I suppose that it’s a given; no matter how hard you try, you will screw up your kids somehow. At the start, we all imagine some kind of traditional family shape with each member taking on their role with gusto, be it barfing toddler, zippy adolescent, and then whatever the makeup of the father and mother take on. The shapes can vary, of course, and sometimes, despite the best intentions, can deflate completely. The problem is that most of the big decisions–whom to marry, whether or not to have kids, if so, how many, and then how to manifest a happy home–happen in the early years, when we are blissfully naïve, ungrounded, and primed with the fantastical idea that everything is going to be fine. We might run with this until individuation in our forties, at which time, many of us veer off into some kind of revelatory wood-chipper that wakes us up to challenges like divorce, job changes, or the realization that we will never, ever dance for the Stuttgart Ballet. It would have been helpful if we had studied dance at all, but for some reason, we had this crazy idea that we would sort of fall into it somehow. Sort of fall into it, is a terrible plan, but we all daydream about things–unlikely things. It’s as if there is a cozy room of fanciful delight in the corner of our minds, and that’s fine, but in regards to our children, I feel that it is incumbent upon us as parents to do our best, to be more aware and compassionately realistic, vibrantly so. I know that with my own kids, I did try. I tried hard. I’m not sure about my own mother though.
It’s not fair to compare my generation with the previous one. They had war and the depression. We had disco and the mullet. Yes, I wish I had drank less when my kids were small, and I do wish I had had a little more backbone–more presence–but my kids are okay, I think. To be honest, most of my drinking happened when we were making our own wine and I was repeatedly siphoning off bottles for our friends. Siphons are sneaky. Apart from that, I remember standing on the sidewalk talking with a neighbour in the little town where we lived. My two boys came marching out of the house. They were possibly two and five years old, and were each wearing ski goggles, and holding sticks. They stood near me and when I asked them what the deal was, one of them said, “Well, we didn’t want to interrupt you, because you taught us not to do that, but the waffles burned in the toaster and the house is full of smoke.” I still laugh to this day, because they were so earnest. But they were listening, I was guiding–we were connected.
I’m sure that the relationship between mother and son is different than that of mother and daughter. Having two sons, I have no idea how I would be raising a daughter. I know how I would like to be, and it’s certainly nothing like how my mother was with me. Yes, my mother drank, and still smokes, but that was no excuse to drop the ball. I drank, but my kids still liked me, knew not to interrupt, and are to this day, creative as hell; both fully functioning adults. There are many examples out there of successful people who had parents devoted to the afternoon shot of rocket fuel with ice, and a pack or two of cigarettes, who still thrived in their childhoods. Whichever parent it was, had a certain joie de vivre that made them interesting to be around. I’m not sure that my mother and I did anything together that was, you know, a girl thing. She dropped me off at the fair once, and I remember buying a hotdog. Nobody had told me about mustards, plural, so I took the spoon from the little metal pot closest to me and slathered on the yellow. It turned out that this was hot mustard. No I did not have enough money for a drink. Yes, I remember wishing that my mother had come with me. You don’t forget those things. It wasn’t a big deal in itself, but it was illustrative of the general tone of our relationship–we didn’t have one.
I tended and looked out for my own mother through my formative years–the reverse of the norm. When she flipped over backwards in her lawn chair during a corporate picnic at the farm, I was almost impressed. In my idyllic mind, I would have been thrilled if she had grabbed my arm, and then the two of us found flat, lush lawn near the pond and practiced summersaults together while dessert was served. It’s things like that that would have changed everything. Instead, I had to do things like, years later, suggest that her having a screwdriver before driving the school bus was a bad idea. How was that a thing that any child should have to do?
Her worst performance, a real doozy, came shortly after I was married. I had arrived home to the house my then-husband and I had rented, on a crisp, full moon-lit winter night in 1988. My husband, an actor, was downtown doing a show so the house was empty. I parked the car and had this powerful feeling, almost a voice in my head that said, “Get your keys ready, run to the door, get in, and lock the door behind you.” I shrugged, thinking the feeling was odd, but ran anyway. I locked the door behind me and then, shrugged again, wondering what all that was about. Had I eaten a bad mushroom during my dinner with friends? I took off my coat and then, as my husband and I would do when we arrived home, I went into the bedroom to pull the blinds over the sliding glass door that lead out into the back yard. The thing was, when I stepped into the bedroom–thanks to the full moon–I saw the outline of a man with his face pressed up against the glass looking in at me. I gasped, shut the light off, and stepped out in the hallway to hide behind the wall between the bedroom doorway and the guest room next to it. I could hardly breathe, and I couldn’t move. I remember thinking, “Wow, so this is what it’s like to be frozen with fear.” I couldn’t believe that this was happening. Nobody does. Nobody finds themselves in this situation and, you know, checks their fitbit, pissed that they’re not getting their steps in because of the inconvenient monster at the door.
