Wednesday, 21 March 2012

In My Dreams...

I'm a dreamer. Not the pie-in-the-sky variety, but the dead-to-the-world-sound-asleep kind. My nocturnal videos often take me to strange places with people I don't believe I've ever met. Or have I? That's the thing about dreams, you just never know. Sometimes this shadowy world seems far too real to be merely a part of one's wacky subconscious. A few dreams I've had since Mom and Angela have taken wing seem too vivid to discount as mere dreams. The recurring ones leave me feeling anxious, inept, and even sad. 

My dreams of Angela consist of her desire to come back and secure loose ends left dangling by her sudden passing. To do this, her spirit must enter the body of someone who hasn't quite crossed over. As you can well imagine, these bodies are seldom in good shape. My mission, whether or not I choose to accept it, is to accompany her on this sojourn and provide the support she needs to accomplish it - even if it means picking up a dropped appendage or two. It's a race against time as the host seemingly melts away. The task is never completed before the borrowed shell gives up the ghost and Angela must take wing once again. When the dream returns we never pick up where we left off - it seems this task must be completed in its entirety or not at all. It's been a month or more since our last attempt. Perhaps she's looking for a better specimen or a more proficient helper.

The dreams I've had about Mom involve her coming back to die a good death. But each time she comes back the death is no better - it's still death. I've come to realize that perhaps the circumstances surrounding her death are no longer as troubling to me as the fact that she's actually gone. I miss her so and I never, in my dreams, imagined how much. Recently, the dreams about Mom have taken a more pleasant turn. A month or so ago we took that trip to Australia she always wanted. There was no infirmity plaguing her. She was her vibrant, sparkling self - walking, talking, laughing. We had a great time and upon waking, it was a nice remembrance. A few weeks ago, my subconscious happily allowed her to reclaim her mothering role.

At the end of February, a dear friend of our family passed away. She was 'Aunt Hilda' to me even though there was no familial tie. She and my 'Uncle Tom' were friends with my Dad even before he met my Mom and they became good friends as couples. Like Mom and Angela, Aunt Hilda took wing on a Monday and the celebration of her life was held that Wednesday. I booked a flight and set my alarm for four o'clock that morning to ensure I was up on time. The dream I had that night took place in the old house where both Mom and I grew up. I saw it as vividly as if it were still standing. Mom and I said our good night's and went to bed. In the morning, she shook me awake in a terrible panic, shouting, "It's six a.m.! You'd better get up and get ready or you'll miss your flight and your Aunt Hilda's service!" I woke from this dream with a start and immediately looked at the clock. It was actually three fifty-eight. She made sure I got up on time. Thanks Mom.

It's a year ago today that Mom died. The year of firsts is behind me. The heartache has lessened. It seemed there was a lifting of a heavy burden after Christmas. I felt less sad, less prone to tears. I started remembering happier times. I'm not sure what phenomenon took place to make this happen, whether it was simply the passage of time or a final 'letting go' on both our parts; mine and Mom's. I'd like to think she's settled in and 'the powers that be' have put her many talents to good use. Busy hands, happy heart - that's my Mom.

I feel blessed to have the memory of my Mom to warm my soul and until my time comes - I know I'll see her in my dreams.

The rest is pixie dust...

Monday, 27 February 2012

Everybody does it...

Many moons ago, the company I worked for sent me to a public speaking workshop to prepare me to present an education program to children in grades three to six. I learned some great techniques as well as many common pitfalls of public speaking. I felt prepared for my first experience presenting to my daughter's grade three class. Her sweet face was front and centre. I smiled away my sweaty palms and tried not to appear too nervous. When my daughter got home from school that day I asked her how she thought I did. She said, "I could tell you were nervous Mom - next time, just look at everyone and remember - they have to poop too." I was taken aback by this gem of wisdom, this simple nugget of truth from one so young. This common bodily function breaks down barriers of class and intellect and seats us all on the same throne. It was great advice and I've carried it with me ever since. Whenever I'm in a situation where I feel my confidence waning I just remember, everybody does it.

My Mom knew it was important that 'everybody did it' and she seemed rather fixated on the regularity of her family members.  Her grandchildren will remember being asked almost daily, "Did you have a BM today?" If they hadn't she would give them one of her homemade 'Gran-muffins' or hand them a few prunes.

