Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My Mother's Story

Joan Bell Moroney, born January 11, 1922, Edmonton, Alberta. She was the eighth of nine children: the youngest girl after six sisters, her brother was the youngest of them all. Her eldest brother, had died when he was three years old. She shared a bed with her Momma, from the time she was thirteen. Her father was a drinker and a gambler. He was larger than life. He lent my mother and father the down payment for their first house.

She told a story of going to the lake to swim with a bunch of friends when she was in her early teens. She stayed behind because she had her period and overheard all the boys in the group talking about the girls and about things they had 'done' with them. She drove home to her daughters that boys were like that and it was a lesson to not be 'easy' because boys would talk.

She met my father, William Donald Burton, when he was 18 and she was 21. It was April 1942. They were both in the army stationed in Red Deer, Alberta. They got in trouble for fraternizing - she was a private, he was an officer. She had many boyfriends before him, and had become engaged to more than one as these boys headed off to war. Dad joked that when he met her she had to return more than one engagement ring.

On a first date he insulted her by saying he wanted to be the father of her children.

They married on September 3, 1942. His parents didn't approve. Did I mention he was 18?

He went overseas soon after their wedding. She didn't see him again until he returned from the war in 1945. He returned with a dishonourable discharge (which was eventually overturned). She did not meet him at the train. He lived at the Salvation Army for a time. She finally took him home. The whys of this are all a mystery. I asked my Aunt about this once and she wouldn't tell me the details, only that I should ask my mother. I never did. I wish I had.

My father needed psychological support after the war. He went to work, and told my mother she had to quit her job. "There was no point him getting out of bed if she was working". He went to UBC to work towards an engineering degree. She became a housewife. They tried and tried to conceive - even going to a fertility doctor. The doctor told her she would not ever be able to get pregnant. In 1947 she walked into his office, 5 months pregnant, refusing to pay his bill.
Her first child, Tami Jean was born June 18, 1947, followed by Wendy Ellen, February 8, 1949, followed by the first son, John James, March 25, 1951.

They moved to Hamilton - my father taking a job with Westinghouse. At some point while there my mother started to drive off a cliff with all the children in the car. She regained her sanity for a moment and drove to a doctor. She woke up three weeks later in a mental ward.

They moved back to Burnaby BC where I was born. Mary-Anne, October 17, 1955. Then they moved to Victoria. My father was working for BC Electric in sales. We lived in Oak Bay. My father's namesake was born, William Donald Burton, February 10, 1959, and 16 months later my sister, Sherry Lynn, June 1, 1960. My mother often joked that my youngest sister's birthday coincided with the invention of the Birth Control Pill.

She miscarried once, between me and my younger brother.

The family moved to Vancouver in 1963. My father worked for BC Hydro, we all attended local schools, and my mother was an exemplary housewife, mother and gardener. She sewed clothes and curtains, wall-papered and painted, baked bread, made soup, prepared meals, shopped, waxed floors, canvassed for the Salvation Army and the March of Dimes, and entertained 'the ladies' for lunches.

My father died of cancer September 1, 1973. It was a long drawn out illness and my mother kept him at home as long as she could.

After my father died, my mother, only 51 was left at home with three teenagers still to raise. I was 17.

Our relationship had been complicated through my teens. I seemed to be caught between my mother and father. I loved him fiercely, and this seemed problematic for her.

However, there was some respite. We would go clubbing together, drink together, she would let my girlfriends and their boyfriends and my boyfriend all sleep in the living room together while she 'chaperoned'. It was bizarre.

Despite my father stating that he would pay for my university, my mother told me this would not be so. She didn't like my boyfriend. She would get angry that I didn't spend enough money on presents for her, or enough time with her. We fought. Alot.

I moved out wheb I was 19. Once I moved out, our relationship improved.

I had emergency surgery when I was in 3rd year university. She was there for me.

At first she didn't like my now husband. But he grew on her. She grew to love him. He called her Joan. I think she liked that.

She refused to pay for my wedding. I wasn't a virgin and that was a problem for her. She did end up paying for the cake and the sparkling wine. I was married in her back yard.

I moved far away up north and was in a bad car accident. She came up to take care of me, and to help me pack up and move back to Vancouver. She was there for me.

She played bingo, darts at the Legion and taught Yoga to senior ladies. She dated. She swam. She ran a boarding house in the family home. She had sons and daughters-in-law. She was a grandmother. I think there were times of great happiness, and great sadness. She talked of my father often. She missed him.

Through all these years alcohol played a large part of her life, as it had in her years with my father. He lost his license from a DUI while they lived in Victoria The first time I remember seeing her drunk was on Dad's homemade plum wine. After that it was more and more common. It was the time. Everyone's parents drank. Well not everyone's, and I started to suspect when I was in my early 20s that my family's relationship to alcohol was different.

I wanted to have some sort of intervention around her alcoholism around her sixtieth birthday. My siblings were not supportive of this idea. It was her life. It wasn't my business. Every family dinner/event was ruined (for me) by her drinking. It was my problem.

