – it was blonde at the bottom with a couple of inches of dark at the roots and I wondered if that’s what my mom meant when she said blonde hair goes dark over time.  I was a strange child.

My mom had friends who lived in Montreal and had a cottage in the Laurentians.  I remember her excitement at us being invited to their place for a week or two so that we could go to Expo 67 and then to the cottage.  I loved riding the train so not knowing what an Expo was I still loved the idea of travelling by train to Montreal and being able to swim in a lake maybe, now that I could swim.

Being able to swim was actually a fairly recent development for me at the time; my mother loved to swim and grew up spending summers on the Rideau River at the cottage her father owned.  In memory of his youth in PEI he hand built a lighthouse for the kids to play in and change their clothes.  So when we moved to the apartment building we spent many an hour at the indoor pool my sister and me splashing around, my mom doing the breast stroke and encouraging us.  My sister tended to be a bit of a bully sometimes like older siblings can be; one day while swimming she pushed me under and held me there.  I fought and managed to kick myself away from her grasp; then I realized: hey, I’m swimming!  I was underwater and knew just what to do.  Mean as it was, that action was just what a four year old me needed for it all to click.  To this day I love swimming underwater; I even dream of it.  It’s so peaceful there.

Expo 67 wasn’t my strongest impression of that trip to Montreal.  Oh I do remember it; the Habitat Pavilion intrigued me and I was totally amazed by just how many people were there.  I hadn’t been anywhere with that many people before.  There was an electric sense of something incredible, something important going on.  There was music, lots of music, and food of all kinds to try.  It was fun.

What I remember most of that vacation was the cottage in the Laurentians.  I wish I could remember the name of that man and his wife, they were very kind and the man walked around the grounds with me talking and showing me stuff.  We had this conversation about his toenail and how they froze it and pulled it out.  I was fascinated.  I thought he meant they held ice cubes on his toe and I didn’t have the nerve to ask him why.  I just was intrigued by the fact that nails could come off.  One thing that really stood out for me was their old hand crank party line telephone.  It was the real thing – you held the ear trumpet in one hand and spoke into the mouth piece on the phone body, and you cranked a handle to get the operator.  You knew who the call was for by the number of rings.  Ring ring pause ring ring – well, that was two rings and it wasn’t theirs so you didn’t answer it.  Except, with a sly smile, our host showed me that if you quietly took the ear piece off the hook and held your hand over the mouth piece, you could listen in on somebody else’s conversation!  It was our little secret, this conspiratorial thing between us because we knew if anyone else had caught us listening in we’d be in trouble.  It saddens me to think that if he’s still alive, he’d be well into his 90s.

I could ask my mother, she is still with us.  However going on 98 her mind is lost in a world of its own; she spends her days in bed mostly, sometimes lucid more often not.  Now is not the time for questions.  Perhaps I don’t want to know the answer anyway.

As we settle into the year that Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary I won’t be at Parliament Hill on July 1st.  I’m not in Ottawa anymore. For 1967 I was in that crowd on that hot summer day. It was my dad’s 36th birthday and I sat on his shoulders as we listened to the Queen and later watched fireworks.  My mom and sister were there too of course.

My dad and my mom did get back together shortly after the apartment got flooded and after I lost my fishing pole forever as punishment for biking downtown by myself.  But like many families, in the 1970s ours didn’t last and that was the right thing to do for us.

My dad, like so many in my half century on Earth is no longer here.  So for now I think I’ll be that small girl on his shoulders on a historical day in a wonderful place for just few minutes more in my mind.

Happy sesquicentennial, Canada.

I’m a Mother of the Bride and This is My Story.

What do you say when your sweet little girl, the one you still think of like this

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is suddenly a quarter of a century old and marrying the love of her life?  Well, you write a speech telling them to basically not listen to advice because nobody knows how things are when you are alone together and nobody has the right to tell you what to think, what to feel, or how to live your life.  Then you tell them to always honour the relationship because that’s the foundation of your new family.  Never forget the reason why you’re together in the first place and it will all be fine, I said.

the happy couple

The Happy Couple

 

Not living in the same province limited my ability to be a hands-on mom with the pre-wedding preparations but that’s okay; that’s what her friends are for.  I did not (I hope) become part of a narrative of the dreaded mother-of-the-bride.  Yeah, that evil mom-in-law type, that’s not me.

I still believe that the world needs more compassion, and that you don’t always have to like what people do with their lives but you should try to love unconditionally.  I don’t claim to do that.  I do claim to be able to share my life with an ex-husband and a common-law spouse and we all get along so well it didn’t hurt to share the same house for two years when it was necessary, and it didn’t hurt us to have everybody be in the wedding party. My daughter and her husband I am so very happy to say are very caring people who open their world to people who treat them and others nicely.  It’s not a lot to ask of people is it?

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When you have a baby your world suddenly changes.  Oh you think you’ll be that cool, calm collected mother with the full-time job and the well scheduled kids classes and the clean house and the well tended couple life with your husband.  You never think that the birth may be nothing like you imagined, that teeny tiny babies are utterly scary and it’s you they’re counting on to literally stay alive, that you’ll go for months or even years without a full night’s sleep, that most of the shoulders of your shirts will have spit-up, that you won’t have a hot cup of coffee for weeks if not months, that a shower will be considered a luxury and you wish you weren’t either a screaming meanie or a crying wreck because of the aforementioned lack of sleep.  Oh, and there’s nothing sexy at all about a mother of a new born who is wearing the extra strength ladies’ umm…stuff…and who has those in her bra cups too and the dark circles under your eyes aren’t from your mascara running after you being out dancing all night.  Yup.  Reality hits in a really big way when you have a child.

My beautiful daughter is my first born so she got the pleasure of all of my experiments and all of my parental fears.  When you’re having a baby you read as much stuff as you possibly can and think you know it all.  People are only too happy to give you bountiful amounts of useless and sometimes downright dangerous advice (start labour on a late baby by using a knitting needle?  uh…pass).  Perfect strangers think it’s a-ok to pat your belly and marvel and tell you either how small or how big you look.  Acquaintances will tell you wonderful things like, “Oh you’re pregnant!  Thank God!  I thought you were getting fat!”  Guess what, well-meaning elevator person from 26 years ago:  I am fat, bwahahaha!  Mmm, just a little bit.  Which is something you can never say about pregnancy.  But I digress.

The thing is that when you have a baby, oh how the days are long and when it’s 2 a.m. and you’re in a rocking chair singing “All My Life’s a Circle” for the umpteeth time that night it doesn’t seem remotely possible that a blink of an eye later, this loud red-faced doll-like person will be the lovely lady in the white dress marrying the man of her dreams.

