Words are easy to forget

This could be a post about ageing and forgetting? But that is shooting too high. Grin morphs to a mild scowl: is it, after all, about ageing and regretting? No. A nod, if not cheerful, then contented, of resignation. Already, see? A lot of words: age, forget, grin, scowl, regret, nod, cheerful, content, resignation.

For the longest time I couldn’t easily remember the term for contentedly being together. Comradeship, camaraderie, respect, mutual respect, support, admiration, mutual admiration, companion-ability? No, no. Each time I would search for it, maybe find it or set aside the idea of finding it. It really bugged me, what was that word!? If I could find it I would say it over and over, to try to be sure I didn’t loose it somewhere in there, no, not again! Searching spaces in what’s left of my mind. Triumph: affection.

Stories we tell. Sam says he is tired of the stories my family tells. I worry slightly that here I may repeat stories (have I already recounted the one I am relating now!?) And he said that going to The Gesualdo Six concert in July together was a new story. It featured a piece by Gerda and it was shared by brothers’ families.

Problem is we don’t participate. I have found teaching more than a life and, even as much as I enjoy being creative and totally more-than-engrossed with the work, it is frustrating to wonder what life is otherwise like. Thus early retirement. He works when we summer (and write blog posts) and he holidays when the rest of us are working, so travel stories are his. The kids have a 24 hour rule, that he may talk about his trip for a day. Or a week. But then we move on. He laughs when we are discussing something, “This brings it back to me but when I was in Paris …” and he has something to add to the topic of the moment, and we all chuckle or groan.

The possible danger of repeating myself is not going to stop me. I am not even going to look to check. If the story fits the junk going through my head at the moment, maybe it is a different angle, a different use, for massaging the same remembrances to explain how we got here. He can complain about repeating old stories but, first of all, this is for no one’s consumption. And stories explain or explanations come in stories. It’s all I’ve got so merrily I roll along.

Years ago my best friend Susan said something herself that reminded me of a conversation that my mother related to me, between Susan’s mother and my mother. The mothers were riding bikes around the neighbourhood. Probably it was Mary who thought of the idea of going for a bike ride. I never saw my mother, skate, swim, or bike ride. My mother was not one to think of such activities.

My mother was thorough about house-cleaning once she got around to it. She enjoyed curling. She had lots of volunteer activities including empty hours as staff at the art gallery; my characterization as “empty” because I hung out with her during a shift once or twice. I studied the paintings and, in particular, a portrait of a local First Nations man. At the time we would have describe the portrait as someone of Native Indian ancestry; the term Aboriginal was an Australian term for their original people, and the word Indian was not yet problematic in the early 1970s. The portrait had a patch on the canvas that my mother said was pointed out to her as a factor that diminished the potential value of the work.

Mother attended meetings for the concert association and seasons tickets meant she needed someone to go with. I thought the goal was to pretend to stay interested and a requirement was to stay awake, which was difficult to do when dragged along on school nights (on the one hand, I don’t have to do homework, on the other hand, it doesn’t make school easier). She organized fund-raiser nights for PEO meetings. She said the abbreviation or acronym was a secret but my brother found it stood for philanthropic education organization, as listed on their publication’s information page; way to keep a secret.

My mother related that she and Mary were riding around the neighbourhood on their kid’s bikes while their kids were in school. Mary probably thought it would be good exercise, so she did the social thing and called to see if mum was doing anything at home 5 minutes away. My mother said they were riding around and chatting. Mary said, “You know the world is going to be a different place for our daughters.” This was a revelation for my mother. “Our daughters will have jobs, they won’t stay home with their children, different from us.” I remember nothing more about this great insight except that my mother was intrigued.

