THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME

First, there was Penelope.

Made from the ingredients provided by her papa, Jeremy, one of my twin sons, and her mama, Anne, who also grew up in Pointe-Claire, Penelope entered the world four and a half years ago.

Penelope
Penelope.

I’m not ashamed to say that when her parents first announced that she was in the making, I felt both elated and apprehensive. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel ready to love her; it was that I felt too ready to love her, and knew in my gut that I would constantly be torn between my working life and my desire to be with her and watch her grow.

I’d been lucky enough to avoid making such a heart-rending choice raising my own sons in their first years. A generation later, it caught up with me.

This part of the story worked out just fine, because I’ve simply acknowledged that the professional life it took me so long to fashion is essential to me. I’ve accepted (with no small measure of regret) that there are tender and wonderful experiences in Penelope’s life that I won’t be there to see. It worked out because in spite of all that, I love her to death and she returns my love with a sweetness that would melt a heart of stone. And, most importantly, it worked out because there’s a small army of people who also adore her and spend as much of their time as possible with her.

Graeme at 2

Then, there was Graeme.

Made with as much love and equally miraculous ingredients from Jeremy and Anne, he was born two years after his sister. She weighed six pounds thirteen ounces; he weighed nine and a half pounds.

 

Graeme arrives.

From the moment she was able to focus them, Penelope’s eyes have had a disconcerting, penetrating and knowing way of looking at everyone. When she was still an infant, her uncle Christian called it getting “the ocular pat-down”. All I know is that when her large, round, intense brown eyes locked onto me, it was like being scanned down to the molecular level, and it was all I could do not to confess: “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!”.

Penelope at 13 months

Graeme’s eyes seemed to see the world differently. They smiled, even when his mouth didn’t. To her intensity, sensitivity and emotional life that is still always barely skin deep, Graeme brought a good-natured temperament and a fondness for the company of females and cuddles. He’s naturally funny, and she has a terrific sense of humour.

It’s hard to imagine two children getting more love than Penelope and Graeme, and an ocean of it comes from their uncles Simon and Christian, who were felled the instant they held Penelope in their arms, just hours after her birth.

Simon’s experience is unlike anyone else’s, because, as the identical twin of Penelope and Graeme’s papa Jeremy, Simon can claim a genetic kinship with them that none of us can match. They are of him to a degree beyond us. Simon was away in France doing post-doctoral research for the first six months of Penelope’s life (though he was here on the day of her birth!), which was a torment, and which he’s been making up for ever since. Thank God for Skype, which allowed him to see her daily on her mama’s lap.

Graeme in his papa’s arms, with Simon

 

Simon with P&G

Christian was away in London from September 2014 to September 2015 living an extraordinary year and was always anxious that somehow, Penelope especially (because Graeme was just a baby) would forget him or that he would lose that trust and closeness he had nurtured with her. He says that the day she was placed in his arms, just a couple of hours after her birth, something inside him opened up and he knew that he would do anything for her. Always.

 

Christian with P&G

All of this was useless fretting. Children recognize love and devotion instantly and move closer to it as to a source of warmth and life.

With Christian. September 2016

 

Christian with Penelope, summer 2016

These days, everyone is in Montreal at the same time. We often refer to the children as P and G in conversation, though Penelope is also Beans, a name chosen by her papa in honour of a favourite lunch dish. It’s what Graeme calls her. Mostly, he’s kept his name. While his papa and Simon often call him Buddy, the rest of us are happy with his given name which is solid and sweet and upbeat when it rolls off the tongue.

 

Simon with Graeme, Christmas 2015

The world got so much bigger with P&G in it. With a two-generation gap between us, they’re my intimate connection to a future that I will not see, but that now has several new and beloved inhabitants. They’re our progeny too. That’s how we feel about them, and it’s why we have reshaped our vision of life around them.

Having fun. Spring 2016

One of the strange tricks love plays on us is that it exists out of time.

I love you and will always love you. My love is limitless.

Every now and then, my mind will wander into the grey shrouded future, wondering what difficulties lie in wait there for my children, what hardships they’ll meet. In one such moment, as I visualized Simon, Jeremy and Christian aging and becoming more fragile and dependent, it struck me full force that of course I wouldn’t be there to help them and to love them. I didn’t give a damn that I’d be dead; what mattered was that I wouldn’t be there to care for them.

I mentioned this to Simon one day and he said: “But we’ll have each other. Siblings, mum, they’re so important.”

 And then we talked about Penelope and Graeme, and how good it was that they have each other.

