June 1, 2007

not a final testament

And so ends the month of Mother's Day, one of the holiest days of the Hallmark calendar. The guilt-ridden obligations of this annual date and its esteemed place between religious observances is appropriate because my mom has put forth more mixed messages and guilt trips than the Old Testament. Sometimes the passages are completely contradictory, and the prescience of the holy book — which heretics refer to as 'self-fulfilling prophecy' — just supports my analogy.
Thou art a little bitch but also a wonderful, beloved daughter. Thou shalt be a disappointment unto thine boyfriends, and yet, when they leave, how could they value you not? Thou needeth to lose weight; thou art already beautiful — but thy beauty shall be more apparent with the loss of weight. Verily, I say unto you that you shall fail; despair not but believe in the power of positive thinking. You are cared for, yet tho ye ask for help paying thy medical bills, thou shalt not receive such unless thou hast made an exodus home to stay.
It goes on and on like a genealogy log in Genesis, while I await the mercy of a younger authority with a new testament. I suspect the majority of people who are products of a troubled childhood have children of their own in order to make the connection of unconditional love that was missing in their own family and to create a unsullied new chapter in the story cycle already produced by generations of dysfunction. So not a sufficient reason, by the way. Since I’ve decided to buck the trend, I will have to be my own younger authority and write my own testament.

With the messages issued by the older authorities in my life, it's often very black and white. But as with most holy texts, there is some great material in between that is sometimes harder to glean and also easier to forget than the more polarizing passages. My sister, who is 15 years older than me, who graciously whisked me away to her house on weekends to spare me the weight of my parents' roof, asked me once why I only remember the bad stuff. Yet she remembers some of that from her own childhood too. She remembers thinking our mother didn't even like her. And the woman wonders why her kids all have low self-esteem. sigh… Our mother does love us, a lot, but misery begets misery. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction.

For instance, she doesn't always know how to show her love physically, except in sporadic bursts warranted only by occasions a little more extraordinary than the everyday. Then she's all big tears and hard hugs. Now I dread 'extreme' emotional encounters, even as I crave them with the people I most want to connect with but instead (usually) keep at a safe distance. Not to blame my mother; not only is it currently unfashionable to blame one's family, it's also unfair and a means to copping out of recognizing our own responsibility to change our own behaviour and outlook. (I'm assuming a much more generous threshold for survivors of the truly hard-core physical, sexual and even verbal abuse — those internalized horrors are much harder to recover from than the lingering challenges of having had one's psyche develop under emotionally distant, poorly socialized, alcoholic parenting.) Both my parents grew up in chaotic homes with extremely dysfunctional families, and have dealt with multiple tragedies in the family they created together. It's a lot to bear and personal insight is a luxury for many, so I don't inflict my own insights on them. Just on anonymous readers of this blog.

My mom has a little insight of her own; she reads a lot of self-help books and articles, though she is sometimes misdirected by the Dr. Phils of this extremely popular arena. I believe she has grave regrets, as well as the latent guilt I see flare up whenever she feels defensive about her parenting record. She alienated the younger parents of my friends in grade school because their permissive parenting style apparently betrayed a lack of caring: tough love is real love. But maybe the permissives just didn't know how to 'properly' express their love either. Like translating ancient religious dictates, it's a matter of perception and interpretation.

So… after a little procrastination, I phoned home for Mother's Day. I moved away from my home province six years ago and haven't been back for a visit in over four. My mother understood, or at least didn't openly begrudge my choice to move this far away. (I had only expected to be in Toronto for six months when I first arrived here, with the boyfriend I had been prophesied to disappoint. When we had broken up two years later, I was sure that Toronto is where I was meant to find myself, and my intellectual family. Verily, I stayed. I have since found most of me, and my new family has grown.) How could my mother complain when she and her fiancĂ© flew away from their own toxic family lives over 50 years ago? They had escaped from the meteorological and familial extremities of the prairies to the moderate and fresh west coast. In Canada, the western-most province of British Columbia is where many restless souls end up, unable to go any further from history without leaving absolutely everything behind. I started out from Terminal City, which was ushered into the future by Expo 86 and its mascot robot Expo Ernie, so my path went instead in the opposite direction. I have been ruminating on history ever since, but also learning how to access the current.

My father answered that night when I called for my mom. His heart troubles have become harder on him in recent years and I'm not used to his voice sounding this meek. During my childhood, he was often yelling loudly or not saying much at all. Present-day Dad told me that they had gone to Sea Lovers for dinner and that my mother had eaten oysters. She had oysters for the first time, he told me, when they first moved to Vancouver. I pressed on, surprised at this spontaneous recollection from someone once so reticent. They had gone for dinner at a place on Skid Row, he continued. He meant at Main and Cordova, which now falls within one of the most notorious neighbourhoods in Canada. The oysters looked green and she wasn't sure she should eat them. After I got Mom on the phone, she explained that she had been feeling adventurous because she already knew she liked frogs legs. I've never known my mom to be a courageous eater, besides unidentified dim sum in old Chinatown which is remarkably brave if highly localized, so I kept asking questions. Turns out she had tried them in Windsor, Ontario when she was 19. She couldn't remember if she had been there for six months or a year. She had worked as a waitress for one aunt on weekends and another aunt and uncle during the week at their record store where they also sold radios and television sets. TVs were still new, she explained, so not many people had one yet. Backtrack a few details. She worked in a record store?! I work in a record store! Even though the circumstances are different, I felt like I had a little bit more in common with my mom, which is to say a little more than next to nothing. I mean, besides the neuroses I inherited. Obviously.

This new information did kind of blow my mind. I was only aware of the brief time she had worked in Winnipeg before taking off with my dad. I knew she had been close with her aunts in Windsor but didn't know much about that chapter in her life. I know her visit to Windsor about ten years ago had broken her heart because she witnessed Aunt N. drinking herself to death. I had met her when I was around seven and I still possess vivid memories of her because she was larger than life and also larger than most people. I remember riding past the low-lying tomato and tobacco fields in the backseat of her old black Cadillac, which seemed to me like the perfect car for a vampire because the leather upholstery was deep red, cracked and covered in cobwebs. She lived in a trailer with her final companion and drinking buddy. The trailer fascinated me because I had never been in one before, and the walls were covered in plaques with low-brow humour that appealed to kid-me. My great-aunt died not long after my mom's last visit.

I miss my parents but this time and distance has allowed me to put my childhood and family life in perspective, allowing me to get over some of the psychic damage that's been holding me back from really living. But I can stay away for only so long, and waiting for the day I've either lost enough weight (oh, to be less than average size) or figure I'm able to withstand my mother's fat phobia (sarcastic comebacks, notwithstanding) will only add additional years to my self-imposed exile. I'm almost ready to fly home for a visit. That might be when I'm finally able to put down the heavier parts of my baggage. When the good stories start to match the number of bad stories, the greater narrative arc starts to balance out and you don't feel so compelled to drag the volumes with you to remind you of who you are and who you don't want to become.

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