Funny thing though.  Next you know you’re once again pregnant and your sweet little doll isn’t a baby anymore, she’s a young child and an older sister!

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As a mom you don’t realize just how much your baby has grown until you have another one.  One more step on the ladder of independence for your little one, one more reminder for the parents how quickly a child really grows.

We had the million-dollar family: a boy and a girl.  There is a bit of a difference between them – 5 years – and there’s good things about that but she did miss out on having a little person in the family close in age to her, so she filled that with her friends all the while loving the fact she had a baby brother.  As a mom who worked full time, that 5 year difference let me have one child in school and one in daycare which is a little better and I think it also gave me a little bit of an easier time with not having to chase after a toddler while tending to a newborn and my little toddler was a busy girl indeed.

She would walk around our little block every night saying hi to friends along the way, me running behind.  I was in fantastic shape in those days.  One of those street friends of mine became her after-school babysitter when she was old enough to be full time and take the school bus.  One of her daughters was the same age, and as it happens was in the same grade.  This cute little girl was my daughter’s maid-of-honour.  My loving daughter never lets a friend go unless she has to.  How wonderful is that?

The thing about being a parent is that you think you know your children.  You do but you don’t really. Think for a minute:  how well did your parents know you?  Part of growing up is doing your best to break away from your parents because that is a healthy thing to do.  Your job as a parent is to slowly but surely lead your child into experiences like school and various after school activities that foster their self-worth, build on their strengths and foster the growth of their indepence.  You hope that that indepence is done in a good way and not rebelliously with illicit substances and unsavoury friends but let’s face it:  the more you as a parent tell your children to stay away from certain things and people that’s exactly what they want to do.  So I tried always not to be pushy but I hope more informative and let them understand what the consequences can be in a gentle way.  Or I could have just been another mom with the speeches.  I can’t say, I wasn’t in their shoes.

What I can say is that in a certain way I was in their shoes.  Life at home by the time son was 4 wasn’t too great.  Mom and dad just didn’t get along too well when they were home together which wasn’t often unfortunately.  Mom grew up in a home of anger and scary things and swore not to do that to her children.  Try as she might, this was the one thing she couldn’t fix and so after two years of depression and worried about the future and what her children were learning from their parents’ behaviour mom called it a day on the marriage.

This was a dark time but if I can say anything in my defence and be understood, I truly didn’t want my children growing up in anger and silence in between the anger and I wanted them to know how men and women treat each other with respect.  What we were doing wasn’t that, and we were both to blame.  At the end of the day both of us were good parents who happened to be much better as friends.  But it was hard for the children, I do know that.  It hurt terribly to see them hurt.  Daughter said her words of wisdom and did her best to make us all happy because that’s just how she is.  She made new friends in her new home alongside her current friends at what was now dad’s place.

A year later, Jim entered our lives after a long friendship through an online creative persons group.  A phone call after 9/11 somehow turned into love after an opportunity to meet in person the next spring.  He came up to Canada for the summer and by September we knew that we were so good together that we had to try to be a blended family.  It’s hard for children to understand and I will say that for the most part they were accepting of Jim.  My family not so much for religious reasons initially but we were 500 km away so there was that space to keep things civil.

I had been trying for a few years (since my father took ill in the mid-1990s) to go back to my hometown and after one false start in 2002, in 2003 my boss phoned me up and said he needed me in Ottawa was I still interested in going?  Was I?  Yes!

My children were 12 and 7 at the time and I did something that was one of the hardest things a mother can do:  I gave her the choice to stay where she was or come with us to Ottawa.  I did this because I know my daughter.  Yes, I do realise that I said earlier you don’t know your children but bear with me.  I was 12 once and my family was not in a smiley happy place at that time.  I had no voice.  At age 13 I was in very bad shape emotionally, and at age 14 I gave up and ran away.  I didn’t want my daughter to ever feel so trapped and unlistened to that she felt the need to do something like that.  My family will never forgive me for giving her that choice, but then again, read the previous sentence.  I would not do that to my children; daughter was old enough and very much wise enough to be given the choice.

What I honestly didn’t know was whether she’d choose Ottawa or stay.  She came with us on the house hunting trip, discussions were made about what school the kids would go to if we moved close to my family, and then before the final house hunting was arranged daughter chose to say with dad and her friends.  I will someday write more about this but I will simply say that I felt proud to give my daughter a voice that I never had at that age and her choice was her following her heart.  Her heart is very big and so many people were in her hometown, not my hometown.  So for all the people at the wedding who were scratching their heads about what Jim said about us moving, that was it.

We moved, many road trips were taken between Ottawa and Mississauga and life went on.  Then came the crash of 2008.  Erin’s dad’s job situation was not as good as it had been, he had to sell the house.  On to Ottawa and a rental duplex after the start of what was her grade 12.  The semester system was not what she had in her high school so she couldn’t go to a school that had the semester system.  That ruled out the school in mom’s area and most of the schools in Ottawa.  But there was one that would let her go.  The beginning of December she started in the middle of a city bus strike in an Ottawa winter (kinda scary for a GTA girl) and there in the library was this tall friendly boy who offered to help with her homework and the rest is history.

I like that as her new Father-in-law said they’ve already moved more than 1300 km in 7 years and they are just starting their lives.  A parent’s job is not to mold your child to be a mini-me (though when I was younger and skinnier we were forever being told how much we look alike) or to dictate their soul’s purpose.  I don’t know her soul’s purpose.  She does.  I am the the facilitator of her entry into the world, the rest is up to her.  And you know what?  If there’s anything I know about my daughter, it’s that she doesn’t make decisions lightly but once she does, she’s in it heart and soul.

As for my being a mom-in-law you know what?  I think I’ll just be me.  I’m not big on titles, they know I’m always there for them in whatever way I can be.

 

(c) 2016 Catherine M. Harris

p.s:

  1. I changed the wording in one part of “All My Life’s a Circle” to “all my roads have Bens” when my son was born.
  2. Somebody pointed out rather loudly in my reading at the wedding ceremony that I shouldn’t say “when I became a woman, I put away my childish things” because it wasn’t about me.  Yes, they’re right.  I was thinking of that piece as a singer because I change the gender in songs.  For readings, yeah, I shouldn’t have changed it.  Would’ve been nice if they hadn’t been so loud about pointing that out in the middle the ceremony though – just saying.
  3. My name really is Harris.  I overheard on part of the video of the wedding somebody telling someone who didn’t know me that my name is really Davies.  It’s not.  The law in Ontario when I was married was that as long as I was married I was allowed to use Davies but to officially change it I had to do go to court for that because I wasn’t born in Canada.  I didn’t.  When I got legally separated 15 years ago I had to turn in my marriage license and lost my legal right to call myself Davies.  Hope that clears things up.  Kinda makes me sad I even have to explain that after all this time though.
  4. Later on I would play Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” on the guitar because I loved the song, and because their dad and I both travelled a lot for work. Still brings a bit of tear to my eye when I play it.
  5. In my speech I referred to an essay I wrote about my own wedding.  Here’s the link: Our Wedding and Other Miracles.

