Mari-Ann, my mom, was born in Sweden in May of 1924. When she was about 3 or 4, she and her family moved to the UK and, in due course, became British citizens. During the war she was one of the children shipped out of London during the blitz and stayed with people in Bedford. There she met and eventually, in 1944, married Henry. They moved to Switzerland for a time, and then, with three children already born (and three more to arrive!), they moved to Canada in December 1950 and settled next to the St Lawrence River in a south western suburb of Montreal.
When I first became aware of her, she was an exquisite, exotic woman who lived in the same house as me and the other innocents whom I came to know as my family. She never seemed to walk anywhere. She sort of flowed or softly wafted, her hair and her clothes gently rippling as she passed. I came to know her as “My-un” which is what everybody else seemed to be calling her. It was a while before I figured out that this was my “mother”, a concept as strange to me as the rest of the world that was dawning all around me.
And what a mother she was. Nothing seemed unduly problematic. Everything was dealt with in good time and without fret. The only time I can ever remember hearing her complain was when my younger sister had pneumonia (her name was/is Antonia and I was often confused as to which was the legitimate moniker) and I heard her say aloud to herself, “Oh when will this family ever be well again.”
Over the years I slowly realised what a treasure I and my siblings had. She was so different from other mothers. I now know that much of this stemmed from the fact that she and Henry were essentially Europeans. They had subtle but sophisticated tastes which permeated the home. The food, the floors, the walls, the books, the music all showed signs of their other-worldly interventions.
But apart from being a European, she had naturally insatiable appetites for art and design. We lived in the suburbs, but she was forever taking us into the city for art and ceramic and even music classes. She introduced us (in person) to Arthur Lismer and one or two others of the “Group of Seven”. She produced drawings and paintings and ceramics of her own which still adorn some of our homes.
So far as I can recall, she and I only fell out, properly, twice - once in the course of an internal sibling squabble, and once when she heard that I’d told our occasional French Canadian cleaning lady, Madame Menard, to shut up. Re the latter, when she heard about it Mari-Ann was absolutely livid and compelled me, instantly, there on the spot, to apologise, directly, face to face, which I duly and shamefacedly did. Madame Menard was suitably and magnanimously impressed and she and I went on to become great pals.
Her parenting was relaxed, low key, and largely non-interventionist, so much so that I often found I was worrying about my absence a lot more than she was. One night I sailed our small dinghy with my friend Jeremy back, upstream, from his place to mine. It was dark and blowing hard but we reckoned we could navigate by the shore lights and that, as no other boats were likely to be out there, danger of collision was negligible. We set off and soon realised it was a lot stormier than we'd thought, and it got a lot worse.
At about half way we knew we were in a pretty dodgey situation - and started laughing hysterically. The boat bucked and weaved in the dark, the sails high-speed luffing at their edges, the water coursed past us in flickering white froths. In the midst of all this I heard a crack and felt something whistle past my ear like a bullet. “What was that?” I shouted to Jeremy. He didn't appear to hear me in the rushing wind but I saw him duck, clutching his head. As the boat shook and tossed and the water sprayed I felt another whistling shot go past my cheek. We weren't laughing now. In the pitch black I couldn't figure how or why anybody would be shooting at us. “One of the stays has split,” shouted Jeremy, just as I got a nasty knock on the head. We both crouched lower as we now knew it was the heavy metal turn-buckle on the end of one of the cables holding the mast up that was whiplashing past our heads through the dark. We also knew that the mast was now in danger of snapping. There was nothing we could do but try to keep as low as possible, put less strain on the main sheet, and limp onwards to our mooring. In the midst of all this, I was particularly worried that our distraught parents would be racing up and down the lake shore looking for signs of us. It seemed like many hours later that we finally got ashore and staggered, exhausted, up to my house - only to find a glittering dinner party in full swing. “Hello darling,” said my happy smiling mum, cocktail glass in hand, oblivious to the blood quietly seeping from our heads, “Where have you been?”
