Friday, November 12, 2010

"Autumn Mauve," a remembrance by Lauren Ryan

Isabel Milne Ryan 1928-1995

It was a simple tube of lipstick, a pretty pinkish-mauve, one my mother always liked. She’d asked to borrow it and I’d lent it to her, quickly forgetting all about it. Several weeks later, when my life would change forever, it appeared again unexpectedly in a basket where I kept my makeup.

Though the lipstick is now long gone, I never could part with that basket. It’s moved with me over the years, from apartment to apartment, and house to house, tucked away in a box that rarely gets opened. It’s faded and old, collecting dust now, like some of my memories. But there are some memories that never leave you.

Fifteen years ago this September we learned my mother had colon cancer and needed an operation to see how far it had spread. My three siblings and I were given her expected prognosis shortly after: six months to a year to live. After the news, she moved into my apartment to recover from the operation. My sister Andrea temporarily suspended her life in Montreal and my other siblings Michele and Greg, visited frequently. Together, we planned simple day trips, trying to squeeze a lifetime of living into those last few months.

While recovering, she experienced a lot of pain and at one point, it got so bad we took her to the E.R. After hours of watching her be poked and prodded we were elated when the doctors told us it was just a hernia. Soon after, they were apologizing. It was not a hernia and she would have to be admitted again. This time it would be her last.

We gathered around her bed after the doctor had left the room. She acknowledged in a roundabout way that she knew she was dying.

“I know what you know,” she whispered to us, as if we too, had just been given the news.

She told us about final things that needed to be done: clothes to be picked up at the cleaners, cheques to be returned, as though she were making plans to be away on a long trip, not dying.

It was December, three months later. As Christmas approached, she slipped a little further away. It was surreal; this woman who had fiercely loved and cared for us all those years was now deteriorating. We had a celebration of sorts in her hospital room on Christmas day. Presents were opened and food was shared although she could no longer eat. We kept up a front of cheerfulness for her, and she did the same for us. Finally, on January 4, she slipped away for good.

My mother was loving and kind with a silly sense of humour and a strong sentimental outlook on life. She was an avid reader and lover of music, especially the big band era and jazz of all types. She could spend hours poking around in stores filled with music, books or other quirky treasures. On many occasions she came home with an assortment of different items, like a purple heart-shaped glass ashtray, a flowery tea cosy or funky coloured tights.

“Isn’t this gorgeous, Lauren?” she would beam, showing me her latest ‘odd’ treasure. “Only thirty dollars!” Her tastes grew more experimental the older she got.

She was a unique spirit who danced to her own funny beat. Literally. She would stomp with her feet, bop from side to side and sing – ‘dah, dah, dah’ - while furiously clapping her hands. It always cracked us up. Some mornings I would wake up to her singing “It’s a beautiful day......! Da na, na na na!” as she breezed through my room yanking open the curtains in an attempt to get my lazy bones out of bed.

She often made up strange words that were used throughout our lives. I still remember some of them, as they became part of her vocabulary. “Awww..Bodie Godin..!” (rough translation: poor you!)

In the fifties, she left her home town Winnipeg behind with my father to make a new start in Toronto. Together they raised four children. We have fond memories of her piling us into the old, black family station wagon and taking us on adventures – everywhere. But she would always get lost coming home. One time we ended up in a field in the pitch black surrounded by cows.

My mother rarely got upset about the dumb things we did as kids. My oldest sister Michele was never reprimanded for destroying a table center piece (full of feathers) for a school project, or running away (and taking the neighbourhood with her) to follow a fire in the distance, or even taking the baby sister (me), and climbing onto the neighbours’ roofs for the view.

Another memory that stands out involves my grandmother who, in one of her moods, did something outrageous one day while my mother was at work. Michele ran to tattle on her the minute my mom walked through the door.

“Mom!” she whispered excitedly. “Grandma tore down all the vines on the house!”

“Ok,”she murmured, concealing her obvious disappointment. “Thanks for telling me.”

Her beloved vines were gone but Grandma never incurred any wrath from her, though one could argue it was well deserved.

I remember the care packages she sent us when we were away at University, especially the letters and cards filled with day-to-day happenings and lots of love and the giant chocolate chip cookies for Michele that always arrived broken. My sister Andrea remembers opening packages filled with the odd combination of bacon and underwear.