Mom revered the humble prune. She even had a prune keyfob and a prune fridge magnet that said, "Keeps Canada Moving!". On car trips or in a doctor's office tucked into the dark corners of her purse she always had a bag of prunes. She never left home without them. Mom preferred prunes with their pits intact. After she devoured the flesh the pit kept her mouth busy for hours. In later years, she stewed her own prunes and enjoyed them as a bedtime snack. I can't see a prune and not think fondly of my Mom.

Eventually, the tables turned and Mom's regularity became as important to me as ours once was to her. I guess this is a natural part of caregiving. As her infirmity increased her motility decreased. Sometimes it seemed nothing short of dynamite would do the trick. So at breakfast I would concoct a smoothie of bran softened in hot water, mixed with cream of wheat, milk and a little brown sugar so it was edible through a straw. Finally, when success was achieved, we celebrated and I would sing her this little song: 

Ta ra ra BOOM-de-ay!
I had a poop today,
I didn't yesterday,
I want to shout HOORAY!

Ta ra ra BOOM-de-ay!
I had a poop today,
Good-bye old poop I say,
You swirl and swim away.

She would laugh and clap as I danced and gyrated my way through this little diddy. When she caught her breath she would beg me to, "Write that down!". So I wrote it in the pages of the journals I kept for her. It appears sporadically throughout each volume and whenever I see it, I can't help but smile.

Mom would be pleased to see that I too, keep a bag of prunes. I prefer the unpitted variety. And every morning I have a helping of bran with fruit, half a teaspoon of cinnamon, some ground flax and chia seeds, mixed with half a cup of hot milk. My husband calls it 'swill'. But I don't care - it keeps Canada moving.

Ta ra ra BOOM-de-ay!

The rest is pixie dust... 

Monday, 30 January 2012

Looking back...

Every January I reflect on the previous year and take stock of events, both life-altering and otherwise and decide how I fared personally. How did I cope? What could I have done differently? Could I have made things better? It sounds like a lot of second guessing doesn't it? This year, I used journals I'd written to assess my performance through the events that marked 2011. One thing is for certain, my routine has changed drastically. I'm no longer getting up at the crack of dawn, showering, having breakfast, taking my husband to the train and then heading to the seniors residence for my morning visit with my Mom. Those were precious times, as my journal entries reveal. 

"This morning her eyes were closed when I entered her room. The rustle of my jacket awakened her. I could tell it took her a second to recognize me. I helped her a little by giving her a cheery, "Hi Mom!". She reached for my hand and warmed my icy fingers in hers. "It's cold outside.", she observed. She asked why it was so cold and just as I was about to tell her there was less than a month before Christmas, her alarm clock heralded the early morning hour with "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas". We both smiled and I said, "It's nearly Christmas Mom." "Is it really?", she asked, so surprised. As though this was a first in our morning ritual." 

Reading through various journal entries lets me play a movie in my mind, frame by frame. How fortunate I was to have the time to spend with her. Although the journals I kept for Mom were pretty repetitive; telling her the day and date, what time I arrived, and what her first comments were, they weren't without purpose.

"Today is Monday, January 3, 2011. I arrived at 7:25 this morning. You were asleep until I fiddled with the lamp. The first thing you asked was what they had done to you. You thought you were in the hospital and had an operation. I told you that you are in a nursing home not a hospital. You said, "You mean I'm not sick???" I said, "Nope - just old." That seemed to make you feel better."

Then I would proceed to tell her the tasks I completed for her each morning.

"I put your teeth in and gave you a facecloth for your face, and put lotion on your knees and shoulder. I no sooner got that done when Bernice and Nadya came in to get you up. Great timing. You have fresh clothes to wear today too."

Followed by the weather report. 

"It's nice and warm outside - almost zero. Nice to have the break from the cold temperatures. Garnet has today off but is back to work tomorrow."

Everything I wrote was printed in large black letters so she could read it when I wasn't there; to reassure her that someone loved her and visited her everyday. Each entry ended the same way.

"You are living in a nursing home in Edmonton. You have a will that is fair to all and enough money to live forever. Don't worry - be happy. You are safe and I am near. I love you very much! Cathie"

Then I would draw a silly face at the bottom of the page. Everyday I'd draw different features, expressions or hair. These caricatures might catch her eye as the journal lay open on her desk and she could read and be comforted for a few moments. Occasionally, she might try to write something herself. In those pages, written in her scrawl I found, "Thank God for writers!".

