Hello, daughter. I can’t believe you’ve come and gone, you did crowd in a lot while you were here. Very quiet tonight. Miss you. Love, Mom
I have traveled the planet for the past ten years.
Goodbye and I…we know each other quite well.
I graduated from McGill after four years of walking the streets of St. Denis, falling off fire escapes after too many sangrias at Saint Sulpice and enduring dark lecture halls with pretentious professors. I packed my bags, landed on the Left Coast and had my family FEDEX my dusty skis and tragic yellow jacket. I said Goodbye to Quebec and Goodbye to Ontario. A double-goodbye, goodbye.
I taught in the heart of Hong Kong. I did this for three years, made impossibly impossible friends and then one day I packed my bags, hopped on a plane and said goodbye. First in the clutch of their arms, swimming in candlelight and restaurant ramblings and again, to myself, fogging up the window seat of a China Air 747.
I’ve hugged over hundred goodbyes to graduate students, in the sleepy hours of the morning on cold beaches and airport line-ups, whose souls and bodies were elbow deep into mine for three weeks, knowing I may never see some of them again. Friends at weddings, funerals, boyfriends at gas stations in the middle of the night after long road trips, half-asleep over haphazardly packed back packs and the embrace of hoodies.
But when my mom sent me the above email last week, I read it at the airport and bawled like a five year old all the way to my car. My mom, goodbye and I… well, the three of us don’t really get along. To begin writing about my her? Whew. I need a moment.
I am not here to indulge in a saccharine kind of way, the kind that easily pigeon holes the way mother-daughter relations should be. I am writing this because my current mission statement leaves me no choice: of the prophetic, the passionate and plenty. My root for all three originated, quite literally from the umbilical cord where Love first shouted its name and belayed its way down. Where cells tumbled to meet each other in an amniotic ocean of ecstatic familiarity, rushing to each others mitochondria and introducing themselves. She is where my heart learned its first beat and the kidney bean of my body grew limbs. It is Her from which I came. To continue writing about all the others without Her? It makes no sense.
And yes, I will shudder when I hit “Publish” because this kind of love runs deep and personal and writing this publicly is counterintuitive to who I am and who she is: pop-ups, spam, screen, flicker, optic nerve, brain synapse, space and time will never do her justice. So take heed and take warning. Like a baby wolf nipping at the ankles of all who come near her mamma, I’m kind of not okay with this. Got it?
This is for you mom. It isn’t Mother’s Day. It isn’t your birthday or your anniversary. And it isn’t because either of us are lying in bed with a lethal virus or even a pittance of a dark past needing to clear, typical reasons to warrant a love note like this one. In the most uncomfortable and public of ways I am choosing to honour you because you are it: the voice and the hum that I fell asleep to for so many nights.
And some nights I still wish that I did.
Fuck. I need a shot of whisky or something.
(She doesn’t like it when I cuss).
I first truly understood my mom, her extra in the ordinary of ways, when she retired. She was a schoolteacher for over thirty years. From the marrow of her bones she loved all thirty-plus of them. I was amazed when she took up supply teaching post-retirement because she missed it so much. “Mom, aren’t you sick of teaching!? How do you love your job so much?” Her response, “I wake up every morning and no matter what, I’m excited to get out of bed.” No matter how troublesome the student, no matter how smelly or dirty their finger nails were, no matter their socioeconomic placement. “The poorer? The richer?” She’d respond, “The better!” She loved them all. I’ve been with her at gas stations, grocery stores and mall lineups where she will recognize, twenty years later, the once pink skinned cheeks of a student hidden behind the scruff of a beard and sag of collagen. She’ll pull at my sleeve and whisper their name, which row they sat in and an obscure fact about them.
“Timmy, I remember him. He always loved to play with scissors, had curly red hair, his mom was an alcoholic who worked at Loblaws and he was really good at playing the cymbals.”
Then we will watch them from afar buying their bags of apples and toilet paper, replacing the gas cap or picking up their newborn and walking away.