 

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This is from a comic strip I started way back when.  My mother was there at the wedding, and it meant the world to all of us that she was there enjoying it.

 

Some Days I Wish Heaven Weren’t So Crowded

When I was born, it was kind of a miracle in a way because my mother never actually expected to have children.  And here I was, her second.  She was a month and ten days shy of 43 years old.  My dad was 31.  My sister was two years and five days old, and the very first words my newborn ears heard were:  Une belle petite fille!

My mom remembered those words from drifting in and out of the anesthetic that they used for the caesarean section.  In Canada, where my sister was born, they tried to make her keep her weight down because they thought her hips were too small for a regular birth but they tried.  It was a few months into that pregnancy when the doctor pronounced it impossible.  So my sister was the first caesarean, miracles both of us.  My mother was just so thrilled to be having babies at all, the how didn’t matter that much to her, just the ability to do so.

My mom was born in 1919.  I loved hearing her stories growing up – what a different world she knew and, as infuriating as it was sometimes to have really antiquated rules for girls applied to tomboy me, I honestly loved the stories I heard about people long gone, like the great-grandfather who took umbrage with cars in crosswalks and who swung his cane at them when they turned too close in front of him.  Of his mysteriously vanishing young wife.  Of her many aunts and great-aunts and her step-grandmother and the cousins and second cousins and the way that families at any given time could have three generations living with you.  People were born and died in their houses at the beginning of the 20th century.

I think that my mother’s generation was maybe the last one in our part of the world to truly feel how it is to have children who may not live past infancy and birth itself was very dangerous, and to truly understand death is a part of life.  Think of the incredible cemeteries that they had in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.  There’s benches and trees and magnificent statues; reflecting pools, huge tombs with soldiers sitting astride horses on top, fountains, those grandiose gestures meant for people to enjoy and to show the world how very much they loved their special people.  The dead were very much a part of their world, they were celebrated.

After the introduction of funeral homes, and the practice of encouraging mothers to have their babies in hospitals instead of at home the messiness of this birth and death business was removed from everyday life.  For the better part of the twentieth century this is how it was; life made sanitized and the harder parts removed from the everyday world.  We live longer too, so in a way death for people born from the fifties onward was a whole lot less normal.  I know adults who have never known a person who died.  I wonder how that’s even possible but it is.

The age difference with my mother meant that I grew up with people dying.  Some were more abstract – a cousin of my mother or a great-aunt or uncle I never knew.  My maternal grandparents died before I was born; I remember when my step-grandmother died but I don’t remember meeting her.  I think she lived in Toronto.  I was 9 months old when my paternal grandmother died.  I’m older now than she was when she passed.  My paternal grandfather got lost in some unknown to me disagreement or something because I only met him a couple of times in the last few weeks of his life – though I’m sure I did meet him as a baby I just don’t remember.  So the idea of grandparents were kind of abstract to me which is sad, because grandparents add a whole dimension and yet, I kind of had that with my mother and her living siblings and cousins and those blessed couple of great-aunts that I remember.

Great-aunt Mary was a tiny doll of a lady who had a real sense of spunk and independence; I remember visiting her in her apartment where she still lived well into her 80s.  I can still taste the wonderful shortbread cookies she baked.  They were heavy but I haven’t tasted any better since.  One thing I remember her doing was driving to where my grandfather had a cottage that he acquired in the 1920s I think. Her son sat in the passenger seat, just to be sure because she hadn’t driven on her own in a while, but she did fine.  The cottage was on the Rideau river near Osgoode I think and he hand-built a lighthouse.  I’m not sure if the cottage or the lighthouse are still there but they were when I was a child.  I remember her coming over and driving herself.  She’d bring a tin of those shortbread cookies and my mom would serve tea in proper teacups with saucers and have half-and-half cream in a creamer and a bowl of sugar cubes served with silver tongs to grip them with.

Great-aunt Mary told stories of driving in their model A back to Charlottetown in the summers and she was very fond of driving; this in a time when a woman behind the wheel was quite frankly frowned upon.  She didn’t care.  The wheels would come off and go flying into the field and the kids would run out and find it hoping not to get too close to a bull out to pasture.  I forget whether it was she or my Great-aunt Eva Smith who really wasn’t a relative but my grandmother’s best friend I think – but one of them would whistle as they drove and it was quite something I’m told.

I remember them both and I remember when they died; I was a teenager and they were both very old, Mary was 90 I think and Eva about the same.  Eva was tall and thin, Mary tiny and a mom so she had a womanly body.  She was so small that she was buried in what looked like a child’s coffin to me and that one funeral over many stands out because of that.  I dearly loved her and I was there on my own accord – I think I was 17 or so.  Eva died before that and she had some amazing things that wound up in our basement.  For a while I had a brownie camera of hers in my room.  I forgot to take it when I moved out so it was sold I think but she also had items like a teapot from occupied Japan, and an ancient wrought iron stove that went to a museum in Ottawa.  I feel fortunate indeed to have known that living history to a time now long gone.

My mother is 96 now, going on 97.  I believe she’s the last of her generation left in our family and she leads a simple life with my sister.  She is not spending her last years in a nursing home, she has been happy that the need hasn’t been there for her to do that.  Her mind is still sharp, her health while typical for a geriatric person is not how she has seen so many of her contemporaries see their last days.  She is happy that my sister has made sure she had a place to live in her home and she has been very comfortable there.  It’s also nice to know that people are going back to keeping different generations of a family in a home and having babies at home if there’s no reason for concern.  People are dying at home more often, in palliative care in a familiar place surrounded by people they love as it should be.

I started writing this on April 9th on the 21st anniversary of my dad’s passing, and one day after one of my mother-in-law’s passing.  She went in her sleep after gradually failing the past few months, at home in her bed, her two living daughters close by.  Gramma Dot everyone called her and she was a lovely lady, very caring.  At 92 she was a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.  Like most women she had difficulties and happy times and I think in all honesty how long people live often relates to their view on life.  She took things as they happened and dealt with them as best she could.  I don’t think she dwelled too much on the past and it’s in enjoying what’s around you and accepting people for who they are that I think is the way to live to be a nonagenarian.

