Here, people gather on the beach just before sunset like some silent flash mob. It’s an unspoken rule that we all drop everything to be on the beach by 5:15 p.m. at the latest, in order to do nothing more than watch the sun drop slowly closer to the edge of the ocean. It’s magical.
The other night as I sat in the sand on the edge of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by so many happy faces tilted toward the sun, it occurred to me that we fly all over the world to seek out places where Nature is clearly in charge,
Costa Rica, the Caribbean, the Med, the hills and mountains of Switzerland, the Grand Tetons - choose your pleasure, but all of these places have one thing in common. We flock to them to be tamed by the same natural world we’ve created technology and meds to overcome. There is peace to be found in not being fully in control.
At home we’re proud when we overcome the elements, tame nature - urban warriors is right. I drove home despite that massive snow storm. He went to boot camp outdoors despite freezing temperatures. She made it to work despite the flooding downtown. Aren’t we strong.
Here we lay down our arms, our 4-wheel drive toughness.
Here we organize our days around the heat of the sun, around the tides of the sea, around the temperature, the light, the winds and the rain. It’s a strange luxury to be absolved of your toughness - it has no place here. Just bow down and enjoy it all.
Many of you know that it’s been a rough few months for my wonderful 92 year old grandmother. She walked out of her lovely Connecticut home one day last September and went to the village to have lunch, and never went home again. The house has since been sold, and my Abwe now lives in an assisted living facility in Vermont.
If it were me, I’d have done my best to overdose on Ensure, but she is braver and more resilient than I am, and somehow finds a reason to get up every day, put on her pearls, and continue.
My daughter and I decided that it might help if she had a cat to keep her company. My grandmother sometimes forgets what she has agreed to in the past, but she has always been clear that yes, she would really love a cat. She was excited at the thought, and we were happy to give her a pet to care for and be loved by more regularly than we can.
Two weekends ago, I took my daughter to the SPCA to find the perfect companion: a loving, older (less hyper), fatter (slower) cat that simply wanted some peace and Cat Chow on a regular basis. It proved harder than expected, because finding a good cat is like online dating: an anxiety-inducing exercise in knowing too much (really, 5’5”?) and not knowing enough, but at least with cats, the picture matches the animal. Yes, that cat’s file says she miaows a lot. What is a lot? And what triggers it? And do I really want to bother with a guy who thinks the Lord of the Rings is a religion?
In the end, we chose Chanelle, a purring 10-year old tabby who had the advantage of being declawed (I know it is a sin, but it was a selling point for my grandmother’s furniture). We picked her up from the SPCA, paid the adoption fee, swore under all religions to treat her with kindness and care, waited for a microchip to be inserted into her body so that even Nasa could track her progress, bought cat food that costs more than my posh face cream, and drove it to Vermont.
Abwe was thrilled, even though the cat hid under her bed almost from the moment she arrived, coming out only occasionally to eat and use the litter. After a few days, the staff began to worry, but I had been told that declawed cats are extra anxious. I was sure that Chanelle would eventually bond with my grandmother, even though Abwe regularly forgot her name.
And then yesterday I received an email from my mother, with this subject line:
My relationship with her is so bad that I assumed that she was being sarcastic, or lying, or had run the cat over herself. I called my grandmother, “I have some very bad news,” she said. “The cat died in my arms this afternoon”.
She sounded so sad. My daughter burst into tears. She told me that Chanelle had died of massive kidney failure at the vet’s office, sedated and without pain.
In cat terms, we call this a tragedy. In car terms, I believe it’s called a lemon. I call it the cat that lasted 10 days, and I hope it felt loved, because I know my grandmother did. Chanelle kept her busy: even worrying about something made my Abwe feel useful and needed, so she has earned her place in the great kitty litter in the sky.
I’m officially the worst chooser of adoptive cats - the ones I fall for are as sweet as they terminal. The last cat I adopted had such major health issues that the left side of her head would squirt horror movie amounts of blood and pus once a year.
But we will try again, for the sake of an older cat that deserves a loving home, and for the sake of a grandmother who deserves to feel she is at home.
Am I wrong to suspect that this doesn’t bode well for online dating?
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.
Driving home from school today: “Mum, whenever you give me advice it only works at first, and then it disappears into nothing after a few minutes”.
So much for trying to give her advice on how to deal with a young twit named J. who today told her she was “special needs” because her parents are divorced.
And tonight, as I tucked her into bed:
“Oh mum, you are so beautiful inside, you just need to let it out of it’s cage!”
So much for watching Life of Pi before bed.
In 10 days my daughter will turn 10. It’s just a pairing of even numbers, tidy and symmetrical…10 and 10. But it feels huge.
10 years and ten days ago, we lived in Dublin, I was married, and although I knew I was about to experience something that would change my body, my marriage and my life as I knew them, I couldn’t wait.
When I was a little girl, I’d visit my grandmother in Connecticut, and do nothing but read. I remember that we’d stop at the public library right after I arrived and I’d take out the maximum number of books allowed - 10 - and read them everywhere.
And then I found this. I remember it so well. I made a dollhouse in a drawer, cutting up postcards to make a fake fireplace, creating tables out of jewelry boxes, aluminum foil as a mirror. I played with it for hours, crouched over the desk it lived in, and my grand mother has kept it for the past 30 years. It’s like opening a drawer into my childhood.
I don’t even recognize myself - I don’t like making anything, or rather, I’m not patient enough for crafts. Where did this patient, creative little girl go?
And then one day this past winter I came home with new boots. They came in a large box, which my daughter asked to keep. She sat down and started cutting up magazines to decorate the wall, making carpet out of tissue.
She made a dollhouse. In a box.
There I am.
My daughter is away at her father’s for two weeks. This is good. I need some me time, some time to be a selfish human, do what I want to when I want to. Try to be bored. And I found this - something I had written during my mother-daughter “honeymoon” in Costa Rica.
During this trip, I was reminded of what I didn’t realize I (sometimes) felt:
…that you are not just my responsibility, my gorgeous to-do list, my hopes and fears embodied…
You are also someone entirely separate from me - a person to discover.
A girl who thinks, hums, raps, laughs. And you look so much like me these days…
…that in some way, I am rediscovering myself. It’s disconcerting. And wonderful. Scary too.
It’s not easy to bring you up (almost) alone. You’re a lot of person, a big human. It’s overwhelming sometimes.
Being your mother is the best kind of challenge…onward we go, and upward we grow, my little one.
- Guess how many boys at school like me Mama?
- How many?
- How do you know they like you?
- Because they’re really mean! And when boys are mean, it means they like you.
"The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. My advice to any child reading this: If you’re particularly good at the violin or math, for God’s sake don’t let anyone find out. Particularly your parents. If they know you’re good at stuff they’ll force you to do it forever. You’ll wake up and find yourself in a sweaty dinner jacket and clip-on bow tie playing “The Music of the Night” for the ten-thousandth time in an orchestra pit. Or you’ll be the fat, 40-ish accountant doing taxes for the people who spent their school days copping a feel and learning how to roll a good joint."
- the bloody fabulous A.A.Gill on how school ruins our children. I love him, I love British humour, I love irreverence. Read it and cackle, whether you’re a parent or not.
This morning the parking attendant near my office stopped me as I was paying. He’s moody, so I never know if he’s going to smile or growl at me.
"I admire you", he said.
"Why is that?", I asked.
"You have a child and you are alone", he answered.
Way to start the day.
(I know he meant well, but the only pity I want is free babysitting. And more vacation time. And free wine. And a chef service at home. And a housekeeper. That’s all. )