Happy Birthday

February 8, 2011.

My mother died in November, a year to the day (plus a few hours) after my father’s death in 2009. We were very different people and I wouldn’t say we had a close relationship but I know she loved me and I loved her. Today would have been her 85th birthday.

My mother was born to an unwed mother on Cape Breton Island in 1926. She was taken into foster care and lived with her foster mother and sister until she left home as a young woman. She married my father in 1950 and produced four children in five years. When we asked her about her own childhood, it always sounded very bleak to me. But she was loyal to her foster mother and sister and wrote to them regularly, sending photographs of her children, providing cheerful news of their progress in the world. When my brothers and I cleared out her Victoria apartment in January, we found many of these letters and photographs, returned to my mother after her foster sister’s death. It’s strange to read the little notes my mother wrote on the backs of photographs. She didn’t praise very often so it was surprising to me to see that she’d noted on a school picture of me in 1967 that I needed a haircut, that the photograph wasn’t a good one because it didn’t show that  “she is lovely”.

Photographs provide an alternate history. They articulate moments that require context. So often that context is provided by personal contact, a person leaning over our shoulder as we leaf through an album to tell us what the photograph doesn’t show. I haven’t yet sorted out the materials I brought back from Victoria in January — there are three boxes of photographs and assorted papers – but I know I will miss having my mother available to ask, “Who are they?” (a formal group of girls in old-fashioned dresses, one of whom resembles me) or “What do you remember about this dog?”  (a small girl with a dog in a leafy yard. Someone has written on the back, “Shirley and Jimmie”). My younger brother called to say that a photograph fell out of a book he’d brought home from Victoria and to his surprise it showed a women’s hockey team, our mother one of the players. That explains the old black skates she gave me when we lived in Halifax in 1964 and I wanted to join the other kids skating on the pond near our subdivision. (I wasn’t grateful. I wanted figure skates.) But it doesn’t tell us what position she played, if she was ever injured, or if her team ever won.

This is one of the photographs I found in January. I’d never seen it before. She’d sent it to her foster mother in Halifax from the military housing complex where we lived near Victoria. On the back, she wrote, “A real nice family.” In those years, my father was in the navy and was often away for months at a time. She must’ve been lonely, tired, and maybe overwhelmed by the demands of those four children. She didn’t drive. There wasn’t much money. Yet look at her smile! (And look at those long brown legs!) Happy Birthday, Mum.


~ by theresakishkan on February 9, 2011.

One Response to “Happy Birthday”

  1. Hi Terry, so sorry to hear of your Mom’s passing. To my delight Gordon and your Mom stopped by (must have been shortly before your Mom passed). I hope she went quickly and without pain. It was so good to see her. She really hadn’t changed from when I knew her as a teen. I think of you often. Hope all is well with you and your family.

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