Natasha Clark Risk | I love the songs I hated when I was young
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I love the songs I hated when I was young

I am wearing literal mom jeans today. Dead mom jeans. Black, straight-legged, high-waisted Levi’s jeans that she kept as her “skinny jeans” since her teens. After a recent diet and lifestyle change, I’ve lost the two sizes that engulfed me like an avalanche, and the jeans that wouldn’t have fit me two weeks previously now serendipitously fit perfectly, as I find them in an unexpected trespassing excavation.

I’m surprised to experience profoundly, because of the jeans, a closeness to her and to something primal— the earth? Identity? Motherhood? I can barely grasp how her body, once so looming and grownup to me, ever fit into the same space my body takes up now. What does this mean or symbolize about how similar we are when, because we were so different, I spent my whole life feeling like our entire family conspired in a charade to pass her off as my legitimate mother?

My aunt Patty, my partner Lynne, and I mined my mother’s shoddy low-income apartment for things meaningful to take with us. Full of tenderness, Patty feared I would leave something behind I would regret. She must have held up about thirty items she thought I should want.

“You should take her clothes and make a quilt.”

I shivered. Making a quilt of clothes never intended as a coordinated ensemble, a quilt of clothes I’d never seen my mother wear, symbolized a kind of desperation and mawkishness that made me instantly ill. It’s a thing I would do with my babies’ clothes if they died…. I would wrap myself in the quilt and scream at the world until my eyes fell out and my throat was shredded into something resembling pulled pork. I would willingly let grief over the loss of my babies make me insane. I’d dive straight down and deep into the darkest, angriest grief humanly possible and the quilt of their baby clothes would be the magic carpet ride that would transport me there. But I bought those clothes, I washed those clothes, I held their marshmallow bodies in them and leaked milk onto them and scrubbed mustard-poop off of these now-sacred cotton garments.

I don’t remember seeing my mother wear these mere things. I might as well be making a quilt of the bath mat she stepped on and the underwear she bought last week, treat her like a dead celebrity. These were not the boots she wore until they were ripped at the seams and held together with glue while she bought me new clothes from BiWay and Woolworths with Mother’s Allowance cheques. These were not the capes she wore, striving to look exotic with her lush, long black curly hair. This was just some random Sears shit that held no power.

And the jewellery, just jewellery. I rejected everything of value, really—the collectible mini ceramics, the Limoges porcelain, the television, the feather mattress—and greedily snatched up everything priceless:

-letters from Richard Simmons to her, including one where he mourns the recent loss of his dog;
-a 28-year-old dried rose wrapped in cling wrap with a note that reads, “The first rose Tasha ever gave me”;
-a wooden ruler she took to college with her name and her self-given nickname doodled all over it, along with my name doodled in my own writing when I used it in grade six;
-a cross-stitched bookmark I made for her when I was 12, in a decorative font spelling her name, to which she said, “I don’t really like cross-stitch”;
-her poetry, including ones published by newspapers;
-a recording of her on The Dini Petty Show; and
-a handwritten note of my children’s names, their birth dates, and “ages they’ll be this year on their birth dates,” then the numbers listed.

So many motley treasures I gathered like totems meaningless to anyone else. Even her lovers, even her siblings and mother, would not likely want her wooden ruler. They didn’t watch her use it to carefully underline twice with red ink all the titles of her essays on AIDS or euthanasia for her Sociology class. That ruler symbolizes Joanne venturing off alone with child to a city three hours from home to do something no one in our family ever did before. I would come home from school alone to make myself lunch, perfectly happy because my mom was bettering herself at school and I was proud; never once did I resent her for not being there.

I took from her apartment her jeans, two pairs. The black Levis and some mottled light blue jeans with a yellow and red patch of a rotund lady in a red flapper-style dress and the words, “THE DIRTY OLD LADIES CLUB”, right on the rear of the jeans where pockets would normally be. They bring me joy.

I’m happy to find anything of hers that I like and would want to wear since I quickly grew up to hate everything she liked. Her style reflected her socioeconomic class, which offered and cultivated limitations, scarcity, fear, longing, envy, boredom, and dullness. Anything aesthetic reminding me of my childhood brought with it feelings of depression, deprivation, and therefore revulsion.

This is how I became a snob.

I have been 100% comfortable being a snob, even while aware of my snobbishness and aware that it’s not considered a virtue. People have disliked me for being a snob and my nonplussed response has been as though they disliked me for having ears: what can I possibly do about it? At a certain point, we must own our flaws and I was perfectly comfortable owning being a design, fashion, and music snob (the latter essentially boiling down to loathing country and heavy metal).

