Crude Observations

What Do You Want?

There’s a joke in our house that revolves around that statement. It comes from my mom. It happened about 12 years ago. I called her on either her birthday or Mother’s Day – pretty sure it was Mother’s Day. Of all things. The nerve, right? I can’t remember who it was who answered – my dad or her. All I know is when she got on the line and heard my voice that’s what she said. A comment that will live in infamy. What did I want? Well, to say happy mother’s day for one. To say I was thinking of her. Fulfilling my job as a dutiful son.


Let’s be clear, it wasn’t that she didn’t like hearing from me. Because she most assuredly did. It’s more that even in her late seventies she led a busy life and was probably headed out the door to pursue one of the many activities that filled her days in retirement and this call, while appreciated, was an unnecessary distraction.


What do you want?


It’s Mother’s Day this weekend, so of course I am thinking about her. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to call because sadly my mother passed away just over a month ago, aged 90, with my dad and sister by her side.


We wrote a family obituary,, but if you are a follower of this blog, you know that I sometimes write in “random walk” style to work things out and as we all know, putting words to paper can be cathartic and also part of the grieving process. So, I ask that you indulge me in this particular journey.


Lots of people say they had a complicated relationship with their mother.


I didn’t.


She was my mom and she was awesome. She was a rock for me when I needed one and a hammer when I deserved one.


Growing up I never really thought about “parents” and what they meant and did for their kids. Now I have kids of my own I realize and empathize with the struggle to impart values and ethics and all the positive characteristics that you want your children to have. No one is infallible, I have learned this lesson on my own, and not all efforts succeed but to not acknowledge the impact and influence a parent wields is to deny reality.


While both of my parents have obviously had a hand in creating the “thing” I am today, the matter at hand is my mother and I’ve been thinking of the character traits she had that I share or the things she did that influence my world view and personal approach to life. And there are quite a few. Some a stretch, some a bit tongue-in-cheek, but all things that shaped who she was and thus me.


Smart and Well-Read – well let’s start with the obvious overlapping character trait first. My mom was one of the smartest people around and a voracious reader and I’ll be darned if she wasn’t going to make sure I came along for the ride. When she wasn’t attending night school learning how to be a teacher, she was practicing teaching by showing me how to use my brain. Reading to me at bedtime classic children’s stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, Watership Down, the Hobbit and similar novels (ahem – sound familiar kids?), instilling a love of literature and reading and creative story-telling that continues to this day.


I would say there is a straight line from my mother reading four year-old me a passage about Achilles killing Hector outside the walls of Troy and dragging his bloody body around the walls behind his chariot and my rant a few weeks ago about capital gains inclusion rates.


All kidding aside, there was little to no fooling my mom. She intuited a lot. What she didn’t know, she sought out knowledge on and learned. And she made sure her kids shared that passion from an early age. There was no shortage of literature – fact, fiction, modern, classical – in our house.


Moral – I have a moral compass. I mean we all do, but I’ve got a pretty evolved sense of right and wrong. Where did it come from? I mean aside from Homer? It came from my parents. My mom. Sure, they and her could be super judgemental at times. But who isn’t? But about what? Idiots. Assholes. Everyone else? Live and let live.


Progressive – While I may hew to the fiscally conservative side of the ledger what with my career choices and all, I can safely say I would be considered socially progressive if that whole paradigm actually existed. Part of this is my mother making sure I thought for myself about things and used that “moral compass” to make sound judgement. Part of it was of course environmental – public school in Montreal will do that to you. But she was a teacher. Part of a union. Well-travelled. Multi-ethnic and dual-religion family. Well-read. Educated. Married to an advertising guy. Living in La Belle Province during stupid times v 1.3. Voting during the real Trudeau-mania years when being a member and supporter of the Liberal party meant more than trite cliches. Teaching in a multi-cultural, melting pot public school starting in the 1970’s. A woman with a habit of kicking open doors for herself and fiercely independent. Is there any doubt where her politics were going to land?


