Taking a break

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By Caitlin Kelly

I leave this week for a week away from home, alone, and am ready for it.

I drive to Virginia — about six hours (not a fan of flying) — and have two small-town days at an inn, all to myself.

Then to a conference, the Northern Short Course, which is an annual event for photojournalists, some freelance, some working for news organizations. It’s the second year I’ve been invited to speak, and I’ll talk about the many challenges of pitching ideas and projects to would-be clients. I began my career in Toronto as a teenager selling my photos to newspapers and magazines, so I have some street cred as a photographer as well as writer.

A dear friend of Jose’s, and a lifelong mentor, will be flying in from New Mexico, so I am looking forward to dinner with him and his wife; we stayed with them in June.

 

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Then two days’ playtime in D.C., catching up with friends there.

Then home and diving into three successive freelance projects: for The New York Times, my second story for Mechanical Engineering (!) and a story for a Canadian business magazine.

I’ve done very little work over the past two weeks since my mother’s sudden death.

It’s been the usual and expected flurry of phone calls: her nursing home, the funeral home, her executor and the law firm handling her estate and will.

I’m really really tired.

Despite our last decade of estrangement, I’m still struck by/with grief, grateful for Jose’s support and the cards, emails, calls and flowers from loving friends.

I wish — however retro and weird this sounds — we still wore black to signify mourning (instead of what all New Yorkers wear all the time!) or even a black armband on the left sleeve. I Googled it and it appears to be wholly out of fashion and would not be understood.

It would be a powerful and effective way to signal mourning — without having to discuss, explain, react. The conference organizer is losing her mother right before the event, so she will be so exhausted. While others’ love and consolation and condolences are very welcome, they’re also tiring to acknowledge and respond to, especially in person. Some (luckily, only a few) will try to share their story of loss.

You just can’t. You’re too tired.

While I’ve shared quite a bit of my feelings on social media, I also have many, many more and need to process them slowly, quietly and without the energy drain of being social.

Now that coronavirus is making public gatherings suspect, this will be easier.

So I may post later this week — or not.

Thank you for all your comments and kindness!

 

 

Some more memories…

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at home with Roo

By Caitlin Kelly

Before we were estranged, we weren’t.

Obvious, right?

Like me, she had dear friends all over the world, but she was never a joiner. She never stayed for coffee hour after church.

So, sorry to say, there are not enough people to gather for a funeral or a memorial.

Some memories to share:

She and my father love(d) to be rabble-rousers and rule-breakers, so I remember — before they divorced when I was six or seven — one of them, maybe her, choosing to get arrested for non-payment of parking tickets.

 

In the 60s, anything went, so she decided to wear sarees and sandals — in WASPy Toronto, a definite outlier amidst the cashmere-and-pearls mummies at my prep school.

 

When she left my father, we moved from a large house in one of Toronto’s nicest neighborhoods to a two-bedroom apartment, a two-story walk-up, in a basic (safe) downtown area. But, typical of her style, she had a wooden playhouse made for me and put on our balcony.

She threw great, stylish birthday parties for me, usually at a local hotel.

 

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Not a flattering pic, but years ago on our New York balcony

 

She had endured a moneyed-but-strange childhood — including a governess and a mother who kept changing husbands (six? eight?) the way some people change their shoes.

We moved to Cuernavaca so she could study with Ivan Illich. We lived in a basic neighborhood and I walked up the hill to school. We had no phone and didn’t know anyone — so when she had a manic breakdown on Christmas Eve I ended up on my own for two weeks with another 14-year-old friend, visiting from Toronto.

She never discussed her childhood or adolescence. I tried. 

She traveled for years alone, even through Latin America. She taught me to shove a chair beneath the door handle, if needed, to stay safe in your hotel room.

 

She never enjoyed cooking. We used to joke that dinner was ready when smoke poured out of the kitchen.

