Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for June 2010


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I really don’t look like my mother. Indeed, I look more like my father’s sister than the Irish side of the family. But I swear I see my mother in the mirror out of the corner of my eye.

Actually, that’s a good thing. Thinking I am her in so many gestures and even beliefs makes me treasure her memory more. For all of the difficulties that naturally arise between mother and daughter and all the selfish, whiny books such relationships have spawned, our mother has left a storehouse of wonderful memories for all three of her children.

I know my relationship with my mother was vastly different than my sister’s with the same woman. My sister lives, I believe, much freer of Mother’s influence and much freer of any need for validation from her. In a way, I envy that. I truly wish I didn’t care: didn’t care what Mother thought, didn’t care what anyone thought, other that my own inner compass. And now, I care too much what my sister thinks. Of all the women in the world, she is the most dear to me and what she thinks matters. Maybe that’s more a reflection of me than her — having grown up wanting to see myself reflected back in the eyes of my mother, here I am at 65 still needing validation.

“For all of us raised in the current style of Western family life, the relationship with mother birthed us physically and emotionally, gave us our first experiences with love and need, disappointment and hurt,” write Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach in Between Women: Love Envy and Competition in Women’s Friendships.

That emotional relationship with our mother, its legacy, “is etched in the deepest recesses of our hearts. It is the guide and foundation for our future relationship. It sets up needs, ways of being, ways of loving, expectations and hopes.”

Then there’s the adage that counsels prospective husbands to look to their lover’s mother to see what the future holds. And while that advice is clearly meant as a warning, there’s much truth in the thought. William Shakespeare said it better, though in his third sonnet: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/ Calls back the lovely April of her prime.”

That mirror of our mother colours all of our relationships. Write Eichenbaum and Orbach: “The social context of the mother-daughter relationship is an important key to explaining not only the bittersweet nature of that relationship but its impact on adult women’s relationship. As we understand what could and could not happen for our mothers in their lifetime, as we understand what could and could not happen in our relationships with our mothers, we can begin to understand the forces operating in our current women-to-women relationships.”

I can already hear my mother’s snort of dismissal. Peggy Ford wasn’t much given to self-examination or reflection. For her, what was past is done and gone, what matters is only what’s in front of you in life. In a way, this too, is admirable. Maybe not exactly in the way that the 5th Century BCE philosopher Socrates believed —the unexamined life not being worth living — but the ability to lay the past to rest and move on. If my mother ever had regrets about the choices she made, they were rarely spoken.

I remember only two: her musing one day that she had wanted to be a doctor but there was no money in rural Ireland in the late 1930s for higher education, so she became a nurse instead and, much later, her chagrin that while she was the family “banker” and bill payer, her husband wouldn’t let her gamble on the real estate market.

There were many things to admire about Mother, but maybe the best was her absolute unflappability in a crisis. As my brother said at her funeral, she was the one person you’d want around in any crisis.

When my parents and our across-the-street neighbours went out one night in Edmonton to a formal ball and some deranged nutbar tried to commit suicide by throwing himself out of the window onto the sidewalk, the neighbor who was a surgeon and my mother, the wartime nurse, dashed outside to render medical assistance. She could have been in a hospital emergency ward rather than kneeling on a downtown sidewalk in a formal gown, blood everywhere, she was that cool.

Few diets ever focus on the mother-daughter relationship, ignoring the fact that how our mothers looked at food and their relationship with their own bodies and all the issues surrounding that is a psychological key to our own success.

In an recent issue of Women’s Health magazine, one of the cover “teasers” was the question: Will You Inherit Your Mother’s Body? The writer, Margaret Renkl, quotes Leann L, Birch, a professor of human development at Penn State University, who “has discovered that your mother’s attitude toward food has a powerful impact on the one you develop yourself.”

As for developing my mother’s body, the magazine offers the thought that you can’t “override a genetic disposition,” but you can fight like hell against it. I suspect, along with the writer, that in the end, nature wins against nurture.