It seemed like it took forever, but I finally made my way to the phone–a landline then, and called 911. The cops came, looked around, noticed that the garbage cans at the side door were knocked over and figured that I had had about a three second lead on the monster. They also found a path in the snow in the back yard; he had been watching me. My husband and I didn’t notice it because we never used the back yard.
The experience was horrible, but I survived and I know how lucky I am. My husband went on tour shortly afterward so I was alone for a few weeks. On one of the nights there was a storm with high winds, and one of the branches on a close tree kept hitting my window–the sound of it unsettling, like something from a bad thriller movie–so I left and went to a hotel–yes, running to my car from the house. A few days later, the front doorbell, that belonged to the vacant apartment above us, kept ringing as if it was stuck, or possibly jammed on purpose. I climbed through the dormer above the door that separated the two apartments and peaked through the front window to see if anybody was there, perhaps with some kind of urgent package. There was nobody that I could see, so I climbed back into our apartment and switched off the doorbell fuse switch in the fuse box conveniently located on the wall in our living room, next to the dart board. So yes, that was traumatic, but the experience had not finished being horrible. There was more disheartening surrealism to come when I drove to the farm to talk about the event with my mother–the initial fright paying it forward like a vicious gift that kept on giving. Yes, I had spoken with her on the phone, but there was a deeper part of me that needed a mother’s embrace. This is a mother’s job after all, to hold her children, to help them heal, no matter their age.
I arrived at the farm around 2pm, the kitchen empty–my mother was upstairs having a gin nap. The sun shone in through the south-facing master bedroom, doing its best to rouse her, just as the moon, several nights before, had been there to help me see that haunting silhouette. The sun’s efforts were all in vain as my mother remained curled in the fetal position, covered and wound into the blankets like unfortunate prey in an old, cottony spider web. The farmhouse was old, so the room had the traditional peaked ceiling which, along with the whitewashed walls, made me think of the art direction in an old silent German Expressionist horror film I had seen in university called, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The slanted ceilings and walls in the film were purposely pitched at extreme angles, and painted to highlight shadows, all in an effort to convey a dark mood. The bedroom here was full of similar shadows and angles, all in real time, achieving the same sense of dark mood without any particular, artistic effort. Funny, the things you notice, even in times of disappointment.
See, here’s where, even if she was blasted, she could have reached for me: “Oh, baby, I’m so damn mad about what happened to you. Get in here with me so that I can hold onto you. Then, tell me exactly what happened. Take as long as you need. I’m here for you, my sweet. I’ve simply been to pieces over you since you called.” It’s a nice thought, but that’s not how my telling played out. I sat on the end of the bed. She had made a noise in greeting, so I knew that she was awake and conscious. I described the events of the night, including the voice in my head, locking the door, the silhouette of the monster and then I told her about how long it seemed to take for me to reach the phone–that I had been frozen with fear and could not move. I finished the story, and explained to her what the cops had explained to me. There was silence, and then she sat up straight in the bed and said, “Well, I don’t understand why it took you so long to get to the phone.” There was more silence–and I thought, “Wow, so this is how it is.”
My mother has no recollection of that afternoon. I can’t seem to forget it, and I know that I would have played her role differently. For starters, I would have met me at the door, and then at the very least I would have put my arms around me, because, Jesus Christ.
The funny thing is that I am looking after her now. I’m not living with her–the cigarette smoke would kill me– but I am cooking for her, doing her laundry, putting batteries in her hearing aids, and taking her to appointments. We still have no relationship. When she talks to me, it is as if I am an acquaintance. I will make her a casserole, and she will be over the moon about it as if I am in grade three and I just mastered long division. I know that she’s broken, but healing her isn’t my job, just as my boys aren’t responsible for my healing–that’s not how it works, and also, anything different is unfair.
My mother is almost blind, thus my cooking for her, and driving her places. The phone that she had was impossible for her to use because she could not see to dial, so I bought her a new one with buttons the size of coasters, plus handy speed dial settings for members of our family and one of her sisters. I have daydreams of having a mother who calls, just because. “What ya up to?” she would say. But that’s the same mother who would have pulled me under the comforter with her, stroked my hair, and told me that everything was going to be okay. That mother exists only in my head–and I adore her.