 

Born American, always a fervent progressive, she wept the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated — my 11th birthday. I couldn’t understand why she was crying on my birthday.

Whenever I gave in to some sort of panic, she’d reply with her own solution: “What am I going to do? Jump out of my skin?”

 

As she traveled, always alone, she’d import me once a year to wherever she was — so I visited Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Fiji all in my early 20s. Fun, sometimes. Peru was the best, including a fffffffreezing midnight train ride through the Andes and sunrise at Machu Picchu. Loved the blue starfish in Fiji. 

 

She never re-married and had few romantic relationships. I think intimacy wasn’t enjoyable.

She endured some terrible health issues, including thyroid cancer at 30, breast cancer in her 60s and a brain tumor at 68, a massive meningioma that had likely been growing for a long time, maybe decades. The Vancouver neurosurgeon who performed the six-hour surgery told me it had made her irritable and moody because of its location — so I’d been arguing with a tumor for years?!

When she had the brain tumor, but before we knew for sure when she was taken many miles south to Vancouver for tests, she was taken to a small regional hospital and we flew from NY to see her. Jose was then national/foreign photo editor for The New York Times (a huge job) but took a week off to go with me — and he had never met my mother before. He cleans up nice, and in his khakis and crisp white button-down, came into her room.

“Holy cow!” said Cynthia — maybe the only woman I know who could flirt while battling a big-ass brain tumor.

She traveled the world with a small stuffed mouse with a string tail — her mother’s nickname for her.

 

 

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Worn, but well-loved

 

When I went into the hospital in  London, age maybe four?,  to have  my  tonsils removed, I was told I was there to have a baby elephant…and she’s still in my life.

A mass of contradictions, Cynthia Blanche von Rhau.

 

Yes, I will miss her.

Sudden death — my mother

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A long ago image, one of my favorites

By Caitlin Kelly

I found out Sunday and immediately knew, seeing the nursing home’s name on caller ID, what this was.

A call I dreaded, but knew was inevitable at some point.

She had not been ill, although she had many health issues — COPD, a colostomy, survivor of multiple cancers. She was 85.  I am her only child and we had been estranged, again, since 2010, for many reasons. Her alcoholism was a major one for me. I was worn out competing with it.

She was also bipolar and her manic episodes, certainly when I was in my teens and 20s,  were terrifying, often resulting in hospital stays around the world as she traveled. I was 19, living alone and attending university, and would find calls on my answering machine from consular officials, from the Americans (she was) and Canadians (I am) asking me what to do.

I knew?

It was a lot.

She had been in a nursing home since 2011 when she became too ill to live independently. She lived, at the end, in Victoria, B.C. as far as one can get from my home in N.Y., another obstacle to visits, even if wanted.

Which we often didn’t want.

She had previously lived in many places, including Roswell, NM, Woods Hole, MA, Toronto, Montreal, Bath and Gibsons. B.C. where she joined the volunteer sea rescue crew, bouncing around in a Zodiac and tending her garden.

In Victoria, she had a dear friend locally who will  take her things for now, and who is executor of her will. She will be cremated and I’ll likely go out in a few months to take her ashes back to the part of mainland B.C. she wants them shared. Sadly, there are not enough people to make a funeral or memorial.

I am a stew of emotions, as anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows.

Cynthia had, in many ways, an amazing life, blessed with Mensa-level intelligence, beauty and enough inherited money she didn’t have to work after her 40s.

She traveled the world alone, even to remote Pacific Islands, and made friends in Australia, England and in Canada, where she moved from New York when she married my Canadian father — at 17. They met in Eze-en-Haut, France at a party, and barely knew one another before marrying at St. Bartholomew Cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City — two wealthy, charming, strong-headed people…who made me!

They were quite the pair and we moved to London from Vancouver while my father worked for the BBC making films. She was adventurous all her life.

She never attended university but worked as a radio reporter, TV talk show host and magazine editor and writer.

