“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away”
— Yesterday by The Beatles
As a boy, I remember the decision my mother made that would forever change our family’s
life. She was vacuuming when the phone rang; I heard her tell the caller she was
leaving. I couldn’t blame her. As a boy, I had spent my life watching my mother’s
sadness grow as my youth slowly died. With their constant bickering, drinking and
fighting, she’d had enough.
And so it was, she sat me down to ask me if I wanted to stay with my father or come
away with her. I was supportive of her decision. At twelve, I could comprehend it very clearly. Yet this was my neighbourhood – my friends, my school, and my sports teams. I
would stay. She understood. Although she wasn’t sure of my father’s judgment, she was
sure of mine. I was definitely my mother’s child.
In time, however; there grew a split between my father’s family and my mother’s – each
defending their own family member, with me always expected to choose a side. Caught
in the crossfire of conflicting values and faced with emotional survival, I began to see
things in black-and-white terms. Slowly but surely, in the years that followed, I
empathized with the side that was convinced that I was the real victim – how could a
Mother just “up and leave” her son?
“Mother, you had me but I never had you.”
— Mother by John Lennon
Whenever she was suffering to the point that her only way to summon enough courage to call me was to have a few drinks, I showed no mercy. I was her judge, her jury and her executioner. I exiled her for life – even as she continued to love me.
My unease and unhappiness began to spill into other areas of our intertwined lives. At
eighteen, years after the divorce became final, I found myself attending the winter
funeral of my mom’s older sister, Mamie – my favourite Aunt, with whom I had always
been very close. At the funeral I was surrounded by my mother’s relations (“the
outlaws,” as my dad always called them), but I wanted to be there as Mamie had always
been the most positive influence on my life.
For starters, she had literally saved my life when, as a six month old baby, she had
persuaded a reluctant doctor to operate, rather than wait any longer. “I don’t know if
surgery is necessary,” he had told her. “Well, I do,” she had exclaimed, “that baby’s
turning blue!” As it turned out, her natural intuition and nurse’s experience had judged
correctly: intestinal surgery had been immediately necessary. A day or two longer and it
would have been too late.
But Aunt Mamie was more than a one-time saviour; she was the patron saint of all the
children – me and my many cousins. We spent many summers at Mamie’s family
lakefront home, helping her and my uncle with their thriving resort business.
As the matriarch of a very large extended family, Aunt Mamie was the final arbitrator of
all familial disputes. When she spoke, it was with a degree of moral authority that
commanded everyone’s respect.
One summer, a younger cousin of mine and I decided to get into trouble: we rolled
brand-new tires off the end of the dock, plunging them to the bottom of the lake; then we
poured bags of loose confetti from a recent family wedding over a neighbour’s freshly
varnished boat, which dried with thousands of paper bits embedded into the finish.
A day or two later, as family and friends filled Mamie’s oversized country-styled kitchen
– typical of a weekend gathering at the lake – her aura held sway, suspended in the air
like the always present aroma of fresh brewed coffee and home baked bread. Out of
sight and earshot (so we thought) one of our uncles stood chastising me and my
accomplice cousin for our recent wrong-doings, while we sat before them shamed-
The tenor of the accusations was just hitting its stride when Aunt Mamie hurried
over, held up her hand, and said that she’d heard enough. (We could tell by the scarlet
rising in her face that she didn’t appreciate his theatrics.)
She stood poised like a cobra coiled to strike and everyone knew that her verbal
retribution could be swift and emotionally lethal.
“That’s enough!” she demanded, but it failed to work as our uncle continued his verbal
assault. What happened next has become the stuff of family legend.
“If you want to be a hero, well just follow me.”
— Working Class Hero by John Lennon
Fred Parry (part 2 to follow) dedicated to Sheila Heti