Up at 5 a.m. to begin a draft of a scene for Heart of the North to give to my composer, Neil Weisensel, this afternoon, I began studying script formats. I began thinking about my mother (when do I not think about her) and how extraordinary she was. At heart she was a natural creative, a painter who channeled much of her creative energy into cooking beautiful meals served at gorgeous tables, or how she dressed (always elegantly & trendy but NEVER mutton-dressed-as-lamb). She had little money and yet her tables rivalled the best. She served on department store china – she always wanted a set of Rosenthal china but never got it – and yet it might as well have been Rosenthal because the way she laid the table, served the food was always elegant, a candle ALWAYS lit no matter if it was mac and cheese, & her menus inspired . Some family members mocked her for her predilection for elegance, as if she was ‘uppity’ – but my mom was born into a wealthy family (the money lost in 1929, her father deserted soon after), and had the provenance of being ‘French’. Only late in her life did I find our Métis heritage and only when I began to give her books about our culture and how proud a heritage it is did she acknowledge and embrace our heritage and actually wear the sash.
This morning as I set about working I thought about my mother because it would have been unimaginable for her to have had the luxury of rising at 5 a.m. to work on a piece of artistic work, funded work. My mother raised 5 kids and had a terribly difficult marriage to an alcoholic. She worked at low-paying jobs all my childhood years and had two or three weeks off a year, therefor little time to follow her passion for painting or for learning (she got her B.A. at age 69). Yet I remember our holidays at Boundary Bay and how it was her happy place. In particular I remember her standing at her easel outside the tiny cabin we rented (cold water, no shower/bath, old oil stove, 2 bedrooms for 7 people – the boys slept outside!) – and painting for hours and hours. She often wore an elegant dress, a very fashionable mumu (not the tent kind) brought back from Hawaii by a wealthy friend, and a smock (to keep the oil paint off her clothes). Unlike so much of the year during which she was exhausted and stressed (she’d had tuberculosis, numerous surgeries, and my dad was unpredictable), at Boundary Bay she was happy and relaxed and we kids had free range. When she wasn’t painting she was reading. I think she was irritable a lot of the time because she was intellectually and artistically frustrated. Raising 5 kids and living with the chaos of alcoholism instead of fulfilling one’s intellect and creative spirit is a recipe for self-destruction, yet miraculously, she looked after her health and self extremely well.
Everybody says she is still with me, my mom, but I’m not so sure, I just can’t feel her with me. And I have no one I can phone and talk about books, ideas, what’s in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair – my mom was an equal-opportunity reader (low-brow, middle-brow, high-brow), someone who enjoyed reading the tabloids as much as any academic tome. I have so much to thank her for and yet I can’t. tbh, I’m not going to my PhD convocation because without her there is no point – I did it for her first and foremost.
A huge part of my self-identification as Métis is a recovery of the creative spirit that my mom, and her mother, stifled as brown-eyed girls who passed. Mom’s elegance was sneered upon by some and yet it was her heritage manifested in her clothing, her food, her painterly eye and her eclectic Catholicism. I just hope, no, I pray, I can do her justice.