Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Gratitude

It goes without saying that the most precious gift to come my way this year is our grandson, a strong and healthy boy with lungs to match and a smile that melts our hearts.  But there were countless other blessings as well for which I am most grateful.
One in particular came in the form of an unexpected gift.  In the fall, a very dear friend of mine lost her elderly mother. She had been chronically ill for quite some time so it was not a surprise when things took a turn for the worse. Nonetheless, it is always a shock to lose your mother and my friend was quite sideswiped by how intensely she felt her loss.
True to form, however, she and her sisters did what their mother would have wanted them to do under the circumstances. They got organized, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. There were phone calls to make, cards to send out, and an entire apartment to empty. Time for grieving would come soon enough.
I first met my friend’s mother some 25 years ago when she would come to our city to visit her daughter. My friend would pick her up at the train station and then give her free reign in the kitchen where she always took all the cupboards apart so she could wash down and then re-paper the shelves. It drove my friend nuts but she never complained because she knew it was a gift from the heart, something that made her mother feel useful.
Every time she came I would make it a point to go and say hello to her, partly because she was a very nice woman and I enjoyed talking to her but also because my friend objected strenuously to her smoking in the house. This meant she was often banished to the garden where she would sit alone puffing away, much to her daughter’s displeasure. It was her only vice, as she once told me, one she was never able to give it up, not even when her health went into serious decline.  As an ex-smoker myself, I was not as offended by her bad habit as my friend was so I would sit with her on the porch and we would have these brief little chats about motherhood, about recipes, her grandchildren and above all, my friendship with her daughter, a full ashtray on the table between us.
I was genuinely saddened when poor health prevented her from further visits a few years ago, sadder still when I heard that she had passed away. I was happy however, to note that all of her daughters had managed to spend quality time with her at the end and that they had had the opportunity to say their good-byes. Her courage was extraordinary for she did not want to linger and go piecemeal once she learned of her final prognosis. Upon hearing it she made sure that her ending would be dignified and on her own terms. This was a great comfort, even to me.
A few weeks ago my friend came to visit me with a little bag. Imagine my surprise and genuine delight when I opened it and discovered a beautiful china tea cup that had once belonged to her mother. What an honour to be given something that she had treasured throughout her life. A gift like that is immeasurable in value because you then hold a piece of that person’s history in your hands. It connects you forever to that person and to those she loved. In my case, it has added a new dimension to the bond with my friend because by entrusting me with this cup, she is telling me that I have a lasting place in her heart. There is no better gift than that.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


I have been very busy since becoming a grandmother. Our little man arrived ten weeks ago under blue skies which I pray is an indication of many such days ahead. One doesn’t want to be greedy but I wish this precious boy all the happiness this world has to offer even though I know he will not always be spared his share of hardship and grief.
When I first laid eyes on him, my throat constricted and my heart actually felt a physical burst of love.  I was so happy to see him and I  got teary at the mere thought that my daughter and her husband had finally had their dream come true. They had waited a very long time for this precious gift. Good things come to those who wait.

By no means is our boy an easy baby. He is a light sleeper and he has digestive issues. His parents have spent many nights rocking, cradling, singing, pacing, burping, coddling, worrying.  When I hear these stories I always remember my own time as a new mother, a time when things were done very differently.
For one thing, I think we worried less. My daughter’s crib had a bumper pad and she also had a thick blanket which I used without fear to cover her up to her chin. We had no monitoring device with a video camera for me to observe her 24/7. If I wanted to know how she was I had to climb the stairs, which I did many times a day. Back then we even laid our babies on their sides or on their stomachs to sleep which is absolutely verboten nowadays.  

The six year gap between my two children meant that by the time the second one arrived, the world had moved from cloth to disposable diapers (hurray, no more lugging a heavy diaper pail up and down the stairs!)  and Tommy Tipee had invented the monitor, a hideous set of plastic boxes with thick brown antennas which allowed even our neighbours, who also had this contraption for their baby, to listen in as I read my baby a story every night.
I was without fear when it came to my babies, believing with all my heart that only I knew best what they needed and wanted. It never occurred to me to heed the warnings on labels or government decrees. By today’s standards, that would likely make me a negligent mother. But I am watching my daughter's confidence grow and blossom as she has come to understand her own strength as a mother. It is like passing on am invisible torch.

