April 01, 2007

Sybil the Survivor

My mother just turned 80.

And I’m incensed.

Mums are frozen in time – they’re just Mums – they’re born as Mums…well not really born, they just appear. Because as their children we have no concept of them inside their skins – no idea who the child was, the teenager, the woman they were…before us.

Time swirls around them without us noticing, because they’re just there, doing Mum things…a tree rooted to the ground while we careen around them, being girls, being boys, banging into things, needing hugs, turning into teens, getting into trouble, playing with risk, becoming women and men, breaking hearts, being broken, growing up.

I am dumbfounded and slightly irritated to think how she got to 80 without me really, really noticing.

Plans are more about now than later. My chest tightens, my breath shortens. I choke on the idea.

My picture of my Mum in my heart is a feeling of love and nurturing. It’s a collage of her - at the counter making sure, deft handiwork of pastry, the smells of Sunday roast dinners, apple crumble, homemade warm custard, buttered bread, jam tarts and cups of tea. The warmth of an oven filling the kitchen, warming my heart.

My picture in my head is of her laughter – her crunched up face, hunched up shoulders, tear stained cheeks, bright wide smile, and absolute silence as she twigs on to the ridiculous…

She bursts out with laughter and then it tumbles inside…her eyes squeeze shut, her head rolls back, then her shoulders hunch up and she curls into a ball and jiggles with laughter on the inside…the lack of volume being made up for in tears squeaking out the sides of her eyes. She loves to laugh.

My Mum is a great connoisseur of the ridiculous…the more ridiculous the better the jiggle.

My Mum is through and through a Mum. There is no other role that fits her skin, her spirit so well. She loves loving. She loves being needed. She’ll martyr herself to a fault.

Even my friends recognize it. She’s a surrogate shoulder and a bearer of adolescent angst.

You wouldn't know she’s a bulwark against loss…She lost her own Mum at seven. She was ferried back and forth between relatives while her father tried to figure out what to do. He remarried two years later, and when they had a newborn, Mum’s life turned south into the unstable world of emotional abuse and neglect as her stepmother wished her away. Mum forgave later.

But she left home then.

I have pictures of her before she was a Mum. Even then, she was functioning as a Mum…She was a nurse, trained at the end of WWII in England. She cared for babies orphaned or abandoned in the war. She spoke of living at the hospitals (converted mansions), her love of the regimented routine, her ability to work nightshifts and calm the uncalmable, traumatized youngsters, comforting little ones who had lost everything, who knew what it felt like more than what it really meant. She loved teaching the babies and toddlers about play and joy, although she couldn’t give them much security as they went into the orphanage system at five – which broke her heart.

She escaped to the dancehall every Friday. She danced every weekend – was even scouted for a potential professional career. She loved dancing. She loved dating.

She met my father one night at a dance hall. She was, of course, laughing…Dad caught sight of her in the kaleidoscopic vision through the bottom of his beer glass. It was summer 1949. They were married October 1949…three months later. This picture on the right is of the night they actually met.

Her marriage careened through good times and hellish crises and back again. They travelled half way round the world, on the backs of the Royal Navy, and back again. They produced two children. It succumbed in the late 60s to a final and fatal infidelity.

Mum survived. She survived the loss of her husband, the runaway son who escaped into the 1960s communes and drugs…she found a job packing boxes in a warehouse and was promoted to purchasing officer. She strained the edge of reason when her son was killed in a car accident (just as he’d beaten his way through drug addiction)…and she survived her 40s when the doctor said it was, in fact, cancer – but that she would survive.

Sybil the Survivor.

She and I moved to Toronto in the late 70s, as the separatists took hold of Quebec in the election and the banks and mainstream institutions fled like refugees down highway 401 to the enclave of whitebread and prim propriety that was Toronto of the time.

And she survived raising a teenage daughter, to boot.

I became the first member of my family to graduate from university – so I did it twice. And she supported me the whole way, didn’t flag, didn’t despair.

And for all that tragedy and survival, my distilled memory, my image of record is of her laughter - her absolute passion for a great joke. My husband, Steve, can make her laugh so hard she crumples up.

So, how can she be anything but a survivor, and a hero to me? A quiet, self-deprecating, self-flagellating, iron-willed survivor. Who loves the ridiculous.

For her 80th…she didn’t want too much. We booked a night at Quince, a local restaurant, our go to for special occasions. She begged us not to spend the money. She said she really would prefer fish and chips.

We smirked.

We went to pick her up to take her to the restaurant. And we had a cup of tea at her place because we were early.

At 7pm a man named Jay knocked at the door. Behind him idled a 17-foot long Cadillac limousine. Courtesy of Lauren, a friend Mum considers a surrogate daughter. Lauren is now in LA, but she wanted to be part of the day.

‘Oh god’, Mum said when she came to the door. And immediately had to pee.

When we climbed into the car, I crawled to the front to see how long it was. Steve climbed in after me, and way in the rear, Mum got into the back seat, embedded in leather seat cushions – and she started.

“Imagine if we were going for fish and chips,” she said and lost herself in mirth. The thought of showing up in this monstrosity of a land yacht – complete with red LED lighting and mirrored ceiling and a bar of crystal decanters and champagne flutes. She burst, she crumpled, she jiggled, tears came down her cheeks.

It was the moment I was waiting for. Because when she starts, I can’t help but laugh at her laughing until I’m crying too. The two pictures above of her laughing are from her 70th and 75th birthday dinners.

We pulled up outside of Quince and headed in. Jennifer and Michael, I’ve written about before because they created our wedding dinner at their previous kitchen haunt, Stork on the Roof.

This night Mum perused the menu while sipping on her martini. Steve and I downed glasses of champagne and we slid into perfectly seared scallops in a cauliflower puree and tomato coulis on arugula, ravioli of butternut squash and mascarpone with truffles shaved atop…Steve and I had the day’s special: ribeye steak with mushrooms, shallots and garlic with frites…Mum ordered the whole sea bass done in the wood oven, stuffed with fennel, lemon and watercress. And on the side? A big friendly bowl of frites…

It was simple, delightful and just right. Jay drew up in the land yacht to take us home at 9:45pm as he promised. And, I realized…Mum had had fish and chips after all.


Marce said...

That´s a lovely tribute to your mom, and well-deserved it seems since she definitely had quite a ride in life. One of the things that generally strike me about people is that some people are just positive, no matter what, and they live their lives fully... your mom´s life and laughter reflects all that.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful tribute to a wonderful woman and mother. I have been very fortunate over the years to share many meals, cups of tea and a laugh or two with Sal. She was always warm and welcoming and it felt like a second home in her house.

Happy Birthday!!


Tox Man

Anonymous said...

Nicky - your Mum deserves every accolade you give her. I remember so well our super time lunching at the Giraffe in White Rock (you, Sybil & Aunt Joan, Doug & I). Please give "Mom/Sybil" our best wishes for turning 39 once again!

Love to you both & to Steve too, although we've not met him yet. Sally & Doug Young

Honeybee said...

What a beautiful post! The feelings you describe strike me as very familiar.

Nicola said...

Thanks for your comments - and to all those who emailed me personally too...