She met her lifelong best friend, an East Indian travel agency owner in Toronto, Molly, when she interviewed her for a story.

She had a wardrobe of wigs, sometimes changing her hair color several times a week.

Her black mink had a brilliant emerald green silk lining.

She was glamorous as hell — and also fiercely independent and private.

I knew very little of her.

I was sent to boarding school at eight and summer camps ages 8-14 when I left her care to live with my father. We had lived in Toronto, Montreal and Cuernavaca together.

I never lived with her again after that.

Because she always lived so far away, or vice versa, we saw one another maybe once a year. As she traveled, she would import me once a year to wherever she was at the time: Peru, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji.

Some years went by with no visits, due to rancor.

The closest we were, emotionally and physically, was the year I was 25 and living in Paris on a journalism fellowship and she was living, as always alone, in Bath. We saw one another more often then.

 

She taught me to play gin rummy.

To travel safely as a woman alone.

To set a pretty dining table.

To fight hard for what you believe in.

To talk to anyone interesting, anywhere.

We played ferocious games of jacks — her long fingernails, she knew, a competitive advantage

Some photos:

 

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Ooohhhhh, we were competitive!

 

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Love this one

 

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That’s me, maybe age five or six, in Toronto.

The elusive mother

By Caitlin Kelly

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I loved this recent, powerful post by fellow journalist/blogger candidkay:

Those of you who told your mother all your secrets–and reveled in stories of her youthful escapades before you came along–will not understand what I’m about to write.

I didn’t really know my mother.

I was born to her and lived with her for many years but I was not privy to her essence. By the time I came along, I think it was long buried under disappointment, sadness and a sense of propriety.

I was born to her in her early forties, the last of six daughters. She was, by her own admission, more interested in her career by then than in birthing more children.

Of course she loved me. She loved all of us.

But I was always stymied by her lack of disclosure. I knew only about the “safe” stuff. Her parents losing their house during the Depression. Living on her grandparents’ farm. Editor of the school newspaper. Navy nurse during WWII.

I could piece together a patchwork quilt of her life but it was quite threadbare.

This rang so true for me.

Earlier this year, I pitched a story to a major women’s magazine about how women with distant or elusive mothers find other women, throughout our lives, who nurture us — whether friends, neighbors, a professor, a co-worker or boss — instead.

Then the editor asked me to write, instead, about my own relationship with my mother.

I couldn’t.

In some ways, I didn’t want to, as she is still alive and the story is complicated. I chose to leave her care at the age of 14 and moved in with my father; between the ages of eight and 13, I had only lived at home with her for two years, most of my time spent in boarding school and summer camp.

But also for the same reason as candidkay.

I just don’t know enough.

My mother and I — her only child — haven’t spoken in three years, nor have I seen her, as she lives in a city that takes me an entire day to fly there. We exchange no cards or flowers or emails.

She is in a nursing home, a sad ending for a woman with brains, beauty, a huge sense of adventure and the private means to enjoy all of these.

A photo taken when my mother was food editor of  a national magazine; me on the right
A photo taken when my mother was food editor of a national magazine; me on the right

But I know little of her life and she rarely offers details.

I keep putting off a trip out there, for several reasons. But I know one of them: my fantasy that we’ll suddenly get close, after all these years, is unlikely and quite sure to end in my disappointment.

Like candidkay I became a journalist, and, like her — like many journalists do — I have made my living for decades asking total strangers extremely detailed and intimate questions, about money and sex and death and struggle and family.

And they answer me.

So I finally realized, it’s her, not me.

Do you know your mother (well)?

Do your children know you?

Rage, fear, guilt, remorse…Happy Mother’s Day!

By Caitlin Kelly

Mother and Child
Mother and Child (Photo credit: gem66)

Sorry, but this isn’t the place for flowers and candies and sentiment today.

Millions of people aren’t hugging Mom or making her dinner or staring sadly at her photo, mourning someone who is long dead.

