In one of my favourite baby pictures, my mother holds me, just a few months old, on her lap. She has huge, wild, technicolour red curls, and is wearing a turquoise and purple paisley dress. She looks more like a movie star than a mother of three. She is showing off her (clearly adorable) baby, but the real centre of attention in this photo is her hair.
My mother’s hair has always been a feature that set her apart. Even now, at age 80, the few streaks of white in her hair have only managed to turn down the volume from vibrant auburn to a muted copper. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone else with hair like that. My friends’ mothers did not have hair like that, nor did the other women at our church. The only people I’d seen with hair that red were Anne of Green Gables, or Endora from Bewitched. Real people did not have that hair. So in many ways (deduced my childish mind), my mother wasn’t a real person.
The wildness of my mother’s red hair was not reflected in her personality. She was a quiet woman, content to stay at home and read books, or watch tv. She had a very small circle of friends to whom she spoke on the phone every day, but seldom went out with in person. I often felt as though she was closer to the characters on her favourite soap opera, Another World, than she was to anyone in real life. Now, I realize that perhaps the quietness of her life was a necessity, not a choice. My father traveled for work, and was usually gone all week. My mother had little choice but to stay at home with us, grabbing what glimpses of the outside world as she could through the black and white Zenith.
I was the youngest, and my brother and sister were already in school when I came along, so I spent a lot of time with my mother, doing the things that 1970s stay-at-home mothers would do. We did yoga together. We watched Another World. We went shopping.
I had a tendency to wander away on our weekly shopping trips. I remember being very small, and hiding in a clothing rack at Zellers. When I peeked out, my mother wasn’t there. Even now, well over 40 years later, I remember the panic, the sense of loss. I stepped out into the aisle and stood still, eyes searching, tiny fists clenched at my side. Where was she? How would I ever find her in the sea of tall grown-ups?
And then, a few racks away, I spotted the red hair, shining just for me. I ran to her. I hadn’t been gone long enough for her to know I was missing, but I recall grabbing onto her leg and not letting go.
I’m talking a lot about old memories here. I’m clinging to them, lately, because my mother is losing hers. She was diagnosed with dementia almost two years ago.
If her world was small when I was a child, it’s now closing in on her even more. She’s not comfortable going anywhere except the grocery store with my father. Even visiting my sister or I causes her great stress. She repeats the same stories. She’s stuck in a time when my kids were toddlers. She’s forgotten how to do the things she loved to do for her family, like cook a meal. She watches the same reruns of tv, but to her, they’re new.
Throughout my adult life, I always thought her world was small. When we spoke on the phone, she’d talk about the weather, her neighbours, or church. She still talks to me about those things, in an infinite, repetitive loop. I answer the same question five times in a 20 minutes phone call, and try not to get frustrated.
I see what I think is being lost.
But lately, I wonder if this journey is equal parts loss, equal parts discovery. In addition to the repetitive stories and questions, she’s been dropping little bombshells into our conversations. Damning, matter-of-fact statements about grandparents. Hints of family scandal. Situations and dreams she’d never have shared or confessed in the past. What she’s opening up about is an internal life I might never have had access to, had she not forgotten that she’s not supposed to say these things to her ‘baby daughter’.
The mother I knew — the one I’d run to in Zellers, and the one I did yoga with — seems to be slipping away. I expected that what would be left would be ashes of her memories, blown away by the slightest breeze. Instead, I’m realizing that maybe I never knew her that well at all. She’s moving away from the person I thought she was, but maybe she’s moving closer to the person she was all along.
I’m learning that exteriors are deceiving. My mother’s staid, almost bland life never seemed in synch with her wild red hair. But I think she had little choice, as a young mother in the 1960s and 70s. She had no chance to work. She had little life outside our house. The wildness, though, was definitely there, inside. She hid it well. Women did.
I could always find my mother anywhere, by her hair. In Zellers. In the crowd at my high school graduation. Down the long hospital corridor when my dad had a heart attack. It was a lighthouse to me. That light is fading. The hair is muted. But her vibrancy is not fading. As the exterior fades, some of the spark that made her uniquely her glows brighter.