A Shot at Redemption

I wake to my mother’s black and white image every day. Her photo hangs over my dresser and she stares directly at me. Its one of those photos where the eyes follow you. My husband has never objected to the location of the photo or that her gaze is focused on our bed. Perhaps its because she is very beautiful and serene.

Judging from the hairstyle and clothes, the photo was probably taken around 1940. She looks like a big city gal which belies her rural Midwest roots. I wonder if it was taken while she lived in Chicago where she finally settled down after years trailing her Dad in the Dirty Thirties as he looked for work.

Propped in my bed with the dog snoring beside me, cozy in a nest of pillows and books, we loll in soft grey light. A squirrel skitters across the roof and I tense, hoping he doesn’t fall down the chimney as happened to one of his brethren on Boxing Day. As I hold my breath, I hear my mother’s voice.

“Leave her be, Mother.”

My Grandmother, who lived with us on and off through my adolescence, thought I was lazy and said so often, though seldom to my face.

“Why isn’t she up yet? She should be doing SOMETHING,” I heard her say through my bedroom door.

I don’t know what Grandma wanted me to do. Darn socks? Make applesauce? Pluck a chicken? Iron sheets? Peel potatoes? I hear her voice,  rigid Methodist, clearer than my mother’s. Funny how the negative sticks but the positive fades in my memory.

My mother would be 101 if she were still alive. Maybe confined to a bed. Maybe I’d crawl under the covers with her and read from one of her favourite books – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. She might say “How do you like being old?” I’d laugh and reply “How do you like being super-old?” Maybe her answer would be different than it was thirty years ago.

In my mid-thirties,  when she was in her early 70’s, she said to me “You won’t like getting old.” She’s right – I don’t, but its better than the alternative. I tell her photo “On the positive side, I didn’t start writing until I was 53, and if it weren’t for age I doubt I ever would have tried.

A knot of anxiety frequently wakes me up at 4:00 a.m. Until yesterday, I refused to name it. Frankly, I’m embarrassed to tell you because it is pathetically mundane, but here’s the truth: I fear dying. I fear my life has been wasted. I’m ashamed of some awful things I’ve done in my 61 years of life. In the words of Paul Simon –

I want a shot at redemption.
Don’t want to end up a cartoon
in a cartoon graveyard.*

I take a good look at my Mother who is taking a good look at me. With my notebook propped on a pillow, I scribble madly as she watches. I race the clock which, like my Grandma, urges me to get out of bed and do SOMETHING. Outside the wind picks up and the maple tree branches scrape the side of the house. My stomach rumbles. The dog needs his walk, there’s a chicken to pluck and time is running out.

“Relax,” Mom says. “Daydream. You can make applesauce anytime.”

*From You Can Call Me Al, music and lyrics by Paul Simon

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The ghost in the picture

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41 thoughts on “A Shot at Redemption

  1. I loved this, Susanne. I would agree with your Mum’s voice about daydreaming – and to my mind, lying in bed writing IS doing something!

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  2. Nicely done, Susanne. Of course redemption (rebirth) is one of the quintessential story plots, so you must indubitably be on the right track, though I seem to remember someone telling me not to beat myself up over trifles (big and small).

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  3. By coincidence, I found this post on the morning of my 72nd birthday, so I feel reasonably qualified ot comment on getting old. Physically, it sucks. Not much to add there. But emotionally? I love it. I wish I’d been this person at twenty, or–let’s compromise–at thirty. But it took me all that time to get here. All I can do is be grateful to have gotten here at all.

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  4. Ahhh, Susanne! ❤ I'm so glad you included the portrait! It gives such a powerful finish to your tale, deep and real and heartfelt. Makes me love you and your mom and your dog on your bed and life and everything. Oh, and I have angels in the architecture from this song with me all the time.

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    • You lucky person to live where angels live in the architecture, are sculpted on the architecture and where you can touch angels! Thanks for reading my post, MMM. That makes me happy.

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  5. I’m so glad you included the photo of your mother. I was imagining her, then there she was. Very striking. What is it about these days that death seems real? An actual possibility rather than a theory? The age we’ve achieved? I remember my dad telling me when he was 82 that he realized he was on the backside of life. I thought, Lord, God—how wonderful to just now realize that. I don’t’ know, but I appreciate yours sharing your fear of the end in this lovely piece.

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    • I just read another blog post (darned if I can remember who!) that talked about the options in life being a funnel as we get older. It gets narrower and narrower and as we tumble down we go faster and faster. Its that sense of time running out. We all hope we’re going to be fit and functional til the moment we keel over but the odds are not in our favour, actuarily speaking. Oh my. I need a funny book to read to get me out of this funk. I’ve already read yours, got any other suggestions?