For many people, the word mother is more a descriptive noun than a nurturing verb.

I wrote about this last year, prompting two followers here to reveal some of their more challenging maternal histories as well; both, not surprisingly, have become friends off-line as a result.

No one wants to admit publicly they did not get along with their mother, unless it’s a tell-all-fuck-you memoir like Sean Wilsey’s — whose stepmom threatened to sue him if he went ahead and published. (He did.)

My mother lives in a nursing home now, in a Canadian city a seven-hour flight from me. We haven’t spoken since May 2010 and I am not sure if or when we will, or when or if I’ll see her again. She has some dementia, how much is unclear.

Our relationship is much complicated by a woman who purports to be a dear friend of hers, who visits her daily and has been both determined and efficient at shutting me out and making sure my mother thinks the very worst of me. Lawyers and others have told me this is not uncommon between people of vastly differing wealth and in a family where estrangement between child(ren) and parent exists and and can be further exploited.

Describing this dispassionately here does not mitigate the incredibly deep hurt I feel, the impotent rage I bear toward this woman and her family or the shrugged-shoulder response of my mother’s few remaining friends and relatives, some as burned out as I by decades of my mother’s assorted issues.

I really miss the best of my mother — her laugh, her intelligence, her wit, her charm, her beauty, her range of interests. In earlier, healthier years she was an actress, model, TV host, journalist, broadcaster and lay chaplain helping hospice patients, pretty amazing to me since she had already survived multiple cancers herself.

She traveled the world alone for years on end. She settled, for a while, in unlikely places, like the Mexican desert or Roswell, NM, Bath, England and Lima, Peru. I saw the world when she’d send me a plane ticket to meet her.

We had some serious adventures together:

— sleeping with our arms and feet entwined on a freezing cold overnight train through the Andes of Peru

— snorkeling for blue starfish in Fiji

— playing endless games of Scrabble in Costa Rica

— driving through the mountains and valleys of Mexico in a camper van, Judy Collins’ eight-track of Wildflowers playing

Wildflowers (Judy Collins album)
Wildflowers (Judy Collins album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— the fantastic birthday parties with cakes with sparklers she threw for me, one with little girls who came all the way to Montreal from Toronto for my 12th.

— laughing our asses off at almost anything

— comparing notes on the latest issue of Vanity Fair

I hate not having a mother any more, even if she is alive.

So, enjoy the day for me, and for her.

No kids? You really don’t want kids?

scream and shout
scream and shout (Photo credit: mdanys)

Really.

If there’s a default expectation for women, it’s Becoming A Mom.

Surely every one of us wants kids. Don’t we?

No, some of us do not.

I don’t have kids and never wanted to. Neither do either of my younger half-brothers. So, sadly — as those of us without kids often enjoy time spent with them — there are no children anywhere in our extended family, no nieces or nephews, no grandkids.

There’s a reason some women don’t want kids, but one we rarely discuss publicly.

Like me, some childfree women were parentified at an early age, pressed into premature service as the adult, the responsible one, the person who reluctantly but efficiently dealt with doctors and teachers and bankers and realtors and lawyers far too young — often because their parent(s) was/were mentally ill, and/or alcoholic or drug users and they had no other family to turn to.

This tends to make for lousy parenting, as your caregivers are often physically or emotionally absent or careless. Worse, they’re often exhaustingly selfish, needy, demanding, immature and insatiable.

Just like a baby.

Except that babies gurgle and coo and smell delicious and are charming as well as exhausting. They grow up and their needs change.

These sorts of parents rarely do. We often spend our childhoods and teen years and early adult years — the ones falsely glorified as a time of totally selfish independence and freedom — dreading the latest email or phone call signaling the next crisis. We may spend savings we barely have to repeatedly rush out and rescue our parent(s), as their own friends and even relatives burn out, give up and turn away.