After all, more than half a year, more than half-way through this campaign, I still don’t have a waist. Although I have managed — usually — to overcome the habit of wearing loose-fitting clothing, although I’m not quite at the point of tucking in each and every shirt

That, I know, I inherited from my mother who wasn’t ever fat, but dressed to disguise her impressive bosom which attracted way too much attention that she didn’t want.

I take heart from a silly and very funny book my sister received on her 60th birthday: Laugh Lines Are Beautiful and Other Age-Defying Truths, written by Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant. My favourite? “It’s stupid to hold in your stomach and your opinions for anyone.”

In second place: “It is possible to be too thin, too tan and too bitchy.”

But the most telling quote from the book is this one: “You’re only half as old as your mother was at your age.”

There are many reasons for this, including better childhood health and better available nutrition.

And adding to all that is he simple fact that come next year, the first Baby Boomers become senior citizens, turning 65. Grey power, indeed. From 2011 until 2029, millions of them will use their numerical power to rewrite what old age means.

I can’t wait.

NEXT: How I failed retirement


Written by Catherine Ford

June 29, 2010 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized


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If spring doesn’t arrive, do you still have to do spring cleaning?

Anyone knowing the mechanics of our household has just snorted at that sentence. The reason is simple: The indefatigable Brigitte does all that stuff for us, including the windows, and we are grateful for her presence once a week. When she occasionally talks about retirement, I have to lie down with a cold compress on my forehead, hoping this is just a passing fancy. I don’t, in fact, know what we’d do without her.

She’s been with me so long that she predates Ted who nervously laughs when I suggest should anything go amiss, he’d be easier to replace than her. And there isn’t a woman in the world who wouldn’t agree with me. Indeed, what every working woman needs is a wife. Husbands are a wonderful necessity, a blessing on cold-feet nights, a companion with whom to play bridge, share music, films and taste in art and, most importantly, a lover who needs no additional pampering or sweet talk. The best husbands also know instinctively whose turn it is to be the lover and whose turn it is to be loved.

But having a wife – that 1950s paragon of cooking. cleaning and homemaking; that deliverer of hot meals and cold drinks; the travel-planner, picnic organizer, shirt-ironer, laundry folder, volunteer worker, soother of fears and champion of dreams – that’s what we all need.

Instead, most women get to work full time outside the house and then go home and do all the above with little extra credit or comfort from their friends, peers and coworkers.

And while most women can keep it all together, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the level of neatness and cleanliness they demand of themselves, every year spring rolls around and despite having full days, that urge to toss the house takes over. Brigitte does our windows and blinds, but she can’t clean out the closets and cupboards.

I knew spring had finally arrived when Brenda, the woman who does my nails announced that she had spent the previous weekend at her widowed father’s condo, washing the walls and cleaning up a storm.

There is something atavistic about spring cleaning, some urge buried in history and some calling of tribe. Most springs I can resist, but on the days that the primal urge strikes, beware. I’ll start to look for something in the downstairs freezer and before sanity retunes, I’ve defrosted both freezers, cleaned the extra refrigerator, done four loads of extra laundry and collected enough items for the Women In Need Society in Calgary and the Victory Thrift Store in Canmore that I’ll have to rent a van to deliver everything.

Such are the callings of spring. And now that it has finally arrived i.e. there’s no snow in the forecast, I think I can resist the need to clean by sitting on the deck in the mountains and watching the poplar fluff drive ordinarily sane people into hay fever madness.

The entire half-acre is buried under a profusion of yellow dandelions and the parts of the ground that aren’t covered in these noxious rabbits of the vegetative world (they breed and spread like their animal counterparts) are covered in a carpet of truly vile Scotch thistle. That some books refer to this as the Canada thistle is nothing less than a case of misappropriation. Canada has beavers, moose and Mounties. The nasty stuff is all imported — Budweiser, barking-made right-wing loonies and the thistle. The thistle’s place is rightfully under a sodden layer of poisonous herbicide, about where one would put piss-thin American beer, right-wing loonies like Ann Coulter and all the other noxious imports.