Looking back is hard. In one of my Mom's old journals I found a post-it note that said, "Cath, get rid of these... looking back serves no purpose." But looking back now lets me see that I gave my Mom all the love I could muster. Albeit an impossible feat, I did my best to repay her for all she did for me. I truly honoured my Mother. All in all, that's not a bad report card.

I miss having a mother. I miss being a daughter. Some are never so blessed.

The rest is pixie dust...

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Home for Christmas...

Christmas was a happy time for me when I was growing up even though my Mom's journals tell a different story. My Dad's excessive drinking did much to dampen the holiday spirit - though I don't recall much of that until I was much older. Lucky for me, Mom always seemed to honor the season, make Christmas fun and invite magic.

My first Christmas  memory is when I was four and asked Santa for a Chatty Cathy doll. My sister even took me to Toy Town where I sat on Santa's knee and told him exactly what I wanted. She cast some doubt on Santa's ability to deliver because he laughed with a 'HA-HA-HA' instead of a 'HO-HO-HO'. So imagine my delight and surprise when I awoke on Christmas morning and ran into the living room to see the Christmas tree shining its warm light on the glossy brown hair and freckled nose of my unwrapped heart's desire. "Oh boy! A Chatty Cathy!", was the alarm clock of exclamation that jarred the rest of the house awake. Over and over I pulled her string to hear her crackle, "I'm hungry" or, "I'm sleepy" or, "I love you". Santa had delivered and I believed in the magic.

My friends recall the magic too. They remember the ceiling skimming Christmas tree that Dad would bring home. He would trim the bark and set it standing straight and tall in the tree stand Grandpa had made years before. After it was sufficiently thawed, we adorned it with colorful lights, glossy balls, tinsel and these amazing glow-in-the-dark icicles that entertained us for hours on end. My friends and I would each grab an icicle, hold it up to a light bulb to charge it, then race into the bedroom and dive under the covers to giggle and watch them glow. The house was brimming with fun and there was an abundance of food, lots of visitors and that magic in the air.

Somewhere along the way I lost the magic. Maybe it started when my Dad spent three days in bed over Christmas with a self-inflicted flu. Or maybe I was simply ill-prepared as a young wife and working mother. All I know is, when the magic of the season became my responsibility I lost my way. My own emotional bankruptcy caused me to get caught up in filling the gaps beneath the tree without the means to do so. Christmas became an effort, another chore, an expense we simply couldn't afford. The season became a drudgery and I became a Grinch.

I remained this way until last year, the last Christmas I spent with my Mom. Last year I stopped fighting the season and just let it come. The impetus was not as simple as a change in mindset. It started with the promise of spending Christmas with someone very dear to me. But it wasn't the thought of spending it together that prompted the change. It was when the promise was broken and my hopes dashed that I realized the importance I placed on the season. If the magic wasn't still there, why did I care? It was time to stop ingesting my usual fare of three decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwiches with arsenic sauce and feast on the season instead. 

So I listened to the music, even hummed and whistled along. I let the greetings of the season cross my lips. I decorated. I baked a little. I let it fill the air I breathed. I even read the passages in the bible that tell of the birth of Christ - the very reason we celebrate in the first place. I let the season in and the magic find me. It was the best Christmas I'd had in years. In hindsight, I'm so glad Mom and I shared the sweetness of the season one last time.

This year is my first Christmas without Mom. The memories of Christmas' past have come flooding back. How wondrous that my mind allows me to reconstruct the old house where I grew up and fill it full of happy memories; my parents busy making Christmas, my Grandpa keeping a watchful eye from the comfort of his chair, my siblings and I safe and warm under the same roof, the soft glow of the tree, Grandma's oak dining room table set - full of its leaves to gather us in. The sights, the sounds, the smells.  It makes me want to curl up to watch "It's a Wonderful Life" and fall in love with Jimmy Stewart all over again. I'm home for Christmas.

The rest is pixie dust...

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Simple Threads...

My Mom was born to two loving parents. Their names were Edward and Annie. Their courtship was long because Edward was two years younger than Annie - quite scandalous for the time. So for four years they worked on a knitted afghan together. He wound the skeins of yarn while she knitted. It made them good friends and kept their hands appropriately occupied until they finally wed in August of 1905. 

Edward was tired of working in the coal mines so they came to Canada from England on the Empress of Ireland in the early 1900's. They had family in Indian Head, Saskatchewan but settled in Medicine Hat because of the warm chinook winds. They'd been blessed with two daughters before they left England, but the eldest, Irene, died. So only Agnes accompanied them on their voyage. Canada proved fertile ground and four strong boys followed before my Mom finally came along.

