My mother has been on my mind a lot since the lockdown began; how I’d love to hear her phone greeting of, “Tis I, your pesky mother” or feel the comfort of her physical presence. I know people who almost beatify their parents after they die, but I readily admit that my mom was as flawed and contradictory as the next person. She never acknowledged or praised the academic achievements of myself and my siblings, but she pretended to conduct and beamed with pride when my brother Michael and I, he on guitar and me on recorder, serenaded her at family gatherings. She was never comfortable with children and yet not only did she have five of her own, but on two separate occasions she took in boys from the neighbourhood who were being brutalized by their dads and brokered a peace with their respective fathers before allowing them to return home. She normally never hesitated to vocally criticize musicians and performing artists when they made mistakes, but silently and patiently sat through the whole of every seemingly endless music night and crappy school play in which her children took part.
Jean Edith Cameron was born on New Years Day, 1931. Her father, David Cameron, came from a reputable and accomplished family. My great-grandfather Herman was a noted surgeon in Winnipeg and a leader in the community. He sustained a devastating wound to his dominant hand while serving in the Canadian Medical Corps during WWI, abruptly ending his surgical career. He decided to study law when he returned home from the war and became a successful lawyer. Eventually he was drawn back to his initial love of medicine and ended his career as Manitoba’s Provincial Coroner. Clearly this was an intelligent, versatile and accomplished man.
There was a great deal of pressure on my grandfather to be successful, not just because of the noteworthy achievements of his dad but also because he was the youngest of four and the only boy. Unluckily for David he came of age during the Depression when jobs were nowhere to be found. He married my grandmother in Regina in 1930 and my mother and Aunt Carolyn were born in short order over the next three years. He moved his young family from Regina to Winnipeg and then on to Ottawa searching for employment. My grandfather was unable to find work in any of these cities, but much to his chagrin my grandmother (known to her grandchildren as Nana) was hired as a secretary at the Ministry of National Defence in the early 1940’s and became the family’s breadwinner.
Nana told me that my grandfather felt emasculated by her success, so one day in early 1944 he took the only paying job he could find. He came home in uniform, explaining that he had enlisted with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and was soon shipping out to fight in the European Theatre. He had not discussed this decision with his wife, nor did he give his young daughters any explanation as to why he was leaving them despite being well past the age when men usually sign up. In August of that year he was killed in action in Italy, leaving Nana to raise her girls alone. I had a discussion with Nana about this episode in her life after I too was widowed and left to raise two children on my own. She told me, after I had sworn never to repeat her words to my mother, that David had had a profound problem with alcohol and was a very mean drunk. She suspected that his behaviour would have continued to deteriorate had he returned from Italy, and that she and her girls were consequently better off without him.
My mom had always been extremely close with her father while her sister Carolyn was clearly Nana’s favourite. With her dad gone, my mother now faced the terrible prospect of being number two in the pecking order despite being the first born. I suspect the loss of her father was a principal reason she had incredibly low self-esteem – her subconscious telling her that surely if she had been a worthwhile person her father would never have gone off like that. She must have done something to drive him away, or perhaps she was just not intrinsically good enough to entice him to stay.
In 1951 my mother met and married my father, and nine months later my eldest brother David was born. Over the next nine years she had four more children, me being the last. We lived in a conventional red-brick house in a conventional suburban neighbourhood surrounded by conventional white families. The men in these households all had 9-to-5 jobs, and the women were all housewives. We differed from these families only in that my father was a musician and worked all hours meaning he only came home to sleep. It boggles my mind that for the first 15 years of their marriage my mother managed to raise us and maintain the house virtually alone without a car or even a licence.
In the mid 1960’s my mother found out that my dad had a mistress. She told me years later that she promptly packed a suitcase and left in response to this discovery. She checked into a rather shabby motel and as soon as she entered the room sat on the edge of the bed and bawled her eyes out. After she had finished crying she cleaned her face and began to take stock of where she was in her life and marriage. She was an untrained housewife with five children to care for, and there was no way any job she might be lucky enough to land would pay sufficiently that she could continue to raise us in the manner to which we had become accustomed. Even if by some miracle she did find employment, she could never afford to hire someone to look after us while she was at work. Her only option was to return to my father, but nothing said she couldn’t do so on her own terms.
I started kindergarten in 1966 and my mother got her licence and began nursing school that same year. My dad bought her a powder-blue Valiant which I can still clearly see in my mind’s eye, and hired a housekeeper to do chores and make lunch for the three of us who still came home at noon every school day. Mom landed a job as an emergency room nurse in our local hospital upon graduating and promptly began taking periodic trips overseas with her sister and mother. Eventually my three eldest siblings moved out, and my mother’s salary allowed her to take my brother Michael and I to the ballet and live theatre whenever a production caught her eye. These massive changes were all part of the deal she struck with my father after returning home from the motel; she would turn a blind eye to his philandering and continue to raise his children provided she had the freedom to work and spend her salary any way she saw fit. I would say my mother was ahead of the feminist curve on this one.
My mom and my eldest sister never got along. In fact, they fought all the time. Things in our home became so tense that we ended up in family counselling. We were in only our first or second session when the therapist zeroed in on Mom and started delving into her childhood. Eventually he mentioned my grandfather and she said, “I don’t want to talk about my father.” When the therapist persisted, my mother became rigid and unresponsive, then simply got up and walked out, with all of us following after like obedient ducklings in a row. That was the end of family counselling. My mother’s reaction laid bare something we had all suspected – she was still elementally damaged by her father; either by his abandonment, or by the relationship they had had before he left, or both. She had erected a fortress around him, and there was no way to breach the walls.
Despite having excelled at school, being highly regarded at her job and successfully raising five children, my mother always felt like a failure. I think her self-confidence was hobbled when her father left, and any possibility of rectifying that mistaken childhood perception was dashed when he died. She felt worthless for the rest of her life. She started smoking less than a year after her dad was killed, and further sabotaged her health in the last fifteen years of her life by retiring early, adopting a terrible diet and refusing exercise of any kind. The women in my maternal line typically live into their 90’s, but Mom’s morbid obesity combined with a half century of smoking took a devastating toll on her health. We lost her at the relatively young age of 70.
I wish my mother had been happier. I wish she had believed my siblings and I when we told her she was a good mother. I wish she had believed her friends and colleagues when they maintained that she was a valuable and skilled person. Her life became a cautionary tale for me as a young woman when I struggled with similar feelings of inadequacy despite friends and family constantly asserting my worth. My mother was the smartest person I’ve ever met, and if she could be so mistaken about her own value, then maybe I was too. This realization was one of the key factors which gave me the confidence to escape from an abusive marriage. I will be forever grateful to my mother for this, along with myriad other things too numerous to mention. Some days I actively miss her, most days I think about her, and everyday I would give almost anything to simply nestle in the comfort of her fat arms one more time.