With their mama, Anne, October 2016

 

This piece ends with a smile. To a degree that seems impossible really, Penelope and Graeme get along fantastically well. P is such a compassionate child that retaliation of any kind is never her first response to any of her brother’s transgressions, which are few. She’s grateful to have a companion in life, a sidekick. She’s happy being one of two. Graeme, in return, worships her, follows her, and mimics her before experimenting on his own. His go-to phrase is “Me too.”

They’re two peas in a pod. Last week, on her “Special Guest Day” at preschool, Penelope chose to invite Graeme. This was a breach of protocol because in the past, young siblings have proven to be uncooperative guests. But not Graeme. He moved through his sister’s routines alongside her like a small diplomat. When, after reading a story about an adventurous squirrel, Miss Honour or Miss Maria asked what the squirrel’s name should be, Graeme responded BEAR! which made his sister roar with laughter.

I see their mother’s vigilance, constancy and loving presence in the bond between them. They’re so well suited for the role of a lifetime.

With my two sisters thousands of miles away on the West Coast, I have found sisters in my closest friends. Siblings—ours from birth or chosen over time— embody our desire to love and to be loved and supported in intimate, lifelong networks.

But being a brother or a sister (if you are lucky enough) is the role of a lifetime.”

― Holly Goldberg SloanAppleblossom the Possum

 

WEAPONIZED WORDS

I can’t imagine what would have happened to me had I not been raised in a language-rich home. My parents’ plan was that their daughters should be bilingual from the cradle, and they set about making it happen. They also filled the house with books and read to us.

I’ve been robbed of the language of the cosmos—mathematics—thanks in part to terrible teachers in high school, to a pervasively rotten approach to math education in North America, but mostly thanks to my ineptitude.

But I seem to have been born with a brain that loves language and loves using it.

A source of joy in my life as a teacher of French as a second language is the way many classes spontaneously (and temporarily) morph into improvised linguistics workshops during which we stop to consider the complexity of French verb conjugations (%$#!!) and the comparative weirdness of English spelling, or marvel at the frequent-flyer status of ordinary words that exist simultaneously in English, French, Arabic and Russian (no mean feat!), and delight in idiomatic expressions that can create hilarious befuddlement.

I suppose it’s because they matter so much to me that I’m also so easily hurt by words.

In these Trump-saturated days, I’m in agony.

Last Sunday (October 9th), I tried to watch Donald Trump’s interactions with Hillary Clinton (there’s no way these can be referred to as a debate). After oh, maybe 30 minutes, I had to stop. I had to INSIST that we change the channel. We’d just finished supper and it was the end of a beautiful day, when I noticed that I was starting to feel sick: my pulse was elevated and my stomach was beginning to cramp and I thought that if I didn’t get away from the constant stream of Trump’s diatribe, I was at risk of vomiting up my meal. Trump’s voice and words were proving as effective as ipecac syrup.

Contrary to Mr. Trump, there’s no hyperbole in what I’m writing. Listening to the distortion and abuse of language that flowed almost exclusively out of his mouth, I began to feel that we were all, every viewer that night, being spattered with something toxic. It was as though a fire hose had ceased spraying water and begun dousing us all with the contents of a septic tank.

It was painful, and it made want to turn it off. My agitation surprised me, but my exposure to Mr. Trump’s flow was genuinely hurting me.

I read that more than eighty million people tuned in. I wonder how many made it to the end. Probably most of them. Perhaps you did.

If so, then that makes me different, but it may only be that my threshold’s lower. It’s possible that my love affair with language has made me more vulnerable to weaponized words.

Most of us were taught a simple phrase as children: Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.

I was never sure how I was supposed to use it. I think our parents meant it to be a kind of verbal placebo or else an incantation, either of which they hoped would act as a shield in the face of our tormentors. But instead, we often chanted it like a dare: a kind of “Bring it on!”.

I learned very quickly that “sticks and stones” was false bravura.

Supervising children in the school yard for many years made it impossible for me to forget what we’re like as children—what we’re capable of saying to each other. I remember many of the times in my youth when my words were cruel. Those memories sometimes float up from my conscience like daydreams gone bad. Sometimes I imagine myself tracking down the person I was hurtful to on that day, and apologizing. It’s never too late to apologize.

I also remember those times when I was on the receiving end of a similar lack of kindness. And worse.

What I remember most clearly about all of those moments is the feelings I experienced on each side of them. Those are the feelings that I carried into adulthood. They’re memories of pain and guilt and sadness. They’re memories I’m pretty sure I’ll die with and that’s  good because it’s the best guarantee I have that I’ll continue to be careful with my words. That I’ll try hard to not lash out, to not use words like guided missiles.