Teacher – there is no denying this. It was her calling. From going back to school to get her teaching degree to the crazy variety of courses she taught she put that “Get Carter” guy to shame. Starting as a “female” teacher she was handed “typing” but then a funny thing happened called computers and suddenly that typing teacher was doing computer science. And she was a queen of the school. And respected. And feared (rightfully). I had occasion to substitute teach at her school on a number of occasions (labour laws used to be looser😎) and when I would say to the assembled hyenas that I was “Mrs Parnell’s” kid a silence would envelop the room and you could feel the undercurrent of respect and/or fear. She was all that and a bag of chips in that building. I went to a different school but had teachers like that. You knew. They cared about you but weren’t about to take crap from anyone. It was complicated. In a teaching career that spanned decades, she had occasion to influence and shape the minds of 100’s of high school students. And she remembered them. More importantly, they remembered her. It is gratifying to know that an entire generation of citizens of Montreal had the benefit of being taught by Mrs. Parnell. It was not an unusual occurrence to be stopped at a grocery store with her by some random adult saying “Hi Mrs. Parnell” or to be watching a random movie, TV show or news report and hear my mom say “I taught them.”


Athlete – my mom never struck me as someone physically gifted. That athleticism always seemed to exist on my dad’s side (Olympic athletes and all) but my mom was totally into keeping herself fit. Going for regular walks. Golfing. Taichi. Badminton. Bowling. Curling. She did it all. But her passion was tennis. She was in a club. She played regularly. With anyone who would. And let’s not kid ourselves. My mom was 5’2” on a good day. Steffi Graf she wasn’t. But she held her own. And then some. The best compliment I ever heard came from someone I knew who played tennis with/against her. They called her “the human backboard”. Not a dominant serve. Not a backhand. Just the person you can’t get the ball past. Workmanlike. Relentless. Successful. I don’t know what she would have been like at Pickleball. Militant perhaps. Annoyed like hell by the noise. But probably a 5-star recruit to one of those competitive pickle-ball factory senior complexes in Florida.


Pioneering – my mom was born to a crazy Lebanese/Syrian fur trapper who decided to settle in Fort Rae in the NWT of all things after emigrating to North America from Syria/Lebanon in the early 20th century. Do you have any idea how far that is? I do. It’s 8,998 kilometres. And how remote the territories were then? My mother’s middle name is a lake near where she was born – you still need a helicopter or an ice road to access parts of it. And what was my grandmother thinking? Raising not one, but three kids. In the literal middle of nowhere. The stoic Scottish lady profile in courage can only go so far. The apocryphal stories are many. Who knows how many are true. I don’t actually care. What we do know is that Alec Yasseen (Hassan) Darwish emigrated from the Middle East to ultimately a spot in the NWT where the mounties didn’t even go. And the family myth is that Flo Parnell was the first non-native baby born in her town. In a one-bedroom wooden shack where the diapers/nappies froze to the wall while her dad went trapping. Is it all true? Who cares! It’s awesome. And it’s 100% true. What an amazing early life, even though they ultimately moved south to a much more civilized (and populated) Edmonton. I moved from Montreal (where I was born, a mere half a kilometre from Trudeau’s house) to Calgary – so it’s almost the same.


Adventurous and Independent – Not content with her post-secondary prospects in Edmonton, my mother wanted to strike out on her own, so in the late 1950s she moved to Los Angeles and ended up working at MGM Studios as a receptionist/secretary, which came with its own set of awesome stories. When we were going through some paperwork last month, I came across a letter of recommendation written by the Vice-President of Procurement and Human Resources at MGM proclaiming her an excellent worker and that he wouldn’t hesitate to hire her again.


Wordly and Well-Travelled – After her adventures in Los Angeles, she packed up with a group of friends and headed to Europe to see what could be seen there. While there she and her friends bought a London taxi, named it and drove it around Europe. How cool is that? Oh, and while there she met some dude from North Vancouver that she ended up marrying.


Interested in Her Heritage – My mother was always interested in further exploring and learning about her heritage. Whether it was excelling in the preparation of Lebanese food or back-tracing her father’s journey to Canada, or learning about where her mother’s family came from, she was certainly immensely proud of her heritage. In the mid-1970’s we were able to travel as a family to Europe and tacked on a pilgrimage to the teeny tiny town of Baaloul in Lebanon to meet our extended family which I’m sure was a highlight for her, in hindsight a big one for us kids. Some fifty years later, a friend gifted me a bottle of wine from a vineyard in the immediate area, apparently one of the oldest continuously operating vineyards in the world. I would have liked to share it with her – I know she would have enjoyed that.