Though she lived far away I did have the pleasure of visits and visiting and always every phone call ended with an I Love You that was guaranteed to make me blush and giggle because in my upbringing we just never said that.  I’m so happy she did that though and it was a bit of joke between her and her son how I react to words of affection. That’s okay though; it means a lot to me that anyone wants to say that to me at all.

A sensitive person told me once that I had quite a crowd with me of people who have passed.  I do.  All of my life I’ve been going to funerals and many times it was for people I barely knew.  It was just expected that when someone you knew died, you go, and my mom preferred someone go with her so if there was no one else I would.

As a young child I would look at these people in their coffins all waxy and powdered and somewhat strange.  Sometimes they wore these lovely dresses or suits and had flowers in their hands.  One I remember had the most amazing brooch on her neck that was blue and cream and one of the ones with a relief face and I wondered why someone would be buried with something so nice – didn’t she want her family to have that?  Sometimes I was bored and snuck out and looked at strangers lying out in a coffin but not often though.

I got involved in genealogy about ten years ago because there’s just too many mysteries unsolved and my mom was interested in what I dug up.  I liked telling her stuff and showing her things like her parents’ marriage certificate.  We discussed family members long gone and there were times she let slip a tear and said to me, “These were people I knew, Cathi.  I miss them.” That was my cue to stop with talking about the discoveries.

It’s hard.  It is.  And the older you get the more you know who are gone until if you have really good genes on your side, you’re one of the last.  And do you know who those who were born in this early 20th century were?  They are the babies of WWI soldiers or had family members in the war.  When they were born, the Spanish flu took even more people so soon after the Great War where our country lost 61,000 out of a population of 8,000,000.  630,000 people served.  That’s the equivalent of 4.5 million of our current population.  There was no family that wasn’t touched in some way.

This is the generation that were children in the roaring 20s, were pre-teens when the stock market crash happened, and teenagers during the Depression.

My mom remembers the symbols that the men who rode the rails left on picket fences to show what house was good for a meal.  Her mother kept a pot of soup on the stove to feed people to came to the door.  It was a time of milk in glass bottles delivered to your door by a milkman with a horse and carriage.  It was a time of iceboxes where blocks of ice were delivered wrapped in sawdust from squares cut out of the Ottawa River in the depth of winter.  Coal was delivered down a chute in your wall.  At night if the fire went out you would awake with your water frozen in your glass.  People took baths once a week, only floosies wore makeup except for a touch of lipstick, swearing was grounds for being expelled from school.  A telephone – if you had one – was a horn on a hook that you flicked and then you cranked the handle and got an operator if somebody wasn’t already on the line.  You knew someone was calling by the number of rings (your neighbour could be two short, you could be one long).  There was no penicillin, no insulin shots, Polio killed as did Tuberculosis.  When someone had cancer they died.  One aunt of my mother’s died in her early forties from ovarian cancer that spread to her pancreas and she died in my mother’s home as they were looking after her.  My mom made sure we knew about this incredible woman whose life was taken far too soon.

When we went to the cemetary sometimes my mom would stop by the resting place of a dear little friend who passed following an infection; she was ten or so.  It touched me that after all those years she still stopped to place a hand on the tombstone and say a quiet prayer.  Life was much more fragile back then.  And just when the Depression was easing its grip World War II started.  My mother’s generation either fought in it or was a sibling of or married to someone in it.  My aunt’s boyfriend and his best friend were killed when their tank was hit.  They were in Italy.  They saw so many of their contemporaries – their friends and family – wounded and killed and in all of this they carried on.

They saw more equality for women, they saw the introduction of such things as vaccinations and birth control; they saw the world move away from church being an expected thing to voluntary, to the easing of separation and divorce rules, to women having access to abortion and to society allowing single mothers to exist without explicit shame.  To women married or not working. To spaceships and men on the moon.  To an incredible number of technological advances that many just don’t know how to use.  Think VCRs, DVD players, cell phones, computers, microwave ovens.  The world is so very very different from the 1920s.

But, a printed book will always be book, and a pen and paper a way to communicate.  As long as there are grandchildren to set up the Skype or to send the emails if grandma can’t, there’s the bridge that unites.  A photo is still a photo, whether on a screen or in hand but in the hand is better for my mom, she likes to be able to just pick them up and look at them without having to turn an appliance on.

You know what?  Nearly one hundred years of progress later the wheel is moving back towards the way things used to be.  People are planting gardens and putting in wood stoves.  They’re trying to live more simply; more people are choosing to have their babies at home and fewer elderly are living in nursing homes when families have some support available.  We’re getting away from disposable everythings and fossil fuels and food that is more chemical than food, and it’s good.  I hope we haven’t lost too much now that the Greatest Generation has so few left to tell us how to do things.

My heaven is full these days and I don’t even want to think how many more will be there when I am my mother’s age, should I be so lucky to still be around.

Heaven just got a little more crowded yesterday, and this is my testimony for the Greatest Generation.

Farewell to Grandma Dot, and dad,  I will always miss you.

 

(c) Catherine M. Harris, April 9, 2016

 

 

 

The Golems of My Soul

For a long time an essay has simmered on my brain, bubbling up to the surface and when I put fingers to keyboard or pen to paper I freeze. Who am I to write this, I think? Who am I to feel the way I do? Seriously, there are far worse things in this world than the latest thing that set off my current round of depression.

Yes. I have depression. I’ve had it for years; perhaps for always. I don’t know because I do know that when I was old enough and bold enough to go seek help as a teenager I was told I couldn’t feel that and really, if they could just take everyone that they heard saying these things and put them all in the gymnasium you’d be so surprized who is there! But no, I couldn’t be depressed, I was too young for that. Precocious. That’s what I was. Too smart for my own good. Feeling sorry for myself. Yeah. And I think one of those people who would have filled that gymnasium would be my friend Heather with the curly blonde hair and those cool shaggy boots whose feeling sorry for herself led her to a hospital bed and never coming back to the school again. To this day I hope she came out okay. I don’t know. I may have been afraid to ask.

I have an antidote that if I’m not so far down that I just want to curl up on the couch and not think does help deal with the turmoil. I write stories. I pour those feelings into characters few people will read but I don’t care. I like to breathe life into those people the golems of my soul and if even one person likes them then it’s good. Or I play the guitar and sing but I don’t do that much – I did when living alone but not living alone means somebody will get bugged even if they say it doesn’t. So in peopleful state I sing quietly and quickly. I don’t write songs like I used to; that takes noise, quiet and much repetition without interruption.

