When my daughter and I moved to Montreal 8 years ago, she was just over a year old. I hadn’t lived here in over 10 years, and I knew only 2 people in the entire city. I was 21 when I left, and I was coming back as a recently separated single mother.
I was so freshly separated that when I discovered my ex-husband’s suit had been mistakenly packed with my things, I believed it was a sign that we would reconcile. I used to slide myself into it and pretend his arms were wrapped around me. Truly the worst of times, for me.
Those early days as a new mother in a new-ish city were overwhelming for us both. For weeks after we moved, A. took her Lambie everywhere - the stuffed animal she usually reserved for bedtime was her constant companion. And for those first few weeks, she was my Lambie.
The first time her father came to fetch her so she could spend a weekend with him in Ottawa, I felt like I’d lost a limb. I cried like a baby. Or the lost mother of one. I had no idea what to do with myself, and barely a clue as to who I was without her. So I signed up for the crazy hip hop class I used to take when I was 17, and danced my Saturday mornings away.
Slowly I tried to make Montreal mine. I forced myself to attend events at which I knew almost no one, just to connect and meet people. The hardest was the Kids for Kids ball where I knew only the brother of one of my best friends - and not well. Everybody knew each other - it was right out of one of those bad prom scenes from a 90s flick.
I’d spent the previous 10 years in 3 different countries, so my friends were everywhere but there that night. But I stayed, I smiled, I danced, I bumped into old acquaintances, and I made sure not to impose myself on anyone too long. That night vaccinated me against being afraid to put myself into alien situations. It was my social Ironman, and just as painful.
A.’s neediness was my burden and my salvation - it anchored me to myself. I signed us up for playgroups, for music classes during which I would sit in a circle with other mothers and sing songs, for swimming classes in the dead of winter. Anything to stay busy: these activities were as much for me as they were for her. And I’m still friends with the gorgeous Anny who I met in that singing circle, and the wonderful women I met in playgroup, in the basement of the Westmount Baptist church. They still tease me about the time I showed up at playgroup with a raging hangover from a dinner party the night before, and spent most of the morning not socializing with my friends, but vomiting in the men’s bathroom, while my child sat sweetly singing something about the wheels on the bus.
The weeks of crushing sadness eventually let in a day or two of I’m ok, and then those ok days started to link one to another. Slowly I made friends who cared for A. and I as though they’d known us for years, and we needed that care so badly. And once in a while I felt so high with stomach-flipping-joy that I’d wonder if I was normal.
Now the grief rushed in less often, but always at unexpected moments. At the cottage, after we’d spent a week splashing in the sun by the lake with my girlfriends and their kids. The moment their husbands would show up to join their wives and kids for the weekend, the kids would run squealing to jump in their father’s arms, and my friends’ focus would shift to their families. A. had nobody to run to, and I felt like someone had hit me in the heart with a canoe paddle. We’d retreat to the cottage, my stomach curdled with sadness.
This happened at the park, it happened at the ski hill - the places where families do things together, where parents cheer their children on, where they live the public moments that glue their memories together. One glimpse of a father pushing his daughter on a swing, and I’d want to throw up with sadness.
It’s taken me years not to be punched in the heart by the togetherness of families, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I left the family cocoon that is Westmount, but it happened again yesterday, when I took A. skiing. I’d forgotten how it felt to be surrounded by dads helping their kids get up after they fell flat on their faces, sharing the carrying, cheering, dragging that is the real skiing-with-kids experience, with their spouses.
It’s still just us, me and A. But it was a beautiful, fun day and I refuse to stop doing what we love just because it hurts a little. We’ve been through worse.
My little one, my bear, my sweet, my pumpkin. My bundle. Monkey. Sweetpea. My little love. I have more names for you than I need, and they slip out of my mouth unbidden, like those funny candies I used to love that popped around my mouth. You cross borders more than most business people, and as soon as I drop you off at the airport, my heart becomes a rosary, ticking off the prayers, aiming them at every deity I can think of, like a prayer bomb. Yes me - the same woman who once yelled at a Catholic priest that he was the reincarnation of the head of the Inquisition (he wasn’t very nice).
Why aren’t you here yet?
I haven’t seen you in weeks and you’re coming home any minute. I am as excited as you must be when you go to sleep the night before Christmas. Yes child, right now, you’re my Santa, my presents, my turkey feast, all in one.
For 3 weeks I haven’t taken care of anybody but my self, and I needed it badly: three months ago we sold our home, we left our neighbourhood, I started a job that was so new in so many ways. New job, new neighborhood, new lots of things: it’s like a self-imposed witness protection program, minus the plastic surgery. I’ve enjoyed this time off without guilt, because I knew you were soaking up your daddy’s love like a thirsty little sponge of a girl.
Enough of that, I want you back.