Once my son was born things got worse. There was alot of jealousy around my relationship with my dad's sister. I tried to maintain a relationship with my mother. By the time my second child was born this became more and more difficult. After a one year estrangement my mother and I reconciled. I vowed to only visit before the alcohol came out. It was an uneasy truce, but one that lasted until her death.

She moved to Vernon. Her drinking got worse. I visited her. I missed her. I loved having coffee with her in the morning. No alcohol, and she was funny and interesting and loving. She became estranged from my older sister, and then later from my younger brother and his wife.

As a family we soldiered on. I took on supporting my aunt, now suffering from Alzheimer's. My eldest sister took on supporting my mother.

My mother was suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder. She was on oxygen. She was drinking a bottle of vodka a day. From early afternoon on, it wasn't a pretty picture.

She died August 24, 2004. I had seen her, for the last time, earlier that summer. I cried with a primal grief when I received the call from my eldest sister that she had passed. I hadn't expected my grief to be so deep, or so profound.

It has been over eight years since she passed. I am still reconciling my relationship with her, my anger, my sadness, my loss. We had some horrible fights. She said some horrible things to me. Things I find hard to forget, or forgive.

I know she was unhappy. Unhappy probably from 1942. Alcohol was a way to self medicate that unhappiness. I know that and I am trying hard to forgive it. To have compassion as a good friend once told me. I think of myself as a compassionate person, and it saddens me that perhaps to this woman, who needed my compassion the most, well, I wasn't able, still am not fully able, to give it.

But I am working on it.

I saw the play, My Mother's Story, last Thursday night. It made me sad. It hit a little too close to the bone. It made me see that all these stories of women born in that generation are so similar. Those stories are her story.

What a life. One of seven children. Mother of six. Married to a man to whom I believe there was a passion, but not necessarily a connection. She was happy as that young married woman, her husband overseas, she working and living independently. She loved Vancouver, the beaches, the bustle of the city. I think she even had a good relationship to my father's family, my grandmother and aunt, though this was not to last.

When she was dying, although neither of us would speak of it in those terms, she told me her friend, Amy, had died. Amy was a friend from the war. She said that Amy had asked her some years back to move in with her. My mother said she wished she had. She said Amy was a true friend that she missed. I had never heard her talk of this person before.

People loved my mother. They loved her silliness, and her kindness.

I would have loved to know her in the early 40s. I think she would have been a good friend.

But, that is just my interpretation, and it could be totally wrong. This is my mother's story as I know it. And alot of pieces are missing.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

I dreamt I was dying

It was an awful, vivid dream. I was at emergency. They told me I was dying. They sent me home. I had so much to do. So many loose ends to tie up. It was so real. Tied to the fact the I have a cold and was having trouble breathing in my sleep, and the fact that I was sleeping and couldn't wake up, it felt, physically, like I was dying.

When I woke up it took me quite a few minutes to realize it had been a dream and that I wasn't, in fact, dying.

But I am. We all are. We are all dying. Maybe it is not today, or tomorrow, or in four months. But it is a fact.

So why do we wait for the big wake-up call? If there are things to do, or say, or plan, or organize, shouldn't we get on it? Shouldn't I get on it?

I dreamt of planning to try alternate therapies. I dreamt of steeling myself for chemo. I dreamt of what I wanted to say to my children, my husband, my sister. How would I say good-bye? How do you say good-bye?

I was afraid. I didn't want to die. I wanted someone to do something to help me.

I woke up (or maybe I was still dreaming), thinking of my dear friend who died two years ago - in her own bed, with a friend by her side. A friend,one of many, who had kept vigil over her as she lived those last few weeks of life. She had made sure everything was organized and taken care of before she died. She tied up all those loose ends. I admire her for that. That and her huge heart and big smile.

Most days I don't think about dying. I imagine I have forever. Or at least a good 50 years.

But today, I am thinking about dying. My death. The death of others close to me.

It must be Fall. It has finally come and while I am admiring its beauty I must also herald its message. Winter is coming. I should prepare for it.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Reluctant Fall

Fall seems reluctant to really take hold this year. The one deciduous tree outside my kitchen window is resisting the turn of colours that heralds autumn's place in the seasonal shift of time.
The days are warm, the sun bright and summer still beckons us back to days on a beach, in the water, on a back deck.

Perhaps the reluctance is because there are only so many winters in one's life, in this life. For some close to me the winter is too much with us, for others spring is perpetual.

Saint Michael has come again this fall to bring us courage. Soon Saint Martin will remind us to be generous with whatever we have - be it time, or money, or belongings. And when the November rains overwhelm us, Advent will come to shed some light into the deepening darkness.

Be brave, dear Autumn. It is your time. Bring on your cool mornings, your cooler evenings, your vibrant colours of red and gold. We are not afraid.

And you are so beautiful.