70 years ago, a baby girl was born who eventually grew up to become my mom. For a long time, I (like the child of many mothers) didn’t think of her as having had a life before I came along. Indeed, I’ve been in her life – either centre stage, or on the why-does-he-never-call periphery – for more years now than she got to romp around without me. Even though she lived in a world without me, it might by now be as hard for her to imagine that as it is for me to imagine a world without her.
And as hard as that is, it’s utterly impossible for my big fat writerly imagination to conceive of who I would have become in her absence. Removing her from the equation of my life eclipses nearly everything I know about myself. In the 1970s, in redneck Alberta, it was she who decided our family would become Unitarian. Without the UU philosophy of compassionate questioning, without the indoctrinated acceptance of all human beings – however unlike me they might seem – I would likely have found myself on the losing side of whatever passes for the culture wars these days.
And in the 80s, it was Mom who nudged me surreptitiously towards an inner city high school (not my first choice, since most of my friends were going elsewhere) that was in the midst of transforming itself into a top-tier arts academy. Without Victoria Composite on my transcript, I would not have found my vocation, nor the confidence to launch myself (and many others) into half-baked artistic projects just to see where we might land. I might still have been a writer, I suppose – that urge sparked early in me – but I would not have been a courageous one.
After high school, Mom arranged to send me to Europe, to study French. Then she paid to send my girlfriend out to join me, so we could visit Italy and Greece. She sometimes said her mandate was to make me independent as soon as possible; the only firmer shove out of the nest I can imagine would have been if she hadn’t paid for the return flights. By now, she has probably come to regret helping me fall in love with France… although she isn’t exactly a homebody either.
When she was approaching retirement, Mom joined an Old Ladies Adventure Tour to Africa. She stood in the Olduvai Gorge, from whence the origins of human life may have emerged. She was hoping for a spiritual awakening – something to give her purpose as she entered her second half-century of life. But she didn’t get what she was looking for. Most other people would have stopped there – heck, most other people (myself included) would never have made it that far.
But she kept searching. A few years later, she joined another trek, this time to Nepal, and she found not only a cause, but also her second family. Suddenly, after 30 years, I discovered I had a brother – an artist, like me, but in a starkly different medium and from an utterly different culture. I suppose that might suggest I would have become myself, regardless. But then, Mom would have had to spend 50+ years searching the globe for me instead of him. Either way, she’d clock a lot of Air Miles.
Mom and I do not tell the same stories about each other. She likes to recount the phase in my adolescence when I took to sneaking out the basement window to go on long night rambles with my friends in the silent suburban streets. One night, she came down to drop off laundry and found my bed empty – save for a note I’d left, reading “Mom: Do not freak out. I’ll be back.” To her immeasurable credit, she did not freak out, although she did tie herself into anguished ethical knots, mostly over whether she had an obligation to tell my friends’ parents about our jaunts (she did not). She then proposed a system whereby I could switch off the hall light whenever I made it home alive, for Mom’s peace of mind. A noble gesture – and a clever gambit, since as soon as the nighttime treks became authorized, they lost their appeal.
Since I find Mom’s story mildly embarrassing (what sort of rebellious teenager leaves a note? Likely answer: a Unitarian one), I strike back with an anecdote of my own, about that time she was staying in the hospital post-surgery. The doctors had her on morphine, so she was a bit flighty when S. and I came to visit; her chief complaint about the hospital room was that she didn’t have enough hats to wear whilst confined to bed. So S. and I collected as many hats as we could find (I am a dutiful son, and S. is a stage manager)… but when we brought them to her room, Mom accepted the gallimaufry with confusion. She had no memory of ever having mentioned hats.
Maybe that story should be more embarrassing for me, given my inability to sort medicated requests from lucid ones. But it says volumes about Mom’s lifelong refusal to accept convention that I honestly believed that, as far as she was concerned, recovering from surgery meant wearing funky hats. After all, this is the woman who wants her funeral service to include bagpipers and her favourite a cappella singers…performing in Nepal. Now that I think about it, arranging that farewell might be her revenge for the heart attack I gave her when I snuck out the window that night.
We all spend our lives simultaneously living in our parents’ shadows and searching for their true selves, mostly in the hopes it will reveal the hand-me-down ingredients of our own souls. Mom casts a long shadow, but she has always been open about her identity, and I’m proud and honoured to be reflected therein. And she has literally shown me more corners of the world than anyone else – and that’s not even counting that one time she brought me into it.
Happy Birthday Mom. I love you. I know it sometimes takes me a while to get back home, but keep the light on for me. And wear a funky hat.