Fossils

I’ve been staring at my wedding photo.

What is shown:  We are standing in our finery on the Joggins Fossil Cliffs, turned sideways to the Bay of Fundy. It’s a cloudy day. The wind is blowing hard, as it always does there. (This was the first photo taken, and my hair was a mess for the rest of the day. I really did not think that through).

What is not shown: Under my feet are millions of years of plants and creatures, now extinct to this earth, trapped and fossilized in layer upon layer of stone. Stretching out behind us, hidden by the waves, are tunnels under the Bay where men like my grandfather worked in the dark and damp, chipping coal from the walls and sharing their lunches with rats.

All of that is hidden, though. An image rarely tells you what really is buried within.

Seventeen years ago, I got married just up the road from those cliffs, in the same church where generations of my ancestors were baptized, married, and eulogized. It’s in a small town — a village, really. No, not even a village anymore. It’s just a collection of houses:  some tidy, some abandoned, some falling down. When my mother and father grew up and there, it was a big town. There were many streets, a movie theatre, and shops. There were busy coal mines, and a thriving port. The train came there twice a day.

But now, many of the roads have been reclaimed into woods or fields. The train has been gone for decades, and the ships for over half a century. When the mines closed, much of the town closed with it. What is left only hints at what once was. Like one of the roses I plucked from my bridal bouquet and pressed in a book, it is dried up and sepia toned. It’s impossible to tell what colour it originally was, but a faint scent lingers. Still a flower, but no longer a flower.

We visit those cliffs, and that village, almost every time I visit my parents. Daisy and Puck like to walk along the rocky beach and search for fossils. Our dog, Pippa, likes to run in and out of the waves. We time our visits so that the tide — among the highest in the world — is out, and we can walk for hours on the flats where the Bay has pulled back its water to reveal its muddy underthings.

My parents bring a picnic, and find a piece of driftwood to sit on. They used to like to walk along the beach and look for fossils and beach glass with us. Lately, though, they are content to sit near the shore and watch us walk farther and farther out. My father takes photos of us — closer, at first, and then becomingly steadily smaller specks on the horizon where sea meets mud flat. My mother frets that we’ll be caught when the tide turns. She was always the worrier.

I stand far out on the mud flats and squint back at my parents. Even from this distance, my mother’s bright red hair stands out. At 80, it is only slightly faded. Her red hair is the one constant of her physical being, the touchstone that reassures me it’s her, no matter how else her physical self changes.

My mother is becoming frail.

She was a tall, slender woman. At 5’7, she towered over her much shorter daughters (I got her Irish colouring but my father’s French stockiness, alas). Now, she is shrinking into herself, and is not much taller than me. She is slighter than ever. My father says she forgets to eat if he doesn’t eat with her, and even then, she often claims to have no appetite. Each time I see her, she is less ‘her’ than she was before. Still my mother, but flaking away, layer by layer, under the pressure of the waves of dementia.

I walk back to where they perch, holding hands on their driftwood, and sit next to my mother so that my father can go play with the dog and the kids. My mother tells me a story she’s already told me twice today, about a neighbour I don’t know. Then she tells me a story I’ve never heard, from the time when she and my dad were dating. She is back in the 1950s, reliving another picnic on this beach. Her details are rich and her words spill out easily; it’s clear she sees in her mind’s eye what it was all like. She feels the scratch of her wool dirndl skirt, and the garters digging into her thigh. She smells the sea, both now and 60 years ago.

We drive home, muddy and windblown, our pockets bulging with sea glass and fragments of fossils we found on the beach. My mother points out where things once were, in this little town that is no longer a town. I never saw the town in its heyday. She sees ghosts of things invisible to me. To her, they are as clear and real as today.

She laments that things have changed, over decades. I lament that she is changing, so rapidly. I lament that the dementia is encasing her  memories in a cliff, and that soon she’ll be invisible to all of us. I believe, though — I have to believe — that the ‘ghost of the thing’ remains. The tracks of an old road are still there, buried under a hayfield, if you look hard enough. The rotting piers still mark where the tall ships used to set sail for the West Indies. The creatures that lived millions of years ago are liberated from their cliff-tomb by the pounding waves, to tumble onto a modern beach. My mother’s red hair is still visible from across the mudflats.

