A Love Letter to My Mother
Being a mother is by far the best thing I’ve ever done. I realize that’s a cliche, and part of me feels I should somehow be more profound and illuminating, but it’s the truth. Choosing to be a mother is choosing to put your life after another’s. Committing to a long term relationship is choosing to be someone’s equal, but the act of being a mother is the act of actively deciding to be second, or fourth, or eighth. You are no longer the most important. You can’t choose to look out for number one, or you can, but number one isn’t you.
As a mother your choices get usurped by what’s best for someone else. You change where you live. You buy sensible cars. You give up the things you want to afford things they need. You forget to eat. You clean bodily fluids that aren’t yours, and you have to get up, when every bone in your body says stay asleep.
When you choose to raise a person, to devote your life to making them the best possible version of themselves, you sacrifice and save and commit to their well being, knowing full well one day, if you’ve done your job right, they’ll grow up and leave you and you’ll have to smile and let them go. Our children may be ours but we don’t own them. All the love and attention we shower on them is soaked up and hopefully serves to make them loving, caring people that will go out and make the world a better place.
In my room in Toronto there is a tiny, framed water color with a quote that says, “There are two lasting gifts we can give our children. One is roots, the other is wings.” It reminds me of the new Jason Mraz song “93 Million Miles” where he says, “Oh, my my how beautiful, Oh my beautiful mother. She told me, son in life you’re gonna go far. If you do it right, you’ll love where you are. Just know, wherever you go. You can always come home.” The best we can do as mothers is give our children the strongest foundation on which to build their lives and then softly nudge them into the world with the knowledge and security that no matter where they go, or who they become, they always have a place to come home to. That in this big, overwhelming world there is somewhere they will always be loved, safe, cherished and respected. Whether that area is a physical home or just in their mother’s heart, they know they have a space they’ll always belong.
With that in mind, and seeing that yesterday was Mother’s Day, I felt it was only fitting to write a little about the woman who taught me everything I know about being a mother. The person who showed me what it means to unconditionally love and sacrifice. The person who put her own life on hold to raise yours truly, and the person to which I owe the most in the world, your Granny, Penny Elliott. As we grow, I think it’s important to know where we came from. Who we are a product of. Who raised us. Who raised them. Who we’re genetically or emotionally linked to and how that plays out in our lives. It’s not about looking back, it’s about filling in the knowledge, so we can move forward. It’s a healthy respect for the history of life, our life, and who came before.
My mother was born Rene Penelope Lowndes in Toronto, Canada in 1943. Her mother, your Grand Mimi, was one of the four famous Locke (no, we didn’t name you after them but it’s a lovely coincidence) sisters who grew up with their mother on Lynwood Avenue in an area called Forest Hill. When I say famous I don’t mean to say that your Grand Mimi or Great Aunts were movie stars or famous burlesque dancers or anything, merely that they were 4 attractive sisters living close to an all boys school who made quite a name for themselves in the social circles of 1930’s Toronto society.
Your Granny’s Father’s name was Charles Lowndes and he married Grand Mimi in spite of the fact that her father, who would die soon after of colon cancer, told her to “give him up.” According to family lore, he was not quite ready to be a husband and a father and when he went off to war (WWII) he formally decided it wasn’t for him. Grand Mimi became one of a very short list of divorcees in the 1940’s and moved into the 3rd floor of her childhood home with her new baby, Penny.
Your Granny spent the next 10 years of her life living on Lynwood in the winter and Lake Simcoe in the summer with her mother, and grand mother, and various other cousins and relatives, of which there were many. It breaks my heart to think of my Mom’s Dad leaving and never getting to know her. I think it’d be fair to say it affected her whole life. I’d hazard to guess the child in her never fully understood it wasn’t her fault, or that she was lovable and not to blame for what happened. I think many of her personality traits probably stem back to those early feelings – the need to be likable and agreeable – and, I think she always felt she had to somehow make it up to her mother.
A child should never feel responsible for a parent’s happiness. As parents we are responsible for our children but not the other way round. It’s too big of a role for little people to handle. I loved your Grand Mimi dearly, but not withstanding her own disappointment (and I’m sure there was plenty) I think she might have let her first born down a bit.