During the last day of her teaching career, I skipped out of my last class and burned over the Ritson Street bridge in my Parisienne Brougham and snuck into a surprise assembly that the school organized for her. I stood in the back of the crowded gymnasium beside a forgotten bin of basketballs. The emergency exit was cranked open and gusts of June heat blew popsicle sticks and marbles around the school yard. I watched the backs of hundreds of heads…in awe. The entire school, from kindergarteners who held hands and picked noses, to grade eight girls who flung their hair over their shoulders to see if their crush was watching them laugh. They pushed, shoved and fidgeted at my mom’s feet while she sat in a silly throne they had made for her: a wooden chair, balloons and coloured construction paper all mashed together. They gave her gifts, flowers and a quilt in which each square represented a song that she had taught them.
Then they sang for her.
And that’s when I lost my shit. The school secretary tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a sleeve of Kleenex. All the years of coming home to find her marking tests until one in the morning, all the unpaid hours of after-school tutoring and counselling, the hundreds of hand-written report cards, grocery bins filled with books and reports on Eagles and The North Pole. My mom, in that moment, became my hero. It unfortunately took me 19 years to figure it out.
This past summer, I walked around the corner of our living room and there she was. Quietly standing beside our old piano, leaning into it with her hip and playing only with her left hand. She was practicing a technical part from her most recently learned Chopin piece. I sat down and listened – my own private concert on a quiet summer afternoon before flying back to B.C. Like most people, I appreciate quiet moments like this one with loved ones much more than I ever did during the ADD blur of childhood, the defensiveness of teenagehood and the proclaimed self-importance of twenty-onehood.
My mom likes to do many things that are important to her… all while standing up with one hand. Playing the piano. Reading. Writing. Eating. Opening the mail. Talking on the phone. Crossword puzzles. Watching the news. Sometimes during her teaching career, she’d be so immersed that she’d come home, forget to take her winter jacket off and start marking tests standing up. I’d come downstairs and there she’d be, in her red peacoat, swaying slowly, head down, glasses falling off her nose and talking quietly to herself. It was exhausting to watch, “Just sit down, mom!” I knew she had just spent the entire day running after kids with wet mittens and broken art projects. I’m only guessing that she did this because if she did sit down, the exhaustion would quickly be realized in the throb of her feet, legs and hips. Of course, this was one of the many odd traits I picked up from her. More often than not, I find myself at the end of my day, standing in the kitchen with my winter jacket on, eating a row of cheese and crackers, sorting receipts and cleaning out my purse.
Just like mom, people tell me to sit down and I don’t.
My mom is quiet. And I am not. I know she finds this fascinating as much as I’m fascinated by her. When she laughs hard it releases itself after a few seconds of silence like a long awaited applause. Her lips peel back to reveal an old-school lead filling along the top back row of her molars and her entire face scrunches up. She finds Andrea Martin humour funny while my dad’s inappropriate humour has lost its edge after 45 years, she mostly rolls her eyes and gets annoyed. She is quiet and humble to the extreme, she was taught the art of both by her father. I remember her saying to me one day, “I would never call myself beautiful. I mean, I know I’m not homely or anything but I would never say that I am beautiful.” I recall laughing that my mom uses words like homely and noted how true beauty can never really see itself, or in my mom’s case, have the time of day to want to see it. There are images of her when my dad first met her. She was a splitting image of Elizabeth Taylor (pre-dysfunctional relationship with alcohol and Michael Jackson). Elizabeth Taylor should have hung out with my mom. I look at pictures of mom from thirty to now at seventy and think, “Thank god, good skin and shiny eyes.” But beneath her veins she is a concoction of pure and calm, both are her medicine. She takes nothing personally and she holds no grudges. This, I believe, is her fountain of youth.
“She looks a bit “hard” or “fast” are also words my mother uses whenever she sees women who are wearing anything above the thigh or a “busty” top (that’s another one). If my mom had her way, I’d still be wearing turtlenecks and shopping in the Ladies Department at Fairweathers.
“Jule, I can see your underwear,” is not a sentence my mother likes to use. She has used this one on multiple occasions… including this past year.
She talks a lot and in tangents, just like the last two paragraphs. Most of the time they are tangents that never find their way back to the point. She may be quiet but when she does talk, she talks a lot and sometimes I have no idea what she is talking about: her bridge group, to Danny so and so, to a custodian at her school who has a limp, to a tree that the next door neighbour just chopped down. When she meets with her sisters at family gatherings, the tangents increase ten-fold. It’s a surround sound of DNA that has my father and uncles running for the fields. They clear most rooms as they talk over one another in a flurry of laughter, elbows, dishes and opinion. It’s overwhelming.