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      • All my funny books are very Southern—Confederacy of Dunces (NOLA), Walking Across Egypt, Welding with Children, Run with the Horsemen (which has my favorite line ever: “He’s a good boy, he takes instruction well; I just can’t think of enough things to tell him not to do.”) Do you follow The Bloggess? She makes me smile every time. https://thebloggess.com

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  6. Those dark hours in the middle of the night have a lot to answer for, as do uptight grandmothers. You’re fortunate to have had such a sensible mother and to have discovered your love of writing–your words will mean you never die . . .

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    • My grandmother was very hard on me but over time I’ve come to understand her perspective better and have empathy. My mother didn’t have an easy time of it caught between her husband and my grandmother who despised her son-in-law. It was frequently a tense dynamic.

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  7. I felt this one in my core. “…maple tree branches scrape against the house…” Not sure why you put that imagery in that place but it was like a soul language that not everyone understands. In fact, we don’t all feel a “calling” in life, but those who do suffer more. ha ha. Below a link to an interesting article to this effect. Also, love the Paul Simon selection, one of my personal faves. And lastly, nothing to do with your photo or the placement of it or anything, just to say that when we moved to start over – I chose not to put any images on the walls. They drain my emotional energy and I needed time to heal from all the caregiving and emotional energy I poured into those in the photos, even though I love them all dearly. I didn’t even know this was a practice for some people, a purposeful thing – the no photos thing, but apparently it’s a thing! Anyway, love to read your work. Here’s to figuring out the one thing that will complete the puzzle and make you realize it was not all in vain. From:https://aeon.co/ideas/psychologys-five-revelations-for-finding-your-true-calling?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm_campaign=9b0fc097eb-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_01_07_03_44&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_411a82e59d-9b0fc097eb-68914193
    “working towards what you care about is a timeless endeavour that is likely to stretch and sustain you indefinitely. The researchers conclude that their results show ‘the extent to which individuals attain their desired level of work passion may have less to do with their actual jobs and more to do with their beliefs about how work passion is pursued’.”

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    • I think I put the scraping of the maple tree in because it mirrored my agitation and worry. Same with the gut rumbling. Hungry for something but not necessarily food.

      I read the article, Julie and it is fascinating. I find the days that I’m “happiest” (I use the term loosely) at work is when I focus on making connections with people around me versus just muscling through the never ending tasks and grinding it out. The kind of paid work I do I’ve never applied the word “passion” to and the only concept of work passion I have is related to writing which for the most part is unpaid. I’ll have to read the article again. Lots of food for thought.

      What an interesting idea to avoid hanging photos. We have a ton of family photos around our house!

      I sincerely hope you’re enjoying your new phase of life in sunny California. From snowy Ottawa, I wish you well!

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  8. Superb Susanne! Your relationship, the chicken (made me think of my grandmother), the applesauce, the mirrored room in Mom’s image (stunning woman)! I wonder if it’s a sixties thing, waking at 4, wondering about ‘the end’? Nice to know I’m not the only one.

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    • The post was prompted by an exchange with a friend who told me about his nocturnal anxiety. I was so relieved to hear someone else suffers this fate and I’m not (entirely) crazy. Delighted to have you in the 4 a.m. club with us!

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  9. This is wonderful and makes me sad all at the same time. My dad was like your grandma, never wanting us to be doing ‘nothing.’ My mom was more creative and understood the art of doing nothing, not that she was ever able to do that…the nothing thing, with four children and a spouse always needing something. I miss them both. Thank you for sharing this.

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    • Four children would definitely keep a mother busy. I thought life was a whirlwind when my three children were all under 10. There was no time for lounging in bed reading and daydreaming back then.

      I don’t think we ever stop missing our parents. I find myself frequently wondering what she’d think all kinds of things though she was so quiet and self-effacing I’m not sure she’d ever speak her own mind.

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  10. This is a wonderful piece, Susanne, and the picture of your mother is gorgeous. Indeed, movie star material. How lucky you were to share that connection with her when many daughters, myself included, struggled with that sometimes tenuous bond.
    You know, your mother was right about not liking growing old. I haven’t liked it, either – and somehow believed I would never be one of those old women who had trouble getting around. I had been an athlete and had walked religiously in my “adult” years for 30 or more.
    Yet, arthritis is no respecter of persons and so now I struggle to get to my mailbox which is within spitting distance of my front door. Unbelievable.
    I spend a lot of time mulling over mistakes I’ve made that hurt other people because I have that luxury now but in reality that thinking doesn’t change anything so I try to switch to the good times with family, places I’ve gone that brought joy to other people, knowing that I still have a chance for truth telling which is a parting gift from my sixties to me. Blogging is a wonderful opportunity to clear the personal air.
    So keep writing, keep hoping and as for death, we all fear that moment when our breath is taken away because it is human to fear the unknown. FDR said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I’m afraid of that statement.