Having just sprayed the weeds in the driveway with Killex, one would think that an application would send the thistle to its just rewards in weed heaven. Alas, there’s not enough killer herbicide for a half-acre and I’d like to keep the trees, the wild roses and clematis and the single, gorgeous wood lily that blooms in the backyard each summer. To do so means living with the thistle.

Yeh, yeh, the thistle has a glorious purple bloom and the dandelion has pretty yellow flowers that little girls make into daisy chains and bracelets, but I regard both with the suspicion born of knowing exactly what these weeds are capable of: they can overrun and kill and dry-drown any attempt to grow wildflowers or perennials in what is charitably referred to as dirt around the mountain house. “Dirt” in fact is a misnomer There is no dirt. We are situated between Heart Mountain and the Bow River and what passes for soil is rocky river bottom. The only vegetation that survives is stuff that is too stubborn and hardy to kill — aka dandelions and thistles.

I remain stunned each spring that the lilac bush planted seven years ago still manages to maintain a roothold.

Ideally, it would have been planted in the giant bag of soil purchased especially for it at the nursery along with the rooted lilac cutting. When I couldn’t get a spade into the ground, and sought young male help, I made the mistake of leaving briefly to drive into town for groceries while the planting was taking place. By the time I returned, the baby bush was in the ground. The bag of expensive potting ssoil that was intended to be put into the hole dug in the hard-as-rock ground, into which the lilac would be cradled like a newborn, was still sitting, unopened at the bottom of the stairs.

Clearly, my pleading to “plant the lilac in the dirt” lacked a certain clarity of instruction while maintaining an efficiency of words.

Yet is survives. And produces at least one fragrant mauve bloom each year. The lilac grows maybe an inch each year, but grow it does.

On the other hand, the wildflowers and perennials — all of which were planted in yet-more expensive nursery soil — have long since vanished under the onslaught of their hardier neighbours, something like what happens to a community when the grow-ops and bikers move in.

Escaping briefly to the mountains led me to foolishly believe I could escape the pressures of spring cleaning.

While nobody around me is beating rugs out of doors, or washing their decks, clearly Debra-Lynn Hook knows exactly what happens each year. She wrote in The Orange County Register: “I know when the snow melts and the first robins come to call, when the spring peepers begin to sing from their mud puddles and the laughter of children returns to the parks and playgrounds, something wonderful is about to happen. Spring cleaning.”

Hook wrote that in the middle of March. Around here in the middle of March, we were still buried under snow. The stupid city robins who make more of a mess on the back sidewalk than they achieve results in their nest-building haven’t returned by then. Nothing peeps above the ground. Being this much more northern than California means our spring cleaning urge doesn’t hit until May, although this year, thanks to a miserable stretch of rain, snow and cold, spring seemed to be permanently on hold.

“Your Spring is important to us. Please stay on the line for the first available harbinger of Spring.”

I believed myself immune to tribal, feminine urges. At least I thought I was until just moments ago, while looking at the keyboard of my laptop and noticing fingermarks and sundry stains from usage, I got up, fetched a damp cloth and the Fantastik, cleaned off the keyboard, the outside case of the laptop, the makeshift desk (upturned log and piece of tile) I’d set up on the deck, the outdoor table, a couple of the chairs, the outside thermometer and — just to prove I’m impervious to all the pressures of spring cleaning — wiped down the outside of the back door.

What Ted doesn’t realize (he’s sitting on the deck with me and his stirred-not-shaken, straight-up- with-olives martini) is that full pressure of spring has hit and tomorrow, out comes the pressure washer in order to clean the wintertime detritus from the outside of our log house.

As Hook writes: “Spring cleaning can’t wait. It is but a fleeting urge, caught in the crosshairs between the dark of winter and the mania of spring.”

It has something to do with the level of melatonin in ones body, the tribal rites of various cultures to clean the house from top to bottom before some momentous religious holiday, and the need to brush away and air out the last signs of winter.

Besides, I tell myself that spring cleaning is great exercise.

NEXT: Am I really turning into my mother ?

Written by Catherine Ford

June 14, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Posted in Uncategorized