The other day I was cleaning out my closet. (I don’t normally clean out closets — I’m a bit of a pack rat — but we’re thinking about moving next year, and I’m trying to work my way up to full-throttle purging.)
Burrowing down into sweaters I don’t wear and purses I don’t need, I came across an old package of pantyhose. Like, really old. Like, probably 1980s old. I could tell right off that my mum had bought them. Vintage queen size Moulin Rouge. God, the name, the design, the model *groan*. Then I saw the price sticker: Woolco. 6 for $5.00.
OMG. When was the last time I saw a Woolco sticker? When was the last time I saw a Woolco? I thought of my mum, picking up her discount pantyhose because she was way too practical to spend a lot of money on pantyhose. I was reminded (again) that it’s 20 years (20 years!) since she died. (Breast cancer. Grrrrr.)
I immediately went to a box in another part of my closet and pulled out an old leather folder stuffed with bits of paper. Photos. Newspaper clippings. Report cards. Birth notices (including mine). Death notices.
I’ve been through it a few times, but each time I enjoy it in a bittersweet way. It’s like I’m dipping into my mom’s memories, and kind of reacquainting myself with her. Not to mention the fact that many of these mementos are part of my life too.
The picture of my brother Richard circa grade 7 (dig the gingham, Rich!). The class photo from St. Mike’s Choir School, where my brother Anthony went. The vaccination for our first cat, Marmalade, who we brought home as a kitten in 1972 after our neighbour’s cat had a litter. Old birthday and anniversary cards from my dad. And even a letter from me, written way back in 1988 when I took my first trip overseas (back in the days before email and texting).
All of it takes me back to what sometimes feels like a different life on another planet. A life when I was one of three kids in a busy house with a dad who was a temperamental writer and my mom who was a… less temperamental writer.
My mom was ying to my dad’s yang. She balanced him. Along with being practical, she was one of the kindest, most empathetic people you could ever meet. It might sound cliche to say ‘everyone loved her’, but everyone did. She was approachable, easygoing — an ice-breaker among nervous or arrogant people. Queen of England. School custodian. She didn’t care. She’d talk to anyone. Many a time we sat in an idling car (it was the 70s), waiting for her to get through a store checkout; when she finally emerged, she always had a story to tell about the person who’d been standing next to her. “…and they lived two streets over from Somerset in Ottawa! CAN you believe it?”
I think it was partly growing up in the no-nonsense Ottawa Valley during the depression that helped instill that down-to-earth, no-B.S. demeanor. And her dogged determination. She could do just about anything. Bake like a fiend. Make clothes. Sand floors. Strip and re-finish old furniture (including the lovely dresser I still use now). If she didn’t know how to do something, she learned how. “I saw one in Canadian Tire and figured it couldn’t be that hard…”
I have especially fond memories of the Fort Knox-like garbage box she constructed to keep the raccoons at bay. She had to rebuild and reinforce parts of it because the crafty little devils managed to chew corners and pull off locks and climb inside, again and again. One morning she found one big fellow sitting on top of the box, paws resting on his very full tummy. He just looked at her. She was aghast, but at the same time admired the chutzpah.
And of course, along with baking and building and sewing and sanding, she was a great writer and accomplished magazine editor.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer late in the summer of ’93, I remember her turning to us at Mount Sinai and saying, “I’m going to beat this.” I could tell she was reassuring us because she didn’t want us to worry.
Now, when I sift through these notes and letters and forms and photos, I think of a woman who on one hand was one of the most human people I knew, but who at the same time remains, to my mind, invincible.
And boy, could she find a bargain! Love you mum. xo