Parent – While going to school, moving, working she managed to raise two kids. Both of moderately well adjusted. Seems modest but an accomplishment. Seriously. One is known as the “favourite”, the other is my sister 😊. Just kidding. Although it is the inside family joke. People say that. It’s not true. Most challenging for sure. For the longest time, my sister had her shit together and I was a work in progress. By the time I got my poop in a group, my sister still had her shit together and my mom could finally rest easy, although I feel there was always a tinge of disappointment that I chose the lure of filthy lucre and capitalism over the rags to rags life of a starving bohemian auteur and philosopher. What she may have missed was that she had instilled in me a ferocious desire to achieve a prosperous and secure life for my family first and foremost and that whatever artistic release I need actually comes through this weird weekly blog that I write.


Up – my mom had the best Afro. In the inimitable words of my oldest child – “gramma’s hair grows “up””! Like I said earlier, my mom struggled to be 5’2”. Unless you included the hair. But she stood tall.


Compassionate – she lived through her share of tragedy. It happens when you outlive most of your friends and family. But she was always there for friends and family members in times of distress. I like to think I share this, but only time will tell if I pass that test.


Stubborn – I think tenacious might be the better word. She always wanted to see things through to the end and didn’t give up on family or friends when things got tough, instead she would knuckle down and get through to the other side. Nothing exemplified this more than getting her teaching degree at night school while dealing with a toddler like me at home.


Lover of the arts – Clearly with the promotion of Greek and other literature described above, my mom was a patron of the written word, but she was also an avid theatre-goer and fan/supporter of visual and performing arts. Having my artist father and his cabal of desginers, visual artists and painters around certainly rounded out the visual side. On the performing side, as a young punk I had the occasion to attend Montreal’s Centaur Theatre with the family on a subscription pass that allowed me to see dozens of incredible live shows. This love of theatre has stayed with me through my life, and I am blessed to be able to continue to participate in the theatre and performing world through my kids and my own newly entered into board participation here in Calgary. There was a love of music there as well. An early concert memory was going to see Bob Dylan as a family. We sat behind the stage and there was lots of pot. This is the limitation of my memory.


Generous – she was always available for friends or family in times of need. Whether it was emotional or financial support, she was there. After she retired she volunteered at the Children’s Hospital.


Terrible Singer – this is more a genetic family thing. We are all terrible singers. Hey, it happens.


Stu’s Biggest Fan – No, not that sibling favouritism thing again. When I was in high school, I played the saxophone. I was in the concert band, the music programme and the stage band. She not only encouraged me to do this, even though playing music was not her jam, she drove me to private lessons, attended all the concerts, allowed me to disappear to music camp for weeks at a time in the summer and fund-raised so that I could go to the United Kingdom with the band and on other trips. Look, I was good, but I will be the first to admit I was far from great. But you wouldn’t know it from asking her. She was always encouraging and a number of years ago even gave me a saxophone repair kit to get my tenor back into game shape and restart my “paused” musical career that she was sure I would have been successful at. I still have the saxophone my parents bought me and spent a small fortune recently to tune it up. As a result, I have been threatening to take lessons. I feel like maybe, having written all the preceding, I finally should. Surely there is a senior’s band in Calgary that’ll let me quietly play in the background as second or third tenor.


Clearly I could go on, but…


There is one story that encapsulates the Stuart and Florence story to a tee. It happened when I was in my late teens. A period of time when I was not at what could be charitably called “my best”.


It was late summer as I recall and I had been casually using the family car to truck around the city and get myself to and from rugby games and the occasional job that I couldn’t keep up with (I did get let go from a few). Like all kids of that age, I was immensely self-involved and equal parts irresponsible and broke. So in no time at all, I had managed to rack up quite the portfolio. Of parking tickets. Not stocks.


There were a lot of them. All on my mom’s license plate. I think it’s important to point out that back in the medieval times when I grew up, there was no “online” registry of tickets. No sirree. Instead the tickets just added up and added up until they got to a amount and vintage where the city couldn’t wait any longer and handed them over to the “bailiffs” or bill collectors who were for the most part the biggest badasses in the city and they would come to your house to shake you down and PAY YOUR DAMN TICKETS.


