The copse of cedar trees where I disappear from sight and can stop saying goodbye to my mother is 100 metres from the house.
Until then I must turn and say goodbye again and again, every time she says goodbye.
To neglect this duty is too risky to contemplate. I love my mother, but she feels things deeply, and she’s prickly. Intelligent, shrewd, short, capable, fiercely confrontational, she could have been the CEO of a multinational arms manufacturer. But she is instead a member of the lost generation of feminism: born in 1915 (Ipswich, Suffolk, country girl), too late for the first wave of suffragettes and too soon for the second wave of Friedan and Greer and Dworkin, her education upended by the Depression and the Second World War and replaced by childbirth and motherhood. So instead she runs her household as if it were a multinational arms manufacturer. Her motto is fire, ready, aim.
The trek to the cedars is on my way to school in downtown Montreal, 40 minutes away by train from the suburb of Pointe Claire.
This is my independent life, and I eagerly rejoin it every day, away from the chronic angers of her house. But before I am released she extracts her due.
The irony is, I started this routine. It’s 1965; I’m 11, the eldest of two boys and two girls. My father leaves for work long before me, and I don’t want her to feel alone when we all head to school. It is the job of her children to relieve her loneliness, her imprisonment as a homemaker.
Only years later do I realize she thought she was doing me the favour. She thought I needed her company. This was true more than I admitted.
This is the dilemma of being and having a mother, the person who raises her children only to have them leave her. That is the unpayable debt we acknowledge on Mother’s Day, when we honour the undeniable sacrifice that, on the other hand, no child asks a mother to make.
Goodbye, Ma. For God’s sake, Ma, goodbye.
She was born Cicely Hilda Betts. My father called her Veronica, because he thought she looked like Veronica Lake. She’s been dead nine years now. I still have a few of the possessions she kept long enough to leave behind. I don’t seem to be able to throw them away. That’s the price a mother’s children pay.
Pudding tins and recipe boxes
I don’t actually believe that, by using her pan, I will be able to create Yorkshire puddings equal to hers. But she taught me to cook, and I like a hint of her in the kitchen.
The recipes she inherited from her Suffolk family and wrote out by hand on index cards were stacked in a painted wooden box on a bookshelf below the telephone (mounted wall version, extra-long cord) in her kitchen in Montreal. This was not a box you wanted to open without her permission. She was ferociously protective of what little privacy she had as our mother. “One drawer to myself, that’s all I ask!” Of course we ransacked it all the time, for clues to who she had been before she was ours.
If as an adult you were kind or did her a favour – weeded her garden, took her shopping – she would confer her specialties upon you, or even pass along a recipe, albeit only orally: the famous Yorkshire pudding, sweet tomato chili, pickled beets, sausage pies.
But she often left out an ingredient; the dish’s failure was almost guaranteed. “Well,” she’d say, in her highest English accent, “did you remember to include the drippings in the batter?”
“You never mentioned drippings.”
“Drippings are essential.”
The older the recipe, the holier it was. She was from a clan of English country people who have lived within an hour’s drive of one another in East Anglia for 150 years. She missed them. Wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag within the wooden box was the most valuable recipe of all: her mother Hilda’s formula for Christmas plum pudding, written in Hilda’s hand, an endless list of ever denser ingredients boiled for 12 hours and aged for months. The last is a gill of brandy, which Hilda mixed with milk and two bottles of Guinness for the dessert’s flaming sauce. The pudding was delicious, but also like eating something from the centre of the Earth. Hilda made and mailed her last one shortly before she died, unexpectedly, in 1963. My mother kept that pudding in the back of her second fridge for 20 years before serving it, at which point it was practically hallucinogenic.
Unlike most mothers today, who work outside their homes and diversify their value, mine relied entirely on the solid household arts: puddings and pies and smocking and socks, handmade lavender sachets and endless acts of darning. Talk and feelings were untrustworthy, and change was the enemy. After my children were born and I began hosting Christmas dinner, I decided to chop and sauté the Brussels sprouts in butter, rather than simply boil them, as my mother and her mother and her mother had done. This was seen by all as an act of treason until Ma decided she preferred sautéed sprouts, at which point – think of the court of Louis XIV – everyone liked them.