So, by the time society expects us to start cooing lovingly over our own kids — as well as everyone else’s — you’re simply worn out. The whole idea of starting another job being someone’s caregiver and protector feels, as it is, overwhelming.

Nor do these sorts of parents want to baby-sit for you. Nor might you even trust them to do so, so the sort of automatic family support and love many people assume is normal and take for granted — and which makes parenthood look a lot more affordable and appealing — is never going to happen for us.

We rarely say this publicly because:

It’s not cool. If your Mom gets cancer or your Dad has a stroke, sure. People will be kind because they can relate. There are no pink ribbons for those of us carrying the weight of an alkie or a parent who’s in and out of mental hospitals.

These burdens are ugly and painful, and often only end when that parent dies or ends up in others’ professional care.

Non-mothers are often dismissed as selfish, cold, unloving bitches. Nice!

Non-mothers are pitied, their infertility assumed. It’s almost never seen as a deliberate choice.

Non-mothers are considered people who want nothing to do with children. Wrong!  Kids are fine, and often fun. I just don’t want the lifelong responsibility for one, or several.

Here’s an excerpt from Jessica Valenti’s new book about women fed up after having had kids:

In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a “safe haven” law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off at a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.

Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here’s the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family — nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.

The Nebraska state government, realizing the tremendous mistake it had made, held a special session of the legislature to rewrite the law in order to add an age limitation. Governor Dave Heineman said the change would “put the focus back on the original intent of these laws, which is saving newborn babies and exempting a parent from prosecution for child abandonment. It should also prevent those outside the state from bringing their children to Nebraska in an attempt to secure services.”

One father dropped off his entire family.

On November 21, 2008, the last day that the safe haven law was in effect for children of all ages, a mother from Yolo County, California, drove over 1,200 miles to the Kimball County Hospital in Nebraska where she left her 14-year-old son.

What happened in Nebraska raises the question: If there were no consequences, how many of us would give up our kids?

How do you feel about having kids?

Do you feel pressured to become a parent?

Do you hate Mother’s Day too?

Česky: Matka a dítě. עברית: אם ובנה, 2007. Sve...
Česky: Matka a dítě. עברית: אם ובנה, 2007. Svenska: En mamma som kramar om sitt barn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bear with me.

Like many others watching the annual flood of maternal sentimentality, this isn’t a fun week for me. (It’s celebrated on May 13 here, but not necessarily in other countries.)

My mother lives in a nursing home in a city a six-hour flight away. I don’t plan to send flowers or a card, even though I know I should and would like to. I’m her only child. She has no grand-children and many of her friends have died or abandoned her over the years.

We haven’t spoken in a year, since our last verbal exchange consisted of her raging at me without pausing to draw breath. The Mother’s Day flowers I had sent went unacknowledged, then my birthday.

Like many mothers out there — not the cookie-baking, hugging, call me! text me! types — mine has no interest in my life. And she’s now doted on by a woman even the nursing home staff told me they found rude and weird, someone nasty to me whom I’ve never trusted.

So, Mother’s Day?

Meh. 

I know other men and women whose mother, for a variety of reasons, lost interest in their own children, no matter how well-behaved or accomplished or how hard we’ve tried, for a long, long time, to get closer to someone who…just doesn’t want it.

But we never talk publicly about it, the subject taboo.

I’ve re-written this post about 20 times, debating whether or not to even publish it. I am weary of secret-keeping.

My mother, who is beautiful, bright, sophisticated and charming, never re-married after divorcing my father when I was seven. She never seemed to miss emotional or physical intimacy.

When I was 14, we moved to Mexico. There, on Christmas Eve, she suffered a manic breakdown; I left within weeks to move in with my father and never returned to her home except for visits. I saw her first manic episode when I was 12, then again lived through them when I was 19, 25, 27 and beyond. She ended up in jails and hospitals all over the world, as she traveled alone and refused to stay on her medication.

For a long time, she wrote letters often and we spoke every week or so.