I have discovered that I am willing to be taught new tricks. I like the video cam monitor very much as it gives you lasting peace of mind. I also like the natural fabrics that are now used for cribs and baby things in general. No more plastic and no more synthetics!  I could not use my collapsible baby stroller in winter but my grandson has a Cadillac model which will allow his parents to push their way through even thick snowbanks.
There are no rights and wrongs. Every generation has to find the middle ground of balance and harmony. For me it was all about getting my babies on to a schedule as soon as possible so that I could lead a life within those bounds. My daughter, in contrast, feeds on demand which means that her baby has no particular schedule.  She doesn’t have much opportunity yet for things not related to baby….but she is very willing to make that sacrifice for the sake of her son’s well-being. If only we had known then, what we know now…

As much as I am learning how to be a modern grandmother, my daughter has a new-found respect for me as a parent. You can’t really tell anyone how tough it is to be a parent until they are in the game. It’s nice to have that acknowledged.
So we are clucking along, my daughter and I, like the two mother hens that we are,  watching and loving our little man from our respective points of view. He will be all the richer for the unconditional love which flows so freely towards him, allowing us to cull the best from our combined experiences. Everyone benefits when things are done lovingly and respectfully.

As I said, I have been very busy.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Find Your Courage

This month marks the eighth anniversary of Kelly-Anne Drummond’s murder, a young woman I unfortunately never got to meet but who worked on the same film as I, “Dreams and Mirrors”, the year before her death. That coincidental link has haunted me for years, especially as her murder took place at a time when I was actively researching and writing about the topic of abuse and the code of silence that still surrounds it.
Statistically, Kelly-Anne was just one more Montreal woman who lost her life in a ‘domestic’. As the story of her tragedy unfolded, however, and her accused boyfriend went to trial, I saw many photos of her and of her grieving mother in the newspaper and the story suddenly had a face and became very personal. My heart went out to Kelly-Anne’s mother, Doreen Haddad, because I also have a daughter and could fathom some of what this mother was likely going through. I finally met Doreen six years later.

It was at the screening of “Dreams and Mirrors” which had been dedicated to Kelly-Anne. I could see that Doreen wanted to use her tragic experience to benefit others and I knew that I could help. We talked about making a film to highlight the red-flag moments and we expanded the idea to include a web presence so that it would have maximum impact on the targeted audience; young women who believe that having a boyfriend, even one who does not respect you or treat you well, is better than having none.

There were problems from the get-go, from a sponsor supposedly interested in new media projects but who never attended any of our meetings, to the cost of setting up an interactive website. Funding was an ongoing issue. Schools I approached thought it was a great idea to make a video on the topic to generate a discussion on violence and abuse in relationships, but they had no budget to actually commission such a film. The truth is that the topic of domestic violence makes everyone uncomfortable.

Thanks to a producer friend who did all the legwork while I was overseas for six months, I was able to at least get an on-camera interview with Doreen.  I asked a colleague in Toronto to help me and he drove five hours in rain and hail to come do so.  We then spent an entire day with Doreen at her home and got her to tell us about the days and weeks leading up to Kelly-Anne’s death and the cruel details of her actual murder. As my colleague, a father of two daughters later said….it was the toughest thing he ever had to film.
It would be another year before we were able to edit the footage, again with the aid of a colleague who gave of her time and allowed me the free use of her editing equipment. All the people involved agreed to help me tell Kelly-Anne’s story because, like me, they believe that the subject of abuse and domestic violence should not remain taboo.  What we have, after a two year struggle, is a seven minute film about the red-flag moments that indicate domestic violence is taking place.

It took great courage for Doreen to tell her story so honestly. She wishes every single day that she had known then what she knows now; that her daughter was too proud or maybe just too scared to come forward and ask for help in dealing with her abusive boyfriend. In remembering their last conversation, Doreen tearfully asks “what could I have done differently that day?”
What can any parent do when an adult child is making a mistake that might cost them their lives? That is the question we address in my film, Find Your Courage. To see a clip, watch Caroline van Vlaardingen’s report on violence in teen relationships on CTV on October 26th. Then please do your part to help educate people and remove the stigma of this dark topic so that the victims themselves, can come forward before they become a statistic, like Kelly-Anne Drummond.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Next Chapter

Summer is quickly coming to a close. Days are already getting shorter and there is a feeling of fall in the air, especially early in the morning when I am out walking my dog. I am so looking forward to September and the impending birth of my grandchild!
So with all this change in the air, I felt it was time to implement a few of my own, which in my case included sprucing up this site. Many thanks to the talented and charming Amelie Roy for her help in creating this new look which more accurately represents the kind of musings I want to share with you as I enter the next phase of my life.

