Memories of my mother

First, my mother is not dead.  But she has never been a source of comfort.  And now, in these later years, while I find myself flung into the role of care-giver, I am remembering our history together and coming to terms with why I have conflicting feelings of duty, resentment and anger.

When I recall happy memories from my childhood involving my mother, I remember her sitting by my hospital bed reading aloud Paul Gallico’s novel, Jennie, as I recovered from a a very serious back operation when I was 12 or 13.

Screenshot-2018-1-21 19895616470_2 jpg (JPEG Image, 2009 × 1500 pixels) - Scaled (52%)

Jennie is the story of Peter, the young son of busy upper class parents in London, England, who have no time for him.  Peter longs for a cat to ease his loneliness, but his pragmatic nanny does not suffer animals gladly…(I instantly recall my own childhood babysitter, who was unaffectionately called ‘DoDo Bird’ — I believe her name was the French ‘Dault’, pronounced ‘Dough’ — who cold-heartedly tossed the neighbour’s cat Fluffy, who I loved, over the fence one day, much to my horror).

Fluffy, the cat; note how I want her all to myself.

Early in the book, Peter sees a kitten across the road and in his zeal to get closer, he crosses traffic and gets struck by a vehicle.  In his state of unconscious, Peter awakens as a cat and is befriended by Jennie, a stray, who had been abandoned by her own family.  The story follows his journey as he learns how to be a cat in a world completely foreign to him and it concludes with him awakening back into his human world.  It is a story of love, loss, isolation, friendship, fear and courage.  But it always struck me that his life would have been more fulfilled and happy had he stayed a cat.

My mother might have found several threads in this story that paralleled her own life.  Her older brother, as a child, had been hit by a car and died as a result of his injuries – this was back in the 1930s and I can’t help but think that if he had lived today, the accident wouldn’t have taken his life.

Also, my surgery, in my parents’ eyes, may have been considered life-threatening.  It involved the placement of a metal rod against my spine so that the curve caused by scoliosis would be straightened.  It was a serious procedure that was still in its infancy in the early 1970s.  From my parents perspective, there was a lot of fear and uncertainty around it, including whether I might be rendered permanently paralyzed or worse, die on the operating table.  Luckily I wasn’t and didn’t.  But to this day I remember the most embarrassing moment of the entire process, which was when my father asked,

“Doctor, will my daughter still be able to have children?”

Whereas my concerns centered around whether or not I’d be able to ride a horse or jump out of a plane.  In my mind, those two things were imminently more likely than procreating.

(The only discussion my mother ever had with me about sex was sliding an educational book across the counter to me.  I always felt that this was how she related to me: at arm’s length.  It was mortifying and taught me that talking about sex was taboo.  I’m sure my experience was not unique.)

I don’t know if my mother realized the extent to which this novel mirrored my own shy and isolated life: like the protagonist Peter, I also felt invisible to my parents and wished more than anything to have a companion, a pet.  For Peter, it was a pet cat; for me, a dog.

I cannot overstate the extent to which I yearned for a dog.  But time and again, I was told that it was not possible due to my parents’ and my younger sister’s allergies.  Sadly, I had to make do with gerbils, an iguana and goldfish.

My young life involved one blow after another.  Years before this surgery, what exact years I cannot say, I was regularly sent off with a close friend of my mother’s, an Anglican priest, who took me to the park and molested me.  Too timid to tell, too young to resist, and too naive to believe that this behaviour was not endorsed by my mother, I suffered this indignity for what seemed like eternity.

My 6 year old self in 1965

Two years after this picture was taken, our family temporarily packed up and moved to Quebec City where my younger sister was born.  This was a turning point in my life and marked the moment when I became most invisible.  My sister was a sickly child and her care demanded every ounce of attention and energy my mother could muster.  It was not surprising that she was grateful for any “babysitting” that was offered.

When my sister got older and I was poised to move away from home (she would have been 11 to my 19), my mother bought her a dog.  A DOG.  My sister didn’t want a dog, nor did my mother.  It just seemed like a good idea apparently.

As you can imagine, this dog, a dachshund beagle mix we called Kipling, landed in a family that didn’t know how to care for it.  So, after at least one episode when it escaped the house and chased wailing children down the street, nipping at their ankles, my mother gave it away.  I came home from university to this heart-crushing news.  Although Kipling was never my heart-dog, I never forgave my mother for this.

Years later, while in my 20s and as my wedding approached, I asked my mother if I could wear her wedding gown.  The dress was fitted and beaded and as I handled its smooth fabric and shiny embellishments in her closet, I imagined myself in it — glamourous and feminine and glowing — everything that a woman would like to feel on her wedding day.  To my horror, she replied,

“You’ll have to dye it.”

It should not have come as a surprise to me that my actual wedding dress was a simple, hand-made affair, in off-white velvet, but also that my father’s words of advice on my wedding day were, “Ailsa, marriage is hell.”


My 88 year old mother now has Alzheimer’s disease and her memory of any of these experiences is long gone.  She now lives in a world of her own youth; she re-reads her letters home to her own mother while she was adventuring overseas.  She remembers these as the “best years”; gone are any memories of her wedding, her early marriage, my youth and her later years.  It is a mercy that these best memories are what remain.

When I was young, my grandmother took me to church for Sunday service.  It was known (and still is today) as a “high church”, which meant incense was generously dispensed.  I hated this ceremonial “aid to prayer” as it always made me feel light-headed.  At worst, a full-fledged fainting episode would begin with my peripheral vision getting fuzzy, a loud buzzing would drown out any sound and whatever I could see was starting to become confined to an ever-closing-in, darkened tunnel.  The only way to stop the progression was to put my head between my knees — I always felt so awkward, but I’m sure onlookers just saw a demonstration of piety.

