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.

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.

mom_portrait_sm

 

 

 

 

 

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.

amsterdamcatpostcard

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.

grammie-great_portrait_sketch

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.

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

erin-70

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.