I want your voice to fill this house, I want your toys scattered all over the place, I want to trip over your stuffed animals having a tea party in the middle of the kitchen, I want to find your dirty clothes hidden in the corner of your room, I want you to sing Justin Bieber tunes til I roll my eyes, I want you to ask me to braid your hair just as we’re rushing out the door in the morning, and I want you to call from your room to tell me you love me 4 times after I’ve asked you to go to sleep.
Tick, tock, are you here yet?
Your room is ready, your bed is full of little presents - a skirt I bought you yesterday, a keychain I brought you back from Mexico, a letter you received. I need to hug you.
Any minute now…
London beckons to me like that flirty guy who never makes a move: I enjoy it, but I can’t take it too seriously. And yet going back reminds me that I miss living in Europe, and that I have more family living there than I do on the entire North American continent. Why do we live so far away from those we love?
Like my cousins - 2 of whom I had never met before: Nikita on left, and his father Magnus, on the right. And my cousin Joseph in the middle holding Lois, his little girl. They’re interesting, fun, irreverent, good people who I would like even if we weren’t (sort of) related. And yes Magnus, we will be visiting you in Portugal, once you’ve installed the septic system.
The last time I was in London was for my 36th birthday, with my boyfriend at the time. Two years later and the (ex) boyfriend lives in South America, my best friend is pregnant with her first child, my dad and my not-so-wicked stepmother have moved back to England after 5 years in Dubai, my brother Stefan has moved to Beirut, and my sister Daisy is in law school and wields her knowledge of EU law like a weapons-grade sedative.
And I have matured.
This trip was the first time since 2007 that I stayed at my parent’s house in Letchworth - the house they shared before moving to Dubai, but don’t share any longer. It feels like a lifetime ago: I was still married, living in Joisey, and my little one was small and round, still a baby.
I have so many good memories of that house.
I didn’t grow up in a peaceful home, so this one meant a lot to me. I left home when I was 17, and never returned. Even now when I drive by the house I grew up in, I think the woman who bought it from us should have had an exorcism thrown in as a bonus, or at least a Feng Shui for Dummies consultation to rid her of the many bad memories it contains. Because just as I love Letchworth’s pile of bricks, I still hate that other home’s every brick.
The Letchworth house was a home, and knowing that it existed - even across the Atlantic - was important. My stepmother filled it with aromas of Lebanese food, and artifacts from the places she and my father had been, while my dad filled it with booming classical music and books. And along with my brother and sister, they filled it with love. Nobody chased anybody with a hammer or threw bowls of oranges at each other. We all have such happy memories of sitting at the kitchen table laughing, arguing, together (hammer-less and orange-less).
And perhaps there were less happy things going on under the surface, but it wasn’t for me to notice: there I could regress and be a child, a daughter, a sister, and possibly a pain the ass.
Now the house is inhabited again, and it’s turned into a home again. It’s beautiful and comfortable. But only one of my parents lives there now, so at first it was a sadder visit than I’d expected. And even though I’m an unwilling expert in divorce, I realized that I hadn’t understood the importance of what has happened to the people I love, and how difficult this has been for them all.
Rather than olfactory memory, I had an architectural memory - all the emotion associated with that building and the people who lived there and the people we all were when we were there together - came back, as I stood outside the front door with my little girl.
I’m so proud of the way my family has handled all this. I’m so happy that we came, we saw, we began to understand. And hopefully, we contributed to new and happy memories to fill the house anew.
PS: This brings me one step closer to falling for you, London. After all, I’ve just sold my own home…
I woke up this morning already grumpy at having to endure the dual punishment of both a snowy Monday and Valentine’s day on the same day, because I’m not a fan of either one.
And then this image landed in my inbox, courtesy of Magnum Photos.
I love it for so many reasons. Because it’s somewhere hot, because they’re so into each other they don’t care who sees them. Because it’s so blatant that it’s innocent. Because their friend keeps driving as though she’s used to them snogging away in broad daylight, yet again. It’s all about them - nobody else matters.
And it helps that his back isn’t furry.
It reminds me of this photograph of my parents, taken in the 70s.
They are sitting in the back of a car. I think this was taken in Rome, where they met when they were both journalists, before I was born. Perhaps even before they realized they weren’t right for one another, though they both tell me they knew it early on. Or were they on the way to their wedding day? It doesn’t matter. I’m grateful for photographs like this, because although I’ve long made peace with their horrid divorce, it’s good to see that I and my brothers came from such a gorgeous if temporary tenderness.
It comforts me to know I came from love. Which is what I was telling my own child the other day - that she came from two people who loved each other very much when they chose to have her, even though her dad and I are now divorced. Her response was, “wow mama, thanks for sharing”, but her 7 year-old cheekiness is another story.
I hope it comforts her to look at photos of her dad and I one day, photos of us before we knew that we too would one day be victims to temporary tenderness. She comes from so much good and so much happiness. And no regrets whatsoever (other than leaving the Cayman Islands, where this was taken).
Maybe that’s all we can hope for when we love someone: good leftovers when and if that love ends. A tenderness that yields something good, whether it’s a child, a memory or a photograph that ends up in someone’s inbox and makes them smile.