So here I am, oblivious Bob, coming home one afternoon from the rugby pitch, likely having stopped at the tavern on the way for a beer with the team – because, well, rugby – coming down the street happy as a clam on a set of crutches (hence not driving). Not a care in the world.


But I must have sensed something, because as I got closer, it seemed that a dark cloud was surrounding the house and it was way worse than the time my dad found my cigarillos under the front porch, or my bag of weed that I hid in the floorboards (honestly, I was holding it for someone else!).


You guessed it. It was the bailiffs. Oh shit.


They had visited my house and informed my mom that she owed a massive amount of money for parking tickets and that unless she paid, they would take her car or throw her in debtor’s jail. Or something like that. The dark cloud I sensed was pure, unadulterated rage. Clearly, and 100% earned, directed at irresponsible me. I don’t know that I have ever seen my mother so mad. It was the only time she ever spanked me – her rage so complete that she was for once at a loss for words and got so flustered that she ended up swatting me on the tuckus, an act so absurd given our relative sizes that it almost immediately broke the mood. Oh, I was still in the deepest pile of shit imaginable and it took time to repair damages but it was yet another teaching moment, for completely humiliated me at least.


Because she took care of it. She took care of me. Absorbed the hit and embarrassment herself, sheltered me from the worst (yay – I didn’t go to jail!), then made sure that the punishment fit the crime and that the guilty party knew rehabilitation was not only possible, but expected.


I’m sure she remembered it differently, and I got the details mixed up, but that is how I remember it. (And I would have paid good money to see her stare down the jackbooted thugs from the gendarmerie)


At any rate, a perfect microcosm of what my mom was about. Fierce defence of her kid. Generosity and protective in making sure I didn’t go to jail. Furious that I had been so gob-smackingly stupid in getting myself (well, really her) into such a situation. Eager and ruthlessly capable in delivering both the life-lesson and the punishment. And ultimately a willing participant in the humour of the entire situation. At the end of all this and some time later – forgiveness. If I can accomplish that in my life, with my kids, I’ll be happy.


I never revisited that particular episode with her, mostly for self-preservation, but also I missed the chance when I was finally brave enough to have those conversations!


When the mental decline started with my mom it was gradual. Things changed. Short term memory wasn’t what it was. She was still the same smart and gregarious person, but it was clear what path she was on. When you don’t live in the same city and see people nowhere near enough each visit was revelatory in its own way. Eventually it was about the memories and the stories.


Inevitably, it got worse. At some point she wasn’t sure who I was. For a time, she was really good at faking it. Then there was no faking it. I didn’t live there. I can’t pretend to know what it was like day to day. The courage and compassion of my family caring for her amazes me. The dedication of my dad to his wife and partner of 60+ years is what I aspire to. No matter what history they had – good or bad, he was there. He was her partner first and care-giver second. When they moved to Toronto post-COVID to be near my sister, it was a relief for everyone, although certainly more work for my sister and her crew.


I still flew out as regularly as I could, never enough.


During those visits, she knew what I was even if she wasn’t sure who.


In brief private chats, she would confide in me. Nothing serious, but I liked the connection. One thing I got regular compliments on was that she liked my haircut – it was neat and tidy – and she also liked this ratty fake suede jacket that I wear in the spring. So, I always made sure I had a haircut and wore that ratty jacket when I visited. Apparently, I was also “one of the nice ones”. What did that mean – clearly the whole bailiff episode was now water under the bridge. She told me stories. Some of them were real. Some were variations. When she engaged it was great. When she disengaged and got mad and yelled, it hurt, but I understood it wasn’t directed at me. This remarkable woman was fighting to remember herself.


Sometime around mid-March, I had a feeling that the end was near. I had visited at the end of January and the regular updates my dad and sister would share weren’t encouraging. The physical decline had caught up to the mental decline. My regular visit was planned for end of April. Clearly, I needed to go earlier.


My mom had always said she liked me with a beard (to be honest, she’s literally the only person I know who liked me with a beard) so I had some weeks earlier stopped shaving in anticipation of my visit. The day before I was supposed to leave on my rescheduled flight, I got a quick haircut. I wanted to make sure that she got to see a hairy-faced Stu with a fresh lid.


Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. She passed that afternoon.


Just over a month later, I still have the beard. It’s time has passed. I can always grow it back.


What Do I want?


Not hard to guess.

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