Being someone’s mama

Musings on motherhood popped like spring blossoms last weekend, but my favourite sentence of the ones I read came from Mary Karr: “Despite the lacy, sugar-spun horse hockey around this particular holiday, being somebody’s mama does crowbar your heart open in the deepest way.”

Yes it does.

I don’t think I say much here about being mother or grandmother. I’m not sure why. Certainly my children and their partners and families are a huge part of my life. And isn’t it the duty of grandparents to bore others with tales of their remarkable progeny?

That’s a stereotype, of course, but I’d like to avoid it anyway. I also believe having children/grandchildren is simply one way to contribute, one way to grow up, not an essential element in being human (or woman). Life, after all, has opportunity enough to wrench hearts into joy and challenge. The late Jean Vanier is just one example of that.

But it was Mother’s Day, and long ago three children crowbarred me open, so let me say for the record that they and their partners exist in that deep core where I’m most inarticulate and in awe, most reticent to speak (they’re their own story, after all), where I simply bleat “I love you,” hoping that will cover the worlds they are. They were gifts. Being done with the work they involved is also a gift. The grandchildren are a bonus, flitting about like butterflies in the spaces already cratered to the sun. If there’s work left, it’s the adjustment to receiving more than one gives.

The willows took me back

First a tin of mushroom soup, then the wonderful willows at the Harrison Hot Springs resort, where we just spent a couple of days to celebrate my husband’s birthday. The rows of trees loaded with pink blossoms were gorgeous but I was compelled by the willows. Weeping willows. Like the soup, they swept me into a cluster of associations involving my mother, who’d once declared them her favourite tree, and an incident at a picnic site when my family of origin stopped enroute from Alberta to visit our grandparents in B.C.

My parents had their full quiver of eight children by then and we travelled in one car. Squished, we were, in every possible way that ten people can in a Chevrolet with two bench seats and a back window ledge. (No seat belts in those days.) As we kids exited the car, one after the other, a man watched. And counted. “Ma’am,” he said to our mother, “are all those children yours?”

They were. She claimed us proudly. Then we eight stood with her under the hanging fronds of a beautiful willow and Dad took a picture of us and she said it was her favourite tree.

I suppose it’s a kind of nostalgia, what the willows at Harrison reminded me of. Nostalgia has a tinge of the pejorative about it though, like weeds that catch one while swimming along in the moment. I resent the connotation. It’s a privilege to get old enough to be surprised by sightings that wind past into present, not to mire it but to layer it with gratitude and fondness for who we and others were.

While at Harrison, I sketched a willow to “see” it better, and back home, found the 1963 photo.

PJD 63 Weeping Willow & family of 8

I’m in the back, in purple; second oldest of eight.

 

Writing a mission statement

Last Saturday I found a quiet corner at the library and sat down with a pen and pad of paper to work on a personal mission statement.

I last did this 13 or 14 years ago while employed in editorial roles at our national denominational magazine. I taped the three phrases that I eventually distilled as a mission statement along the bottom of my computer. I often fell short of their ideals, of course, but they reminded me what I wanted to do and be in that place.

Although my core values haven’t really changed, my stage of life certainly has. I still write, but part-time, self-directed, and at home. My husband is retired and has health challenges. I have nine grandchildren. I’m 69.

Writing a mission statement is a process. There are helpful tools online — questions to ask about who I admire or might emulate, past successes, priorities and goals, contributions I can make. I recall that when I first did this exercise (probably after reading Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits), even before the one at my job, I was juggling writing projects with attention to the kids and household. Then I looked at women considerably older than me as models. Now I’m looking at women about my age or slightly older for examples of both positive aging and contribution. (For one, this shout-out to someone I know mainly through her blog: Sue Steiner. At 70, she began a blog to mark the year, planning 70, though well beyond that now, and each a gem that ends with questions for reflection.)

My statement isn’t formulated yet, but I did my pages of notes and reflections. A number of words have floated out of them for further rumination.Scan

The impulses of spring

One day this week I bought and transferred fledgling geraniums and petunias into balcony pots. In the evening I realized I’d probably gone overboard with things, twice as many geraniums this year as last, besides a pretty over-wintered shrub, two trays of petunias, a tub of creamy yellow pansies, not to mention H’s roses and his soon-to-be potted tomatoes and likely (come Mother’s Day) a hanging basket or two. I remembered, too late obviously, that though these plants would grow into a glorious display, they would need to be watered and tended and tidied for months and months. I remembered their daily water would have to be carried from the kitchen sink and through the living room because there’s no tap out there. (Our balcony faces south and west; the sun absolutely devours the moisture.)

