Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Here's to you, Mum. Thanks for the upbringing.

This blog is an apologetic ode to my mother, who passed away last week at the grand old age of 97. It's not that my mother was perfect; she had a temper, a sharp tongue, and high standards, and she didn't suffer fools gladly, whether they were her children, her bosses, or the parents of the students she taught. While most of my friends in the 50s and 60s had stay-at-home mums who baked cookies, made their kids perfect lunches, and kept plastic runners on their wall-to-wall carpets, my mother worked full-time as a high school science teacher. She threw herself into her job with the same passion and commitment she gave to everything she tried. And in 97 years, she tried plenty. She never seemed to have a spare moment while I was growing up. If I wanted to ask her something, I had to help her peel potatoes while we talked. Every night, she seemed to be marking papers, and often co-opted me into marking the easy, true or false or fill-in-the-blank questions.

We lived in chaos. Looking back, I think that's where I got my tolerance–even affection–for it. Because she was a biology teacher with a love of all things living, we always had dogs, cats, hamsters, goldfish (unless the cat ate them), canaries (unless the cat ate them), and at various times we also had a box turtle living under the living room sofa (a cleaning lady's delight), a baby alligator in the bathtub, an injured pigeon under the basement stairs, and lab mice and rats in cages all over the place.

In her spare time, my mother wrote one of the first ecology textbooks, pioneered French immersion science teaching, headed up the teachers' union, made room in her house and at her table for those in temporary need of a bed or alone for the holidays, and managed to be play passable hostess to my father's colleagues and graduate students from McGill University. She could whip a house into shape for company (with us kids' help) faster than anyone else I knew. The vacuum was being tossed into the closet even as the doorbell rang.

Next week, we will bury this woman whose life has spanned an extraordinary century of change from the First World War to modern times, and I will give one of the eulogies at her celebration of life following the burial. So I have been thinking about her, and about the influence she has had on my life. Thanks for the chaos, Mum, which has helped me embrace uncertainty, multiple demands, life's messiness, and system overload. I know that most times, the vacuum cleaner does get hidden before the guests arrive. Thanks for the example you provided, of a strong, determined, confident woman who charted her own course and rarely wasted time on trivialities. I never knew my mother to watch TV or to bother with gossip or gamesmanship. I know she chafed at the constraints placed on her as a woman of her time, but she found a path for herself despite the naysayers.

When she retired, she went into high gear. I had my own home and family by then, so I could hardly keep track of the causes she got involved in. World Federalism, Nature Conservancy, Amnesty International, Inuit health, collective kitchens and "out of the cold" suppers, and most importantly, refugee settlement. She never did anything by half measure, but took refugee families from Birundi, Bosnia, Kosovo, and elsewhere by the hand, drove them to appointments, lent them money, invited them to her home, and generally played the role of mother. For this, she was awarded the Governor Generals's Caring Canadian Award in 1999. And they didn't know the half of it!

So for the childhood chaos and the role modelling of how to be a human of today, never mind a woman, I have to thank her. But there is more. Growing up like a weed in the garden, I learned more than resourcefulness and independence. I learned to be creative. I created an imaginary world of friends and adventure. If I was bored, I dreamed up more friends and another thrill. What better training for a would-be writer! I took this imagination into the classroom, where I could entertain myself for hours at the back of the class while the others learned to conjugate French verbs. And my mother lived by one last crucial principle ...

 If you want children to be creative, you must not force them to clean up the mess.

There is a wealth of wisdom in that. First of all, that creativity requires unfettered freedom. Second, that thinking of consequences or indeed, thinking ahead, stifles that freedom to explore. And thirdly, that cleaning up, restoring order to the chaos, is punishment of that creativity. I confess that I live by that motto; you should see my house. Reality requires that I occasionally clean it up, but I'm rather like my mother–vacuuming ten minutes before the guests arrive. And while I am in the middle of a novel. well ... you can imagine.

As a child psychologist, I worry about the level of structure, orderliness, and supervision in the lives of today's children. The absence of silence which can be filled by imagination, the clutter of online connection which never leaves them time to dream up friends and stories. The constant presence of parents who never give them the chance to roam free. To explore, experiment, discover, feel their power, and find their inner voice.

Luckily, my mother had the wisdom to know better. Perhaps because she had had to fight for every inch of freedom as a girl in the 20s and 30s. I think that's more or less what I will say in my eulogy.


Patricia Filteau said...

I could feel the celebration of this great woman in your words, your sentiments, your reality checks.
i would have loved to have known your mom. You are fortunate woman to have loved Kay Currie so –

Mary Jane Hopper said...

What a fantastic tribute to your Mom. I also could feel the love you had for her. I'm sorry for your loss.

Vicki Delany said...

Beautifully said.

Donis Casey said...

Beautiful, Barbara. Your mom would have been proud and touched.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Barbara, thank you sharing this tribute to your mom. Lovely.