As for the title change from AGING GRACEFULLY to MENTAL SOFA, there is a story behind that: Years ago when I was studying at Concordia one of my professors surprised us one morning by having placed a lump of clay on our desks as we walked into class. “Make something that represents where you go in your mind when you are troubled,” was the only instruction she gave.

Since I perceived myself at the time as someone who has no artistic talent, (I have since revised that opinion) I felt quite paralyzed. I sat there staring at the grey lump in front of me wondering what on earth I might be able to produce. Finally, with class time running out, I formed a crude sofa-like object and called it, when asked to give it a title, My Mental Sofa. I realized, as I looked at the lumpy shape in front of me, that it was an absolutely accurate symbol of where I go for my quiet time. It still stands on my shelf today, decorated over the years by little trinkets, and reminds me that we are all creative in our own right.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Becoming a Grand Mother

have just finished reading a delightful book, Isa and May, by Margaret Forster, which is about a granddaughter’s quest to understand both of her grandmothers better. Naturally, this has got me thinking about my own grandmothers, especially since I am about to become one myself. I am taking this rite of passage very seriously and I am savouring every moment leading up to the big day.
Such was their influence on me that I still think of my grandmothers with amazing frequency in spite of the many years they’ve been gone. My paternal grandmother, unfortunately moved far away when I was still quite young and suddenly died shortly afterwards.  The few memories I have of her are, however still sharp and clear. I might add that every time I think of her I feel a strong physical connection to her. I can totally recall sitting in her lap, fingering one of her brooches or sitting next to her as my grandfather serenaded her, which, to my great embarrassment,  he did often.  I am told I look like her and certainly I can see from the few photos that I have, that we share some physical traits, most notably our unruly hair.

My other grandmother, the one who actually raised me, is often the voice inside my head. When I was young I thought she was perfect. She was tiny but very strong, well-read but also street smart, generous and kind but also tough as nails. You always wanted to stay on her good side and you certainly never wanted to get caught doing something you weren’t supposed to. She had many rules and regulations, the first one being that a ‘good’ child was praised, a ‘bad’ one, punished. Since I was rebellious and had a vivid imagination, I often got myself into trouble, causing her, poor woman, no end of grief.

In hindsight, I recognize that she was simply doing the best she could with what she and my grandfather had left to give, which after having survived both World Wars, a serious economic depression and immigration late in life, wasn’t much.  That they shared their small house with me is a gift I am eternally grateful for even though I now see that the atmosphere in that home was not exactly ideal for a young child. Emotionally exhausted elders are not necessarily the best child-minders, even if they are well-meaning and loving in their own way.

I would like to do better now that my turn is coming. So I think about all this as I prepare to receive the newest member of our family and I ponder what it is about being a grandmother that thrills me so. For one thing, it’s a chance to share the joys of motherhood with my daughter. Soon she, too, will know what it is to experience the miracle of childbirth, the perfect harmony Nature provides. It will surely enrich our mother-daughter relationship by putting us on a more equal footing; two women who are both mothers.

On a more personal level, becoming a grandmother means that I have come full cycle. I am now at the point where my grandmothers were when I was born, with the chance to impart upon my grandchild some of the legacies these two women left with me. As a grandmother, I will become the nurturer of our collective cultural traditions as well as the keeper of our family lore. I will be the bridge between the past and the future of our clan, in order to give my grandchild a true sense of self within that circle.

I am grateful to live in a time of peace and prosperity and to have the energy and good health my own grandmothers did not. I will make sure that my grandchild knows how lucky we both are. I look forward to the day our little one arrives, to loving it with abandon and to seeing if by chance I have passed down my unruly hair.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Water Damage