Grandma was forty when Mom was born and was growing weary of having kids underfoot by that time. So Grandpa built Mom a playhouse to keep her entertained and out from under her Mother's skirt. It was a little girl's dream. It had curtains on the windows, shingles on the roof, and two rocking chairs on either side of a little pot belly stove where Mom fried potatoes. Grandpa even erected a swing not far from the playhouse. This haven provided Mom with endless hours of occupation and enjoyment. Eventually, it became a great place to sneak a cigarette or two. Although Mom was usually a good girl she was known to push the boundaries a little. This didn't always sit well with Grandma. She was very much the proper English lady and had high expectations for her youngest daughter. Grandpa, on the other hand, never forgot what it was like to be a kid and often acted as the buffer between Mom and Grandma. This made a special bond between father and daughter.

You can tell from this photo that Mom adored her Dad. Aside from his occupation as a wheel-checker for the CPR, he was an inventor of sorts and revitalized discards by turning them into useful objects. Mom pushed apple-box-baby-doll-buggies with pride. I still have the sock-darning-tool he made out of scrap tin and an old doorknob. I doubt he ever imagined it would become an ornament or conversation piece one day. Grandpa was also an avid gardener and spent early springtime in the greenhouse he built preparing bedding plants. He grew all manner of vegetables that were enjoyed year round and dressed the old house up with beautiful flowers around the perimeter. He loved pansies, snapdragons and sweet peas the best. A ring of Marigolds around the garden kept the potato bugs at bay. After the daily maintenance was done he would sit back in his lawn chair, roll a cigarette and watch the garden grow.

Grandma and Grandpa enjoyed fifty years of marriage before she died in December 1955. My cousin Jim was born two days after her passing. He and I are the only two grandchildren who never made her acquaintance. Grandpa died when I was only six. But he had a hand in who I am today. I still remember creeping into his bedroom for a humbug candy he kept in the crinkly bag under his pillow. During Winter, he watched The Friendly Giant and Chez Helene with me as I teetered back and forth in one of the rocking chairs from Mom's old playhouse. Then in Spring, after teaching me the alphabet and how to count with every push of the swing, he sat back in his lawn chair, rolled a cigarette and watched me and the garden grow.

The courtship afghan Grandma and Grandpa made belongs to me now. I look at it and marvel at how their hands worked together to create something so beautiful. I like to think they wove their love into this precious artifact and conceived their children beneath its folds. These simple threads were just the beginning.

The rest is pixie dust...

Monday, 7 November 2011


My parents had three children. Mom always said, "Two to fight and one to break it up." But it didn't really work out that way. We were too far apart. My brother was born twelve years before me and my sister was five years my senior. Mom got one of us in school and had another. In essence we were all like only children and living in a remote area with only our cousins as neighbors didn't help. We barely knew each other. 

My sister and I shared a bedroom. For much of our cohabitation I recall the room being divided by a line of masking tape and her side had the door. Even her drawers had masking tape locks and when they started to lose their grip and curl in on themselves I was instantly blamed for being the nosy little sister. I was nothing but a nuisance. But there were times when she was a good sister. 

I remember being awakened on a warm summer's evening by the patter of rain on the roof. The rest of the house was asleep and my sister took me out for a walk in the rain. We didn't need our coats and I felt the rain on my skin; warm, insistent, cleansing, and reveled in the smell of the earth having a bath. It's a memory I'll always cherish. She was also there when I brought my first newborn home from the hospital. She spent time with me, helped around the house, treated me like a contemporary, loved me like a sister.

I longed for her approval. I guess that's normal for a younger sister. She was beautiful, funny, intelligent, talented, popular, all the things I wasn't, or didn't think I was. I did things and made decisions based on what she did or what I thought she would do. She cast a long shadow and I lived within it. Then, when I was thirty, she vanished.

Even though her influence wasn't always positive, I was lost. I didn't know how to be just me. For the first time in my life what she thought didn't matter. I didn't have to dress like her anymore, or try to think or act like her. It was a whole new world for me and I blossomed. Finally, I asked myself what I felt and acted on it. I thought about her. I even missed her. I wondered what would make her disappear like that. 