At my mom’s Celebration of Life gathering, I re-acquainted myself with people I had not seen for 17-25 or more years. And some I had never met at all. On the red-eye flight to the hospital to take my mom off of life support, I began writing my eulogy. I was angry. I imagined myself at a pulpit in a church, where I’ve stood to preach more times than I can count, wielding a sword of truth, digging into any person who had ever let my mother down, knowing full well they may consider me to be the one who had let her down most. She was only 57. She was coming for a visit in a month. She never got to meet her second grandchild. She deserved some easy happiness. She embraced a victim mindset most of her life, in part because she didn’t have enough support or wholehearted encouragement. I mostly wanted to rail against my grandfather but he’s dead, so instead, I planned to spread responsibility throughout the crowd. I didn’t care, in this scenario in my head, about being despised or blamed in turn. I got used to feeling like I had no family after I transformed myself into someone culturally and spiritually drastically different— a Mormon. For fourteen years the Mormon church became my family and then nurtured within me a sense of entitlement for not having the “perfect” family a Mormon God intended for me to have, which added to my need to push them away.

But everyone was there, at the hospital, my two aunts at my mother’s side all night long, my granny and others sleeping only briefly. There were no arguments, as I expected, no family drama. I sensed some mistrust toward me but more openness and kindness. Amidst their own grief, I could feel their empathy toward me and deference toward the relationship of a mother and her only child. Then my dear, tiny grandmother, just 4’7″ and still so sharp, who had already buried her husband and two of her children in the past few years, had to leave the room. She has survived twelve years of dialysis and a near-death last year. And here her oldest daughter— the one who wrote her poetry, the one who taught the other children to clean and accompanied her little sister to the bathroom every night to protect her from the dark, the one who left her own college courses to travel home to help out in the family restaurant, the one who never married but always wanted to— lay hooked to machines, her stomach bloated and cheeks sunken in, and we were about to let her die. If I could withstand this and Granny could not, her grief must have been greater than mine. Of course it was; this was her baby. At that moment, I knew I was unworthy, irreparably undone, and would not be able to rebuild the stony façade around my heart.

I revised my eulogy, using only the best stories, the best reframing, to soothe my mother’s friends and family and to rewrite any unfavourable narratives. Though I don’t like hugs, I found myself comfortably hugging people I didn’t even know. I explained to people what happened, how prednisone prescribed for Lupus likely thinned the lining of her intestine, and her intestine got twisted and died. I stuffed away most of my own feelings and thoughts and put a smile on my face lest anyone worry about me. My central focus became caretaking: making sure people knew I remembered them, making them feel valued, thanking them.

As that day wore on, my anxiety and apprehension about what this reunion would be seemed baseless. No one was making it easy for me to hate them, or blame them. No one, that I know of, was making me atone for my absence or mocking me for my Mormonism or divorce. Lynne immediately felt comfortable and no one even made us feel conspicuously gay, as people can do non-verbally even without trying.

Maybe it’s just that death humbles people, tires them out, consolidates them with priorities straightened. Or maybe age has mellowed my family out. Or maybe it’s that I’m an adult now, able to put adult emotions into context and offer up more compassion and tolerance than when I was an ultra-sensitive, observant child overwhelmed by people arguing around me. Maybe I knew these adults, who were younger then than I am now, during their life’s most stressful moments of parenting and making ends meet and managing young relationships. After all, my mother had me far too young and so we all grew up, in a sense, together. Those moments of tension and conflict scared and traumatized me until they were all I remembered. But reunited with my family I re-remembered how much my family likes to laugh. How tough they are, letting jibes roll off their backs. How often they drop everything to help each other, say “I love you,” and how they forgive and forgive again.

Maybe any of these reasons are why I was surprised to see things differently, or maybe it’s just that I was an asshole and am now simply less of an asshole. I’m okay with that being true. Admitting that is an easy price to pay to belong again to people. People who were there when I had to get my neck cut open and my jugular vein stitched together to save my life. People who potty-trained me. People who taught me how to eat artichokes, how to cut lettuce quickly, how to make strawberry jam without pectin. People who made all the difference in my life, really, by getting me out of my mom’s home sometimes to experience other things. People who know me as ‘Tasha. People who didn’t want me to marry a Mormon man twice my age but who didn’t know how to intervene. People who connect with each other in a way that is real, who aren’t afraid to talk about hard things and real feelings. My people aren’t just a casual family knit together by almost the coincidence of genetics; they are a tribe, a club, a gang. People who somehow, after all this time, still want to take care of me and my partner and our family, who won’t even let me be equal and share costs presumably because I am still the child. It’s been so long since I’ve been taken care of like that.

Back home, two weeks after I got the impossible, nonsensical phone call that my mother would likely die before I could travel across the country to say goodbye, Lynne and I drove to get sushi.

“I think I don’t want to be a snob anymore.”

She laughs. “Okay.”

“I have totally been comfortable being a snob. I think it’s been self-protective. Hold on, let me look up something I texted to Shannon that explained it well…. ‘I think I treasure being a snob as a protective lens that keeps me away from people whose pain is too hard to witness.'”

“And from your own pain,” she says.

