23 Thoughts about my Mother script


image: nuns, little girl with light sparkles, then baby crawls on floor with human sleeping, photo: Mom and child
Her earliest memory. A pair of women in luxurious hats, the sound of glass bottles knocking together in the rising jungle heat. It seems Christian nuns have come to the back door, offering milk for sale. She is lying on a blanket, just three months old, in Bandung, Indonesia. Her older sister looks on, almost smiling.

image: little girl in bed with light twixtor, woman photo stands watching burning fire, man in window watches fire
She never told us a story once. She would tell them a hundred times, five hundred times, until they became legend and lore. Our family and relations began with this gospel. She is six years old and slowly comes awake because of an overwhelming smell. She erupts out of bed, as smoke fills the house and she searches frantically for parents and sister. She finds them outside, holding each other, looking on at the burning house.

image: maps supered with Japanese paratroopers, then Tjideng camp, photo: Aunt Bianca
When she is ten the Japanese army invade her island. Her father is taken off to prison, while the women and kids are put in camps. How many did she watch die there? Her Aunt Bianca becomes a food machine, welcoming leaders of the Indonesian underground along with their Dutch colonizers. All day she sews socks and pants, so that the neighbourhood kids have clothes again. While my mom struggled for the right kind of attention in her family, her aunt, patron saint of the neighbourhood, was an early believer.

image: car, man runs, phantom demo, little girl with light sparkles
In the camp she is attacked by an older boy, a teenager. She thought they were friends and then he raped her. When she came home her mother greets her with a new fear and disgust. How could you let him do that to you? You’re a slut. I’m not sure my mother knew what the word meant. Slut. She was 11 years old.

image: archive Dutch leave Indonesia, photo gallery/vintage album, wedding photos, photo of dad and girlfriend
The endless war ends and her family flees to Holland. When she is 16 she meets my father, who had a girlfriend at the time, the first and last girlfriend he would have before hooking up with my mom.

After they married she made a photo book with carefully detailed captions, and right up at the top there was Gerry and Anneke, her blond curls waving in the sun, while he looks back at the camera as if the war had happened a thousand years ago. Despite the fact that my father showed no interest in other women after they got married, or most other human forms, the caption to this photo might have read: We must never forget.

image: photo of young dad, then Boeing plane
When they were introduced, my father was a handsome young man filled with a breezy confidence. He was a scientist and engineer, numbers were his home, but most of all he looked as if war couldn’t touch anyone in his force field. The years of darkness and starvation, the camps and corpses, the sense that even your body didn’t belong to you anymore, all of that was waved away. What he promised her was that a future would be possible after all, so she stepped into it.

Image: Indonesia travelogue, photos: mom and dad tennis, tennis players, pregnancy and doctors
Determined to avoid military service, my father takes a job back in Indonesia, the dream islands where he was born. The photograph shows a pair of young and beautiful tennis players who live and work in a company compound. The worst years of my life she assured me more than once. In the second year of the contract she gets pregnant, but during the delivery there are complications and the baby dies. Sitting down to dinner on the anniversary of his death she starts to tell my father about her visit to Alexander Benjamin’s grave, but he pushes his plate away angrily and announces, “I’m not hungry,” and steps out. They were married for 62 years but never manage a single conversation about their first son.

image: Black Panther, Oprah Winfrey
She had superpowers, though she wouldn’t have used those words. She would say instead: God talks to me. He tells me what to do. One day God appeared to her in the form of Oprah. On that afternoon’s show Oprah’s guest is a woman who has a Group B strep infection, many catch it and don’t even notice, but if you’re an expecting mother it means your baby won’t survive.

image: Alex waves, Jack in high chair, bath, blinds, ferry, pool, tricycle, photo: Mike shoots Jack
She calls my sister, five months pregnant, and insists that she get tested right away. Sure enough, Alex has a strep infection, which is easily cured, so her first and only son enters the world without complications. After he’s born I wonder: is it possible to give birth to your own grandson?