In 2003, a 4-inch tumor was pulled from her head and I asked the surgeon to “make her less of a bitch.” The words shocked me as they fell out of my mouth.

His answer shocked me even more. “Her tumor has made her aggressive for years, possibly decades,” he explained, thanks to its location in her brain. She was, for several blissful years afterward, loving, gentle and kind, the sort of mother I had longed for. (Here’s my magazine story about this experience, with a great pic of us when I was little.)

By the summer of 2010, when I flew out to see her on my annual visit, she had become unrecognizable to me, the amount she was by then drinking destroying what was left of her mental and physical health. I called my husband from the motel where I was staying and wept, in rage and frustration and despair, for 30 minutes.

When, if ever, would this shit stop?

The verb “to mother” implies nurture, care and concern. We automatically conflate the two, while “to father” often means simply to create a new life, not to stick around and take care of that child.

I’ve tried to be compassionate. I’ve tried to reach out, for decades. I’ve tried.

I’m done trying.

How’s your relationship with your Mom?

Does Boarding School Screw You Up For Life?

English: Students at the Old Fort Lewis Indian...
Image via Wikipedia

I went off to boarding school at eight, the youngest girl there. I went off to summer camp, eight weeks at a stretch, at the same age. I saw my mother on weekends, my father (from whom she was divorced) whenever he was around, which was intermittent as he was a film-maker who often traveled far away for months for his work.

So, there you are, surrounded by a sea of strangers, whose rules and regulations — and kindness, compassion and goodwill — will make or break the rest of your childhood and/or adolescence.

Weird? Yes.

Formative? Definitely.

Here’s a recent editorial from The Guardian on sending young kids off to boarding school — considered perfectly normal behavior by some Britons:

So I want to try once more to begin a discussion about an issue we still refuse to examine: early boarding. It is as British as warm beer, green suburbs and pointless foreign wars. Despite or because of that we won’t talk about it. Those on the right will not defend these children as they will not criticise private schools. Those on the left won’t defend them, as they see them as privileged and therefore undeserving of concern. But children’s needs are universal; they know no such distinctions.

The UK Boarding Schools website lists 18 schools which take boarders from the age of eight, and 38 which take them from the age of seven. I expect such places have improved over the past 40 years; they could scarcely have got worse. Children are likely to have more contact with home; though one school I phoned last week told me that some of its pupils still see their parents only in the holidays. But the nature of boarding is only one of the forces that can harm these children. The other is the fact of boarding.

In a paper published last year in the British Journal of Psychotherapy, Dr Joy Schaverien identifies a set of symptoms common among early boarders that she calls boarding school syndrome. Her research suggests that the act of separation, regardless of what might follow it, “can cause profound developmental damage”, as “early rupture with home has a lasting influence on attachment patterns”.

When a child is brought up at home, the family adapts to accommodate it: growing up involves a constant negotiation between parents and children. But an institution cannot rebuild itself around one child. Instead, the child must adapt to the system. Combined with the sudden and repeated loss of parents, siblings, pets and toys, this causes the child to shut itself off from the need for intimacy. This can cause major problems in adulthood: depression, an inability to talk about or understand emotions, the urge to escape from or to destroy intimate relationships. These symptoms mostly affect early boarders: those who start when they are older are less likely to be harmed.

So true.

It sure ain’t Hogwarts, kids!

The very notion of daily, familial emotional intimacy — whaddya mean I’m supposed to share my feelings? Feelings?! — is as alien to me, even now, as Jupiter. It’s no accident I married a man who is very affectionate, grew up in a normal family with two sisters at home and easily says “I love you” a lot.

I have only one friend who also had this experience, a man a bit older, who has some very similar emotional patterns. At best, we can tough out almost anything without sniveling or whining. At worst, we come across as (and may well be!) cold, bossy, disconnected.

