Happy Mother’s Day: Why It’s Important to Listen to Your Mother Talk about Nothing

This Mother’s Day marks the fourth one where I will not hear my mother’s voice telling me I didn’t need to call her. I won’t hear her say on the other end of the phone, “Yes, Dear, I’m still kicking around,” and then proceed to fill me in on every detail of her life since we last spoke. I won’t hear her say, “You shouldn’t have, Dear,” like she used to when I arrived at her place with a two-dollar coffee and a donut. I won’t scrunch my face in mock anguish as she pulls me down to her level in order to give me a peck on the cheek. The visits to the cemetery are nowhere nearly as fun as sitting in her kitchen listening to her talk about, well, nothing much. But she did it with such enthusiasm.

There were many times I would sit in her kitchen listening to her tell her stories of her nasty neighbour or the lunch she had with the other “old ladies” (her terminology) or insights into the latest crime book she was reading. I freely admit that I tuned out more than once, my mind wandering elsewhere. She’d always bring me back to reality by asking me where my next trip was, and then I’d have to reassure her that my destination was not dangerous. As the years passed, she relied more and more on having me or my brother be there to listen to her. And listen we did, even though there were times when I really had no interest in hearing my mother talk about the type of salad dressing she tried at the restaurant.
I don’t think I’m that patient with everyone. But when it came to my mother, it was, quite simply, what I owed her. Her life – her only purpose, and it was quite clear – was to take care of me and my brother. Nothing else mattered. The word “sacrificed,” while often overused to amplify the self-importance of our choices in life, knows no truer meaning than through the life my mother led. Her personal happiness was not even an afterthought; her life was spent – completely spent – with the unique purpose of ensuring that my brother and I lived the best possible lives. The result of this selfless act was not lost on me, although I admit I did not fully appreciate what she did when I was younger. Hopefully I wasn’t too late in telling her how much I appreciated all that she did for me. Beyond the good manners (“Take your hat off in a restaurant”), the endless array of practical skills (riding a bike, no. Ironing and effectively using Saran Wrap, yes.), and the adherence to a strong set of morals and values (“Never go to bed mad at your mother”), I take from her the importance of respecting others, of treating everyone with dignity, and having the courage to love and to remain strong no matter how hard things get.

A few days before she passed away, she had lost her ability to say anything coherent, to move on her own, and to feed herself. There was, from all appearances, nothing left of the woman who cared for me. As I sat on the hospital bed feeding her, I could no longer hide my sorrow and let tears fall down my cheek. She struggled to grab her napkin. At first I didn’t know what she was doing, then realized she was bringing the napkin up to my cheek to wipe my tears away. The essence of what makes us human, what makes us caring, what makes us strong,can be seen no more clearly than by the love a mother has for her children.
Related post: My Mother’s Memory


What is it like to be a woman in your society?

What is it like to be a woman in your society? I can’t answer that. It’s a question that is currently being asked in a “virtual conference” celebrating women’s voices for social change. The conference leads into a discussion on actions to celebrate International Women’s Day March 8. As I thought of all the things I could say in response to this question, I wondered what my mother would say if she were alive. I’d probably ask her the question after having dinner over at my house, where she would sit in the living room, sipping her coffee and enjoying the antics of my boys. She would probably say,
Well you know Dear, things were different in my day. My father worked downtown and it was expected that my mother stayed home to take care of me, my sister, and my brother. My mother never complained nor protested at the role she had. Back then you just did things a certain way and that was that. I don’t think she ever questioned my father, nor did she ever raise her voice at him. Years later after both my parents passed away I found my mother’s diary and I came to realize that she’d hidden a lot of pain from us children, keeping secret my father’s dalliance that had gone on for a long time.

Your father wasn’t like that, though. When we married in 1962 I thought there was something wrong with him because he was so old at the age of 35 and was still single. I wasn’t much better you know, at 32. I’m sure some people thought I was an old bat at that point. By the time your sister was born in 1965 I was happy to leave my job at CIL and settle in our home. Your father took the train every morning and came home to a hot supper at six every night. All the other wives in Roxboro had the same lives: we fed our husbands, sent the children off to school if we had any, and cleaned the house during the day. That’s just the way it was, it wasn’t as though you questioned it. I’d studied to work in an office, I did that for a few years, and then it was time to raise a family. 