Like most mothers even today, she was a ruthless emotional blackmailer. She kept a handy Xerox of an Ann Landers column bearing the headline “I wish I’d told my Mom how much I loved her.” When I went away to school and didn’t call for three weeks, she answered the phone politely: “Who’s this? I’m sorry, I don’t recognize anyone of that name,” and hung up. The British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once defined the ideal mother as one who encourages her children to have adventures, without making them feel guilty for venturing. My mother saw guilt as an opportunity. “One day you’ll come home and I won’t be here,” she warned us approximately four times a year when we were children. The threat of her independence, of course, was a lie: It was not we who could not live without her, but she who could never leave us.
In the garden
She did her best to recreate England in her garden. It was her best story, the plot she devised and revised and retold. The greater the number of child workers she could press-gang into improving it, the better: She believed weeding did more for a developing youth than, say, reading, which only led to unhealthy introspection, idleness, and the worst sin of all (though it was never mentioned by name), masturbation. The garden, on the other hand, publicly rewarded public work. She liked to stand nearby and correct your planting as you toiled. “Not so deep, for heaven’s sake, they’ll never come up. And not so close together.”
My mother’s favourite flower was the sweet pea. Her mother’s favourite was calceolaria. I’ve forgotten what her grandmother’s was, but she knew, and planted it. She understood instantly what would grow and what would not. The only book she kept next to her chair in her TV room (Coronation Street, The Young and the Restless) was The Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers, which described 200 British species. To this day it falls open at forget-me-nots and bittersweet.
The beating sticks
The first was a sergeant-major’s swagger stick, a two-foot length of ash with a pewter top and tip. It was springy, capable of inducing stinging pain without causing serious structural damage. When she raged in on my brother, Tim, and I because we were still talking after we were supposed to be asleep, the best defence was to keep her from pulling the blankets off the bed, thereby exposing our legs. But that never worked for long.
One night, she broke the stick on someone’s leg. “Now see what you’ve made me do!” she shouted. We found this triumphantly hilarious. She might have been drinking (gin and red vermouth); she did, in bursts. She saved the pewter tip of that cane all her life. As a reminder of that night? As a rebuke to herself for her spite? As a memento of it? Probably all three. She was complicated.
The demise of the swagger stick was excellent news but also not, because she replaced it immediately with a bamboo cane my father had won at a local carnival.
Her usual targets were arms and legs; the head was reserved to make a specific point. If she couldn’t find her stick – hiding it only made matters worse – she dragooned any object at hand into service: saucepan, wooden spoon, hairbrush, garden hose, shoe, her hand. She had big hands and good aim.
Weighed against her tantrums with the stick – this is the way these equations balance –were astonishing bouts of warmth and kindness. Her generosity was legendary. Her loyalty – in the face of any setback, whether a disabled grandchild or a financial collapse – grew straight out of the earth. She hated her weight and the way she looked – late pregnancy had taken its toll – but loved anything beautiful or skilled: a room, a clock, well-cut hay. She liked dirty jokes but not cheap ones. She was afraid of pregnancy but terrified by menopause. She was the hardest-working person I have ever met. She berated my father daily, and stayed with him to the end. She was a mass of throbbing contradictions. Every mother is. Too bad we never celebrate that.
I make no claim to victimhood here, though I resented the steady anxiety her temper produced in the family. I understand physical punishment’s lasting consequences (depression, aggression, anxiety) and its unexpected ones (resilience and a sense of humour). I never struck my own children. I never wanted to. Why did she strike us? Because she didn’t want to be only what the world told her she had to be.
My mother’s secrets
In 1933, at the age of 18, against the wishes of her father, she married 34-year-old Arthur Lake, a prosperous captain in the merchant marine, and moved with him to a luxurious life in Hong Kong, where she bore a son, my half-brother, Peter. Arthur was old-fashioned and jealous; she was young and vivacious. He accused her of being unfaithful. She accused him of trying to shoot her (he hit the door frame instead) and of sleeping with their amah.
By the time the couple returned to England at the outset of the Second World War, the marriage was violent and in tatters. They separated. She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service and met my father, Peter Brown, a commando who had grown up in north London. He was the kind man she had never met; she had the warm family he always wanted. What with the divorce, which Arthur resisted, and my father’s work, which took him around the world, 10 years of courtship in England passed before he persuaded her to move with him to Montreal. She feared its winters, when the gardens disappeared.