Alone. Yes, get her alone. She is quiet but if you give her time to think and process, she has so much to say. She is one of the best listeners I’ve ever met. She never sugarcoats advice or annoyingly advises on how one should live life properly. She simply listens and marinates in the power of wordless words. This is what makes her such a revered teacher, friend and Pulitzer Mom. Shouting, yelling, arguing – these are opposites to how she works. In fact, I don’t have a single memory of her shouting at me which is baffling because I was a total shit. She would however, poke me. Hard. In the collarbone and would scare the crap out of me with an icy glare whenever I was defiant… but she never was judgmental of my decisions.
One of the most powerful things my mom did during my black-eyeliner, brown lipstick phase was turn on her heels and say, “I am so disappointed in you. Do whatever you want. I don’t care anymore.” (Even though she totally did). This was after I bombed math test number fifty five (boo! Math sucks!) skipped school to go to Wasaga Beach and ride on the back of motorbikes drunk off peach schnapps and had my father worrying, I quote, “that you might end out as a full-time “Walmart Greeter.” My dad has a wee bit more judgment in him of the funny kind. He’s a whole other story.
I believe my soul cracked in half as I watched her exit the room and I began to be the human being that my mom believed me to be.
She does many beautiful things that no one really knows about and may never know about. I wish I knew about all of them so I could track her spectrum of kindness. It quietly leaks out into conversation whenever I visit or chat on the phone with her. She will spend Christmas Eve delivering food to homeless people, then come home and make us a beautiful dinner. Most years I had no idea where she was until I asked my sisters. She will hear about a student of hers from twenty years ago who was in an accident or had some kind of misfortune and will visit them. She will sit by their bedside and read to them or bring them nail polish if she knows they like nail polish. She will take time to write friends and family proper Christmas cards and isn’t one for emailing statements of love. I’m way more a mushball then she is. She is not one for drama or dramatic behaviour. And if she hadn’t been such a busy mom and teacher, I wouldn’t be surprised if she had made like Audrey Hepburn and hung out with children in slums, telling them stories and laughing at their make-believe games.
When we talk on the phone it is random, a month will go by without talking. I tried to be one of those girls who calls their mom every day because I thought, “how sweet, how endearing” but my mom is the most low maintenance mom on the planet..to a fault. I could probably do more. My attempt at daily talk turned into her saying something like, “So. Not much has happened since yesterday…” followed by a pregnant pause. I then find out that I have interrupted her deeply entrenched in a Wimbledon match or packing up to go to a friends house.
However, when we do talk, both of us know not to answer unless we have two hours to spare and we go deep. I make sure I have nothing to do and she does the same for me.
I know that I’ve told her this already but I’ll say it again. Most of the time when I teach and write, I channel her more than anyone. People ask me how I got to where I am as a teacher…it isn’t a distant guru in India, it is my mom, her steadfast dedication and meticulous obsession with educating others that I feel the strongest push. When I say teaching is in my blood, it’s her. I obsess and plan over my teacher training curriculum for hours, eyes burning and brain tired just like she sat and obsessed over her many curriculums before the ring of the recess bell.
When I entered kindergarten, my mom enrolled me in the same school that she taught. On the first day we walked from the car to the school yard. The entire playground of kids saw us, dropped their lunch buckets and rushed to hug us in a mangled flurry of violent lunch boxes and cheek pinching. I totally freaked out. For the rest of the year my mom had to carry me into the school while I buried my head in her collar in protest, holding my breath and closing my eyes. I didn’t like any attention back then. By June, my mom’s arms were exhausted and I was totally over people pinching my cheeks. She also realized that although she loved walking past my classroom daily, watching me figure out scissors and glue for the first time, I would never learn independence being so close to her. She refused to baby us even when we were babies. The next year I transferred schools.
On the first day of grade one she dropped me off. I walked on my lonesome in my poncho and hung out with a boy named Tim who told me that standing on the hopscotch line meant that I smelled like pooh. (I later sought revenge and he became my first man-slave who I ordered to tie my shoelaces daily. Sucker).
Later during our classroom headcount at recess a bee stung my hand, I lost my lunch bag and I had to hang out in the nurse’s office all morning with ice…hungry.
I learned independence alright.
And I also learned that life without my mom close-by totally sucks.