In the dusky hills of Lillooet, a person could sit forever without getting bored. Or, to be more specific, I could sit forever. At my grandfather’s house, the house where my mother grew up, I too often feel to be in a time-warp. No longer a girl of post-millennium British Columbia, but rather a page ripped from a journal of Suzanna Moody.
The peace there is what has composed my life for 22 years. Summers were spent skimming rocks into Texas Creek. My mother would always prompt a bonfire, “like when I was a kid!” she’d exclaim, and so it would be. With her high school friends, we’d sit around a great bonfire and sing old tunes. My grandfather strumming his guitar until my eyelids finally fluttered shut and I woke the next day on the couch.
This is where my mother grew up. Serving burgers at Lou’s, for the original Lou. Driving motorbikes along Texas Creek Road to wade in the creek in butt-skimming shorts with her friends.
I heard all the stories when I was a kid. When you’re a kid, you never want to hear them. “Oh Mom, come on. You mean you were actually young once,” my voice would tease irreparably. Picturing my mother with a beehive and cats-eye glasses was too much for my young mind to conceive of.
As time went on, these became my bedtime stories. I couldn’t help but laugh as my mother’s voice, like crystal wineglasses tinkling together, recounted how she and her younger brother Glen would fight over making morning eggs. She liked the yokes, he liked the whites. So finally they compromised. Until the day when they fought over who got to cook and a messy fried egg ended up on the roof of the kitchen. No more egg-cooking for Cheral and Glen.
This is how I learned who my mother was. The girl who learned she was adopted, and spent her entire life feeling rejected. I’ll never know that feeling of rejection. But through her, I can try to imagine it.
Through her stories, I learned about our similarities. Summer visits to Lillooet promised a warm fireplace with real firewood. Fresh out of the tub, my long hair dripping, my mother would wrap me in a towel and drop me in front of the fireplace. Embers burning my back, she’d sit behind me and brush my wet curls. My curls, which I now loathe, came from my mother. Her own black curly hair used to be subject to her own infliction. Sweltering Lillooet heat was no good for a teenage girl’s vanity, so she would tell me. The easiest way to straight hair are hot pop cans, with the hair wrapped tightly around them and held with bobby pins.
But just as my mother told me about her childhood, she told me about her feelings. And still, I’ll never understand those feelings of rejection. I’ll never understand those feelings of turmoil, or of distress, or of responsibility.
Responsibility, she would tell me, is something to be earned. And I would say to her, how did you earn your responsibility?
All her life she worked for that responsibility.
With a widespread smile she’d offer her help to someone – anyone. Be it her parents, my younger brother, or an old friend from high school, if it would make her feel responsible, she’d go for it.
The one thing she taught me is that responsibility doesn’t come on a silver platter.
But still, it eluded her. I’ll never understand how, again and again, it evaded her. Perhaps her overbearing eagerness to belong to someone provoked it.
When she was forty, she “made contact” with her birth family. And so again I was subject to stories. All too easily I can picture my grandmother and grandfather peering over a cradle as they welcomed in their first child, Cheral, from my grandmother’s second cousin. Winnie and Robin lived on a small farm in Chilliwack. They already had five children, and the depression was still evident. They did not want another mouth to feed.
The letters came, shortly after my mother’s fortieth birthday. Her birth uncle lived in my hometown of Kamloops; her brothers and sisters now lived in New Zealand and England.
Her birth mother, Winnie, had died five years earlier. Robin wanted nothing to do with her.
I’ll never know that feeling of rejection. It’s not mine to know.
My mother’s life, as much as I want to remember it, is hers and hers alone.
I’ll never understand the loneliness that followed her all her life. From learning of her adoption to the death of her mother to the rejection of her birth father. They were her solitary experiences, and could only be recounted to me through story.
But even through story, yet another similarity we shared, I’ll never know how she felt the night she swallowed five bottles of pills.
Loneliness can travel with you all your life. But through story, as she taught me, we can evade it.
My mother could only evade it for so long before it swallowed her whole.