She and Henry were forever putting on dinner and/or cocktail parties. One of the most enduring memories of my childhood is of laughter and the buzz of conversation emanating from the dinner parties they used to put on so seemingly effortlessly. I used to go to sleep against this gentle acoustic backdrop. But I also have a clear memory of, on occasion, sitting at the dining room table with adult guests and struggling to figure out how they could converse so easily, marvelling at how they could think and construct their sentences at one and the same time; often embarking upon a sentence without apparently knowing how precisely it might end. To me as a child, this seemed overwhelmingly impressive. I suppose these are skills I would have picked up eventually, but it was those sonorous evenings which created my appetite both for conversation and for the sound of humans nattering.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. In later life I learned that she’d almost done a runner with another man. She actually got as far as Plattsburgh, en route for New York, when she called a halt. She knew, under Quebec patriarchal law, she would never win the kids and realised she couldn’t leave them - us - and, in welters of tears, they turned around and headed back.
Conscious of the state of the wider world, she was the first adult to point out to me some of the planetary eco-collapses we were facing. She “adopted” a Greek (then considered virtually third world) child, paying for his welfare and education. She even, on one occasion, arranged to visit him and his family to see that all was okay. In preparation, she took lessons in Greek and became reasonably fluent and well versed in Greek art and culture.
I left home when I was seventeen, but in my absence the family upped stakes and left the ‘burbs to move into centre ville. This was much more in keeping with their Euro style and social circle, and she went on to other things. Not least of which was “Terre des Enfants” - a city centre children’s nursery which she established and captained to acclaim from all quarters and official commendations from the city. And for a spell, she and Henry were joint lecturers in one of the city colleges, attracting a coterie of dedicated young followers who used occasionally to convene at the house.
I went to university (the only one that would have me) in Newfoundland, which suited me because, much as I might have got on with Mari-Ann, I seemed to be in constant conflict with Henry. The 2000 mile distance seemed to do the trick until I discovered he’d been having amiable back-channel chats with the Dean, completely undermining me at a time when I was in dispute with him (the Dean - he’d even called the cops on me!). I was seething and wrote a scathing letter home to the effect that I was ceasing all comms and stuck rigidly to my promise.
Of course, this came fairly easily to me because I was a lazy and infrequent correspondent at the best of times. I’d moved into a flat in central St John’s with my friend Jonathan. It indirectly overlooked the beautiful harbour and I spent many an hour there, feet up on the window sill, watching the ships come and go through the massive granite-shouldered narrows. I could even see the occasional whale spume or a gleaming white iceberg out in the distant open ocean.
One day Jonathan reported having received a phone call for me from a woman who refused to identify herself. “She said she would drop by later,” Jonathan told me.
So Jonathan and my then girlfriend Deborah and I were having a quiet spliff in the kitchen when we heard the door open down on the street. Then we heard steps coming up the stairway. For some reason we had a church pew in the kitchen and were all sitting on it in a polite row. Jonathan leaned forward to look right, towards the entry hall. Deb did the same, leaning further over to see past Jonathan, and I followed suit, leaning yet further such that my chest was resting on my lap. Looking in all likelihood like a mammalian hand of cards, we awaited, suspended, as the steps came closer. They stopped, and a head appeared, turned left, and then right. The two heads to my right turned to me, eyebrows raised. Pleasantly shocked, I said, “It’s me mum.”
And sure enough, she’d flown out without warning, booked herself into a hotel, and tracked me down. We all jumped up and had massive hugs all round. She joined us in our spliffdom, even having a puff or two herself, and we had a long, deliriously nonsensical evening together.
She stayed for about a week. She rented a car and Deb and I would skip classes so we could go on excursions with her around St John’s and the peninsula. Signal Hill, Fort Amherst on the other side of the narrows, Cape Spear - the easternmost point of the continent, and the massive cliffs north of the city. Seriously, it looked like a mile down to the sea from there. Coming back the car lost traction on the road ice and Deb and I got into the boot to give the back wheels some grip. It was a joyous week, and, as it turned out, the turning point in my relationship with my mum.
I think that what happens is that, as one passes into adulthood, one has the option of becoming friends with one’s parents. Henry and I didn’t take up that option. I’m not entirely sure I necessarily wanted it that way myself, but I remain pretty sure it suited him and I was certainly happy to go along with it.
