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You might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with you…

It can be easy to get through difficult times – traumas – feeling as if you’ve conquered them, or at least survived them. You pat yourself on the back, saying how good and strong you are. You tell yourself that you’ve made it.

You ought to feel so proud of yourself, but don’t be. In truth, you may have only won a single conflict – a skirmish. There may be more to come, and if it does come, it won’t be clearly-defined, like a battlefield scenario with easy-to-identify winners and losers. It will more likely be covert, like guerilla warfare, with values or outcomes that could remain ambiguous for years.

Basically, shit from your past will return and find you. It needs to be dealt with openly, honestly, and fully, or else it will continue to deal with you on its terms, and not on your terms.

The fact is, when you don’t understand, tame, and come to terms with (even befriend) your past issues, they will come back. Life can fight dirty, hitting below the belt, or hiding in the shadows, waiting for an opportune time to strike. Life seems able to hold off on its future plans for you until you are the least prepared.

Today, if you are vulnerable to the actions or reactions of certain types of people, it’s likely you were raised within that, trained by circumstance to respond a certain way, and rewarded either positively or negatively (both are effective teachers).Maybe you never managed to break out of the cycle of behaviour that you were born into.

The Mother Archetype.

For me, themes of guilt, helplessness, and shame were all connected to my mother, Angela Huntley Love. In her youth, she’d been a talented musician, singer and actor, and movie star beautiful. In her young adulthood, she was also diagnosed as manic-depressive (“bi-polar”, in today’s terms), and she began to self-medicate with alcohol. By the time I was old enough to know her, she was already a chronic alcoholic.

Angela had some good, happy times, but many more lonely, unhappy times. I feel that for most of her life, she was lonely, separated from her friends. Angela probably should have been surrounded by more caring people who could give her the love and support she needed. Throughout Angela’s life, mental illness still scared people.Very few people would have had the emotional tools to support her when she needed it.Nobody talked about it, except in hushed tones.

Certainly my Dad didn’t have any skills in that regard. Every talk that I remember my Mum and Dad having would degrade into a screaming fight. As kids, my sister and I could only cower, watching things unfold and get nasty. One time, maybe a shoulder got dislocated. Other times, blood flowed or furniture got broken. Sometimes bruises formed, and sometimes, thank god, the cops would arrive to calm things down. Those were the worst moments – when fear dried your mouth and you didn’t know what would happen next. The scars that  formed under our skin lasted years after the purple, green and yellow marks had faded from the surface.

Fear and self-doubt go hand in hand.

Loving, gentle moments were counted on one hand, across many years. We wondered what had happened to the smiling people from those wedding photos, the ones who looked at each other with such love and devotion? Why was nobody helping them now?

As a little kid, you find ways to blame yourself for someone else’s failings, and you project yourself and your meagre life experience into the empty void before you, trying to create a pattern in the place of a mystery, to fill the void with something, anything, that you can work with to try and understand someone else’s mind.

And so it was that my mother Angela Huntley Love remained a mystery to me, never telling me anything much about her life, and never demonstrating through her actions what a beautiful, angelic songbird she’d once been. She had been her Daddy’s little girl – the apple of his eye – and after he died in 1978, she completely gave up on life. She fell apart. Her nerves and her heart broke, and she didn’t even try to save herself. She probably didn’t want to live any more.

The fear of “I broke it but I can’t fix it”.

As a little boy, I would often take my toys apart to see how they worked, and as often, would not be able to put them back together. Until my parents clued in and started buying me Lego, I had “ruined” a nice train set and some other toys, and had been punished or at least severely yelled at for “breaking everything I touched”. This was sad and frustrating for me, and I developed a fear of breaking things that could not be repaired – irreparable damage was a great fear of mine. This kind of catastrophizing fear is easily re-opened in an alcoholic family where damage is emotional, not understood for years (if ever), and deeply, privately hidden. Once an emotional bond of love has been damaged by fear, it feels broken, and you may believe that it can never be repaired.

