My mom, the free spirit
Mom learned early that security is an illusion – and that meant we lived for the moment, André-Jean Maheu writes
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"The moment I'd stop the car, you'd be off like a shot. You'd disappear into the raspberry bushes and come back an hour later, stained red from head to toes with a huge smile on your face." There is still a twinkle in my mother's eye as she retells this story from our summer vacations spent camping by the ocean in Nova Scotia. It's understandable, though. There is much more to this cute little family memory than initially meets the eye. It's also a lesson in parenting with commitment and courage and what it means to provide for your family.
My parents were travellers. In the mid-sixties, they decided to pack up and leave for two years to go work in a small hospital in rural Uganda. They took my older sister, who was two at the time, with them. As a new family, they were setting off for a life of adventure. My brother was born shortly after they returned. Then, on New Year's Eve, 1971, my father was taken from us when a scuba diving outing in the Bahamas didn't go as planned. My mother, who was an avid diver, didn't go that time. They had just learned that, in 8 1/2 months, I was to be born.
Just like that, a whole life of projects and adventures, everything they had envisioned together, vanished. Gone. My mom was now a single mother of, soon, three, with modest financial means. She would have to find a way to provide for us, alone. I could go on and on about the amazing strength, grace and courage she displayed throughout her life, but nothing demonstrates this better than the real story behind the raspberry bush anecdote.
To "provide for your family" is a pretty vague concept. For most people, it is interpreted as working to get the money required to buy the things you and your kids need and want. It's easy to become misguided along the way, confusing "needing" and "wanting," and since there is no shortage of stuff we want, we end up working a lot.
We sacrifice a lot of our life this way, probably because there is something inherently reassuring in owning, maybe even stockpiling, things.
My mom, the traveller, saw the emptiness in this endless pursuit of material goods. A lot of people do. What is quite remarkable about my mother, however, is that she had the courage to truly commit to her conviction. As a single mother, she had every possible excuse to seek "security." But life had shown her that security is nothing but an illusion. That you never know what's beyond the next curve in the road. So, every summer, she would do what most people would consider unthinkable.
As a family, the days of international travel to far-off lands were over. Still, my mom couldn't stand the thought of her three kids roaming around on city streets all summer long. She deeply loves nature, especially the ocean. She also deeply cared about sharing this love with us. What this meant though was that, to do this right, every June, instead of just cashing in her two weeks vacation pay, she would simply quit her job without a clue what she would have to fall back on in September, pack up the car and drive 12 hours to the ocean so that we got to spend our whole school vacation riding our bikes, playing on the beach, fishing for mackerel and, yes, especially for me, stuffing my face with the sweetest raspberries in the world. These were the happiest moments of my childhood. I didn't understand at the time the immense effort and courage these summer vacations required. In my blissfully naive child's mind, I thought these vacations were "normal."
Come September, she would hit the ground running once again and go find herself a new job. Don't think for a second that she was fearless, though. She recently confessed how terrified she was, which makes her commitment all the more remarkable.
As an adult, I travelled by bicycle on five continents. Riding on the roads of the world, I met several travellers who told me the story of how they decided to go off travelling. It often involved a mostly absent father who spent countless years chained to a desk only to die of a heart attack at 55, a few years short of finally reaping the sweet fruits he had been diligently putting aside for his entire life. The children, not wanting to repeat the "mistakes" (it's not my place to judge) their parents made, decide to sell everything and live life while it's still their turn. Sometimes, they buy a bike and start pedalling without looking back. My story is different. Instead of avoiding the mistakes my parents made, I'm trying my best, as a dad, to live up to standards set impossibly high by the most courageous person I have ever met.
My two boys and I went riding today. We ended up on the side of a small glacial stream. Before long, on a dare, clothes came off and we were up to our necks in frigid water gasping and laughing uncontrollably. We stopped for a root beer at a small roadside café. On our way back, we spotted some ripe thimbleberries and huckleberries. A plan quickly came together and we started to fill our empty water bottles with enough berries to bake a pie as a surprise for their mom. My youngest son, Alex, and I were picking side by side when he turned to me and asked.
"Papa? What could possibly be better than this?"
As far as I'm concerned, nothing. Merci maman.
André-Jean Maheu lives in Squamish, B.C.