The Surrogate Home-maker

allofus-whtI don’t remember why now, but Mum was gone again. I think she must have had another nervous breakdown or something.

With Mum away, Dad had put Kim and I into the bed Kim and Mum normally shared, presumably so that he could have a night’s sleep to himself. The next morning, Kim and I woke up to a happy voice chirping “Rise and shine!”. It was a woman whom my Dad had hired to be our home-maker for a day or two. Kim and I looked at each other with self-conscious grins that must have shown how weird and wonderful it felt to start the day happy right from the first moment. I don’t recall the lady’s name. She was somebody else’s mother, but bless her happy heart, she was ours for that day.

I think it must have been a Saturday, because Kim and I were both home all day. Dad was off somewhere – perhaps working, or visiting Mum wherever she was. We didn’t really know what was going on.

The nice lady made us a hot breakfast, which we gobbled down happily. Afterwards, she did something that nobody had done for me and my sister in a long time: she sat down with us on the couch and talked to us. She asked us about our mother, our school, our lives and our feelings. It was strange but comforting to see that this person cared about us. Why couldn’t our own mother do that?


My Mother was a very emotionally troubled woman for most of her life, and in retrospect was never really suited to motherhood. She needed someone to care for her, more than she needed to care for someone else. It just wasn’t in her. This was never acknowledged at the time, assuming it was ever identified by the grown-ups. I have learned as an adult that sometimes when people are too familiar with each other, they also just don’t appreciate each other to the same degree. Basically, you can overlook the ones closest to you, simply because they are too close to see properly.

Something was going on with Mum, but I didn’t know what…

I have a fuzzy memory of visiting my mother in some downtown hotel. My impression is that Mum had been away from us for some time, and now she was staying in this hotel room.

Mum sat at a kitchen table. There was a pile of paper and a pack of 99 cent coloured felt pens on the table. Mum seemed happy, refreshed or renewed. She was smiling. She had done a bunch of sketches, and I was fascinated to look at them. I vaguely remember one sheet that showed a bunch of toxic pink and purple flowers inside a blue vase. The lines squiggled and wiggled with nervous energy, barely staying on the paper. It was like getting a peek inside her head and seeing what she was thinking! It was just a brief glimpse, but it fascinated me.

Mum sat smiling in her chair, compulsively twirling a lock of hair around her index finger, gently rocking forward and back, as she smoked her cigarette.

If I had to sum up my curiosity about my Mother in one question, it’d be simply “Who was she?” I wish I could say that she and I had ever talked about anything substantial, or that she had ever told me anything about herself, but I would remember it if she had, so that’s how I know she didn’t. She was present physically until I was about 11, but even up till that time, she was never really there mentally. She was present, but absent.

Whatever I think I know about my Mum’s life or personality I learned from my Dad or from her relatives. It’s all just second-hand memories, like the photos in our albums. I have second-hand pictures and words, records of other people’s experiences with her, and very few of my own.

I always felt like there was some funny distance between me and Mum. I think that her main relationship was with her parents first, and then with my Dad. Her children seemed to come third or maybe lower than that sometimes.

Growing up, Kim and I were just “the kids” – as if we were in a whole different category. Even when I was small, I could feel some of that distance. I just didn’t know my Mum well enough, and it got worse each year as I got older. I’ve only ever seen glimpses of who she once had been – the beautiful, talented, loving person all her friends and cousins remember. I have seen her bored, or upset, or raving drunkenly, but I have only seen her beautiful side a few times in brief glimpses. It always felt so rare because to me, it was.


2 thoughts on “The Surrogate Home-maker”

  1. John, I appreciate you sharing this. I am not sure what to say, but honest disclosure is important when it comes to life and storytelling, for a lack of a better way to say this. I know that I grew up in a loving home, but we all have things. I had full time parents who had issues. They would get so involved in other peoples lives (all family) but didn’t really know how to talk to us. It was an era when we were ‘only the kids’ and we’d watch as extended family dramas took over their minds, emotion and energy. We were fed, clothed and such things, but felt we couldn’t put any more problems on our parent’s plate. Mom loved us and had a fun spirit. My dad worked hard to give us good food, clothed us. They showed us that they were responsible in all ways but emotionally.

    The first time I saw someone listen to their child, I was catching a bus to ECAID at Broadway & Granville. The student had a child and would stop our conversation to listen to his daughter. I had never seen that before. I was in shock. No one stopped to listen to kids that I remember. Any way, your story moved me. I had a neighbour who listened to me. It Was like a breath of fresh air. I still keep in touch with her.

  2. Hi Nirmal,

    Thanks for sharing your own stories – I appreciate your point of view about how marvellous and mysterious it is to watch an adult actually converse with a child. In my case, my parents were born in the ’20s and ’30s, and their parents were raised in the tail-end of the Victorian era, steeped in the age-hierarchy that said “children are to be seen and not heard”, must always obey, etc. My father was an authoritarian too, and as I entered my teens and got bigger and stronger, I noticed he maintained his authority by requiring me to address him in a quasi-military style, such as ending a confirmation with not just “yes” but “yes, sir!” As I came into my own as a young man and no longer a little boy, he tightened the reins, or the leash, to use a dog-training metaphor.

    I understood tough love, and that life could be cold and hard, but I could not relate to a gentle hand, and had no reference for what a mother’s love was supposed to be like. A woman crying seemed awkward and shameful to me, as were my own tears, which I wouldn’t shed for years at a time, and even then, only under the worst of circumstances, like a death. A man crying was incomprehensible and scary.

    Learning compassion for others, learning how to greive constructively, and how to support others who are suffering – these are all the most important lessons I’ve had to learn as an adult. I don’t know how my parents got by in life without those tools in their toolbelts. All I know is that they were most often unhappy.

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The memoir and family history of E. John Love