Nearly ten years later I was walking in downtown Calgary and noticed what I thought was a familiar figure coming toward me. It was like watching a mirage take shape. As I got closer I realized my eyes weren't playing tricks on me, it was my sister. She was impeccably dressed and walked with her usual confident stride. As we approached one another she said, "Hello Cathie" and I responded, "Hello Fay" and we just kept on walking, like two ships passing. That's the last time I saw her.

I often thought how hard it must've been for my parents to lose a daughter the way they lost my sister. Mom always wondered when she heard on the news about a woman's body found in a Calgary dumpster, if it was Fay. I can't imagine that kind of pain. I know Mom missed her. When I was caring for her there were times when dementia made her think I was my sister. I didn't bother correcting her. If it gave her some comfort to finally see her long lost daughter, who was I to take that away from her. I loved my Mom too much.

I've been angry with my sister sometimes. It would've been nice to have a sister when my Mom was failing; someone to lend a hand, spell me off a bit, share the watchdog duties. But it likely wouldn't have been as ideal as my imagination depicts and the woman I've become can't live within anyone's shadow now. I have my own. I've come a long way. 

Recently I went to court to have my sister declared dead, only after a lengthy, empty-handed search to find her. It was something I had to do in order to distribute my Mom's estate. Even though it was necessary, it left me feeling unsettled and without closure, even a little dirty. All the judge did was rub his furrowed brow, ask me a few questions and grant the judgement. In my mind I heard the officious tap of an imagined gavel declare, "Bang, bang... she's dead." 

The rest is pixie dust...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Baker's Secret...

Mom had four big brothers, Eddy, Walter, Tom and John. Before the war, Mom's brothers worked a farm outside town and Mom left her school career after grade eleven to cook and clean for the boys. She could barely open a can and housework wasn't really her strong suit. Her own Mother lost her Mum when she was just seven years old and learned the fine art of homemaking at a very young age, so Grandma didn't provide much tutelage for my Mom. She thought her daughter would be cooking and cleaning soon enough. So this was quite a jump-in-with-both-feet venture for a fun-loving girl, especially with four hungry brothers to feed.

But this feet-first indoctrination paid off. Although she never thought so, Mom became an excellent cook and prepared wonderful meals for her family. Most often, if she wasn't outside in the yard, or hunched over her trusty old Pfaff sewing away, she was in the kitchen whistling a happy tune or singing a nonsense song while she cooked something up. Sometimes she would sing about the ingredients in a recipe, or it might be something about the cat or dog, or maybe even one of us. Mom enjoyed her own accompaniment. Once in a while she would even belt out a tune on her harmonica with the dog singing soprano or sit down at the piano and play a rendition of "The Happy Farmer'. Mom's cheer became an ingredient in everything she did and her family benefited.

There was nothing like coming home from school to the smell of warm cookies, hot cinnamon buns, or fresh baked bread. I loved hot breadsticks dipped in butter as an after-school snack. Pies were Mom's specialty; apple, peach, raisin, pumpkin, blueberry, saskatoon, black currant and my personal favorite, rhubarb custard. She made the finest, flakiest, melt-in-your-mouth pastry I've ever tasted. I can remember my brother eating a whole raisin pie in one sitting. Her eldest grandson loved her bran muffins so much he renamed them "Gran Muffins". Then there were the main courses like, cabbage rolls, sauerkraut and spare ribs, beef streudles, left-over turkey stirfry, skillet burgers, sweet and sour spare ribs, macaroni and cheese with homemade croutons, roast beef and yorkshire pudding, just to name a few. The roaster she used made the most perfectly seasoned gravy ever. Her grandkids even called it 'Granny's Special Sauce'. 

I inherited her roasting pan and enamel-coated cast-iron dutch oven when she moved from her home into assisted- living. I thought I had it made. Finally I had the magic bullet I needed to become a wiz in the kitchen. Sadly, neither the roaster nor the dutch oven were willing to reveal any of their secrets. Even the few recipes I had of Mom's didn't end up tasting as good as they did when she prepared them. I finally gave up on the roaster, but the scarred old dutch oven makes a decent chili, a hearty beef stew, and a savory ginger carrot soup. I guess nothing tasting like 'what Mom used to make' makes remembering it that much better. Maybe it was Mom's special brand of cheer that made everything she prepared so delicious. If that was her secret there's really no replicating it. I don't have a piano and I can't play the harmonica. I guess I can try whistling a happy tune or singing a silly song about the furkids and see what happens.

The rest is pixie dust...