In adult life, things should be different. We should have learned important lessons. We should be able to avoid the world’s bullies. We should be able to see them coming and walk away. And in our personal lives, surely it’s possible to live in loving relationships with friends and family and neighbours that are safe and respectful and genuinely kind.

My three sons, all adults, have never said an unkind word to me. Never. I’m sure they had many moments of internal eye-rolling and grumbling that mercifully I could only guess at, but since the day they were born, they’ve always spoken to me with benevolence and have never even raised their voices. My husband, who grew up in a similar environment, has always tried to avoid using words in anger.

This is at least in part because they know what screaming and violent language does do to me. What its effect would be. And none of us want to live that way.

But what of the things that need to be said between people? Those hard things that we feel choked by—those verbal elephants in the room—when resentment and misunderstanding have filled up the space between people and want a voice?

Then we find ourselves in a minefield.

It has happened twice in my life that a relationship that I believed to be a friendship came crashing down in a torrent of words.

 

In both cases, I was ambushed. I never saw it coming. In each case, the person venting was a woman. Each in their own way—one in real time and the other, in an email—decided to blow up our friendship by telling me everything they thought was wrong with me.

The first time happened more than twenty years ago, and I remember feeling like something had detonated near me. In time, I’ve come to understand that the seed of her frustration and resentment was something about which there was nothing I could have done.

The second time was only last year, just after the November Paris attacks, when a woman I had known professionally and who had since become a friend, a Parisian who has lived in Quebec for decades, was so infuriated by something I wrote on my Facebook page following the terrorist attacks that she sent me a blistering, hateful email. And that was that.

by Photos8.com

 

Being on the receiving end of these assaults was immensely painful. The first time, I walked around in a daze, unable to think of much else. It felt like a cloud of noxious gas covered my life. I played and replayed her words in my head, trying to figure out how she could have been storing such anger for so long without my seeing it or feeling it.

The second time was different because the words were written, and so they could be read and re-read. Had my laptop zapped me with an electrical charge, it wouldn’t have been more jolting. In this case, I began to see cracks in a person I admired for her intellect and cultural sophistication. In this case, I felt shaken and uneasy.

I’ve since purged my computer of all emails from my Parisian acquaintance, and spoken several times to my neighbour and former friend who lives just around the corner. I still think about each of these events, and consider what my responsibility is in each of these failures. These women held up a mirror to me that cast a reflection I found difficult to acknowledge and triggered a lot of soul-searching.

What has struck me hardest is how lasting their effect has been, and how difficult to step outside of their pall.

Weaponized words can never be taken back and shouldn’t be responded to on the spur of the moment.

wounded-300x155

It isn’t a fluke that all of this has been spinning around in my head since the Trump campaign began. I’ve seen so much footage of people on the campaign trail holding placards and screaming poisonous things at strangers and video cameras that I’m beginning to wish that we all came equipped with a mute button.

 

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

—Mark Twain

DARKER MORNINGS

Good morning.

It’s 6:07, and summer is truly gone, because the sky as is dark as ink and the birds are silent and will remain so for a while longer.

 

It’s such a drastic turnaround. A couple of months ago, it rose two hours earlier; just after five o’clock. You may not even have noticed this if you’re a later sleeper. But I’m an early riser, and though I adored waking to birdsong and even an occasional squawking racket, I prefer these darker mornings.

 

I’ve noticed that my husband and Christian tend to sleep longer in the lingering darkness, and this means that these hours are truly mine. Not wanting to move around too much in the house and bother either of them, I stay put at the dining room table on an uncomfortable creaky chair and open up my laptop.

 

I’ve already told you that I struggle to stay asleep and that my nights are often interrupted by cycles of wakefulness and of spotting the lit-up time on the clock radio: 1:15…3:21…4:10…And so I’ve grown to love 5 am, because anything after five o’clock means that it’s a decent time to be up, it’s legitimately morning (or close to it), and, especially in the darker months, I have a small island of time all to myself.

I know that my son Simon, in his apartment just a few kilometers away, is up early too: usually by 5:30 on most weekday mornings. And we often connect then, each in the glow of our Macs, messaging each other. Our pre-dawn banter is such a sweet thing.

This morning, I found my father in the half-light.

In fact, he’s been gone for 27 years. Gone at sixty-one and taken by lung cancer. But he was with me in my morning solitude.

For as long as I can remember, my dad set his alarm clock at 5:30. It tormented my sisters and me because it was a mechanical (dependable!) clock that ticked so annoyingly that he eventually relegated it to the upstairs hallway of our small house (maybe my mum forced him to) where it tic-toc-ticked until 5:30 when its tinny and shrill mechanical ring invaded everyone’s sleep.

