The scarecrow and the snowman


Living with mom is proving very difficult. Those original two decades with her were at times very painful and damaging, and the long distance of the years between now and then haven’t changed that reality. Much of my anger and resentment is long gone, but that doesn’t make her an easier person to live with. Those subsequent years living away from her have been spent trying to unlearn what I had been taught, and to find a degree of peace with myself. I have succeeded, more or less, but now that she has come to live with me, that peace is challenged.

That’s not to say that old roles are replaying: unlike our first life together, I’m now fully in control, and on a number of occasions I’ve had to call my mother out for her words and behaviour. I will no long suffer in silence as I once did.

Aside from simple compassion for an old lady’s ill-health, I’ve tried to approach our situation as an opportunity to change our story. The story that describes my life with my mother so far is not a happy one; it is one of endurance, deprivation, shame and pain. Neglect and self-loathing. Hate. Having grown away from her and these things, I’ve found a great deal of light in my life, and it occurred to me that I might have a final chance to change our story from the unhappy tale above, to one of understanding, love and compassion. Now I know my mom won’t change nor do I expect her to, but perhaps I have learned enough wisdom that it isn’t required. Perhaps my own growth will allow me to love her and accept her and ease her through the end of her life, regardless of what has come before. That way my memories of her might be so much better than the ones I have carried so long.

I long for this. Not because, as I once did, to hope that at last she will become the mother I never had, but because I would have a chance to rewrite our story for no other reason than I want love to succeed, I want love to have the last word.

But I’m afraid that perhaps I’ve been naive in that hope. Her living with me has caused me a great deal of pain and unrest, and I appear that the old wounds are simply too deep to hope that all the growth I’ve experienced in these long years would have finally healed them. Although she is an echo of what she once was, that echo is enough to waken old wounds and hurts, and have them bleed again.

It might come down to the unhappy truth that if I want this story to end in love, the best I will be able to do is show love to myself ,and move on without her. Such a result would be deeply upsetting and unhappy for me, because I do love my mother and want what’s best for her, but in a kind of Karmic fulfillment, my lack of capacity to deal with her, is at least partially a result of her earlier behaviour towards me. In those days she didn’t have much use for me, and now that she’s old and vulnerable and needs me, I might not be able to be there for her.

I have to admit that ego is involved here as well. I want to do better than her, I want to be a better son than she was a mother. That would be the final triumph over – what? To show her that I’m a better person than her despite her teaching me that I was valueless? To show her once and for all that not only am I not worthless, but that I’m even better than her!

Failing to do that has multiple hurts. One is that maybe she was right. The other is that maybe she too did every bloody thing she could, but it just wasn’t enough. Maybe my failure is just a reflection of her own: just a couple of misfits who weren’t up to the task of loving and caring presented to them. Her wounds kept her from loving her children. My wounds keep me from caring for her. All the good will and effort and desire and willpower cannot change this.

Of course I have to be realistic: other family members have told me they couldn’t live with her, and after all, she never took in her own frail parents, or was involved with their care. Nobody owes her this, and I have a bad habit of giving until I have nothing left.

Lately, I’ve discovered an even more perplexing issue: I’ve been working on a new novel that is fairly autobiographical. Not so much in terms of exact events, but emotional experiences and challenges growing up in the prairies in the 60s in that home. The work alone would be emotionally challenging in any context, but having mom living with me while I revisit this past in words has made it much more difficult.

This is a new direction for my writing. My previous works were always historical fiction, representing a dream or fantasy world located in the past. It’s easy to imagine a world different from the present as a heroic one, one with simpler yet grander challenges. A part of me loves such adventure stories, but another, wiser part realizes that it’s mostly bullshit, and so often what appears as adventure to one is colonization and oppression to another. It’s important to portray life as accurately as it was, rather than the myths we might believe, but that can deprive the story of it’s romance, it’s vital energy.

I’m not sure I’ve got that conflict squared away. Of course if you are really truthful and only want to reveal the human condition, you don’t need the exotic locale of the past to do it. That’s why I decided to break my previous mold and try to write something more closely contemporary, something more truthful and less mythical.

While the past has always fascinated me, creating fiction about the past was hard because it wasn’t something I knew; I researched the crap out of my last novel, but no matter how much I learned about the early 19th century living conditions for a Halfbreed in Rupert’s Land or a schoolmaster’s daughter in Orkney, I was still making it up. I didn’t know what it was like to live then, with the vastly different ways of making sense of the world that existed; nobody does. It’s writing about a culture you’ve never experienced, a land you’ve never seen.

But I do know what it was like to be raised in the prairies in the 1960s, within a family like mine, and it’s a very rich, complex tale. The depths I can plumb are leagues beyond what I can imagine about the past.

That’s not to say that historical fiction isn’t good or powerful or important; it is and I’ve read some very good ones. But they appeal to a different need and purpose than what I’m seeking right now, and I hope this difficult experiment will allow me to create something unique.





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