With Angela, I never felt particularly cared for or loved by her. I have photographs that show that she loved me as a baby (holding me or playing with me), but as I got older, we had few of those moments, it seemed. Maybe once every couple of months or so, Mum would become lively, animated and fun-loving, and take Kim’s tiny little bicycle for a ride down the block, or in a burst of creativity, create robot costumes for us out of cardboard boxes and coloured foil. A good deal of the rest of the time, she was emotionally flat or depressed, doing nothing and saying nothing – just smoking and not interacting with anybody.

So, I have come to understand her alcohol overdose and liver failure in 1977 as an attempt to drink herself into oblivion, perhaps to join her father in some kind of afterlife or final release from pain. Over the course of a year in 1977, she gave up eating meat, then gave up eating altogether. She drank nocturnally and either slept on the couch all day, or stayed in bed until one day, she couldn’t be roused.

After a transfusion and some kind of recovery in Burnaby General Hospital, she spent a year or two of being shuffled from private hospital to private hospital, and eventually ended up in Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, as a ward of the province, under long-term care. The liver failure and massive blood alcohol content had given her brain damage and memory loss. She was a different person than the mostly sullen, sometimes manic mother we’d gotten used to. She didn’t really recognize us any more, or seemed to have no connection to any past we’d shared. She had receded into herself even more, I thought at the time. Maybe she was a rebooted person. It was all beyond my control in any case. My mother was gone, replaced by this new, different Angela.

In the same room, a million miles away.

Over the span of the next 14 or so years, from about 1981 until 1995, I would periodically visit Angela, trying to reintroduce myself to her and rebuild some kind of familiarity with this evasive, quiet, strange woman. It was a long walk up the steep road through the Riverview grounds to the North Lawn Unit, not knowing what to expect or if she’d recognize me or even respond. I brought her chocolate every time, hoping we might bond over food. She loved it and would gobble it down like a greedy toddler, but it was no guarantee of any connection.

I would always ask her “Do you know who I am?” On a good day, she would make eye contact, as if she was trying to figure it out. She once called me her cousin Gene (I have no idea who that is or if they existed). Once, when I told her I was her son John, she protested, saying “No! John was blonde!” I reminded her that yes, back when I was nine or ten, I’d had dirty blonde hair, but my hair had darkened since then and I was indeed her grown-up son. It was heart-breaking to have to be so patient, to work so hard to try and rebuild such an elemental connection, but I did try, for a while anyway.

Over the years, I would bring my sketchbook and ask Angela to draw for me. The first time she tried, all I got was a cat that looked like a sausage, with stick legs. I knew she had more in her, and the next time we tried, she drew a very skillful profile of a human face in one continuous line down the page, from the top of the forehead down to the chin, without stopping. I’d watched her concentrate, moving the pen very slowly and deliberately down the paper, and I was amazed. It was the first indication I’d seen that there was still somebody at home in there.

Occasionally, she’d let me hug her and tell her I loved her, but I have no way of knowing if she really understood what was happening, really felt anything, or was just playing along with this nice, friendly young man who brought her chocolates and seemed to care about her. I tried to put into this relationship whatever I could, and to get out whatever I could. I accepted that she was no longer the same woman who’d once been my mother, and was now just Angela, a woman from whom I would try to raise a smile or a laugh, or just share a moment sitting together for as long as we could, watching the sun come in through the metal screened windows. She really didn’t have anyone else. We didn’t live together, we didn’t see each other very often, and we didn’t really know each other very well, but those little moments on the ward were still there for us to share, for whatever they were worth.

Detach, let go, and accept.