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    • Sheila, I adore you humour. After your slightly melancholy comment you finish it off with a sharp, funny poke.

      It sucks to lose mobility and I’m sorry to hear that arthritis is the cause. My grandmother was plagued with bad knees and my mom’s hands were quite twisted with arthritis, too. It lurks in my future no doubt. It is difficult to bear when we remember our strong young bodies.

      I try hard not to ruminate over past mistakes and things I’ve done to hurt others because as you say it leads nowhere.

      I look forward to more truth telling and blogging. Thanks for always having the right words to share.

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  11. This is a beautiful piece Susanne. Maybe it’s a generational thing that it was always seen as bad form to stay in bed instead of getting up early – I recall that a lot from the days I would go to bed late and stay in bed until lunch time. But I do appreciate the value of mornings more now and not ‘wasting the day’! But then daydreaming isn’t wasting the day, it’s creativity in action 🙂

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    • Morning is my favourite time of day. I’m always up at the crack of dawn regardless of the day of the week as I was the day I wrote this post. At least one day of the weekend I take my time getting on with the day by having coffee in bed and reading for a few hours. It feels incredibly luxurious. I find that reading often primes my creative pump, too, so that as I set the book down and take a sip something unrelated pops into my head and off I go down a happy creative tangent.

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  12. Susanne, I wish you a very good 2019. I read your blog-post with pleasure. It is so funny to read how different we all are regarding photos in bedrooms. Perhaps you can write another blog-post on what makes people have their parent’s photo inside or outside their bedrooms? Are we dealing with an ancient superstition that images of our ancestors ooze their spirit? I look forward to a piece by your hand on this.

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    • Well, there’s an interesting thought – my mother’s spirit oozing all over us as we sleep. Ew. Kind of creepy. I may have to move her photo!

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  13. I think we all feel our fair share of dislike growing old, shame at some of the decisions we’ve made along the way, and fear that our life was ‘wasted’ and time is running out. That’s why this post is so relatable. It’s human and it’s real.

    I never knew what my grandmothers thought of me. Neither of them spoke English and it was a long while before I realized my Italian grandmother yelled everything to everyone – not just me. How nice to know your mom had your back though. It sounds like she was an awesome mother.

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  14. She’s very striking, I can see your sharp resemblance to her. I could not have a photo of any of my parents or our children in my bedroom. I know people do it, but I could not. I would be extremely uncomfortable. I shall ponder that.
    I fear I am a lot like your grandmother when it comes to sleeping kids. I’m fine with them sleeping in, but I abhor when I come home from work and they’re asleep. Can they not see the chicken to be plucked, the applesauce to make? Ugh.
    My mother thinks getting old is the worst thing that ever happened to her, and I don’t think it’s going to be like that for me. Could be naivete, could be denial, could be reality. We shall see.
    She lives in Florida and would certainly welcome me to come to her bed and read to her, but it’s FAR. Having lost one parent who lived FAR, I can tell you this does nothing good for my nerves. She’s happy there. I am happy here. At least we’re both ‘here’.
    And we all, as far as I know, fear our own mortality in one way or another. No shame in it. Tell that shame a good story and then tuck it in.

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    • I am so truly grateful for the blogosphere when I post my weepy posts and get back such heartfelt comments like yours. I wonder what story shame would like to hear? Something uplifting or something Biblical? Something to illustrate how much worse things could be?

      I don’t think getting old is the worse thing that ever happened to me. Not by far, but it kind of reminds me of adolescence in some ways. Its hard to recognize yourself at times – both physically and emotionally. The trick is to keep adjusting and adapting which is much easier when you’re 17 than when you’re 70.

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    • I don’t believe there is a heaven, Jean. I believe that both heaven and hell live on earth and in our heads. I also believe that if there were a heaven and we had to present god with a lifetime self-assessment explaining why we are worthy of entrance, the only people who would be there are the Donald Trumps of the world whose egos and narcissism never allow them to admit flaws. Oops. Got political there. Sometimes I can’t help myself.

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  15. I have always thought my mother looked like a movie star in that photo and not like my mom at all. Maybe that’s why we hung it initially. She loved my husband and he thought she was great, too. Mom and I were close, although I lived thousands of miles away in her later years. Anytime I visited I’d sit as near as she’d let me. I hope you’re lapping up the cuddles from you daughters, Pauline. I wish my mom was still around so we could talk and cuddle.

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  16. I think it says a lot about your relationship with your mom that her photo hangs on your bedroom wall – maybe it even says a lot about your husband’s relationship with her too, that he doesn’t mind her being there. Perhaps it was that she always had your back – perhaps it’s that even now you can imagine crawling under the covers with her for a few more precious moments……… My daughters are teaching me that we are maybe never too old to stop cuddling with our moms – you knew this already though..

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