Some of what you learn:

You rarely cry. There’s no one to cry to. Bluntly stated, no one cares. There’s no one offering a comforting hug or a hand to hold if you’re anxious, ill, homesick or scared. You share a room with four to six other girls, some just as miserable, whose distant parents live even further away than yours, in Nassau or Caracas or North Bay.

You rarely share your feelings. No one in authority has the time or interest to sit with you. No one asks. “So, how was your day, sweetie?” They check your name on a list to make sure you are present. i.e. not missing, not a problem, not a liability. Your assigned room-mates? They might hate you, or use personal information against you. Best not to offer them any ammo.

A vicious tongue. Because you cannot fight physically and cannot leave and cannot find privacy from those who are making you crazy, you learn to wound verbally. Not pretty.

Television and radio are impossibly exotic treats. This was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I got to watch television at school maybe once a week, with a bunch of other girls in the common room. I laughed really loudly — probably at a sitcom — and was admonished for not being ladylike. (You should hear how loudly I laugh today!)

Food and drink take on additional importance. Every meal, including snacks, is served on a schedule, in a pre-determined location. We were told each week at school what table to sit at. Between-meal hunger? Deal with it: sneak food out, keep some in your room. Tip: trying to carry oranges, apples or grapefruit in your baggy, saggy bloomers is not an effective strategy.

Privacy is the greatest luxury imaginable. Every waking hour, you’re surrounded by other people, some of whom you loathe and vice versa: in your bed, in the bathroom, in the dining hall, in the classroom, in classes and sports.

Your self-image is shaped by people who make judgments about you with incomplete information. I was asked to leave my boarding school after Grade 9 for being, (as I was that year), disobedient, rude and disruptive. But no one ever bothered, kindly and with genuine concern for me, to ask why. In high school, my nickname was the Ice Queen, so little emotion did I show. Go figure.

The upsides:

Self-reliance. Independence. A stiff upper lip. I know to make a bed, iron wool, tie a tie. (Part of our uniform.) Whistle with two fingers. Swear like a sailor. An excellent education with ferociously high standards. Tons of homework, as early as fourth grade. No boys to distract us. The automatic assumption that smart girls rule, that men are not to be deferred to simply because they expect it and the expectation that every girl is capable of, and will produce, excellence and leadership.

All good things!

Did you leave your family at an early age?

How did it affect you?

It’s My Birthday! Now What?

Birthday Cake
Image by chidorian via Flickr

A 22-year-old from New York City gave birth to me in Vancouver on June 6, 1957.

Today, I live near her birthplace and she, in Victoria, BC, lives near mine. We each married a man from across the 49th parallel.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day here in New York and, thanks to Facebook, birthday wishes have already arrived from Bhutan, London, Paris, Cracow, New Mexico, Tuscany and San Francisco — I have, literally, a world of friends, whose love and support are the greatest gift I could have. Being a career journalist/author partnered with a career photographer/editor means we share global tribes of fun, talented, adventurous people passionate about ideas, people and connection.

It’s day filled with a mixture of joy and sadness.

I’m a little terrified of being this age, although — yes — better than the alternative. I read the personal obits in the New York Times and yesterday read one of a woman, 45, who had made partner in one of the city’s top law firms but was cut down by cancer.

I know how incredibly fortunate I to have a birthday at all.

I normally get a card from my mother, and am her only child, but she is too angry with me for applying to become her legal guardian (she now has dementia) and instead is clinging to a weird and controlling woman who loathes me — and who shares power of attorney with me. So, today, I get silence from my own mother.

My father, thankfully, is a hale 81 — and hopes to be here this weekend, driving down from Ontario visiting friends, to share his 82d with us with dinner in Manhattan and maybe tickets to the ballet. We fought bitterly for years and in the past four (since the death of his wife, a woman I never made peace with) have become closer than I ever thought possible. That’s a gift.