I gradually detached my feelings about Angela from the concept of “mother”, and got mothering from other people who really cared about me. I accepted that my Mum had left us years before she’d ever left our home on a stretcher, and this woman in front of me was just a ghost of that person, a pale reflection, reborn in a husk of skin that looked familiar. But hers was a different brain, probably just going through the motions of staying alive.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, but in some very real ways, Angela continues to haunt me. Her face, voice, silliness, mania, and cold detachment echo on for me in some people whom I’ve known since her death. It’s a reminder for me to keep learning from her life – that my relationship with her continues. It’s a reminder for me that while I thought I was done with her, she may not yet be done with me.

My Family that Was, Is, and Will Be.

My Family That Was…

Life was a blur of confusion; contradictions.
Days blurred together in a little kid’s present tense.
The “always now” – too young to reflect and process.
Past days lurched forward through time, bursting unannounced into the present at the worst moment, like an obnoxious, uninvited guest.
Parents forgot that they were the centre of everything. They went out of control, abdicated responsibilities like the careless children they once were.
Their own offspring got lost in the mix, left emotionally out in the wild.

Some families seemed happy, bonded by trust.
Mine wasn’t. Were there others like us?
Father’s hands that were calloused yet gentle were also feared,
sometimes raised in anger against those they should protect.

Mother’s eyes and heart were kept to herself,
unable to deal as an adult, she surrendered to depression and booze.
No response came from her. No conversation seemed to reach her.
She was a woman thinking like a little girl, still missing her dead dad;
She couldn’t take the responsibility of parenthood.

Spun around in their young hearts, the offspring took on adult pains,
responsibilities came too early; dark abuses twisted roles out of shape;
Chronological adults became helpless from their misadventures.
Kids, forced to grow up too damn soon, sought proxy-parents to show them love in safe, harmless little doses. Over the years, they learned to shrug off the burdens that weighed them down since birth.

In my family that was, I was with them when they needed me.

My Family That Is…

Love, trust, and sharing are part of a grand journey,
where you find out who your honest friends and beloved family are.
The present time is the only time there is.
You learn that loyalty and love need not be used only in moments of crisis, but are a strength in the quietest, smallest daily moments.
You learn to be comfortable in yourself, and allow yourself and others to just be.

You learn that suffering, loss and recovery are common to us all.
My family that is, understands these things and lives from them.
You can forgive others, because you have worked to forgive yourself.
You can truly love others, because you truly love yourself.

In my family that is, they’re with me when I need them.

My Family That Will Be…

I’ll fast-forward the dream, looking towards the babies and children of today, to envision the grown-ups of tomorrow.
Sufferring will still come to them, as it does to us all,
but they will rise to the challenges the world will offer.
They will greet it with an open hand instead of a closed fist,
and an open heart instead of a closed mind or silent mouth.

They’ll remember to live by the golden rule their predecessors forgot: Treat others as you’d have them treat you.

In my family that will be, they will know who they are,
and they will feel loved and be worthy of love.
The family that will be will stay together and will be there to care.

Old Patterns never die, they just transform…

Mothers and Fathers are the archetypes for all your relationships in some way. Here are some of the lessons I learned from mine, directly and indirectly:

Bad Lessons:

Mother: Non-communicative silence means ‘I don’t care to talk to you, or perhaps I have stopped loving you. You will never know.’ (It was frustrating and sometimes terrifying.)

Father: Use your fists to defend yourself, or your family. (Fists also used on family.)

Mother: Creativity and imagination sometimes come in frantic manic bursts. (Bipolarism, depression.)

Father: Men don’t cry (and when they do, they don’t explain or share the reason.)

Mother: Emotions are scary and uncontrollable. (Little self-knowledge.)

Father: Men don’t accept the blame. Pride can be a defense.

Good Lessons:

Mother: Love of music can people together in beautiful little moments.

Father: A tough, strong or uncompromising man can still be sweet and gentle to young kids and small animals.

Mother: Grown-ups can still be child-like and silly and fun.

Father: Sometimes you just need quiet time, watching planes land at the airport.

Mother: Sometimes you have to hold your head up again and face the world, even when you feel like your time has passed, and you’ve lost everything.