image: feminist protests, women athletes
In the 60s and 70s, second wave feminists fought for equal pay for equal work, they set up help centres and phone lines across the country to deal with the secret epidemic of violence against women. Mom never joined the marches, but she worked the phones, and before that became a fitness instructor at the YMCA. She was voting for a community of feminist muscle, women who could run for miles without stopping, determined to remake the world one push-up at a time.

image: dogs in cars, people hug cars, photo mom and car, mustang commercial
Young or old, she always used this phrase to describe herself: “I’m an ordinary person.” So it was a source of never ending wonder to her, that this ordinary person might ever own anything as extravagant as a car. She saved until she could pay in cash, and then treated her machine like a delicate flower.

image: nurse and beakers spine animations and x-rays. car commercial woman nearly hits kid with car, Mike walking
Super powers? God arrived as a gut feeling, and then later as a voice. One day the voice told her that her two sons needed deep medical testing. X-rays revealed a broken bone in my spine that was causing it to grow crooked. I hadn’t noticed a thing, but if left undetected, I would be in a wheelchair soon.

After the operation I was put in a room with a boy who had been hit by a car, even his face was filled with bandages. But because he couldn’t eat they gave him a chocolate milkshake every day for lunch, which made me wish I had been hit by a car.

image: language world animation, Mike with back to camera facing wall, walk on porch, reading, writing, two shadows blend
Mom was made out of language. The mother tongue. She spoke with strangers on the elevator, and every waitress became her best friend.

When I mysteriously broke my back and was laid up at home in a body cast, she bought spelling books that we performed in a duet every day. But most of all, even when I was a kid, she would describe to me the universe of her feelings, and when I had encounters of my own she would tell me how to feel about them too. She gifted me the words, a living dictionary, filled with descriptions that were repeated, like scripture, until I began to feel they had come from me.

image: Santa race, home movies, wolf jail doors loop, boy in waterfall loop, photos: Phil and Mike>
One snowy December evening my brother and I discover where Santa has hid the presents. Longing to mimic our TV role models, we feel it is our duty to examine each gift and guess what might lie behind the glittering wrap. Punishment required a long grilling session, with answers that sounded like questions, and a steady escalation of volume and intensity, until her eyes would roll back into her head and only the white would show, and she would start slapping you in the face, back and forth and back. It would go on until some small noise interrupted, or not, and then you were flipped over and took it on the ass with a hard slipper. That too would never end. I left my body and never remembered another thing in my life. We shouted and begged her to stop but she didn’t have ears anymore, she was somewhere else, in another country, finally able to take her revenge.

image: mom looking at parking garage ruins, dad reads paper, Alex and mom swimming pool, 3 kids home movies, shoveling snow
The house descends into darkness. Any gesture, any word could be the magic spell, the one to summon the unwanted genies of the past. My father withdraws into science journals and sitcoms, but at last mom comes up with a brilliant new turn. They’re going to have another child, and this time, it’s going to be the right gender.

A new hopefulness arrives, and when my sister is born I want to take her away and protect her. I think I will never love anyone, like I loved my sister in those years. She was instantly smarter than my brother and I, she had the she-balls to argue with my mother, and made friends early so established herself outside the family, a trick my brother and I didn’t manage until it was nearly too late.

image: mike projector, mike at a space, mike and alex snow off stairs north shore, mike on italy beach waves good-bye
When I was 15 I had a pretty good idea who my mother was, but very little idea of who I might be. I began a very traditional teenage rebellion by growing my hair, listening to corporate rock and embracing a pack of derelict kids who wound up dying young. My mother wrote a poem about this period that she named The Stranger. It goes like this.

In our house there is a man
I’ve never seen before.
He avoids us when he can
And hides behind his door.

I talk to him, words soft and kind
but he turns away his face,
looking angry, and his mind
dwelling in an alien place.

image: Mom and Mike Brooklyn Bridge, Mom takes photos in New York, Mom on bus, memorial, man leaves room silhouette night, woman at bedside
Mom had a photographic memory. She didn’t simply remember, she time travelled, she could tell you the colour of the shirt you wore when she met you for the first time, she could tell you what you ordered for breakfast 35 years ago. The Buddhists say that some actions are written in water, some in sand, and others in stone. For my mom, every moment was written in stone.

image: Jesus with guns pics, Jesus easter, Jesus play, women telephone switchboard operators, Indonesian archive sunshine kids, Dad going to nursing home, packing truck, Mom buying computer in store, walking with Alex
For my mother, Jesus was not a sword that cut the room into the people we want and the people we don’t want, into the people whose behaviour is ok, and the people whose behaviour is not ok.