I paint. I like painting because of the concentration it takes to find just the right colour in just the right spot and I have it do what my mind’s eye sees. But just as often the effort of thinking about putting pencil on canvas and canvas on easel and paint mixed onto just the right paintbrush and then find a safe place to dry and to clean up is too much. It’s a lot when the couch is quicksand and my legs are made of stone.

Anyone who knows me knows I love to laugh. I love to watch things that make me laugh, or read them, or write them though that’s a certain magic in itself that doesn’t happen every day. I pride myself in that I’m not a crier. And I not. Usually. I know I’ve crossed that razor thin line between maintaining and depression when I feel like crying and if I start and then I can’t stop. The last one and half days have been a torture at work for me because of that. So you see, this is what has led me to writing this essay right now. If I can’t stop crying for long at least I can take a deep breath and with kleenex close by let words flood instead.

I often don’t know exactly what started it but this time I do sort of. I’m tired, physically tired from a very busy time of year for me. What set me off though was learning I couldn’t have a day off to make a long weekend on a day I wanted because other people are going to be off and I could if I asked someone to switch their regular day off otherwise no. Not wanting to beg someone to have some time off and owe them a favour to me quite simply is a no. So I spent the rest of that day holding it back until I got in the car. I barely kept it together today; people asked me if I was alright. I’m not.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in my car. There’s been times when I would feel like crying when I got to a certain spot on the road; most recently was on the 417 towards Kanata. In Toronto it was the Yonge St. exit sign on the 401 collector lanes. Here it’s a new set of lights they just put in. Knowing where the stress switch flips doesn’t help solve anything.

What solved things before was leaving. I can’t do that right now, I have nothing but my salary to fall back on and it isn’t enough. I also know I’m likely never to get a real promotion ever so I have to do what it takes to get extra money and that means not rocking the boat and just taking it. I don’t want to have a part time job again; I honestly don’t have the energy for that but I may need to. It saddens me. Then my mind goes into that twist of why I am always the one looking after others and nobody doing for me? Which isn’t true really but you see where a mind can go when your particular mental ship is sinking on that day.

I find it ironic that when I start slipping down that slope it’s usually precipitated by feeling like I’ve been doing it all for nothing and what’s the point really? Then it leads to: if no one cares why should I? Then I remember an overdue bill or the squeaky brakes on the only working car and I’m feeling helpless. Because who do you turn to when you are the one people turn to? You don’t. So I either find something within myself to carry on or I become a shaking human blood sack of tears. Not pretty.

Okay so maybe I haven’t entirely lost my sense of humour yet. Actually though, humour for me (and from what I hear a good many real comedians) is that double sided coin of laughter or tears. It’s sometimes the only emotion that saves me from getting down so deep I can’t see the tiny white circle of light at the top of that well of empty I’ve fallen into.

I’ve gotten good over the years of finding ways of not tipping over the edge but when I do, getting myself back up. There’s been a couple of times it took time off (in two cases serious enough I quit, once on doctor’s orders) but it honestly depends on the situation, how long it’s been going on for and how trapped I feel. That’s an important distinction – if it’s a situation I can resolve I can start feeling hopeful again and plan something to fix things. If not, well, I have to live with the situation until I can and sometimes that is so so hard. The Toronto 401 days I was depressed for what I figure was two years at least. There are pictures of me curled up on the couch, exhausted and sad and having to be there for my kids.

Your mind goes to strange places when it’s gone on long enough. I remember thinking that on the 417 if I just kept going straight where the road bends hey, those bills would be paid. In Toronto I just prayed because I was a mom of young children and they were my inspiration for keeping one eyebrow up above the water enough to function in at least an autonomic way. The deepest I’ve ever been though was where I learned an important lesson.

I was fourteen and this was after I gave up on getting help. Things at home weren’t good and I was kind of an afterthought because I was capable of dealing with things but I still needed to be…I don’t know what I needed to be other than out of there. I stopped sleeping. I went I don’t know how long without sleeping a full night, nothing more than a light nap of a few minutes. There was nothing I knew I could take and the doctor didn’t believe me so I didn’t sleep. I got migraines a lot; when the aspirin didn’t work I’d hit my head on the wall to make the pain of the headache less than the pain on the outside of my head. It didn’t work but I think in a strange way it helped. I took to scratching my forearms with glass pieces so that when I felt empty inside I could feel something, anything at all. It came to a head when I got to the point where I couldn’t stop crying behind closed doors and I wondered why I should be using up air others could be breathing. It sounds strange typing this out but it’s true. I honestly thought that and I felt guilty about the breathing of somebody elses’ air.

Guilt plays a huge part of depression. You feel guilty for feeling sorry for yourself when there’s so many people so much worse off than you. You feel guilty for wearing those stupid short pants that you forgot to put in the donation bin after they shrank in the dryer; you feel guilty for saying that one thing to that one person (and it doesn’t matter who or when or what) and that loop plays and plays and the more you try to push the stop button the faster the loop plays and you can bury it but it comes back – sometimes twenty or forty years later and the guilt and embarrassment still feel like it was an hour ago. I’ve come to realize depression for me also stems from anxiety.

The situation when I was 14 culminated after a huge fight with my sister that literally sent me running out the door screaming and crying and her running after me. I was much more athletic than her so she got a workout that night and when I was done crying and running she led me back home. It didn’t change anything though. I realized there was nothing left. So I took a clue from my friend and swallowed all the pills I could find which were mainly aspirins and probably some simple vitamins (remember this was the mid-70s). It could have seriously damaged me but having had so many migraines what it did was make me feel high then I slept for a long time. And when I woke up I thought: shit, I can’t even do this right.

That night I prayed that I just be taken from this and I saw nothing but black. I was enveloped in an inky blackness so deep and tangible that the only comparison I have is a visit I had to a coal mine in Nova Scotia I took where they led us a mile down and turned off the lights. Darkness is tangible. It has substance and I was surrounded by it that night. But oddly enough I was conscious so I thought, wow, if this is what being dead is like it’s awfully lonely. And with that thought I decided then and there that if nobody else gave a damn about me then maybe I’ll give a damn about me. I set my course to getting the hell out of the house and to being on my own as soon as I could. And since I didn’t care, I took up smoking and discovering the joys of weed. I will say one thing: after that I smoked pot every day for a year. I did this because it dulled the pain and made me laugh. And to me, laughter is the spirit of life. So slowly, gradually and obviously surrepticiously, I came back to life.

