Those who love you are not fooled by mistakes you have made or dark images you hold onto about yourself. They remember your beauty when you feel ugly, your wholeness when you are broken; your innocence when you feel guilt; and your purpose when you are confused.” – Alan Cohen.
Today (January 7th, 2014) would have been my mom’s 83rd birthday. I suppose it’s no accident that it falls on the first day I have been at Rooster to write in over a month. So much of what I’ve been working through over the past few weeks has to do with my complicated relationship with her and it feels like a natural part of the healing process (as well as a fitting tribute) to write about her today. I’m not sure what’s going to come up here, but I took a moment to look at her photo and ask her permission to write authentically. Her answer was “Of course, my darling.”
Let me start by saying that my mom was a truly fascinating and inspiring woman. To help you understand her a bit better, I’d like to give you some background. My mom was adopted at birth in 1931 by Ethel “Scotty” (Burnell) Fraser, a burlesque dancer, in Quebec City and was given the name Patricia Burnell Fraser. Ethel had been married briefly to Ralph Fraser but they were estranged so he was never in the picture.
My mom’s biological parents were Edna, a 16 year old runaway from somewhere in New York State who was in the burlesque troupe with Ethel, and Jean-Louis Amyot, a young, catholic, french-canadian, aristocrat who was in line to inherit the very well-known family business. From what I understand, Edna and Jean-Louis had a tryst and may have been in love, but there was no room for any kind of scandal, not to mention a “bastard” child. Desperately wanting to return home but fearing that she would be disowned if she showed up pregnant, Edna tried repeatedly to abort the baby by various means, including jumping off the back of a motorcycle on a dirt road. When Ethel learned of Edna’s plight, she offered to take her in for the remainder of her pregnancy and adopt the child herself. Edna agreed and, shortly after my mother was born, she returned to her family in New York State. My mother never saw her again except in a photograph.
Even though her life had been spared, growing up with Ethel was no picnic for my mother. Ethel was also a “bastard” child, born in Scotland, who’s biological father was said to be a descendant of the “Black Douglas” clan. Ethel’s mother, Annie, had been excommunicated after Ethel was born and fled from Scotland to Canada hoping to find work so she could, some day, send for Ethel. Ethel was left in the care of a family member who kept her locked in a closet for most of her time there. Ethel was shamed, abused and terrorized for the first eight years of her life until Annie was finally able to send for her. At only eight years old, Ethel made the voyage across the Atlantic, by boat, alone.
Ethel was a feisty young girl. She was angry and blamed her mother for having left her behind and so, only a few years after she was reunited with Annie, she ran away to join the circus and eventually started doing burlesque. Ethel had, indeed, lived a troubled life and although she could be quite narcissistic she was also a smart, talented, funny, kind and classy woman with impeccable taste. I can’t comment specifically on what led to her decision to adopt my mother, but I do know that she was not prepared at all for motherhood. Thankfully, she enlisted the help of her own mother, Annie, who moved in and was able shower my mother with the love and nurturing that she was never able to give Ethel. By this time, they were living in Montreal and my mom always described Annie as having been the bright spot throughout her childhood. Ethel, on the other hand, was always self-centered and suicidal and made several unsuccessful attempts to kill herself throughout my mother’s life. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my mother to grow up in that environment. It’s a miracle that she was able to create the life that she did. I’m sure, if she were here, she would give most of the credit to her “Granny Annie”. I never knew Granny because she died a month after I was born, but I have always felt that she is one of my guardian angels. Ethel, however, was a big part of my life while she was alive. I knew her as “Nana” and, even though she was incredibly generous and clearly loved my mother and I very much, It was obvious to me, even at an early age, that she battled many demons.
Tragically, Ethel finally succeeded in ending her life when I was 12.
With Annie’s help, my mom’s childhood (between Ethel’s suicide attempts) was as stable as was possible, under the circumstances. Ethel had a wonderful man in her life, a dentist named Irving Kruger. Irving had never been married and he and Ethel had a love affair that began around the time my mother was born. Unfortunately, they could never make a life together because Irving was Jewish and Ethel was, well… Ethel… But he was a permanent fixture in their lives and in my life as a child. I called him “Koogie” because I couldn’t pronounce “Dr. Kruger”. He had a beautiful singing voice and we used to sing together about everything…holidays, trips, meals…but my most favorite was when we sang “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”.