What I didn't need, shortly before going away for three weeks, was a flood in our living room. But that is what we got last week when we woke up and found a little lake at the foot of our stairs and a giant water bubble on the adjacent living room ceiling.
At first I thought we'd had a leak in our bathroom but it turns out to have been a valve inside a closet which controls the water to the roof garden. Being in a closet, we never noticed that it had sprung a leak and that the water was working its way down between the walls.
What a mess! Although it was pointed out to me that it was lucky to have happened while we were still here, and not a week after our departure. So true.
We called our insurance company who sent someone that same day to have a look. The man very emphatically said that the entire ceiling (which was then still dripping into a bucket) would have to come down as mold would grow and possibly spread beyond the immediate area, one rippled wall would have to be replaced and the floor, where it had gotten wet, would also have to be replaced, re-sanded and varnished to match the colour. I explained that we were about to leave for an extended trip....not a problem, said he, we will do the work while you're gone and we will move all your furniture out!
The thought of having strangers in our house during our absence and more to the point, having them moving our personal things about, did not seem like a good idea to me. But before we could even object to that, the man told us that since we live in a condo, their insurance would also have to be involved. We waited three days for that representative to come and assess.
His evaluation was that repairing the floor would not be enough, the entire living and dining room floors would have to be pulled up and replaced, sanded and varnished....because there might be moisture underneath.
By now we were less than a week away from our departure and we still did not have a final decision on who was going to pay for what. And if we didn't want the work done while we were gone we would have to face living with the turmoil and plaster dust when we get back which made the idea of an extended holiday rather pointless.
With the weekend upon us we decided to take matters into our own hands. We called our own contractor. His assessment of the work is less dramatic than that of the insurance men. Because we know him and trust him, we feel confident in his opinion and in letting him work while we're gone.
Interestingly, with all the time that has elapsed since this first happened, our floor has had a chance to dry out nicely and now looks the same as before. Time really does bring counsel if one only has the patience to ride things out....
We have only made an insurance claim once in all the years we've been married and as I recall, we did not get the full value of our loss at that time. In our present predicament and with a hefty deductible, we have decided that it is in our best interest to repair the damages and pay for them out of our own pocket, during a time that suits us, than it is to wait for two insurance companies to come to an agreement. No doubt they will still be at it on the day of our departure.

Monday, April 2, 2012


I always feel energized after my early morning walk with my dog. On today's walk we saw several robins hopping around and a magnificent red-winged black bird singing his little heart out. Birds are chirping and rustling in the trees and shrubs along the canal where I live and the dog is busy sniffing exciting new scents. Nature is coming back to life all around us.

So it is with sadness that we received news last week of a death in the family. A much-loved uncle has passed after a long, interesting life. He was 93 and had been in frail health the last few years. In photos that his son sent us just days before his passing, we could see that he was tired of living. His eyes had that look that comes with a pre-eminent departure, a look that seems to say….I no longer have the vitality to be here….In that sense, it wasn’t a tragic death at all, yet for us who loved him, the turning of that page leaves a hole.

My husband used to tell me about his uncle long before I ever met him. He was a Naval Officer, a devoted son to his widowed mother, a supportive older brother to my mother-in-law. To my husband, who lost his father at a young age, he was a surrogate father. When I first went to the family home where my husband was brought up, I saw a framed photo of his uncle in his naval uniform and I saw for myself that his handsome face showed the humour, determination and kindness hubby was always telling me about. When I finally met him he did not disappoint. His face was open and smiling and full of curiosity and I could see that he had influenced my husband greatly because they had many of the same traits.

In subsequent years, after he had retired, he made it a point to come and see us when we would visit my mother-in-law and we even managed to make a few day trips together, once, to the delight of our son, to visit a war ship, another time to explore the walled-in city of Carcasonne.

In spite of the fact that in his later years he had to look after his wife who suffered from dementia, he was always in a cheerful mood, always interested in what others had to say. He never bemoaned his fate, never complained. He wasn’t a very tall man but he made up for that by always carrying himself with great dignity. He was an excellent tennis player and a graceful dancer. He was, above all else, a loving father to his children.

Of the many lovely memories I have of this uncle, the most enduring one is surely his arrival at our niece’s wedding a few years back. He was in his late eighties, recently widowed and had survived a serious back operation, yet he walked as erect as ever, in a pin-striped summer suit, white shoes and a a killer pair of sunglasses. He smiled at everyone but saved his brightest for the bride. And afterwards, in the evening when the music started he could be seen asking all the ladies at the reception to dance.  And dance they did; The paso doble, foxtrot, cha cha. He knew them all and he executed his steps beautifully on that dance floor while the rest of us watched in awe and clapped.

On our next visit we could see he had diminished slightly. His hearing had gone and he walked a little slower, with a bit of a bend in his spine. He was still interested in everything but without being able to hear properly, the strain of following a conversation sometimes proved too much. He ate less and napped more. On the morning of our departure, hubby tiptoed into his room to say his good-bye. He kissed his uncle on the forehead and told him how much he loved him which is a wonderful thing to have done because it turned out to be the last time we would see him.

 Although this spring has brought our family heartache, it has also brought great joy, for we have recently found out that we will become grandparents in the fall. One life gone, another well on its way.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Let's Start Talking

“As abuse often begins in teenage relationships, preventive programs are essential to ending the cycle of domestic violence. Everyone has the responsibility to step up and end violence against women.”