When Granny was 10, Grand Mimi remarried an Englishman named Henry (called Seb) Askew, a strikingly handsome, businessman and cabinet maker – and according to Grand Mimi “a wonderful dancer”. They relocated to a small but sweet house on Heath Street, about 15 minutes away from where Granny had grown up. Seb and Grand Mimi went on to have a daughter, Granny’s sister Jill, the following year. I’ve heard Granny say she was never quite sure how she fit into her mother’s new little family. That, despite their best efforts, she always felt a little like an outsider in her own home, and that she was more of a parental figure to her sister than a sibling due to their 11 year age difference.
Granny met Granddad when they worked in the same law firm in the early 60’s. She’d say she fell in love before he did and often jokes that they got engaged because he was so traumatized that his best pal Todd had decided to get married. Granddad would tell you that Granny was the only woman that had ever made him stop his frantic pace and take notice, and for him that was love. They were married in 1969 and honeymooned in Spain and Portugal. Granny had travelled to Europe previously with friends and had to convince Granddad to go abroad. The joke is Granddad would have been happy to have honeymooned in Georgian Bay (where they would later buy the cottage), but once she got him overseas, he became hooked by the travel bug that’s never left him since.
I came along a full 5 years after their marriage. After planning on a big family they resigned themselves to the fact that I would probably be their only child, and moved on, as we have, to giving that one child all they could. My Dad worked a lot when I was young and though I could tell many wonderful stories about how he never made me feel like I wasn’t important, or we did wonderful things together, this is a story about my mom so I’ll leave those tales for Father’s Day. Granny and I spent every day together when I was little. She was a stay-at-home mom till I was in the 5th grade and I can’t thank her enough for that sacrifice. We have a very old recording of me speaking into a tape recorder on our way up to Collingwood to ski for the weekend (back then we had a chalet that we rented every winter so I could learn to ski and my parents could party with their pals). On the recording the 3- year-old me is recounting the day I’d just spent with my mother and it sounds very similar to a day you and I might have whiled away together.
Me: First we went to the bank…Then we went to the cleaners…Then we went…where?
Mom: To the bakery.
Me: …to the bakery.
Mom: And tell Dad what you got at the bakery Leigh.
Me: I got a cookie Dad.
Mom: And what color was it?
Me: It was GREEN Dad!!
Dad: What!? A green cookie!!
I know those days. They’re boring and wonderful all at the same time. It’s just life unfolding. Daily, dull, have-to-do stuff, but now you’re doing it with a little person. A little person who’s absorbing the whole world. When I first got sick and thought I was going to die, it wasn’t the big things like never being famous or successful that I morned. It was the boring, every day things that I took for granted like going to the grocery store or just hanging out with you. At the end of it all, it’s those little moments that make up a life. It doesn’t matter that the world doesn’t know who I am. It matters that you know me and I know you. Staying home with your kid is a gift that goes both ways, and for those mothers that have, or make, the opportunity to do it, it means so much and I want my mom to know how grateful I am to her for all those years.
Granny went back to work when I was 10 and it was an adjustment. I could no longer go home for lunch, I got home and hour before she did and she no longer knew every aspect of my life. Looking back that was probably more a product of age than her working, but it was still a trip.
I kind of got her back when I started private school in Grade 6 because she worked there. Granny was an alumnae and worked in fundraising in the Sr. School. It was the best of both worlds. She was there but not there. Available for debriefings and ventings when I needed her, but not in my space like she would have been if she’d been say, a teacher. It’s a real testament to my mother to say that throughout my 8 years at Branksome I’d often go to her office to chat, just to find one of my friend’s already there seeking her advice. Granny’s just one of those people that’s really easy to talk to. I’ve always been so proud of her. Everyone loves her and it’s such a blessing to be the child of someone that everyone loves. She’s such a devoted friend and warmhearted person that people my whole life have gravitated towards her. If I could give her a gift it would be to see herself through other’s eyes. She has no idea how truly fabulous she is. Though we have none of the same features and our coloring is different, for some reason we look a lot alike, and I’ve always felt fortunate because of that. First of all because she’s beautiful, but secondly because looking like her, people associate me with her. A perfect example is a couple of years ago when I was home for a visit and I took my parents dry cleaning in. The woman behind the counter took one look at me and said, “Are you Penny’s daughter?” and when I answered in the affirmative, she said, “Oh, you’re so lucky to have a mom like yours. She’s sooo nice.”