At some point my mother told us that all of her friends attended university, but she didn’t see the point. Her English teacher thought she should do English and one year she had the lead role in a play opposite Hume Cronyn who eventually became a film actor. She said at some point she had thought she might like to be a home economics major. My parents got married at 22 and she worked as an office secretary so her husband could attend law-school. She loved working at Labatts Brewery in accounts and she had fond memories of annual golf games and how figures of authority, men, thought affectionately and highly of her. My parents moved and when she hit town she recalled how easy it was to find employment–and that one place gave her an aptitude test, and then subsequent places gave the same test and marvelled at how well she did–because she had taken the test so many times. Working at the Downtown Parking Corporation, she added to her coin collection, purchasing found-coins to complete consecutive years in pennies, nickels, dimes, and she sifted out foreign coins used in the parking meters.

It was years later that she noticed in the paper, the distribution of males to females in the faculty of law or medicine was made up of more than 50% women; a show-stopper because we never thought we would see the day, our generations anyway.

Although my father’s mother was a stay-at home mother, apparently she had graduated in biology from U of T, and worked in a lab for Dr. Best, or maybe it was Banting, which became interesting in retrospect. My mother’s mother had her Royal Conservatory certification for teaching piano. She wrote to mother when I was 8 that she hoped I would enjoy piano lessons as she did and that piano had been a soul-saver for her as the second child of seven with six brothers. With formal training she became a registered OT, occupational therapist, for the First World War when people were sent home with life-altering changes to learn to live with.

My mother wanted good things for women. For herself, she felt love and affection were going to be her adventure. In 1952 I don’t think there was an inkling that the birth control pill, the women’s movement, and the divorce rate would have any relevance in their lives. My mother kept the safety deposit key in her jewellery box. When dad left she went to retrieve the shares she had accumulated, “their” shares. And the certificates  were not there. As a lawyer in divorce court my father was, according to Mother, in his element, respected and shown deference. Personally I think he was probably a tired, scared, geek, but she painted a picture. She came out of it with no credit rating as merely a Missus when you took your husbands first and last name becoming indistinguishable except as “Mrs.” She got the invested value of the house, $40,000, and the mortgage debt, which would have been double or triple the equity, and he got whatever else there was.

I would like to say, “She never looked back,” because my mother was good with investing and figuring out how to leverage what she had. She left all four of us an inheritance while dad couldn’t “help one if I can’t help them all.” He made us welcome at the various places he bought and sold, but he made it clear he was very proud of us for all being so independent. Meantime he left with the wife (of his former friend) who arguably had a big mouth when it came to indiscretions. Her husband phoned the house in the middle of the night to have-it-out. It was odd for me in the morning to wake up alone and every light in the house was on. Puzzled, I turned out lights, made my breakfast and went to school and found out, after school after cross country, “Dad’s gone,” with a French fry part-way to my mouth. I wasn’t sad but excited, as this seemed the beginning of an adventure for a woman who had spent time complaining about his surly odd behaviour.

My friend Susan’s added observation (daughter of an observer) was that women have time that they would not have had in earlier times. She share that insight years ago, probably when our kids were tiny. Women’s work doesn’t fill all of our time. We have time to consider our lot-in-life, and wonder how we got here, if we have any complaints, and what we might do about it.

My struggle to remember the word affection came relatively recently, at a point on the road literally and metaphorically, wondering “what women want.” It came up a number of times. I think of it as something I thought about on a walk around the neighbourhood 10 years ago and then again just months ago. I spent time trying to remember the word or term–a thought that interests me. However Sam’s advice is to not dwell, to remember the good things and, as in pleasant conversation with frail strangers, to move on by changing the subject to avoid going there. To avoid being taken there.

The day after our wedding the weather had changed completely and it was pouring as we left the motel to wait for transport to the airport. Having married, my husband would be a changed man, content and never again jealous or emotionally manipulative. I would not have to deny labels in order to restore relative peace. The doors of the lobby were not automatic and I was wearing my going-away outfit from the day before–pretty, whimsical, attire I wasn’t used to, and I was trying to move luggage and carry-on bags. I smirked at the thought he was going to have to turn around and realize I couldn’t do it with one trip out the doors; he would have to come back. As I watched he just kept going. Through the double-doors, straight ahead, then turned left and out of sight. I did the two trips and, between, he wondered mildly out-loud what the initial delay had been.

