When my mother was a young girl in Cornwall, England, her father was a sailor and was frequently away.
One day, he got on a ship to Canada and never returned. My grandmother was left to cope on her own, and years later she received a note saying “come to Canada” with two tickets inside. They rode the big ship, mother and daughter, vomiting the whole way across the ocean to their new home.
I have been across the ocean, but only by plane, and I did not suffer. My father lived with my mother his whole life and cared for his family tirelessly, until he died too young. Canada has always been my home. I cannot imagine being abandoned in the way my mother and grandmother were. I don’t know where my mother put that pain.
When they arrived in Toronto, my grandfather was not ready to greet them—in many ways. My mother told me at one point they were driving around, all their possessions in the world in the back of a pickup truck, looking for a place to live.
She spoke with horror of the experience, the incredible rootlessness for a child so sensitive and in need of a place of safety. My grandmother had lived through the Great War, and then the Great Depression. She knew life as fragile, and wore the same dress for years, saving new gifts boxed and packed away in the cupboard, forever ready for the next depression. My mother was her protector, and they shared their fear.
When my eldest brother was still small, my parents bought an acre of land east of Toronto and built on it. My brothers and I all grew up in that house; one brother lives there still. We always had clothes, food, toys at Christmas. In the good years there was much more. I have felt the echo of that home in my life, and despite my gypsy ways, I have never been homeless, never known that primal fear. I don’t know where my mother put that pain.
My mother eventually started a life in Canada. My grandparents rented a small apartment over a store on Kingston Road in the east end of Toronto, where my mother attended the local convent school. As an English child, she wore her dress a few inches shorter than the North American style. This was, if anything, a measure of innocence; a little girl still steeped in a pastoral, playful world.
One of the nuns who ran the school felt differently. She stopped her in the hallway one day and questioned her about the length of her skirt. The nun then told her that, by wearing such a revealing dress she clearly must want others to see her undergarments, and then she pulled my mother’s bloomers down below her dress, commanding her to walk like this around the school for the rest of the day. And this was just one story, one day out of weeks, and months, and years.
I too felt crushed by the controlling, fearful atmosphere at my school when I was child, hating the rules, the punishments, the regime. While missing terribly the utter absence of creative freedom and the joy I knew it could bring, the kind of profound cruelty my mother experienced was unimaginable to me. I don’t know where my mother put that pain.
My mother adored her mother. When my parents built their home, horses still roamed in the back fields of Scarborough. Soon after, my mother and father took my grandfather and grandmother in to live with them, giving up any hope of a life of privacy and independence.
My grandparents lived downstairs throughout my whole childhood. Like my mother, I adored my Granny—she sat me on her lap in front of her Underwood typewriter and taught me how to write poetry. She made me soft, warm, hand-sewn dolls who were my dearest companions. She smiled sweetly at me when my mother raged, which was most days.
My mother and I often went downstairs to have lunch with Granny. CBC radio news played in the background, and my grandfather was served Campbell’s green pea soup with bread chunks floating in it. He was a bitter, stubborn man. A Naval captain, his dentures had gone down with his ship in World War II, and he refused to get another set of teeth. He smoked a pipe from the age of nine when he first ran away to join the Navy, and his only pastimes were listening to baseball games on a small, silver radio plugged in by his chair, and doing crossword puzzles.
He kept a dish of Humbugs, English mint candies, on his dresser by the door. I was allowed one as a reward upon departure, when I had been brave enough to visit him. In the years prior to his death, he first gave up smoking, then the ballgames, then crosswords. Eventually he sat silently alone in his room. I don’t remember grieving him when he passed, just feeling less afraid of him now that he was gone.
When my Granny died, my mother almost died with her. Her grief was inconsolable. An already unhappy woman, my mother became brokenhearted beyond repair. She cried for months and eventually went home to Cornwall to spread Granny’s ashes on the sea.
She never spoke to me about her grief, about her mother, about her childhood. We rarely spoke about anything. The truth is, my mother and I were not close—there was no adoration between us. I grew up wondering what it would have been like to have a mother with open arms. I am sure she spent years wondering what it would have been like to have a daughter she understood. I don’t know where my mother put that pain.
I was my mother’s youngest child and only daughter. When I moved away to university, I had caught my Granny crying in her kitchen the day I left. She turned away and said, “Don’t pay attention to an old woman’s tears.” I was so young and so shocked I did not know what to say. I had never seen my grandmother weep.
My mother did not have any tears, not even an embrace. There was no goodbye from her that I remember. I was 17 years of age, and most of our words were hurtful then. I will never know if she ever missed me. I will never know if she was relieved to finally have peace in her home.
Late in her life, when my mother lay terribly ill in a hospital bed with a diabetic, septic leg, forced to make the decision about an amputation, she asked me what I thought she should do. Was it better to have the amputation, or to die now? Never before had she included me in any decision of this nature. I told her the truth, that it had to be her choice, but that I was sure she could heal from the procedure. That there would be something to live for on the other side, even as an old woman with one leg. She looked at me, doubtful. I can still see her quiet stare. And then finally she made the choice to go on, though I knew it was not from any love of life.
I too have known severe illness, but my response was to surrender to the unknown. I did not make a conscious choice about life specifically, but chose to follow my soul’s journey wherever it led. I would live if life called, and I would go if not.
In that moment, I did not carry the weight of a lifetime of denial. I was free in a way that she had never been, I had been blessed by the courage forged in the life she had given me. And I just don’t know, I really don’t know, where she put that pain.
Exquisite perfection is always the way of those we ask to be our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, and lovers. I know I chose her because I thought I could save her. Her beauty was so untouchable, her love so inaccessible, it was my deepest, most unconscious mission to crack open her heart. I believed that she held a golden key there, the answer to my permission to be happy in this world.
But now, more and more every day, I see where her heartbreak actually happened, and it lay in the very same wound as my own. I see that I saw her through the veil of my own hurt, and that she put her suffering right where I put mine. She did not have the words to love me, but as a catalyst she gave me a kind of permission to turn it all around. To be the answer for both of us. To be the one with a chance to take the healing home.
She was my mother. I was her daughter. I was her match, and she was mine. No greater love exists than that between souls who share the same pain.
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Travis May