I had more money than your father when we bought the house – he was lucky to have me, I tell you buster boy. As we settled in to our lives, after the sadness surrounding your sister, your brother came along and then you. Your father took care of everything – he fixed the house, paid the bills, earned the money. I stayed at home, cooked. cleaned, and took care of you. You were a quiet one – sometimes I would call your name just to make sure you were home – and then there was your brother. Always getting into trouble.

After your father died I didn’t know what to do from one day to the next. I loved your father so much, and then all of a sudden I was left alone. Friends and family came to console me in the beginning but it didn’t last long. Raising two children on your own as a woman is not easy. He was no longer there to take care of things, no longer there to help me. I didn’t know anything about repairing the car or how much it cost to get the roof fixed. I had to make decisions on my own about the education you and your brother would receive. I brought you up always doubting whether or not I was making the right decisions. I wasn’t always taken seriously – I could tell that some men weren’t used to having a woman talk to them. I would tell them I was a widow not to get pity from them, but to show them that I was tough and I could stand on my own. I look back at the early days when I was raising you and your brother and I sometimes wonder how I got through it all.

When you tell me of the places you’ve been, I read up on them from books in the library. Did you know that some women in Africa have to stand behind their husbands when they walk with them? And that some women can’t even look at men eye to eye? And that women in India are burned, sometimes thrown acid on their faces by their husbands? The lives they live are so painful, it makes me sick to see that women are treated this way in other countries. Did you know that girls are being mutilated at a young age because it’s part of their traditions? And in some places a man can have more than one wife? Your father would have said, One’s enough! A lot of things have changed since I was young, but when I look around I can’t help but feel sadness at the way some women are treated.
I feel the same way, Ma.

A Letter to My Sons, Part 3: Uncommon Friends

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

Sorry I couldn’t write sooner, fatigue got the better of me last night. We’ve just completed the second day of our three-day workshop evaluating human rights education activities undertaken by the participants. Today we spent most of the day listening to the main points of each activity. There were participants from Sri Lanka, George, Aruna and Lucille, who told us of a workshop that brought together people from four different religions – Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islam – in order for them to understand more about human rights and how they relate to their religions. We also heard from Bernat and Maria from India, who work with teachers to develop school clubs where they discuss human rights.

Next up was Khan from Afghanistan. He told us about a workshop he held on how to write reports to the United Nations; these reports describe the current situation of human rights in the country. Before we took a break for lunch, Saru and Medan from Nepal shared with us the story of their workshop, where they taught young men and women on something that’s called “domestic violence against women.” That one’s a bit harder to explain. Not every family is one where everybody is happy. There are times when husbands and boyfriends hurt their wives and girlfriends, sometimes with words, sometimes with their hands, and it’s a problem that happens in a lot of places but people find it hard to talk about. A lot of women who get hurt find it hard to talk about it. So Saru and Medan wanted to tell young people about this problem so they could help stop it.

After lunch, Banasree and Lal showed us the journey they took to a village to meet with community leaders and people who work for organizations called NGOs; they helped to educate them more on their rights. And finally, Samson and Hameed from Pakistan told us about their workshop where they trained people from organizations like NGOs on being better at what they do.

So you see, Alexandre and Sam, despite some bad things that are happening around the world, there are some people like my friends here who are doing good things; they are trying to help people. In many ways, that’s the greatest gift you can give to others, whether they be friends, family, or even strangers. People help each other out because it’s just right to do so. I really believe it’s ingrained in our hearts.

You’ll notice that I called these people my friends. It’s true that they are “participants” in this meeting, but the reality is that once you get to know someone, to understand who they are and what their motivations are for doing this kind of human rights work, you can’t help but share a connection with them. It’s a connection, a bond that lasts once the meeting is finished and once we’ve returned to our respective homes. It’s the type of friendship that can easily skip a few years then be rekindled by an email or a phone call. As I said to my friend and colleague Bing tonight, “They’re a good group,” to which she quickly nodded. You’d like them too. I’m pretty sure you’d get the biggest kick out of Lal. He makes everyone laugh instantly, sometimes by his laugh alone. Tonight he bought an umbrella – I have honestly never seen anyone as happy as Lal at the purchase of such a thing, he was beyond ecstatic. If someone can get that excited over buying an umbrella, think of how much fun he has teaching others about their rights.

I’m off to sleep now. Je t’aime, Alexandre, je t’aime Sam, bonsoir.