Early winter morning in Pointe-Claire

My dad was a chain smoker, and once he was up, the next sequence in his morning ritual was a shower, a shave and a gruesome period of clearing his lungs, during which he’d hack and choke and then spit up into the bathroom sink. Loudly. So loud, in fact, that there were days when I was sure he was turning his innards inside out.

What followed was always very discreet. He made his way downstairs, made himself some toast and a cup of instant coffee, took a look at the newspapers (The Montreal Star—long since defunct—and the Montreal Gazette), and sat contentedly in the kitchen. After that, he grabbed his Samsonite briefcase and his lunch and set off on his twenty-five-minute walk to the train station. I think he usually caught the 7:10 or the 7:20.

These are some of the clearest memories I have of my father because during the last eight years or so that I lived in my parents’ house, they had taken on the weight of a ritual and because inevitably, his morning habits clashed with his daughters’ need to be up and fed and out the door to go to high school and CEGEP (my daily commute to Collège André Grasset was double the distance of his).

These memories are also deeply etched because they are the set piece of our painful and confusing relationship with our father. None of us—especially as we grew into adolescence and young adulthood— ever seemed to be able to find our footing with this man that we loved and even admired in many ways, and who had such power over us and exerted such influence in the house. None of us were ever able to create a space in which we could co-exist with him without struggle.

From the Rodin exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

In the light of what I know today, it’s clear that my father suffered from anxiety which manifested itself in part by obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

I also understand that he was a complex and complicated man with a good heart who battled hard with his inner demons.

Most of the story I share with my dad belongs only to him and me and my mum and sisters. But this morning, I was reminded of another part of our shared narrative.

Before dawn, as I moved quietly in the kitchen to make myself my first cup of tea, I found my father in the peacefulness of brief solitude, and I thought again that I love this time of day as much as he did. Much like he did. And I realized that I need it as much as he did.

Betty Acquah, Breaking of Dawn

A few years ago, I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. I answered all of the questions for the fun of it, with no expectations. So did my sons, husband, other family members and friends. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon because the results were so startling and distinct and insightful.

I came up with INFJ as a personality type (I redid the test a few years later and got the same result), which helped me to realize all kinds of things about myself, including the fact that I’m an introvert.

 

That single word explained so much. The butterflies in my stomach since as long as I can remember, before any kind of party or group gathering. The impulse I often feel in a crowd or large group to withdraw. The exhaustion I feel after a day of teaching, even though I love being with my students and find enormous satisfaction and joy in it. My greater and greater need to stake out pockets of time into which I can escape and be alone. My love of reading. My passion for writing.

Marc Dalessio, Dawn on the marsh (plein air painting in the rain)

Though I wouldn’t dare guess at the other three letters of his personality type, I think—I know—that my dad was also an introvert who needed his solitary mornings and his evenings down in the cocoon he set up for himself in his workshop/office in the basement (effectively taking over that floor); and who loved to sit and read undisturbed.

I think he suffered in the smallness of our house, in the company of his wife and three daughters. I think he would have been happiest out in nature, listening to the birds or just sitting in contemplation. That he needed to be away more. Alone more.

I sense that he may never have succeeded in articulating his malaise; that he never understood this about himself.

I found this in the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE DISAPPEARING PAST

If you had to choose between happiness and longevity, which would it be?

It’s an impossible, terrible question, but I DO want to live a long life.

I have no guarantee of that of course. Mostly, I’m grateful for the years I already have under my belt and hope for many more.

Sitting here in the dark  of early morning thinking about my lifespan, the image stuck in my head is of a ziplock gliding along the top edges of a plastic bag: much like it, my lifetime has zipped by with smooth inevitability. Of course, a ziplock is also designed to move backward along its track in an action that can be repeated and repeated. Alas, there’s no such movement possible for any of us. Not in real time.

 

In partial answer to the question Why does time seem to speed up as we get older?”, Muireann Irish and Claire O’Callaghan write that:

Memory may hold the key to time perception, as the clarity of our memories is believed to mould our experience of time. We mentally reflect on our past and use historic events to achieve a sense of our self existing across time.”

We time-travel along the tracks of our memories, and our sense of time expands and contracts in relation to these; and somewhere within this interplay, a space is created for nostalgia.

I don’t think of myself as nostalgic—at least not in the way so many baby-boomers seem to be.

For instance, Facebook is full of posts with titles like Do you remember? featuring toys from my baby-boomer childhood including Etch-a-sketch, Barrel of Monkeys, Matchbox cars, Dinky Toys and Spirograph; gadgets like classic sixties home hair-dryers and cassette tapes; and photos of carefree children packed like luggage into the backs of station wagons.