How can you not feel pride at something like that?
Growing up with your Granny I felt pride a lot. I was supported and encouraged at everything I did – save competitive diving but that’s a story that truly belongs to my Dad – and it made me an incredibly strong individual. I also had a place in my mother to confide every feeling, to ask every question and I never got anything less than her undivided attention. She saw every show, came to every meet, volunteered for things I wanted her too and steered clear when I preferred to be alone. She trusted me and because of that I trusted her. I told her when I started drinking, when I tried smoking, when I had sex. I explained my experiences with drugs and unloaded all my heartache. Sure their were secrets I kept – everybody has them – but for the most part we were and continue to be the best of pals.
The best kind of mothers, and your Granny is one, can be your pal while still remaining your Mom. Her primary concern was my well being, my safety and my character. She was my friend, but not before she was my mother and my guide. We had, and occasionally still do have, terrible fights. We have very different temperaments, or maybe similar temperaments, but were raised differently. I was raised in a house where my voice mattered. Where I believed in myself and my convictions and felt that my opinions had weight. Granny was raised to be “a good girl” to be a pleaser and was filled from a very young age with doubt about her abilities. I can remember when my mom was in her 40’s and Grand Mimi telling her that she “couldn’t drive on the highway at night” or “maybe she should go and have a nap” like she was a 5-year-old. I swear my Granny treated me like more of an adult than she ever treated my mom and I’m sure it was exhausting.
That constant second guessing by the woman she loved – and always tried to please – made Granny what I can only describe as, a nervous person. She’s a bad flyer (a learned behavior I adopted); an anxious driver (and even worse passenger); a blue chip investor (though I understand the need for stability, I’m definitely more risk tolerant); and her most used quote and possible life motto is “When in doubt, don’t.” I think it’s a real testament to her strength of character that she raised me to be different, bolder, more confident than she was. Though doubt can be a possible warning sign to disaster, I’ve always seen it as reason to get more information or put in more work. You might be unsure but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Life in itself is a risk. Do your research. Make educated decisions. There’s always room for doubt, but that doesn’t mean it should prevent action. I recently filled out a financial questionnaire and one question was, “What does risk mean to you?” I answered C: Opportunity. My mom would have circled A: Danger.
I moved away from home at 19 and – save 2 years when I returned to Toronto for Grad School – I never moved back. I believe I was able to do this because of my mom. I was so filled with her love that I could take it with me no matter where I lived, and no matter where I was I knew I could always come back. She’d filled my life with a confidence and security I’m sure she never had, and my life’s been blessed because of it.
When I got sick Granny came to live with us. She was amazing. Giving up her life to come down and help with ours. So many times she said to me, “I wish I could trade places with you. I wish I could take this on. It’s not fair that it’s you. It should be me.” My mom was feeling what we all know, that we’re not supposed to outlive our children. How do you get your head around saying goodbye to someone that you can’t bare to live without? I hope she never has to deal with it. I hope I can take care of her in old age as well as she took care of her mother. I hope I can care for her as she’s always cared for me and I hope I can live a good, long life and spare her the pain of my passing. I can’t imagine a world without her but I’d like it to play out in the right order. She deserves it.
When I got married I found out that my mom had been saving money for years to be able to help make it the day I wanted it to be. That same year I found out it was my mother that had paid for my private school education. I’d always credited it to my successful, lawyer father but it was my mother – my oft overlooked, overworked mother – who had my tuition taken out of her salary to pay for my fancy – and well worth it – private education. So much of who I am I owe to her. She taught me love in a way that I can never repay. She sang to me and read me stories. She held me when I was scared as a child and as a grown mother afraid of dying. She has a fabulous – almost sibling like – relationship with your Dad, and she’s cultivated a relationship with you that breaks my heart it’s so mutually devoted. Your Granny pledged her life to me in a way I’m not sure I’ll be able to match. I’m not as patient or selfless and I’m not sure I have as much time, but I will do the best I can, just as she did the best she could. I plan to give you all I have without losing myself.
I think that’s all we can ever really ask of our mothers.
I love you Mom.
I love you Loch.
May God bless you both.
P.S. Here are some songs that make me think of my Mommy:
P.P.S. If you’re feeling sentimental you should also check out the new “Thank you Mom” campaign from P&G. It’s a tear jerker but I like tear jerkers.