I left home fairly early and kept away quite a bit partly to avoid having to examine this any more closely. There were one or two occasions when I made what I considered to be an effort and found little in the way of intelligent response. I also didn’t wish to compete for his wife’s attention. The man was so clearly in love with her at the time that I couldn’t bear to interfere, however subliminally or unintentionally.
As it happens, I feel I paid a price for this. When the option of becoming friends with my mother finally availed itself via her solo trip to Newfoundland, I think we both took it up with some considerable enthusiasm and we became and remained very best friends to this day and I loved and valued her beyond words. But this friendship was constrained by Henry’s presence and it wasn’t really until we began to meet more and more on our own that our friendship flourished in the way it deserved. As his medical problems and then his passing took him away, I felt a belated surge of partnership with and affection for my mother. Again, I would stress that I don’t think this stems necessarily from the fact of our relation. I know many people who are not friends with their mothers. Although, as a mother and having experienced what only mothers can, she might have deeply contrary views, I’m reasonably sure that our friendship arose out of an adult recognition of commonality over and above chance biological connection - a recognition which never took place between me and Henry….
She made many solo visits to Europe and bore witness to some of my madcap and futile schemes and enterprises. Never entirely sure of my motives or expectations, she was nevertheless always interested and intrigued and cautiously but optimistically supportive. And I would occasionally make overseas calls to her - something I never did when Henry was around. One time I called up pretending to be the local Hawksbury Harley-Davidson dealer. “Hi, I’m just calling to confirm the delivery address for the two Harley Davidson 900 Sportsters you ordered.” “There must be some mistake,” she said. “You have a daughter called Antonia?” I asked. “Yes,” she confirmed, “but…” “That’s right then,” I said. “One for you and one for Antonia.” She cottoned on of course and we were both quickly reduced to hysterics.
A gentle woman, I never heard her swear - until I’d been with her for a few days. Then she’d pick up my bad habit and begin, to my guilty but inexplicably gratifying delight, effing this and effing that all over the shop. No idea why this should have been a such a source of pleasure for me, but it undeniably was, and is.
It isn't easy to know the inner workings of any one else's mind, but there is often an almost contemptuous tendency to assume that, with one's parents, one does. Even with our maturing adult friendship, Mari-Ann’s mystery was slow in revealing itself to me.
I always saw her as outgoing, gregarious, enormously sociable with a wide network of arty and liberal friends, but she was also, I came to realise, a very private person. As happy as she might be to see me, I never felt that parting ways again was ever really a problem for her. Never afraid of her own company, she could get lost in books (and was often, for me, an unfailingly reliable source of good book recommendations) and her own thoughts. She rarely had an instant response or opinion. She was deeply contemplative, and measured and thoughtful in her comments on any idea or notion.
In her later years she moved into a condo in Toronto to be near her eldest son and youngest daughter. Comfortable and Mari-Ann-like as this place quickly became, she didn’t seem able to find, in Toronto, the kinds of people she had enjoyed so much in Montreal and seemed, at times, isolated. And toward the end of that time she began, slowly, almost imperceptibly incrementally, to lose her way as dementia eased it’s way in. I often wonder if the lack of a Montreal-style community contributed to this. Privacy is one thing; isolation is another.
Throughout all this, my elder brother was the stalwart support, the always on-hand and go-to guy for any practical problems that emerged - including seemingly endless battles with the condo management over maintenance issues. As she declined, he was in the front line and sad witness to events and, eventually, the man who had to take the decision to move her into a home. I brought elements of my little family across the ocean three or four times, but never enough to contribute significantly to the ongoing issues with which he was dealing on a daily basis.
Even in the deep mists of dementia, even as she might be earnestly bent tearing serviettes into infinitely tiny pieces or gazing vacantly at some incomprehensible event, she would turn to him and say, “Winco, I so enjoy being with you.”
Today she wanders the corridors of her institutional home in a fog of confusion. She used to be a great walker, but as she slowly shuts down, she has less and less motivation for doing anything. Her cognitive maps shrink and her personal raison d'etre fades and recedes.
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