Although she had been hesitant to speak her mind at times, she grew quite bold in later years. When someone was rude at the grocery store, she would purposely bump their butt ever so gently with her cart. Or declare in the line-up a little louder than necessary “Someone’s being very rude!” As a teen, I wanted to shrivel up and die. Now I can only smile.

There was further evidence as she got older that she no longer cared what others thought. If someone pointed out the piece of macaroni that had unknowingly landed in the middle of her shirt, she just shrugged it off with a wave of her hand. “Oh well, never mind!”

Once, she taped up her broken glasses and if anyone asked what had happened, she would shrug and reply “I haven’t gotten around to replacing them yet.”

Stories shared about her past often evoked in her a melancholic mixture of emotions. She had almost no memory of her own mother who suffered from a mental illness and was sent to an institution when my mother was very young. A number of female relatives helped care for the three daughters until their father hired a housekeeper, whom he eventually married.

She had a strained relationship with her father, who had always been a cold and distant figure. As a Math professor at the University of Manitoba, he was not particularly supportive of her and refused to pay for her post-secondary education when she wouldn’t pursue science or mathematics.

The daughters would soon suffer another loss. Jean, the middle one, was sent away at age thirteen for a mental illness similar to her mother’s. My mother would see her only a couple more times when they were in their fifties. This must have hurt her deeply but she rarely spoke of it.

Over the years, she often mentioned making that sentimental return journey to Winnipeg where all the memories of her youth were held. She never did make that trip but one day I plan to make it for her, and visit all the places she so vividly talked about.

Every now and then I feel a quiet astonishment that she’s really gone. It’s strange how the cushion of time makes the rawest of emotions seem far away, as if from a dream. I’m still sad when I think of her, but it hurts differently now. Memories take on more significance and I remind myself to share them with the next generation – children who will one day grow up and never have the pleasure of knowing their grandmother.

I still have some mementoes that belonged to her - knickknacks, cherished books, even old recipes and notes scribbled in her handwriting. A few things have been thrown away, but with difficulty, for each time I feel the loss of her all over again. But I’ve learned over time that ‘things’ don’t hold as much meaning as the memories themselves. They are just triggers, and sometimes they even stop working as such.

Over the years, I have felt flickers of resentment when hearing others speak of the mothers they still have. Those feelings have mostly passed. Although she did leave us too soon, I have come to realize how lucky I was. Not everyone has the kind of relationship we had. We were able to transcend our mother-daughter bond into one of real friendship. For that, I will always be grateful.

And now I come to the story of the lipstick. My mom passed away on a cold and sunny January day at Women’s College Hospital. Two weeks later, while getting ready to go out, I suddenly noticed the lipstick on top of a heap of makeup in my basket. I stared at it in disbelief, somewhat frightened. How had it gotten there? I visited that basket of makeup every day and it hadn’t been there the day before. I would have seen it.

Right then I sensed my mother’s presence in the room. Reaching over I picked up the lipstick. Trembling, I turned the tube to release the colour, and there it was – that pretty Autumn Mauve – the very one I’d lent her. I could only conclude that it was my mother reaching out one last time, to let me know that she was okay on her journey and she would watch over me. I knew then that the bond we had forged over a lifetime would never be broken.

Lauren Ryan's love of writing drew her to a career as a communications professional before she opted to temporarily leave it behind to stay at home with her children. Two years ago, she decided to take her passion for writing more seriously. Three Brian Henry workshops later, she has worked on everything from picture books and adult short stories to personal essays. She is currently writing her first Young Adult novel. She also made the short list for the Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Fiction Writing Contest for her first adult short story, "Derailed." And she published "A Boy's Best Friend," a short piece about raising her sons, in the June 2010 issue of Today's Parent.  You can read that piece here.  

For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and creative writing courses, see here.

1 comment:

  1. Lauren,

    This is so beautiful and it's bringing back so many memories for me. I'm practically in tears reading it. You mother was a wonderful, fun-loving woman and she had such an influence on my life, particularly in my taste in music and books. I'll never forget all the concerts we went to at Ontario Place--your mom, my mom, we kids. I remember so clearly chasing after that fire, ending up 2 miles from home (our moms weren't too happy about that). The Ryan's home was my second home; your Mom, my second mom. As you say, all we have are the memories, and they are very fond ones for me. I will always miss your Mom.

    Love Marg