They’re fun click bait for loads of people, but they mostly make me uneasy. What some embrace as “vintage” and “classic” reminders of more innocent and carefree times strike me as evidence of my generation’s built-in obsolescence.

And then there’s teenage nostalgia, and what it means to be old enough for a high school reunion to have any significance at all.

[It’s a strange irony that while Facebook makes reunions so much easier to coordinate, it’s also making them unnecessary]

I remember watching Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, and listening to South Park’s Matt Stone, a graduate of Columbine, talk about his high school years there and repeating the oppressive message he received over and over from as early as grade 6, that the path he set in middle school would determine the course of his life and which nearly convinced him that “Whatever I am now, I am forever”, when in fact : “[…] of course it’s completely opposite.”

 

There hasn’t been a high school reunion for my graduating year, but my husband attended his. I’m not sure what he was hoping to find there, but he was excited to go. I think that it was a mixture of curiosity—Who would turn up? Would that gorgeous girl still be as gorgeous? Who would remember him? Who wouldn’t? Who got fat? Who lost their hair? How had X and Y and Z’s lives turned out?— and the pull of nostalgia: a yearning for a time when he had so little responsibility, when he was young and strong and perfect and a star athlete.

 

To this day, he’s more likely to listen to music from that period of his life than any other. Those songs are the soundtrack of his memories. What some call Golden Oldies.

They too make me uneasy. They make me feel trapped in a time that I’m relieved to have left behind. They’re a source of tension between us in the car. He’s so much more sentimental than me.

 

If there were one held this year, I’m not sure I’d attend my Class Reunion, and yet, early in the summer of 2015, I connected with my oldest and most precious high school friend. I sought him out through LinkedIn. I hadn’t seen him or heard from him in more years than I want to reveal. For decades. Since the last day of school.

 

And so we arranged to meet for lunch at a restaurant near my home in mid-July. Our meeting was quiet and sweet. We smiled a lot. We were even a little bit bashful. I had found him because I wanted to tell him how much his friendship had meant to me during those years. I knew that he had no idea what my life was really like then, and he couldn’t have guessed what a difference having him as a classmate had made. I wanted to thank him. To close a loop that had been left open all these years.

What I hadn’t expected was how nostalgic he is for those years in his life. There I was, wanting to come full circle and there he was, wanting to revisit those years and reconnect with the people he left behind there and bring them back into his present. He has continued to track old classmates down and gather them together.

Nostalgia is described in online dictionaries as a “feeling of pleasure and also slight sadness when you think about things that happened in the past”, and also as a “bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past”.

At a birthday party with my sisters (left and centre)

 

The bittersweetness of nostalgia is a good thing. There’s a measure of pleasure and pain in almost everything we value in life. All things must pass. There’s a sadness in that too.

This September marked the anniversary of my son Christian’s graduation from LAMDA and my trip to London to visit him. For several weeks before and throughout the month, I was awash in wistful memories and felt a yearning to return there.

Portobello Road, London. England

Though Christian’s life has been happy and challenging and eventful since his return, I still feel (and I think he does too) that there’s unfinished business in England, and that there’s more to experience there, more adventures to be lived.

In this way, nostalgia propels me forward.

But beware of nostalgia when it mixes with fear of change and whispers Keep things as they are and We’ve always done things this way…

 My family’s plans for the future include pooling our resources and buying a property that will accommodate multigenerational living. Our timeline is three to five years. When that day comes, I’ll be forced to sell my house and move from Pointe-Claire, which has been my home since I was three years old. Leaving my hometown will probably be one of the hardest things I’ll ever do.

But the truth is that the Pointe-Claire of my childhood memories is irretrievable, and soon, my sons will feel the same way.

The fields I used to play in have all but disappeared, transformed into housing developments or replaced by meticulously designed parks. The small A-frame cottages that were built for the soldiers returning from WWII on beautiful large lots along Saint-Louis avenue have mostly been torn down to accommodate giant generic homes with no connection to that past. New neighbours arrive on my street year after year, starting a new cycle of childrearing. One local grocery store morphed into a sports equipment retailer, while another, the place where we shopped when we were newlyweds, was just demolished. There’s only flattened earth there now.

Post WWII veteran’s home, Pointe-Claire
Post WWII veteran’s home, Pointe-Claire
New home built on lot of former veteran’s home.
New homes being built on lot of former veteran’s home.

Time marches on.

Living a happy and long life often means learning to let the past disappear.