For my mother, Jesus was the man who said yes. Yes to the poor, yes to the many charities she gave her money to, yes to the desperate late night callers at the Telecare help line that she volunteered at for 20 years, yes even to the strange and difficult behaviours of her kids.

She knew what it meant to be judged, and her perfect memory meant that she returned to those wounds as if they had happened an hour ago. But the Jesus that she came to know would not make the same mistakes. In their relationship she learned to touch even the most unwanted parts of herself with kindness, though long before that dark journey, she offered it to others as a gift that needed no return or even acknowledgment.

image: cats
Her last child was a tortoise shell cat who kept visiting until she became part of the family. Lovey was very gentle and quiet, and they spent many years pouring their hearts into each other. When I would come to visit, mom would sit in a chair with Lovey perched on her lap, who looked on with divine understanding. Humans come and go, her eyes seemed to say, but cats are forever.

image: Obama montage
The election of Barack Obama was one of the happiest moments of my mother’s life. She called him “our president,” even though she was Canadian.

When she said “our” she meant the cold shoulders and quiet put downs, the moments in a line up when she became suddenly invisible. As a person-of-colour she had been on the margins, but now “our president” was going to change all that. He was going to stand at the very centre of the world and make a place for everyone who didn’t belong, even a little old lady from Burlington.

image: Roland Barthes clips, Burlington drive supered with slow landscapes, girl runs
Roland Barthes said that when you give someone a gift, you’re always giving it to your mother. The entire history of photography was contained in the face of his mother, that wounded him, punctured him, and from this face he created a theory of photography that continues to be studied in schools around the world.

For years my mother secretly and anonymously supported an impoverished family in Burlington, putting together packages of food and clothing, wrapping Christmas presents she would never see opened. She did it not because she should, but because it gave her the deepest joy she had ever known. The new teacher was pleasure.

image: Thunderbay, mom in flames, Phil wheelchair, Phil with head wound, Dad eating, Phil with doctors, Phil and Mom Harvey’s, Phil and Mom walk in parking lot, Mom jewel
She spent a lot of time in what the Buddhists call: the dying place. We live in a culture that so often hides the great transformations for the living and the dead. But my mother talked about the moment of her dying to me thousands of times. She rearranged the song list for her funeral, she worried about what kind of food would be served, she conjured up the hospital bed. After my father died I could feel him with me as a soft wind, gently encouraging, easing the way. After my mother died I felt her trying to enter my heart, to let it grow as big as the whole world, so that I would never be able to say no again.

image: Proust with doctor, writing, Mike crying
The French writer Marcel Proust has nearly died of an overdose. His friend Celeste comes over to assure him: “After we die, we’ll all meet in the Valley.”

Proust replies: “If I were sure of meeting mother again, I’d die right away.

image: Alex and John kitchen, Alex then Mike phone, Alex texting on phone, photo of Alex, Phil, Mike, mom bed bloody, virtual hospital, mom in emergency ward, Mike in smoke
On Tuesday the phone call from my sister came, the one I waited for every morning and every night. Mom was in the hospital, in coma. We gathered to bear witness in the Emergency Ward, Jack and Onalee and Alex, each of us in our own reality bubble. Even though she was in a coma, and couldn’t move, my mother was the brightest light in the room. Her face looked impossibly young and smooth, as if she had shed a lifetime of responsibility.

I could feel the way her breathing patterns were slowly undoing her attachments, to her dearest friends, her family, even her body. I am not this body. After lying still for more than half a day she met her oldest and most unforgivable wound and she forgave that too, and let it go, and when she did she burst into a kind of song, the room filled with her new ghost voice and she was testifying. She was a women of faith and she was telling us about the love that flows between each of us, if we can let it, if we can overcome our smallness and open our hearts. Two minutes later she was gone.