For a long time, to us, she pretended her first marriage never happened. I learned of it by accident when I was 16. She needed another 20 years to show us the photographs she had locked in an attaché case in her closet. Her shame – over the divorce, at having become pregnant at such a young age, for having thrown away any chance of a career –was as deep as it was unnecessary. But shame breeds secrecy, and secrecy breeds more shame, and the cost of both is intimacy. Most of what I know about her early life I learned after she died. There’s a Mother’s Day gift suggestion for you: If you’re a mother, or the offspring of one who is still alive, have a real conversation. Have it now.
A record for everything
She kept meticulous records: chequebooks, bank statements, correspondence with the village council, the cost of her spring plantings. Her address books were the centre of her existence. They evolved as she aged. (I was born when she was 39, my brother when she was 41, our twin sisters when she was 45.) The early ones are crisp and organized. Her favourite sisters lead the parade. Family members, the gas company, dressmakers, pastors, furniture repairmen and landscapers follow.
Her last one is more elemental. The first and only number on the first page is that of my parents’ doctor, in heavy black felt pen.
Nearby neighbours follow, people who can come quickly if needed. Goretti, her cleaning lady, is listed as “friend and angel.” My wife’s telephone number is prominent because that call always produced immediate results. Several of these entries appear several times, on different pages. Toward the back, my mother has left herself another reminder: the brand names of two inexpensive but reliable white wines.
Tucked into the pocket of the back cover of the address book, handwritten on a slip of paper, is a list of spells, apparently from a Portuguese fortune teller. “Salt on hands prosperity,” reads one. Another: “Mint Rose Nutmeg truth.”
The last spell, the one that makes it slightly hard for me to breathe, is “Honey Molasses & cinnamon brings in people.” It’s the cure for loneliness.
What she was reading
My mother was not an avid reader of novels, but she was always reading: small-format diet books she picked up at the supermarket (The Two-Week Milk Diet!); slim books of dreadful light verse; Dreams and Omens, by James Ward (first published in 1920, still available on Amazon), a tattered pile she consulted like a scholar.
She also kept three volumes of Uncle Arthur stories, from the endless series of morality tales by Arthur Stanley Maxwell, a British Seventh-day Adventist. They are among the few books my mother read to her children.
A story in volume three is about a boy named Bobby, who loved baseball. He played it every day after school. One morning as he left for class, baseball mitt in hand, his tired, overworked mother – all the women in the Uncle Arthur stories are thin and exhausted –said “Bobby, I wonder if just today, this one day, you could not play baseball, and come home after school to help me. Because I’m so tired and all alone.” (All the women in the Uncle Arthur stories are alone, too: A strange plague seems to have wiped out their husbands.)
And of course Bobby, like any good kid, says, “Yes, Mum, I certainly will.” And then, like most kids, he forgets. When he finally returns at the end of his golden afternoon of fun, he finds his mother – dead! On the kitchen floor!
Even as a young child I knew that story was an admonition: Do not neglect your mother, or she will die on the kitchen floor, and it will be your fault. I sometimes wondered what motherless life would be like, but never lingered there for long. The conditions of her love, however severe, were preferable to no love at all, as all children understand.
A week before my mother unexpectedly dies in September of 2009, at age 94, the last afternoon I see her alive all my far-flung siblings have managed to come to her house for lunch. (The spell has worked.) She has made devilled shrimp, one of her late-life specialties – easy for her, with only a slightly elevated risk of ptomaine for us. To entertain our mother, we read aloud the Uncle Arthur story about baseball Billy’s neglected dead mother on the kitchen floor.
The story makes my mother collapse with laughter. Her laugh – never easy to earn –builds over time through a process of gradual but continuous expansion, as if a kettle were coming to the boil against its will. If you make her laugh against her stubborn will, it breaks her rules, and the world you share together is suddenly, finally, larger than she is. This frees you, and it frees her. A week from now she will be dead on a gurney in a hospital, and I will kiss her hand, and find it softer than it ever was in life. But this afternoon she’s here, and this is a rare chance to know her.