My sweetie, Jose, plans to take me on a silent Buddhist retreat, mid-July. You can imagine my mixed feelings! But I’m exhausted (happily) from promoting my new book “Malled” non-stop for two months and can really use some quiet time in the country. Not sure how much meditating or chanting I’ll do, but we’ll see.

Tonight, I’m making pork roast and we’ll eat on the balcony and enjoy our river view. There’s a cheesecake in the freezer and I’ll make a mango-strawberry coulis.

I’ve been thinking about some of my best past birthdays:

10…My mother throws a terrific pool party at the first-ever Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Toronto. (My new book has a blurb from the chain’s founder, Issy Sharp. Small world?)

12…We’re living in Montreal that year, but several good friends come the five hours by train from Toronto, and we have a pajama party on the living room floor. I have photos of me with a cake covered with sparklers, happily cringing.

16…After arriving in my super-cliquey Toronto high school halfway through Grade 10, I’ve finally made some really good friends. Joyce organizes and throws a surprise party for me. Yay!

20…Both my parents are traveling, far away and out of touch, my Mom in Latin America somewhere and my Dad and his wife on his boat in the Med. My uncle Bernie, a well-known actor from London, is doing a show in Toronto and takes me out for dinner.

21…I’ve been traveling alone for months in Europe and want to wake up somewhere amazing for my 21st. I blow insane money and stay, one night, at the Gritti Palace in Venice. So worth it.

26…Paris! I’m at the end of the best year of my life, on a journalism fellowship with 27 others from 19 countries. My gal pals take me out for dinner there.

30…My mom hosts a party for me in her Toronto house. I still treasure two gorgeous art glass vases I received that day.

What was your happiest birthday?

My New Mom, At 76

The Macchu Picchu, a UNESCO World Heritage Sit...
Machu Picchu, Peru, where Mom and I climbed and once saw the sunrise together...Image via Wikipedia

Today is going to be a difficult day, as I’ll say goodbye to my mother — who I’ve typically been seeing only once a year for years, living a six-hour flight away from her.

Two weeks ago, I and a friend of hers moved her into a nursing home, her car and apartment sold, her Japanese prints and engravings and rugs sent to auction, some of her linens and antique textiles given to me and shipped back to New York, where I live.

I’m her only child.

She’s a new person, now, in a totally new environment, a loner surrounded by people she has just met and whose care and attention (or lack of same) will profoundly affect her every day and night. I’d be terrified. But she’s doing well. I burst into tears of relief yesterday at a pub lunch with her when she told me that her three windows, which overlook a private garden, were like three television sets, all view, all the time. She’s happy and healthy, and she had been neither for a long time.

I have been told — and see glimpses of it — she has some dementia. Yet we talked last night, in detail, about family and friends for four hours. I feel as though her intelligence is sands in an hourglass, and I have to grab it and savor it as often as I can.

Which is very difficult over the phone and from an enormous physical distance. Yet I am rooted to my adopted town and country — a half hour drive from her birthplace — as she is in hers, a 20-minute flight from mine.

We did not get along for many years. We’re stubborn, headstrong, feisty, private. I haven’t lived with her since I was 14 and we have always lived a continent or an ocean apart: she in Lima, I in Toronto; she in New Mexico, I in Montreal.

The closest we ever lived, when I was 26, was when she lived in Bath, England and I in Paris. I remember saying to her that year “I’ll meet you at the plane station”, a direct/weird translation of “aerogare”, aka an airport. That’s what happens when you think and dream in French!

Now, after 3.5 months in the hospital and a hip surgery and a bowel surgery, adjusting to the discomfort and indignity of a colostomy bag, she looks healthy and happy again. She uses a walker, but does so with an energy I hadn’t seen in a while.

Being my Mom, she told me to lose weight and asked me to buy her some tweezers — as a former model and actress, such details still matter!

So it’s with a heavy heart I peck out these letters in my hotel room, counting the minutes until I have to say goodbye.

It was never this hard before.