Just a few words on Mother’s Day

Friday, May 9th, 2014

“The mother is … our consolation in sorrow, our hope in misery, and our strength in weakness.” – Kahlil Gibran

That words would become not only a way of life for me, but a living, is due in no small measure to the determination of my mother. You see, by the time it became apparent that our Grade One teacher had suffered a complete nervous breakdown, my classmates and I were severely behind.

I couldn’t read or write very well, if at all, is the bottom line. I have clear memories of the poor teacher sitting hunched at her desk and nibbling on cookies while we played with LEGO. As a consequence of the non-teaching that occurred that year, I also recall with clarity the frustrating routine of after-school reading and writing lessons and exercises I was put through, which at the time felt like a sort of punishment. I felt guilty, as though I had failed at something, which was my own response to the pressure to achieve and not something verbalized or implied by my mother, who stepped in when the school system failed, and didn’t give up on me.

How many parents, weary from the day, encumbered by their own disillusionment with life and its broken promise, choose to get lost in television land or a second glass of wine when faced with the prospect of more work, real work, the sort of work that comes without pay and goes for the most part without notice? The homework, the test reviews, the hours spent on the dance floor or in the dampness of a hockey rink, sewing costumes or drying tears. There is no shame in admitting the facts: parenting is unreasonable work and completely not as advertised. When you add to the equation a special requirement that goes above and beyond the basic duties of feeding, clothing, and generally keeping alive the object of your care – say, a special needs child, or a health issue that requires both vigilance and compassion – this is where the rubber hits the road. As they say, the girls are quickly separated from the women, the tough from the weak … the mothers from those who simply give birth.

In Grade Three, just a year after being identified as nearly illiterate, I had my first short story published in a school board anthology. I don’t recall the title or the narrative, except to say it had something to do with burning pancakes on a Sunday morning. And that, as they say, was the start of everything. I’ve been writing or publishing or fiddling with words in one capacity or another ever since. I have made my living with words as a full-time journalist, and I have expressed myself creatively in published poems, short stories, novels, and even a novella that was adapted into a stage play. I wrote copy for cool advertising campaigns, wrote speeches and some killer emails, too, always looking to bring a smile or draw a tear with the power of words.

And it wasn’t just the effort and the discipline my mother put forth in sitting me at the kitchen table to review and review and review those lessons and exercises, it was, I see now in hindsight, just one part in a mission of greater scope. She took me to see plays at community centres and in church basements, where I sat cross-legged on the floor and witnessed words come to life, and she took me to the library every week, where I gained a legendary reputation as the kid with the staggering overdue account and a tendency, in my absent-mindedness, to lose books into some great void that must also hold countless stray socks and misplaced car keys.

I’ve tried to do the same with my own daughter, this early and often exposure to the written word and the power it holds to change lives, to entertain, to carve our future and remember our past. She had her first poem published in an anthology three years ago. It is a gift for grown children to look back and see clearly the mostly unsung efforts taken in the shaping of their life, this extraordinary ability of some mothers to give more than they received in their own childhood. This is certainly true of my mother and my wife, and especially the selfless victory of the single mother, and I think here of my cousins Barb and Jenny, Nora, my friends Brandi and Peggy …

It was my father who lugged home the great beast of a manual typewriter, the first implement of my obsession, but it is clearly my mother who deserves the greater credit or blame for unleashing on this world yet another crazy writer, a dreamer who tried in his way to build a world with words.

Happy Mother’s Day.