The black and white photo of my parents sits proudly next to my wedding picture on my mantle. They were younger, huddled together with arms secured around each other in a joyful embrace. That’s how I like to remember them. Laughing. Together.
Both have since gone. My dad succumbed to cancer that ravaged his fifty-six-year-old body until there was nothing left. Memories were taken at the end. I heard him ask my mother as we stood at his bedside about the red-headed girl who was crying. “Who is that?” he had asked. My mother looked at me, confused. She turned to his questioning face. “That’s Karla. You know her,” she said quietly patting his hand and willing him to recognize his only daughter.
My Dad was from Nova Scotia. “I’m a Bluenoser,” he would say. We would crinkle our noses and laugh, “Your nose doesn’t look blue!” I had no perception of Nova Scotia. A scant picture of a foreign landscape and of a Nana I didn’t know were my only introductions to an East Coast so vastly different than my Southwestern Ontario upbringing. I possessed no concept of life outside my little townhouse in Chatham. He would tell us tidbits of his life in Digby. My dad was an only child. His stories of eating seaweed and sardines made us cringe and laugh. When he was in his teens, my grandfather urged him to work on the fishing boats. Hard work to which my Dad gave an honest effort, but it wasn’t for him. He had other plans. A three-year stint in the Air Force and then off to Ontario to find work. By 1954, he and my Mother had married, and they had started a family.
I’m fifty-four and I have lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for twenty-five years. I married a Botwood boy out of college. We met in Toronto, married, and started a family. As fate would have it, we were destined to an island, again, very foreign to me. It took a few years and a few kids later, but I adjusted. I understand the Bluenose reference. My ears have become acclimated to the various dialects and nuances of Newfoundland vernacular. I have even said a few, “Go on, b’ys,” myself. I appreciate the ease of becoming part of a community that is innately communal. Generations of families living close and welcoming ‘mainlanders’ into their fold. An expedition to stomp around the homestead of my late father is never far from my mind. A bucket-list item that heads the top, it should have happened years ago, but with babies comes responsibilities. The leisure of visiting a place of my roots was put off for something more immediate like a school trip or dance lessons. Now, the notion of a no-travel ban has raised its steel toe boot to my bucket- list and I lament not having made the trip. I had the luck to visit the Maude Lewis exhibition in Halifax last year before the ugly virus drove us inside. I felt at home sitting outside her house, thinking my Dad may have driven by her little painted dwelling on his way out of town. Maybe my grandfather knew her. The mere idea of a connection makes me feel at home. I’m part Bluenoser, part Newfoundlander and part Chathamite. Fractions of places that feed my identity as a whole woman at ease living on the edge of an ocean.
It’s funny how our dialogue has changed from talking about what to do on the weekend or how the baby kept us up all night; to how we want to spend our retirement years and looking forward to not having to wake up to an alarm clock or a mundane drive to an office.
As we get older, it becomes more apparent that our priorities and responsibilities change. Our children are more independent and need us less. We have more time on our hands (most of us) that we once dedicated to our children, but now can dedicate to other perhaps lofty pursuits.
Our parents are now in their later years and require more attention and assistance. Considering retirement homes and long term care facilities for the people who raised us is both daunting and heartbreaking, however, a responsibility we all will eventually face. It’s the circle of life, people and we can’t escape it. (Cue Lion King music here) We will all go through it. We just don’t want to. The struggle of having to take responsibility for yet another human on the long list of other humans we already look after seems exhausting. It really does. Depending on the medical and physical needs the person requires to get through a day, it can be an emotionally draining experience, for everyone. It’s frustrating and complicated and sometimes impossible to get the care in order. But it will come. And everybody will be settled. Until the next hurdle, when you get that call in the middle of the night that in the back of your mind you knew would happen only you were putting it away, hiding it and ignoring it’s nagging voice telling you to ‘grow up’ and put on your big girl pants because now she needs YOU, instead of the other way around. Dying is a part of growing old and a part of life. Saying ‘goodbye’ is the hardest thing about being alive. The invite to my thirty-year high school reunion just went out a few days ago making me feel incredibly old. And like I want to hide behind someone’s skirt. I don’t recall the exact moment I got to this point; this time in my life where I have to take stock and see where I ‘ended up’. Wait. I haven’t ‘ended up’ yet. I’m still getting there…at least in my mind. Going home is always bittersweet. It’s where I grew, up but not where I live. It haunts me and sometimes it’s like I walked in a dream. I think, did I really live there? Did I really have those people in my life? Did I really take a piece of old chewing gum that was stuck to the bottom of the table at the Fiesta Restaurant and chew it? I was like five, but really? Aside from the obvious ‘ewww’ you all just did, I didn’t always do gross stuff. I think. The stories from my childhood come in spits and spurts. From some of the stories, I take it I was a hoot to be around. I took out the old photo album the other day and took a walk with my family. I looked hard to see what was in the background; do I remember where the Christmas tree went? Do I remember the rocking chair I sat in every night and my mother would say I reminded her of Aunt Edith when I twisted my hair and chewed my finger? An aunt whom I never knew and I never met. I have a hard time remembering what my dad looked like. I have a picture of him I look at often. I study his face and try to picture what it was like sitting on his knee, or holding his hand as we walked down the sidewalk. I was looking at my son’s school picture and noticed his eyes have a downturned shape to them. So did my dad’s. My son looks like my dad. A realization I just came to not so long ago. When did that happen? The cottage in Rondeau where we swam in a freezing Lake Erie and played games on an inflated inner tube bobbing beneath surface only to splash back up and try it again. The summer days my brother would go fishing on the Thames river and I would throw rocks under the bridge only to hear him say, ‘no, like this’ and proceed to throw a ‘skimmer’. I could never throw a ‘skimmer’. I could spend a lot of time visiting the past. Looking at old photos, reading old letters…it’s all there. As I get older, I seem to want to visit there and try to walk in my parents shoes. See things from their perspective. Try to feel the heat from a 1970’s summer sun; remember the winter my dad had to get a ride on a snow mobile to get home from work; raising a family on a furniture salesman’s salary. I put the photos and cards away for another day and “put the past in my behind.” (Another Lion King reference, in case you missed it.)
The past is a great place to visit from time to time, and I admit to getting lost in the murky depths of memories. I eventually find my way back to the present and revel in how I got here. My ending isn’t written yet, but my middle is a pretty special place. I think I’ll stay here awhile, if that’s okay with you….