Not surprisingly, (from a therapist’s standpoint) at 14, my mom met an orthodox Jewish boy named Reuben Rosensweig and they fell madly in love. For years, they were inseparable and eventually wanted to marry but, for obvious reasons, that was forbidden unless my mother agreed to covert to Judaism. She did, changed her name to Ruth and they were married in 1952 when my mom was 21 years old. They kept a traditional Jewish home, my mom was on a career path as a secretary and things looked good. That is, until she visited Toronto. For whatever reasons, and I’m sure they were complicated, my mom decided that she wanted to leave Reuben and move to Toronto. Reuben agreed to provide the necessary “evidence” the court needed to grant the divorce and they went their separate ways.
In 1955, Pat Fraser moved to Toronto. She established herself, had many lovers (and a few abortions) and opened Toronto’s first dating service called “June Adams, Club 501” which was very controversial at the time. She was labelled a “madame”, and the newspapers would not publish her ads. “Toronto the Good” was “too good” for Pat Fraser. But, she managed to spin the publicity in her favor and went on to become a very successful business woman. When my biological father, Walter Richards, came along, she was the woman every man wanted. She was beautiful, sexual, charming and enigmatic. She had recently ended a pregnancy with one man’s child and was traveling around the world with another, while my father was sending her telegrams asking her to meet him in Chicago to get married. I’ve never actually strung those events together in quite that way, but that was my mother, in a nutshell.
As you might have expected, my mother did agree to meet Walter in Chicago and they were married on March 28, 1961. I was conceived on their honeymoon. Within a year, Walter had left and my mom had started a relationship with Jules Fine, whom I came to call “Daddy”. This is the man who raised me, even though he and my mom were never married because my mom was still not divorced from Walter (she couldn’t find him). We lived together as a family but I never met any of Jules’ “real” family until I became an adult because… wait for it… Jules was Jewish and my mother was considered to be a “shiksa, even though she had converted. On top of that, she was also a married woman with a kid. So, they lived “in sin” and I was, more or less, a secret from his family. At one point, my mom became pregnant with Jules’ baby but it was terminated because Jules did not want me to have a “bastard” brother or sister. There’s that word again. There’s that theme again.
But, I have to say, in my memory, those were the “good ‘ol days” and when I think back to those times I remember how much my mom and I loved each other and how we were a “team”, right down to the matching mother-daughter dresses she bought us. Even though she ran her own business and had many other interests, I still felt like the centre of her world. She was very involved in my life and my school and she encouraged my creativity as well as any other pursuits I might have had. She was extremely open-minded and I could tell her absolutely anything. There was no topic that was off-limits. She modeled success, determination, fun, compassion, generosity and there wasn’t a judgmental bone in her body. One of her mantras was “There, but for the grace of god, go I”. She had an unbelievable “joie de vivre” and I adored her.
I also adored my dad. He was an incredibly intelligent and worldly man and one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He owned a very prestigious restaurant in Toronto called “Julie’s Mansion” and he was a bit of a local celebrity. I grew up as the “princess” of the mansion with LOTS of attention, eating world-class cuisine and meeting many famous people who would often come there to dine. It was the mid sixties and, with my mom’s influence and interests, we lived a pretty bohemian lifestyle. My mom loved to entertain and our house was always filled with interesting people of all kinds, nationalities and colours…actors, artists, evangelists, musicians, gay, straight… and we celebrated holidays of all faiths. In fact, our family wasn’t just me, my mom and dad… there were also two “uncles”, Billy and Pierre, fiends of my mom who ended up living with us for several years because that was this kind of person my mother was. She took everybody in.
Eventually, my mom’s relationship with Jules ended but Jules remained in my life, as my dad, until his death in 1997. (There was a “blip” when I was between the ages of 10-15 when Jules’ new wife, Francesca, would not let me anywhere near him or his new biological daughter, but that’s another story for another day).
After that, things began to decline. Fast forward a few years and a few more boyfriends later to when my mom met Bill Markham. Bill was 18 years younger than my mom and had just been released from prison. It was love at first sight. She described him as a “wounded soul”, like her mother (aka her “kryptonite”). She met him at a party, along with his “prison pal” Wilfred and the next thing I knew they were both living with us. As it turned out, Bill was an alcoholic, paranoid-schizophrenic and gun-obsessed and Wilfred was a pedophile. While living with us, Wilfred had been “grooming” me for some time. Eventually, my mom went away on holiday and left me in their care which gave Wilfred the opportunity to molest me. Unfortunately, this was not the first or only time my mom would use poor judgment where my safety and care were concerned but it was the one that changed me.
When my mom came home, I told her what had happened and Wilfred was confronted and exiled. He’s lucky Bill didn’t kill him. Who knows? Maybe he did. We never spoke of it again.