After a year I got bored of smoking pot and then it became a rare occasion but you know what? It helped me finish high school and get on my feet when no one was willing to help me so in this case self-medication worked. I can say this without fear I hope because that was close to forty years ago, and medical marijuana is starting to be recognized as a helpful thing. I honestly believe that my year of living stoned saved my life. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, just-say-no tub thumpers.

I plotted my escape and eventually I did leave home, not long after I turned 17 and graduated from high school with grade 12 and part of my grade 13. There’s a story there but this isn’t the time for that.

I think the lesson that ‘if it feels like nobody else cares, I have to’ is important. That one twig of reality, of thinking how do I get myself out of this mess is how I’m still here on this plane of existence right now.

In the last two years two people I knew – one a fairly close long time friend – committed suicide. And it breaks my heart because I know how it is to be so far down that you can feel the blood rushing through your veins and you curse the fact that holding your breath only works for so long.

Feel that way long enough and you start to plot your escape and I remember thinking that not being a part of all of this nonsense felt so freeing. I would be freeing my family and friends from the burden of me. That everything it took to keep this bag of bones here wasn’t worth it, how good it would be for the world if I weren’t here. And I tell you – please listen people – that being on the other side of that sudden departure is awful. To lose someone suddenly is hard enough, to lose someone who you wonder what if I had answered that Facebook posting with something other than a joke, or what if I had reached out more when they stopped sending emails or calling…it never goes away. It doesn’t.

As for me right now, I think I feel a little better just writing this. I’m not bothering to put it anywhere other than here because the weirdness of being a writer is that the people closest to me never read what I write unless I scream at them to do it. Right now I’m done screaming; I still just want to cry. I have a long Easter weekend and I am purposely not doing anything or going anywhere. If I’m smart I’ll work on one of my novels or start that painting.

Whatever. There are things I can say and that is that in my family, depression is genetic. In my experience, drugs only dull feelings and don’t really help deal with them; sleeping pills aren’t healthy because you don’t dream on many of them. I don’t have an answer. I wish I did but I don’t. All I can say is hold on and try to smile, tomorrow often has the answer and if it doesn’t, the tomorrow after that could. Please just hold on.

You can come out of it. I promise, and I promise I will somehow straighten my current mess out too ’cause that’s what I do. And in the end, whatever else there’s some ink on paper that didn’t exist before today and that is a good thing.

Now breathe.

(c) Catherine M. Harris, 24-03-2016
All rights reserved.

Grandpeople

My parents' wedding 1959

My parents’ wedding 1959

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never knew my grandparents. Now, that’s not entirely true because I did meet my paternal grandfather a few months before he died when I was eleven or so. At the time I thought, wow, he is a smaller version of my dad with a bigger nose and who is that lady he lives with?

Like I said, I was about 11 or so. He died not long after. What I really regretted about that is that I grew up thinking he was dead like my other grandparents. I found out he wasn’t when my dad was told he was dying and it was now or never in terms of reconciliation. The first time I saw him was at his small apartment somewhere in downtown Ottawa; he was okay I thought and my sister and I were there and I was totally intrigued by this smaller version of my dad, he seemed so…well, nice. Why didn’t we know he was there? I still don’t know and I’m 53 now.  Some secrets live longer than the people that kept them.  My dad died in 1995, before my son was born.  To this day, I miss my dad.

When I grew older dad was my very best friend.  This was after the big split between mom and dad, and after he and I had that blow up where I gave him the teenaged choice of being a friend or nothing at all since I considered him a not so great father.  He chose friend.  I am eternally grateful for that choice, and I wish there had been such a successful choice between him and his dad.  Maybe I would have known my grandpa Harris.

I do remember there was this biggish lady around. I don’t know who she was but I guess she was his girlfriend. Whatever she was, I don’t really care. My grandmother died sometime after she held me in her arms as an infant shortly after my family arrived back from a posting in Europe. I was a baby, she was 50 and she didn’t live long after that. I do know she was happy she got to see me, especially because apparently I look exactly like her. I wish I knew. I have one photo of her and she’s looking at the floor. She was adopted and there were a whack of weird possible parentages for her, including an American actor from Vaudeville and something about part French or Indian or possibly Italian and her adopted mother was even weirder with her very loud parrot in the living room that scared the bejesus out of my dad and all anyone knew was something about a visit to Cornwall and that great-grandmother was married several times but there was no denying how Irish she was, given her accent and superstitions.  There was even speculation she was really the mom.  Regardless –

I am Irish, that much I know. From my mother’s side and my dad’s side the most of it is Irish. Yes, I’m Irish, I’m the best of the Orange and Green coming from both Protestant (Anglican) and Roman Catholic lineage. My dad was Roman Catholic, my mom is high Anglican which in reality is as close to Catholic as you can get without the Pope. My own upbringing involved a bunch of both, though I was baptized Anglican I did attend a Catholic school once and went to church depending on which way the ecclesiastical wind blew on whatever Sunday. Church for me meant choir (which I admit I loved, I love singing) and I abandoned the lot after I was denied being a soloist after I was asked to be by the choir master because their usual soloist complained vociferously once she found out. It was my first lesson on artistic ego and the last of those church battles I was interested in fighting.

Regardless, church has nothing to do with my grandparents except that I attended my grandfather’s funeral in St. Patrick’s cathedral in Ottawa when I was something like 12. My grandfather was a trolley driver who lived in lowertown Ottawa until that whole area was expropriated by the government and wound up in some small apartment near Dalhousie and…I really wish I had known him.  When he died, the OTC (Ottawa Transit Commission, now OC Transpo) sent him a really nice floral arrangement that probably cost the equivalent of his first few months salary. He died at aged 70 or so, long after the trolley tracks had been dug up and the very old houses of Lebreton Flats, home of the Catholic Irish, French, Italians, Indians and mixtures thereof had been bulldozed.

I spent a couple of years on  bus routes that run through empty grass filled lots with indentations where foundations were and strips of broken down weed-laden road going nowhere reminisced a different world and every day I wondered: dad is this where you grew up?  He did, but I have no idea what overgrown street was what, and no pictures at all of before he was my dad, except for an odd photo album that resided in a desk I cleaned out after he died.  Nothing showed his life in the Ottawa that is barely remembered now.