Father: Honour someone you love by telling stories of their beautiful past moments. These stories show others how you loved them.

I said goodbye to Dad in 1989, just a few months after he attended my graduation from art school. I was by his side a lot of the time in his last weeks, as he gradually coughed himself to death from pneumonia. Whether one remembers him for positive moments or negative ones, it was a hard way to die. I missed saying goodbye to him by about 5 or 10 minutes, so I said goodbye to his beaten-up, bruised old body instead. He was hard to like sometimes, and easy to fear, but I cried like a baby, and soaked his hospital gown in my tears. I was glad he was out from under his suffering.

I said goodbye to Mum in an abstract, and yet very physically way. After 14 years of visiting her in Riverview, and usually having to reintroduce myself to her as her son each time (brain damage from her alcohol poisoning slow-motion suicide attempt in 1977), I just couldn’t bear to visit her very often anymore. I had the curiosity of “I wonder how she is nowadays’ conflicting with the expectation that ‘she still won’t know me’. By the ’90s, she was just a thought that I held on to – a regret I felt – as I looked east towards Port Coquitlam, at the idea of Angela. A warning of her passing came at midnight, March 1st, just as my 29th birthday came. I received a phone call from a nurse at Riverview, saying that my Mother was very sick with a flu that had transformed into pneumonia, and she might not last very long. I told the nurse I would try to come out for a visit, and she said she’d keep me informed. One week later, almost to the hour, I received the phone call saying that Mum had passed. I had never gone up to see her. I just couldn’t do it. The closest I came to contact after that was pouring her ashes into the ground at the Fraserview Cemetary. I brushed clouds of her off my hands, and felt a wave of sorrow and relief for Angela, whom I’d never really known or connected with. She’d lost everything – especially herself – and had suffered so much in her life.

God, how imperfect and flawed and damaged they were. God, how I loved them, and how I still miss them.

51 stories down. [infinty symbol] to go…

I have finally added in the last of the first fifty-one stories from my old True Life site.

I started writing True Life back in 1998 as a hand-rolled web memorial to my past family, events, and themes. It was then, and remains today, my personal mirror and cathartic echo chamber, and a place where I can polish my stories, refine my memories, and find patterns and meaning.

I stopped adding to the original site sometime around 2005 – maybe I just got burned-out, or bored with the way the site looked. It had just stopped exciting me, so I let it be for what it was. Not long after, my personal Linux server started to die, so I took it offline, and True Life (which was hosted on that server) went down entirely.

Strangely, I didn’t feel much loss from “de-publishing” the True Life project – maybe I even felt liberated. I didn’t have to carry that self-imposed burden of a shrine on my back, if I didn’t want to. I began resenting Mum and Dad for all their failings as parents, and then moved their little framed photographs off the top of my dresser, and down to a low corner of a bookshelf, where I wouldn’t be reminded of them so often. I decided that it’s okay to not want to see them, and to feel sick of them and of the one-sided story I’d been telling about them for almost 10 years. I decided that we were a failed family, and they were failed parents to my sister and I. Kids can’t choose their parents, but as an adult, I could sure as hell scorn mine, post-mortem.

I have noticed that I tend to obsess over people who are no longer in my life. If there’s nothing to be learned from conversing with ghosts, I really ought to let them go unanswered.

However, I eventually came back to my family background, as I always have. Reminders of past joys, sorrows, abuses and achievements kept entering my mind. Writing my memoir as “True Life” may be a compulsion now – a deep part of my identity. As they say, I might be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with me.

So, I’ll boot up Scrivener, or get my pad and pen, and start sketching out snippets of a path that will take me from 1976 towards the early eighties, when things got much, much worse.

It’s time to bite off more than I chew again, and choke down what I can of all those random scraps of daily life, and digest it all into some kind of coherent narrative. I will stick my head out, and see where the process takes me.