Ulester Douglas, Director, Training for Men Stopping Violence, Atlanta, GA


I thought of this quote when I watched singer/dancer Chris Brown give an electrifying performance during the recent Grammy Awards. I wondered, as the audience cheered and clapped, if he had really repented for having been physically abusive towards the singer, Rihanna with whom he was living at the time, or if he was still the same insecure young man who had allowed his anger to morph into rage, turning the woman he supposedly loved into his punching bag back in 2009.

Only time will tell if he has learned to take responsibility for those actions and managed to turn his thinking about women and violence around.

In the meantime, we all have a collective responsibility, to do our part to end violence against women whether it’s taking place in Hollywood or in the house next door.

The overall annual cost of domestic violence here in Canada is in excess of $6.9 billion. That’s to cover lost wages plus a range of services victims of violence need, from police intervention, employment insurance, medical costs, counseling and legal costs, child-protection agencies, food banks and temporary shelters.

In the city where I live, which is not even the largest in the country, police receive 15,000 conjugal violence calls annually.

Of those, an average of 22 a year, end up being homicides.

The assumption that things automatically improve once a woman walks away from violence to re-start her life, is to grossly simplify the facts. Women who have been abused have a higher need to visit emergency rooms, rely more on food banks, require longer employment insurance payments and use legal aid even years after their ordeal. Recent research out of the University of British Columbia cites females who end relationships because of violence, continue to be plagued by health issues, legal troubles and economic hardships long after the event, translating into a cost of $13,162 annually per woman.

Here are four things we could do that could make a difference:

·         Find out what the stats are for your city/town.

·         Talk about them to start a dialogue and brings awareness to your community.

·         Donate time, money and/or clothing to organizations that work to protect abused women and children.

·         Make sure to teach your sons/nephews/students to express anger constructively and to treat females respectfully.

Because the real cost of domestic violence is a society full of emotionally wounded children, some of whom will grow up to be bullies, while others will become their victims.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Meryl does Maggie

The film “The Iron Lady” is surely one of Meryl Streep’s greatest acting achievements. Her interpretation of Margaret Thatcher at the height of her power is nothing short of brilliant; her depiction of the ailing, elderly, demented Maggie, sublime.
Some critics have a different view of the film. It has been expressed by some, including Mrs. Thatcher’s children that the release of this film while the lady is still alive is insensitive, and that portraying her dementia so graphically, is intrusive. I beg to differ.

Whether you liked her politics or not, Margaret Thatcher was a public figure by her own volition and as such she remains a person of interest. She is, therefore, fair game for writers and movie makers, the same way Princess Diana was and still is. That Mrs. Thatcher’s power has diminished as she has aged and become confused, is as much a part of her story as were her years as Prime Minister.

That point aside, a high caliber film like this could do much to get us sensitized to the plight of people who grow old and then suffer the indignity of losing their memory. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to us as a society. Dementia, and Alzheimer's in particular, seem to have become the leprosy of our generation. Yet our population is aging quickly now and many of us will personally know the despair of losing some cognitive abilities or the plight of watching a loved one go through that. Should we not stop treating the elderly as though they are invisible or already dead? Should we not applaud a film that tackles the subject head-on and with great sensitivity?

The film does an excellent job of representing how those with dementia experience their losses. We cannot know, of course, if Mrs. Thatcher really sees and hears her late husband speak to her as the movie depicts, but we surely can imagine how grief over the loss of her spouse might make her faded memories come to life, perhaps as a coping mechanism to dull her crippling emotional pain. Who, watching that very human process unfold in the film could find that offensive other than someone uncomfortable with their own process of aging?

Of course, not everyone is as lucky as Mrs. T. who lives in a large house with staff to look after her. Most elders have to fend for themselves and when they are no longer capable, they are placed in institutions where they are reduced to living in a place they do not recognize and which holds no memories for them. The medical world uses a term to explain the mental decline of severely demented elders: they refer to it as social death, as opposed to biological death.  People with full-blown dementia are often deemed to be of no further use, and are, therefore, considered to be socially dead. This is perhaps what Ms. Streep portrayed best in the film; she made an elderly woman who happened to be Margaret Thatcher, seem very human and even endearing in her present frailty.

The Iron Lady is not a film about Margaret Thatcher so much as it is about the discomfort and anguish of watching an elderly woman fade away.