My other grandparents are somewhat simpler to fathom.  My mom’s dad was an Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) of Customs during WWII.  His brother was an editor for Hansard.  That grandfather never got a university degree, which limited his progress in the civil service but, that’s the highest you can go in the civil service without being obviously political so maybe that’s as high as he wanted to go. Great-grandfather was a school teacher in PEI who died in his mid-nineties.  He is still remembered for whacking cars with his walking stick when they turned in front of him.   My mother’s father died 3 years before I born.  His wife, my maternal grandmother died young of a brain tumor on VE day.

There’s a few interesting mysteries in our family history that has led me to explore it more, including whether my grandmother really was adopted (she was) and if possible who her mother was (I may have found that but I’m not sure); there’s another mystery of one of my great-grandparents who went to the US and never came back – that one is sweet in that she remarried and stayed married for nearly thirty years and lied about her age when married.  I’m finding all sorts of tidbits farther back that are fascinating – one fellow was a judge in New York who survived the Cherry Hill massacre as a child.  He settled in Cherry Hill PEI (now part of Charlottetown I think).  My guess is that’s where Cherry Hill got its name.

So that’s it for grandparents for me.  In effect, I had none that were a real presence in my life.  So when you’re raised without them it is easy to imagine what grandparents are like.  You know – the cottage owning good time Charlies who take their grandchildren on fun outings and keep them for short and long periods of time and are an endless source of cookies and hugs.  The reality is probably a lot less exciting, though I do know children who have grandparents like that.  Nowadays grandparents are often still working, still as busy as they were before they were grandparents.  Which makes me think:  how much are we losing by our constant work and activities filling every single hour of every single day?  It seems we all do it, parents, kids, grandparents.  The problem is that time passes us by so quickly these days, in the blink of an eye those ever-waking babies turn into teenagers then adults themselves.  I know this because that’s exactly what has happened to my children, and there are many days I’d like to turn back the clock and have more time with them.  And I wonder what kind of grandmother I’ll eventually be, because we’re a lot poorer than when we were children, and to be the fun grandmom I’d need money I just don’t have.

My children thankfully were much more fortunate.  When my daughter was born, she was the only grandchild on my husband’s side, and the only granddaughter for my parents.  My father was still alive when she small, as was her great-grandmother.  Grammie-great as she was called, just adored her little great-granddaughter.  Grandpa regaled her with stories in his lovely voice and I have video of them having a bit of a tea party.  When he died, daughter said, “we’ve only got old ladies now!” which was funny and heart-breakingly true.  Grammie-great passed away a year or so later, and one night after I had settled our tiny new son into his crib and checked in on daughter as she slept, I heard a voice clearly say to me, “My how she’s grown!” in a New England accent.  Husband was out of town that night, and all I could do was say to the voice, “Why yes, she has.”  He, and I, were convinced that Grammie-great was paying a visit.

Son wasn’t here yet when his grandpa died, and not quite born when grammie-great left us.  He didn’t suffer for grandmothers though, because he did have those and eventually a step-grandma too.  I wish he’d have known my father; I see shades of dad in him, and in some pictures he looks like him too.  I love that.

Not having grandparents in the same city for one, and province for the other meant that the usual day-to-day grandma times couldn’t happen for my children.  That dad traveled extensively and worked long hours when he wasn’t, and mom worked full time and traveled sometimes too made childcare a nightmare to contemplate.  If I had to do it over, I would have put my foot down when after having son I realized after expenses I’d be working for $100 a month but husband thought it better I go back anyway.  Had I really thought it through the savings on taxes would have more than covered that.  So, live and learn, and I hope people reading this who may be in that position themselves really do the full calculations.  As I said before, time passes so quickly, before you know it they are grown.  And it’s occurred to me that as much as I thought I was making a difference in my work, at the end of the day I don’t think I did.  I was just another cog in the wheel.

After a couple of not quite perfect babysitters for daughter, we happened across a woman and her family who did babysitting in our building.  What started out as a nice arrangement turned into as close to family as you can get, and in many ways that family stood in for the far flung grandparents my children missed.  It was the beginning of a relationship that started with daughter and continued with son also.  They were made a part of their lives and I will be forever grateful for the overnight babysitting when I was traveling and the emotional support I got when I took the step to be on my own.  They helped find me a place and with the move, and most importantly with the picking up of the pieces.  They were the daily family we just didn’t have, and I am very happy we still keep in the touch and that daughter has been able to see them once in a while.  I believe that people closest to us are part of a soul family that travels through lifetimes, and you know, I’d say Sandra and her family would fit that.  So too does Cyndi and her family; they fit the bill for aunt and uncle and cousins and again, so much a part of our lives with our backyard parties, visits to their family cottage, and later, as nearby mom when Ottawa called and I answered.

Now, not having blood relatives on our doorstep doesn’t mean that my children grew up without them.  Quite the opposite.  Grandma would visit, sometimes alone, most often with my sister and her family.  So would grammie and Ann, her best friend.  When the children got old enough they traveled to New Brunswick to spend the summers with grammie at the cottage.  Son later moved in with dad at Grammie’s when her health became a 24 hour a day issue and son wanted a change of scene.

For my family we travelled to Ottawa when we could as a family until I actually was there.  If there was one thing I realized it’s that when you are working and dealing with day to day stuff, it’s almost easier to stay close when you live far away because you have to make time to visit.  Thank heavens for telephones and now email and other fun ways to stay in touch.  In many ways the world is so much smaller than when I was growing up, and for that I am grateful.

The strangest thing in all of this is that now I realize that at my age I could be a grandmother and if fortune and good health smiles on me, I’ll not only be around and maybe, just maybe be a great-grandmother too.  Who knows, my own mother who is a grandmother six times over is in her 90s now and while not a great-grandmother yet some day she may be.  Regardless, my mother was so glad she had us then lived to see grandchildren that anything beyond that for her is icing on the cake.

My family is like many others, where people lose touch and rifts happen, people say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing and what do you know, it’s thirty years later and you don’t know if so and so is even still alive.  It’s sad when that happens and I will admit I’m not an angel myself when it comes to keeping my distance but one thing I always will do is make sure that they are in my thoughts and keep the door a crack open, if only to say hi once in a while.

Catherine M. Harris, (c) 2015

Resolutions

I did something last night that I haven’t done in many years.  I wrote some New Years resolutions.  As I wrote them the memory of previous resolutions bubbled up:  the inevitable quit smoking (I did, 13 years ago), the exercise more (I have a love-hate relationship with exercise), the basic flogging myself for not doing as much of a talent like writing or painting or music, the “get thee to a university” one which I did start 13 years ago and gave up on 3 years ago after about 1 year’s worth of courses.  Most of those previous resolutions (and a few I won’t name) are either done or a moot point now.