Still a flower, but no longer a flower.

Put on Your Oxygen Mask

In past years, working in an air-conditioned office while the kids were in summer camps and organized activities, I kept summer at arm’s-length. Summer was a thing that happened on weekends, or on a patio with a gin and tonic after 6 pm. It was scheduled into my tidy and organized days and didn’t infringe on my 9-5 world.

For the past few summers, I’ve worked from home. The heat and proximity to the garden or ocean throw a veil of innate laziness over even my busiest days. I bring my laptop outside and work in the sun. I have meetings on coffee shop patios. I go to the cottage and sit on the dock while I write. Time slows to a crawl. The kids roam around like feral animals, spending days in their pyjamas and emerging only to forage for snacks. All structure is gone. The world condenses into hazy thoughts, blooms of honeysuckle, and quiet bird song.

This lack of structure worked for me, in the past. This year, though, I’m struggling. I’ve spent the past week being, basically, a lump. I’ve tried and failed to muster the energy to make it though my growing to-do list. I start ten different things, but at the end of the day stare at a blank computer screen. I am horrified by the dirt in the corners of the bathrooms, but have no energy to do anything about it. I drink too much coffee. I spend a lot of time staring at honeybees and wondering how such small, fuzzy creatures get the energy to do bee stuff all day.

I have run out of oxygen.

Puck wants to be a pilot. He’s obsessed with airplanes. And one of the first things you hear on a plane is the warning that in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.

My plane has been in a nosedive all year, and I have not put my oxygen mask.

One thing I’ve learned in my 48 years on this planet is that there is always ‘stuff’. There are jobs to do, bills to pay, relationships to navigate, fix, or leave. To be an adult is to tread water in a sea of stuff. For me, though, this year’s stuff has been dragging me under. I’ve questioned my own life-choices, and dealt with job uncertainty. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about Puck, and whether he will ever be okay. I’ve stayed with him through months of missed school and rounds of testing and medical appointments. I’ve been stabbed by guilt from not being with my parents more often as my mother’s memory slips away and my dad struggles to cope.  I’ve worried that I’m not doing enough to live up to whatever notion of ‘success’ society tells me I should attain today.

I realize now that I’ve dealt with it all by just diving into that deep pool of stuff — holding my breath, and not wearing a lifejacket. It’s been months since I came up for air. Only now that the pace has slowed — no school, fewer appointments, less anxiety, less structure — can I feel the shortness of breath, the heaviness in my very bones.

I am going under.Read More »

Always something there to remind me.

My 13 year-old daughter decided to clean her bedroom last weekend. Yes, this happens so seldom that it’s worth writing about.

For a year or so, her room has reflected her own internal transformation: artifacts of little girl fantasy bumping up against young teen reality. Tinkerbell and Barbie coexisting uneasily with algebra tests and bras.

I’d been telling her for months that she needed to clean her room. I’d intended only that she straighten things up. It was her own decision to do such a radical purge. (I like to see this as a successful change management strategy: I got her to think it was her idea, and she fully embraced it). She wanted to make space for the new parts of her life, and to hide the immature remnants that embarrass her now. She wasn’t just cleaning a room. She was curating an identity; translating the changes she’s been navigating as a middle schooler into her own surroundings.

She grabbed boxes and recycling bags and got ready to purge. I sat on the edge of her bed and got ready to save.Read More »

Red

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.

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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.

Read More »

Don’t think about it. Just eat it.

My father eats gross things. Head cheese. Liver. Fried baloney. I never tried the first two. Baloney, however, was a lunch staple at our house, especially if my mum wasn’t home and Dad was in charge of feeding me. I didn’t like it, but I’d eat it, because I liked hanging out with my dad, and enjoyed the knowledge  that we were eating something my mother wouldn’t approve of.

I recall one day, standing next to him at the stove and reading the label on the tube-shaped slab of baloney. Dad slapped my hand away from it.

“Don’t think about it what’s in it,” he warned. “Just eat it.”Read More »