Should only take a few hundred more stories to get True Life up to the year 2000. At this rate, it may never get done, but I think the process is the important piece.

What magic has brought us here…?

Walking a crunchy, leafy path towards a new year,
maybe just too aware of the sound of my own footsteps
to enjoy the trees around and the sky above,
and the others who walk alongside me.

I won’t turn my head, and look back.
Not too much.

(Here’s a lyric from an Odds song called “The Truth Untold”.)

The truth untold
Will always lie between us
We may never unfold
The way our lives have brought us here

“True Life” connects me to relatives I never knew I had…

My “True Life” web project is connecting me to relatives I never knew I had.

I haven’t written any stories in True Life for many, many months now, but the project has attracted attention from people in different parts of the world, and some of them have contacted me to tell me they’ve read it. The most rewarding times for me have been when someone contacts me and tells me they’re a relative! This has happened a few times over the years. A few years ago, a gentleman from England named Brian Scanlon contacted me, saying that his grandmother was a cousin to my great aunt. Through his generous sharing of his research, I learned more about the family of my dear old Auntie Molly, a wise matriarchal figure who helped to raise my Dad and his siblings, and who was a strong influence on and a comfort to me when I was in my pre-teen years. More recently, a gent from England named Alfred told me that he was related to my maternal grandfather, whom I always called “Poppy”.

I grew up never knowing very much about Poppy’s upbringing or his early years, or even where he was born. When I was very young, around eight, sitting on Poppy’s knee, he told me that he came to Canada from England when he was about 12 years old. When I asked who he came over with, he fell silent and looked a bit sad. I learned from Alfred that Poppy was the product of his father’s first marriage, and that Alfred’s grandfather was a product of Poppy’s father’s second marriage. So, Alfred’s grandfather was a half-brother to mine.

Alfred’s research also showed me that my Poppy was in fact a “home child” – a kid who was basically shipped off to a foreign country (Canada, in this case) to provide labour to another family, and presumably a better life in another land. The folks back home in England knew that Poppy had gone to Canada and had became an RCMP officer, but they may not have known much more. I didn’t even know that my Poppy had a full sister, or that he had family back in England. Learning about his life, has helped to connect me more to my own.

True Life originally went live in 1998. It is my ongoing, online attempt to cobble together a complete, illustrated personal life story, documenting fuzzy memories from my birth, onwards. A collection of over 50 stories and anecdotes illustrated with photographs and original sketches, True Life is an evolving tribute to my lost family, past friends, and to the various challenges and people I’ve known over the years. It all begins not long after March of 1966…

To read True Life, go to and click on one of the album on the left side, like “1966 – 1971”.

True Life is coming back to life…

After many years of dormancy, I have restarted this web project, as a way to keep telling my personal history.

The history of this project goes back to 1998, when I began designing a website that could organize my memoir as a series of small stories. I didn’t know how to tell my story, and the idea of writing a book or something seemed too big and monolithic to take on. I decided to use the web, and break the tale down into little chunks that I could complete, one-by-one, as the spirit moved me and time permitted. Overall, I wrote about fifty stories or articles on  my original True Life site before I let it lapse for a number of years.

My driving need to write that story continues, fifteen years later after starting this project, and better writing platforms are making it a richer process. Now, instead of my hand-written HTML website, I can enjoy authoring with the benefits of the WordPress platform where plugins give me access to new  capabilities I have yet to fully exploit, and responsive web design means that my site looks and works better on tablets and smartphones.

WordPress also means that writing can happen anywhere I want it to. I can now write stories or post articles using apps on my tablet, instead of needing to FTP into my website and use an HTML editor. It just makes it easier to develop this project wherever I happen to be. This is the way it is now.

Welcome to the Bloggy Part…

This site is devoted to my life experiences and family history, genealogy, and connecting with others with similar experiences.

Here, I’ll post news or updates related to this project, or tools, techniques, issues, or opinions relevant to this project.