I blame spring. In our part of the world blossoms are blossoming, magnolia trees are heavy with flowers, it’s warm. And spring is impulsive, indiscriminate, extravagant. Spring is powerful and I responded as if over-powered. Even though I knew (if I’d stopped to think) that just beyond spring, summer would have to take care of all that bursting-forth and happiness, would have to bring it to maturity. Would have to be responsible. Manage it into the future and its final stages in fall.

I couldn’t help thinking about the commitments one takes on in the flush of youth or in ongoing or periodic bursts of ambition and energy. Partners, children, friendships, careers/vocations, projects, service. We start and there it is: we’re responsible. But no matter how old, we keep starting, because it’s spring and the call of the new and the potential for glorious is irresistible.

 

Mushroom soup

I was opening a tin of mushroom soup for lunch today when this warm wave of recollection washed over me. It concerned my parents at the age I am now, also living in an apartment, and my mom opening a tin of mushroom soup and plopping it into a pot, which she seemed to do rather frequently. Mushroom soup was easy and they liked it. Mom’s cooking was never inspired at the best of times (the apron pictured below happens to be mine but would have suited her as well), but she was always hospitable and in those years there was so much vitality in her and conversational liveliness made up for what the meal may have lacked. IMG_7132

I keep mushroom soup on the shelf as a quick casserole or sauce ingredient, but we seldom eat it otherwise. We don’t even care for it so I’m not sure why my husband suggested it today. And maybe putting my hand to the can opener on that kind of tin would have reminded me of Mom in any case, but I’m just back from four days in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, where we marked her 97th birthday, so she’s still on my mind. The vitality is almost done for, and dementia has only tightened its grip since I last visited (for the first time ever, she didn’t remember my name), but she managed sentences like “my children are my best possession” and “I love you.” So that’s something precious, though I can’t deny I wish better for her soon. I do, I really do, and I hope it’s alright to say so. In the meanwhile, though, my three sisters and I gathered to celebrate and we had a lot of fun together, including discussion of the pros and cons of our upbringing, and in all the present-tense moments of our time with her, we could tell that Mom was happy too.

 

 

Death cleaning

I forget why I ordered The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning from the library. Why did I need Margareta Magnusson’s advice on de-cluttering when we already did our drastic clean-up, moving cross-country and into an apartment? But I suppose it’s like perusing reviews of books you’ve already read or plays and concerts you’ve already attended: was it the same for you as me? And there it was, arrived to the Holds shelf, and since it’s short, interesting, and funny, I read it immediately, in about an hour.

download (2)Magnusson, now “between eighty and one hundred,” moved often and cleaned up her parents’ place as well as the family home after her husband’s death. Her ideas resonate with current de-cluttering messages from tidy-gurus like Marie Kondo, but this isn’t about folding T-shirts as much as sparing the kids. (“Let me help make your loved ones’ memories of you nice — instead of awful.”) Well, yes, why not spare the kids? I don’t know if it’s certain personalities or my generation in particular, but we definitely don’t want to be a bother or a burden!

And it’s about getting started, since we’re older and slower and it all takes time. (Her place took a year.) So, clothing first, photos and letters and personal papers last, lest one get stuck in reminiscence and never clean up anything else. And drop expectations that that thing you really treasure will be wanted by children or grandchildren. Just find someone else for it.

“Aging is certainly not for weaklings,” Magnusson writes, but she makes it sound cheerful and a pleasure and she has some great ideas, so I’m glad I read her book, even if I can’t remember why I thought I should.

Inner dialogue on the skytrain

The skytrain into Vancouver wasn’t crowded Saturday, but there were no empty seats. I stood and held a handrail. Across from me were four occupied seats marked for disabled and senior riders. Two people sitting there qualified, two others were young women completely lost in their phones. One looked glum, one smiled at what she watched, but neither looked up. Not once.

Me (thinking): I want to tap the knee of the happily oblivious one, point to the sign, point to myself.

Me (countering): Are you having any trouble standing? Are you frail or unsteady or tired at the moment?

Me: No. But the principle of the thing, and well, sitting beats standing.

Me: Over and over again, people — including young people — offer me seats, hold doors, usher me ahead. So it’s not like this is a continuing pattern I need to crusade against today.

Me: True. Young people here are astonishingly nice. So why is this bothering me?