Shortly thereafter, my mom was injured when she tripped while running to kiss Pierre Trudeau at City Hall. She had surgery for a herniated disc just before my 11th birthday and was hospitalized for several months afterward. When she returned home she was depressed, addicted to painkillers and could not run her business. Bill did his best to take care of me and keep the business going without her but eventually June Adams, Club 501 went bankrupt. Bill and I became close and I grew to love him as a brother (he was, after all, closer to my age than my mom’s). However, now that my mom was in a severe depression and unable to work or even function, the pressure of running the household took its toll on him. Over the next decade Bill’s addiction became more unmanageable, his illness became more apparent and life at home became pure chaos. My mom became a hermit, gained a tremendous amount of weight, developed other medical issues and I became the nurse, cook, cleaner, therapist and, eventually, even the breadwinner. The three of us were in a dysfunctional “lock-down” highlighted by Bill’s antics which included pointing a gun at my mom’s head; our apartment being raided by the S.W.A.T. team because someone had tipped them off that Bill had a bazooka under the bed (the tip was true); Bill falling out of the 10th floor balcony and surviving; His numerous trips to detox, rehab and jail; His trying to carve out his tattoos with a hunting knife; His losing part of his eye (I forget how)… I could go on, but those are the most memorable events. All this to say that that decade was a dark period for our family and I hated the shame of it. Yes, there were lots of good times. We were a “team” and we really loved and cared for each other but what I learned from those years was that it was my job to take care of everybody because it was literally life or death. The capable, nurturing mom I had known had disappeared and I had no choice but to hold us all together in order to survive. I so desperately needed her to be “fixed” and, since there was no “knight in shining armour” to come and help me or rescue me, I had to take it all on by myself. And I’ve been doing it in every other difficult situation in my life and for others ever since.
But here’s the thing…
One day, when I was 19, I had an opportunity to leave and I took it. I didn’t know if my mom would make it through without me but I left anyway. I chose “me”. As I said in my last post, “My Complicated Year of Self-Love”, I think I must have carried the guilt and shame of that decision and I’ve been trying to re-write the ending of that story ever since. And I’ve been stuck there.
But the truth is that there was a happy ending to that story. After I left, my mom got her life back! I don’t know how she did it or what the timeline was, exactly, but Bill moved out (maybe went to rehab or jail…I don’t remember) and she…somehow… found her strength and moved on. She lost all the weight she had gained, started going out again and even started a new business renting out my old bedroom for Bed & Breakfast. As a result, she met people from all over the world and made some deep, meaningful and lasting friendships. And, I think, she was pretty happy.
I also moved on… created a new “ideal” life, got married, had my kids, etc… but a big part of me was still stuck in the past. I was wounded, angry, resentful and ashamed. I was so busy trying to have a perfect life and “fix” everyone and everything that I completely missed the truth that the person who I had wanted so desperately to fix all along had “fixed” herself.
She didn’t need me to do it for her or even with her. It was never my responsibility. It was always within her power. And if she could do it then so could everyone else in my life. I don’t have to take on the weight of the world or fix everybody’s problems. I can “choose me” and not feel ashamed or guilty anymore.
HO-LY MOTHER-F*@#*%G SHIT
So, I’ll say this:
I’m not sure I would have been able to come to this awareness if I had not been so determined to excavate all of the buried shame and anger that has contributed to the patterns I have created in my life and I could not have done that had I not been paying attention to and deriving the insight and the lessons from all of my experiences over the past few weeks, months and years. It occurred to me that it’s the same as turning on your favorite TV show or a documentary you want to watch and then getting busy with your emails or your smartphone while you watch. How can you really appreciate what the show has to offer if you won’t commit to giving it your full attention? You’ll miss so many important details and subtle dots that you might be able to connect which could make the show that much more meaningful. It’s the same with life. We need to pay attention to the things we care about, even when they are hard to look at.
And I also noticed this:
For as long as I can remember, I have walked into my house or office and the first thing I notice is what’s “not right”… out of place, dirty, unfinished, etc… Yesterday, however, I realized that I haven’t been doing that over the past few days. Instead, I noticed the wonderful scent that the candles leave behind in my office and how cozy, eclectic and “workable” it is. At home, I walked through the door and smelled that my son had been cooking and instead of worrying about what mess he had left I was so happy that he was taking care of himself and getting to be such a good cook. I ran into the kitchen and gave him a big hug!
It’s like I’ve taken off the “what’s wrong” glasses and put on the “what’s right ones”.
You know how Tony Bennet says: “I left my Heart in San Francisco”? I think I left my Shame in San Antonio. And my sadness, too.
And, finally, everything really is starting to feel “alright”.