This is what I imagine it feels like to lose your memories to Alzheimer’s  — it leaves you with an ever-narrowing vision of your own history.  Until finally, all you have left is your earliest remembrances, and then nothing at all.


I am well aware that my mother and I never had a nurturing relationship.  I know many friends who have either lost their beloved mother prematurely to illness, accident or Alzheimer’s disease and who grieve the loss of their loving parent.  As they struggle to understand why, blame themselves for any perceived transgressions for which they failed to make peace or to provide care in this most difficult time, I feel their anguish.

My own experience is different.  I am the care-giver, the driver, the secretary, the accountant, the housekeeper, the daughter/mother and I see her as the petulant child.  I get annoyed, I feel shame; I chastise her for bad behaviour, I feel shame; I get frustrated, I feel shame.  I feel little connection, I feel shame.  I google how long people live with Alzheimer’s disease, I feel shame.  I say all the wrong things in response to her illness and I feel shame.

This feeling of being conflicted is, I’m sure, normal.  The so-called bond between mother and daughter is often a fabrication, like a well-meaning fairy tale.  In my life, my strongest bonds have been with my dogs and these relationships have been my most fulfilling: unchained, giving, freeing, natural and joyful.  I’m lucky to have found what gives me joy.  And lucky to understand that the comfort it provides me is legitimate and unapologetic.






14 thoughts on “Memories of my mother”

  1. Alisa, I so so hear you! I have no advice except to say do not forget to take care of yourself…walks with furry friend, massages (helps get the anger out of the muscles) and talk….lean on friends, and perhaps join a group….it would have done me some good I think…. We, women like you and me, are parr of the “daughters club”….you are not alone…

    1. Carmen, thank you so much for your lovely comment. Yes, I absolutely practice self-care lol and believe in it 100%! We *are* the daughters club — and it is good to get it all out and know we are not alone.

    2. Ailsa, I am so sorry…I misspelled your name….the tears were not allowing me to see straight. Sending you hugs, and courage…. and again, you are not alone… I am amazed at how many women have had a similar relationship with their own mother.

      I was shocked at how much I grieved after her passing. My friends were also dismayed. But I think I was grieving what I had missed, what could have been under other circumstances. I, too, have dogs. No children.

      1. Good heavens Carmen, no worries about the spelling! I understand your grieving after your mother passed, as a way of acknowledging what was not, rather than what was. Grief hits us in such unsuspecting ways — and sometimes friends worry for us without understanding how therapeutic going through the process can be. We appear to be kindred dog-loving spirits! Thanks for reading and sharing your feelings here.

  2. Alias, you definitely are not alone. Also you are a brilliant writer.
    Take care.
    From: A caregiver daughter whose Mother passed at 98yrs old in 2014.

    1. Thank you Eleanor for your kind words. I certainly don’t feel alone since I have spoken more about this and am heartened by so many graceful daughters out there who are all doing, or have done, their very best. My condolences to you on the loss of your mother … and kudos to you for your care of her when she needed it.

  3. Dear Ailsa, thank you for sharing, you’re a true blessing to your family. I hope you take good care of yourself. I love reading your blog, it’s often so genuine and sincere. I agree that bear hugging my dogs was a great stress management tactic. Boy, how I miss having a dog! =)

  4. Ailsaf, I too apologize for misspelling your name. I really enjoy your writings and pictures of the plants, landscaping , your dog, all of it. I have a black & white Papillon dog I got after my Mom passed. He is a lot of company for me. I have No children , but I enjoy my nieces and nephews who I see occasionally. I have worked a lot in my yard and flower beds in the past, but not sure if I will be able to continue that this spring, Age and health is catching up with me. Spring is my favorite season.

    1. Eleanor, don’t worry about that! I get it all the time lol! It’s Ailsa, which means “fairy” in Gaelic. Fits my temperament I think :c) Thank you so much for following my blog and for sticking with it while I had stepped away! I love Papillons – I’m sure he is great company. I hear you about working in the garden taking more effort these days – I have cut back my hours considerably in order to save my joints, back and knees! Perhaps you can concentrate more on planters rather than garden work — it might allow you to sit comfortably while planting and primping. Spring is my favourite season too. Do you go into the garden and pull away the leaves and debris to find new shoots? I do!

    1. Thank you Laurel! That means a lot. I’m discovering sharing such intimate thoughts is allowing others to express their own — which is a wonderful gift. I’ll continue to share all things, not just plants, gardens and dogs!

  5. This post hit me where I live.

    January 23rd is my dad’s birthday; this is my first year without him — he died February 23rd 2017. My dad was technically my stepfather, and he was my only parent in the bunch — my rock, my best friend, my only family.

    My mother is toxic, but mercifully lives far away; I live in dread of being her caregiver, of having to wind up her estate. I am her only child, and her only family on this continent, but do not know what arrangements she has made, or what her expectations are.

    There is enormous social pressure to revere mothers — if a mother did not abandon their child, they must have been a loving and good mother, or so society’s assumption goes. Some people though are incapable of love, incapable of nurturing, even if they do become mothers. I know how much courage this took for you to write, to dare to be honest about something so fundamental.

    You are not alone.

    1. Wow, Monika, thank you for your heart-felt comment. You hit the nail on the head; it’s hard to admit that *your* mother was not nurturing and loving because in some way, it feels like it may have been our fault. But of course, as we both know, some mothers (and fathers, for that matter) were never parented themselves, and likely carried a lot of baggage with them into their own marriages and new families. It is what it is and sadly, I think there are probably many of us. Thank you for sharing your own story and for reading. I really appreciate your feedback and empathy :c) I hope that your own journey with your mother is straight-forward from now on and that she has made arrangements on her own for her care without you needing to step in.

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