I remember when I was 12 and I think it was when we were trying to get out the door for our driving trip to California. (The first attempt at a family trip to California had been derailed because my brother had contracted Hep-A. His illness at 14 or 15 was an intense introduction to our family doctor whose practice he would eventually take over). This was the second attempt to leave on a trip to drive south.

It may have been that she related this whole episode to my brother and him to me, but I think I remember. Routines before leaving on vacation, like closing curtains, checking heat and water, noticing whether the cat’s food was topped up for neighbours to look in on her, seeing that the house was in order for anyone looking in, all that routine was, to my mind, shared by the two who worked like a well-oiled machine. Mum was still at it and Dad and brother were leaning against the porch railing and I feel I was ducking past in order to get out the front door.

Conjecture on my part but I figure, Dad was feeling goofy and roguish and he said, “Always waiting for the women.” She overheard and, I imagine, felt the expression didn’t fit. Rather than being some typical(?) air-head, slowing things down, she had been moving steadily all over the house with a view to leaving and was just about to come through, closing the front door behind her after the words fell. She probably needed a cigarette and it is sort of a mean thing to say if affectionate teasing is mistaken for complaining. Which to my mind it was.

The last minute concern happened to be hers this time and the possibly good-natured, cheeky, cheerful, dig, which he would have heard from somewhere else, is something she found thoughtless and did not forget. The marriage wrecker had moved to town, I don’t know how much of their lives were already interwoven with the new college principal and his wife’s, but there might have been some sullen stuff going on already.

I figure my father was a handsome flirt, post Second World War, where all you needed was “a grey flannel suit and a pulse” to succeed. The sun rose and set on youth because there was not much left of the generation between young people and their ageing parents. My father seemed to be good at his job and, a bonus, a good handyman, whisper-whistling as he worked on projects around the house or cabin. I think my dad in some ways was naive, and my mother was usually cheerful and a planner, and that they made a good couple. “Twenty-one good years,” my mother would reliably say when reflecting on their 24 years together during their 28 years of marriage.

On a radio retrospective I heard it explained that the lyrics “No sugar tonight,” (from the Guess Who) began with a retort flung by a woman after she was disrespected by her husband, and in front of other band members. Subsequently I have eyeballed my partner with those words running through my head. There is a song about it, so it must be a common thing. One can lay out one’s preferences of how it is going to be, but the path needs to be consistent with the goal.

An English major informed me, when I attempted to retell a half-baked version from a coffee counter advertiser, that it was Chaucer’s Lady of Bath that told the story of Guinevere and the ladies of Camelot, who set the task for a knight to find the answer, “What do women want?” On the Internet a professor, RAB, recorded student answers meant to encapsulate the knight’s found-responses, “authority over themselves,” “equal power in a relationship,” “dignity,” or “the last word.” He added that at least one student muffed it, indicating a woman wants to be a trophy wife–an attempt to describe being the controlling one in a marriage. And he pointed out that a man would prefer his trophy wife to be “living in adoration alone,” rather than thinking and acting independently. Men might wish to gain an attractive and adoring trophy, but that’s not, “What women want.”

An old adage, ‘Happy wife, happy life,’ apparently picked-up speed in the 1990s, whether it feels like manipulation and guilt, or wisdom worth following, if “physical over thoughtful” (I’m big, you’re small) is an issue in a relationship.

Um. How did I get here? Ah. Lost words:  affection. Mother could have chosen to interpret my father’s comment as affectionate teasing, “Always waiting for the women.” But she might have had reason to doubt his affection, and to read an attitude behind things he said.

On that family trip, some time within the next couple of weeks, she would back the car into the concrete of a light standard at a mall and I picture (as a way of remembering) he barked at her, “Jesus!” and bailed out of the car to have a look to see if the trunk was crumpled, while it was only a slight dint in the chrome bumper. The stick that is trust was a bit bent from the earlier comment and maybe even earlier suspicions or other comments. But there I think it broke. Ill-timed comment, the beginning of the end.

The lost word doesn’t remain lost. As goals go, it seems an equal answer beside the sage and sassy insights of the Wife of Bath.

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