I have known for years that snobbery makes no logical sense, and can be a form of classism, racism, homophobia, etc. But I couldn’t change my emotional response. I had divorced myself from most connections to my origins. Besides my mother, no one was left in my life different enough from me to require me to exercise the kind of humility that is antithetical to snobbery. Some of my family are very different from me. What matters, of course, is the ways we’re the same and I find myself so excited about these similarities that it’s like finding a time capsule I buried beneath a childhood treehouse. We swam at “the new beach” at some point, and we had some of the same teachers, and all but one of us believes the earth is round. I’m even considering dying my hair back to its natural dark brown colour just so I can look more like my family. I would ask my one cousin to leave her hair curly just so our next photo together will be us three women with curly dark hair, as nearly everyone in the family has.

I would bring my mother back if I could. I would bring her to Victoria as planned and take her whale watching. We would play What Do You Meme? with the kids and laugh as many nights as we could. I would take her to a functional medicine doctor and help her with an anti-inflammatory diet. I’d play her music I think she’d like and all the music she played when I was a kid that I’m starting to enjoy again: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Randy Travis. I would ask her, “Mom, if something ever happens where you’re suddenly on life support and sedated for pain, would you want us to just silently let you go so that you hopefully never knew you were dying; or would you want us to wake you, even though you’d be in severe pain, so that you had a chance to say goodbye and impart any information?” It’s still hard to believe that I can’t ever ask her this and avoid making this cruel, impossible decision.

But with her dying, I can easily lay some things to rest. I don’t know why it makes it easier to forgive, but it does. You can’t be mad at someone who’s dead because what’s the most they can suffer to make restitution? Can they die for you? Done. I can’t be triggered by her because she’s gone. So, all that is left is forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking, though, because I was getting there on my own. I was ready to go back for a visit without anyone dying. I don’t think I needed her to die to come to peace with my past and now she doesn’t get to see that.

Snobbery is a shade of hate, and hate is either hurt or fear. I was leaving Discovery Coffee to walk home when I passed some flowers and I suddenly ached with the realization that I want to be the kind of person who cuts more flowers for someone to have a pretty bouquet if I caught them stealing flowers from my yard. Because life is so short and none of these entitlements, resentments, fears and hatreds matter. Love is all that matters. It’s one thing to know it intellectually; it’s quite another to be drop-kicked, beaten and stabbed with that information.

Having never lost anyone before to death, I don’t know how this goes. Do we permanently learn and grow or do we just go through phases and get sucked back into the trappings of daily life after a period of introspection wears off? How do we ground ourselves in our own philosophies and spiritual growth when all around us people are flailing and gnashing about in fear and trauma, telling us how to feel and sucking us back into their narratives?

When someone dies, I think there are always regrets about what we didn’t say or do. I had intended to send for Mother’s Day a CD of Brandi Carlile’s most recent album, By the Way, I Forgive You. My mom loved country music and rock, and Brandi’s music is a blend of them both. I was excited to find new music I thought we both would like almost equally, but I never sent it on time.

With opening notes reminiscent of Johnny Cash, her song “Harder to Forgive goes,

I love the songs I hated when I was young
Because they take me back where I come from.

[…]

Sometimes I pretend we never met
Because it’s harder to forgive than to forget
Sometimes it’s harder to forgive.

Yes, my life has seen some wasted time
I have suffered for the peace inside my mind
And some things are better left unsaid
While some things workout different while they’re in your head.

[…]

I believe that all souls are born kind
And that all love lost comes back in time.

On my second favourite album of hers, Bear Creek, in a lovely little song about her brother, with whom she had an estrangement (according to the internet), she sings,

Maybe we hurt who we love the most,
Maybe it’s all we can stand.
Maybe we walk through the world as ghosts,
Break my own heart before you can.

Here’s to you and me
And in between
We draw a line
But we can’t see where it’s bent,
We scratch our heads,
And rage against
The heart’s content.

Maybe we know how the story ends.
Maybe it’s not even about us.
We both retreat to opposing sands
And the love lives on without us.
One thing I know for sure is
Love will find a way
Love will find a way.

2 Comments
  • James Meeks
    Posted at 15:57h, 15 June Reply

    My condolences to you and your family on your loss. She was a wonderful woman.

    I enjoyed reading this very much. I plucked a quote from it. I don’t know where and when I’ll use it, but I will. It resonated truth.
    I also left Elliot Lake when I was a much younger man. I also have been accused of being a snob by my family back home. I too live and love on Vancouver Island.

    James (Skip) Meeks

    • natashaclarkrisk
      Posted at 23:44h, 19 June Reply

      Hey, there are a few of us, then! My grade 9 biology teacher from ELSS also lives in Victoria with her wife who was an art teacher there. Maybe you know them!

      Which quote did you pluck?

      And how well did you know my mom?

      In defense of anyone who has accused me of being a snob, I really am one. I swear I’m reforming myself though.

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