Me: Feels like my right…

The senior got off, so I sat down between Happy and Glum. I kept my eyes open at stops for another older person, still itching to tap a knee. No such person appeared for the benefit of this possible instruction. Happy and Glum got off. Next stop, I exited too. I felt energetic enough to run up the escalator. I was strangely pleased I hadn’t made a fuss. If I’d been shaky or whatever, a tap or”excuse me” would be appropriate, but really, do I want to barrel my way through the rest of life flashing my rights? No.

But why, I thought ruefully, had I indulged this long internal argument? I might be aging, but sometimes I’m still entirely too ungrown-up inside.

Much changes, much remains the same

I was walking along the sidewalk today when I passed an older woman pushing a walker. On the seat of the walker lay a bouquet of fresh flowers. This made me think of paintings and photos I’ve seen of girls on bicycles, carrying flowers in the baskets, images that to me represent the epitome of youthfulness. So much changes, I thought, yet much remains the same. In this case, flowers! For some reason, this made me very happy.

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Girl on Bike by Oana Befort

It’s two weeks since I posted here, and I’m that much older, and I’ve been busier than usual, but what I feel at the moment is gratitude. My husband’s cancer isn’t better but it’s not exactly worse either; it seems a manageable plateau for now and he’s back volunteering at Habitat for Humanity once a week, which he’d missed. And we had snow, our first of the winter, which was beautiful and our grandchildren were ecstatic and we didn’t have to drive in it or shovel, so what wasn’t to like? Plus there’s the good news from a publisher I hinted at the other day. I’m thrilled that Turnstone Press, who did such a wonderful job of my previous book (short story collection, What You Get At Home), will publish my current novel manuscript this fall. I’ll share more details as time goes on. Sometimes (usually evenings) I wonder if I’ll have the energy for what this involves, but as thy days, so thy strength, and besides, both bicycles and walkers carry flowers.

About letters

Lately I’ve been thinking about letters, because we’ve been reading them. Husband H. worked his way through a small pile his mother saved, returned to us after her death: letters he’d written as a young man newly immigrated to Canada from Paraguay and letters from the both of us after we married. He’d look up now and then to share bits of what we’d written, especially the antics and achievements of our kids (which we assumed a grandmother would want to hear). I was absorbed in Margaret Laurence & Jack McClelland Letters, some 27 years of correspondence between the well-known Canadian author and her publisher, eavesdropping on their relationship as it were, watching formal beginnings turn into affectionate — and frank — friendship. (Margaret Laurence is one of my literary heroes.)9781772123357

By-gone letters pull us intimately into the moment of their writing and thus seem truer than memories. From a particular someone to a particular someone else, they’re deeply revealing of relationships. They’re wonderful, really, if you have still some to read.

IMG_7207Which brings me to a bit of rue. Some months ago, in one of my periodic attempts to reduce accumulation, I came across a large envelope of 1970s letters from my parents. Here their warm and chatty voices, the vitality of their early fifties (which had seemed ancient to me then.) Mom’s handwriting sprawled out the broad strokes of happenings. Dad typed when he wrote and said a great deal more. I re-read them with pleasure, made a few notes, plucked out samples, and shredded the rest. Then, Oh dear. Should I have just done that? I felt I’d obliterated my parents in some way, silenced this connection.

Well, I found another packet of letters, and now I see I still have dozens of their letters from the 1980s and 90s. So they’re not quite silenced yet. The dilemma of papers remains, however.

By letters I’m talking of course about the kind that used to come and go by post, and I suppose now would be the time in this post to act really elderly and bewail the fact that few, including me, still write such letters. But I won’t, because I’m actually not that bothered by it, and besides, we’re still communicating nowadays, in many other ways, and if my children and grandchildren don’t have inked-on-paper artifacts to access the past, they’ll figure out what they need and find it, retrieving from the Cloud I suppose, which they understand and I don’t. Plus they won’t have to worry over to shred or not to shred.

Smarties

Today at our “North of 60” gathering we played the Smarties game. Everyone picked one Smartie out of a bowl. A list of questions that corresponded to the colours was then posted on the wall. Questions like: What was your first job? How did you meet your spouse? What are the most difficult and most rewarding things about aging? How have you seen God at work this past year? What are your favourite things to do in winter? 

img_7205We were 27 women so there were lots of answers, lots of stories. Sadness appeared in some of them but we laughed a lot too. It was fun. And everyone seemed eager to participate. Why not? Past 60, there’s hardly a shortage of stories and sadness and laughter. And if others are willing to listen, well that’s a bonus.