What could I possible resolve to do now that so much water has passed under my bridge?  Well, there is the small matter of needing to get back down to at least the weight I was when I moved to New Brunswick.  I have been exercising for half an hour a day on the eliptical but recently upped that to an hour after realizing I haven’t lost anything, I just look more toned.  The real truth of the weight that isn’t normally on me has to do with stopping my night time cleaning (1 hour a night for 4 nights then 4 hours on the weekend – worked out to about 10 km of walking every week). Add to that the fact that I had to stop chewing my beloved nicorette (I have an off and on again love affair with that gum) because I simply didn’t have money to buy it any more since last February and has meant that little bags of candy replaced the gum.  Not that wise a choice I think.

So one resolution is really two; watch what I eat and cool it with the candy for snacks.  I need to go back to feeling like myself again.  For someone who has spent most of her life on the almost underweight side of things, these past few years of peri- and post-menopause weight gain is a little alarming really.  Annoying most certainly.  Jim says I’m not fat.  Bless his heart.  I’m not obese, true, but still more than the upper limit of healthy for my height.

The others are more specific and boring so I won’t put them here, except for one.  I will start to write in a journal again.  I feel this urge to put pen to paper and say what’s inside in a place that isn’t in the ether.  I used to write a journal; my first one I got when I was quite young:  7? 8? It was purple and had a gold lock.  I still have it and I have the series of journals I wrote ever since.

There’s the one I wrote all in code because my sister had prying eyes and was happily telling whoever would listen all the awful (in her mind) things I did.  I wish I had the code for that one, I have no idea what I said for about a year or two when I was around 9.  I have one from my teenage years that is pink and is really a long and thin lined notepad that I folded over and tied up with a pink wavy ribbon from a sewing project I did.  I have the ones from a time in my teenaged years that was pretty dark, and the slightly less dark ones when I was alone and single but on my own and hopeful.  I have the ones from my mid- to late teens where I fell in love and my friends were closer to me than any relative could ever be.  That is until they disappeared or pulled a nasty.  I think we’re equal numbers on those two events.

Then there’s the broken hearted one where for years I fended off well meaning people in my life trying to tell me to get back together with my high school sweetheart.  They never could understand why I broke up with him and rather than being supportive and sympathetic I got chastized for doing that.  This was the beginning of what has been a long history of that kind of “help” in my life.  So.  I did what was the best thing:  don’t give them the ammunition to use against me because the more I tried to explain the more it became all me.  Can I, in the interest of honesty and the passage of time now say why, lo these 34 years later?  Why not?

Here goes dear well meaning people.  The truth on my first love of my life:  He fooled around on me with one of my best friends.  They thought I was clueless enough not to catch jokes between them when we were all riding in a car one summer day.  Boyfriend did not realize that women recognize another’s scent.  I didn’t want to believe until I did and blasted that friend with angry words.  I have said there’s only two or three people I would rather never speak to again in my life.  She’s one.  As for boyfriend, so in love was I, I forgave him.  It was difficult but we were “The Couple”.

Sadly that forgiveness and trust was misplaced because he thought forgiving meant it was okay.  There were others.  One called me on the telephone saying, “I know you’re not going out anymore but you’re still friends so can I ask you to tell him to stop calling me?  Tell him I’m not interested?”  I just said, “Actually we are still going out.”  And hung up.

Another time a friend I had when I was about 6 and hadn’t seen since then came up to me in a parking lot and said hi.  After a few minutes of chatting and isn’t it nice to see you again (from me) he told me, “You’re going out with that XXXX XXXX person right?”  I said I was.  He told me to tell him to stop bothering his girlfriend who works at Brown’s Cleaners, she’s really not happy with that.  A heart sinking moment.  I mumbled thanks and watched my very young childhood buddy’s grown up back walk away.  He didn’t want to know how I was.  He just wanted my person to leave his person alone.

It wasn’t long after that that I said enough already.  A relationship can slip away in moments or they can explode in one bright flash.  The end was more like a death to me.  One morning I woke up and realized that I simply didn’t love him anymore.  I’d had enough.

I honestly wish I hadn’t had to defend my decision.  I did, without telling the whole truth because a part of me didn’t want to dim their idea of this friendly fellow they liked, but mostly because I knew that it had been decided that I was what? Flighty?  A slut?  Who knows and what could I have said that would have made anyone say that I was right when they’d already decided I was wrong?

My journals kept on until the time my son was a toddler.  Then I worried more about what I wrote because some things that had bothered me for about nine years were wearing on my soul.  I couldn’t write the words for fear they’d be read.  And besides, I had already written them when I was single and when on one of those weeks my husband was out of town I decided to read them I realized how very little had changed since that time.  I was foolish to think I could change someone, and foolish to think I wouldn’t change.

I did, and like my first love, there did come a time when all those words didn’t matter any more and I simply gave up trying.  I had no more love to give for love is a vessel that needs to be replenished once in a while by its source.  My love was for my children and when I could I said good bye because I also knew from experience that children learn from what they see and I didn’t want them to think that relationships are all about anger and the silence in between.

It’s been fourteen years since then and oh, I’ve made a stab at a written diary but found that blogs and my web site filled the gap nicely.  But it kind of doesn’t.  There’s things I’m not allowed to say, things that I shouldn’t say. There’s no continuity.  There’s no way to download one of my blogs for instance, and I really want to port those posts to somewhere else so even if it’s on a memory stick I can go back to them and read them.  Perhaps it will become a day or two cut and paste project for me.

I keep my diaries in a locked box, have done for years.  All my teenaged angst, all my childhood frustrations and wondering.  My hatred for “shepherd’s cack” that they served oh so often when I was ten or so and going to Elmwood School.  My elation at winning awards or happiness at making a new friend.  It’s all there.

So now that I’m in the autumn of my life, I do feel the desire to continue on with that.  Because you see, the more life appears to change, the more it stays the same.  I know there’s nothing I can do to stop some not-so-well meaning things that have been said about me but at least my children are now old enough to ask what is the truth.  No, I didn’t cuckhold my husband (and no, the person who relayed this doesn’t speak Victorian English but I know people who do), and yes, I can cook.  Pretty well actually.  I just don’t invite people over to prove it that often.  My plate is full with life and living it. These are thoughts I am saying outloud today.

My little daily thoughts and angst that can’t be shared with the world at large (at least for now) deserve a place.  And the stuff that can?

It becomes an essay.  Like this one.    To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men,   “The truth?  You can’t handle the truth!”  Well, maybe you can and maybe some truths arrive in small doses on blank pages late at night.

So with firm resolution, I will begin 2016 by turning over an old leaf.