Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Summer Memoire

A Summer Memoire

Heidi Katharina Wiedemann

It was my first summer as a divorced, non-custodial mom. The whole divorce process had been and still was quite difficult and the children and I had not spent much time together to talk about all that had happened. We were fortunate in that we now had ten days together, alone, at my father’s cottage. For the most part we had a wonderful time. We swam, had picnics, went on long walks - but all the while I had my children talk. We talked about our feelings about the divorce, their feelings about my leaving, their feelings about the changes in their lives. I now look back and think what a wonderful gift I gave to all of us by giving each of us the room to grieve - and yet to grieve together. I knew this would not be the last time that these types of conversations happened but I believe this was a major turning point in all of our lives.

As the days went by, we were able to fall back into our old roles, Mommy, Amy, Holly and Derek, were simply up at Opa’s country place - we’ve done this for a thousand years. For a short while we were a family again, the same family we were before the divorce. Aches and pains were put aside in favour of playing hide and seek in the woods, of reading bedtime stories together, of eating sweet and sticky watermelon on the front porch. Anger was put on the back burner for a while, and so was guilt. We loved, laughed, fought and ate like families do. My heart aches for those times even now.

Two days before we left, we were sitting quietly and solemnly around the fire. No one seemed to be talking, we were all contemplating going home. All of sudden there was a shudder of emotion among the four of us and we all started to cry. I can not speak for my children but I know for myself that that was a defining moment for me. It was then, at that moment, that the hugeness of my decision had hit me. It was then that I realized we would not be “going home”, not in the sense that we had gone home before. I was no longer the mom that lived with them, we were no longer going home as a family. We were no longer a family - as we had once been. Now I can look back and say we have developed into a fine family because I have learned to define it differently but I did not feel that way on that summer afternoon. My children too felt the weight of this realization and cried all the more. Mommy wasn’t coming home with us. It was scary and hurtful, and together we grieved again.

I was certainly in transition. I have never felt so strongly the letting go of an identity. It felt like a shock to me that I was no longer who I used to be. It felt frightening, as I stood there comforting my four year old, that this would not be mine to do much longer. I felt confused, who was I going to be? What role would I play - the pull to return to my marriage was strong because of how I felt about my children - but I could not bring myself to feel anything about my husband that would allow me to go back home. But my children, how I ached for them, how guilt ridden I felt for the pain I caused them, it was unbearable.

We spent those last two days huddled together, not swimming much, not playing much, just sitting together in front of the fire, or on the porch, quietly holding on to each other. I was clinging to the last vestiges of my broken little family. When my father came to bring us home we looked like a sad little bunch. No one spoke much on the way home either. When we got to the childrens’ home Derek said good-bye in his customary crisp fashion, Amy, my baby, gave me a quick hug and ran into her home, and Holly clung and sobbed, begging me not to leave, telling me how much she would miss me. We wept together for a few minutes, Derek came back and hugged me and then I got into the car. My father, bless his soul, remained quiet for the rest of the trip. I rode the rest of the way home staring out the window wondering “Now what”?

My life was beginning anew yet again - this piece was different than the original walking out on my husband. This was different - because the sense of loss around that fire place was real - far more real than anything I had allowed my self to feel before then. I no longer had a family the way I used to. I was no longer a mother in the way that I knew. My life was changing and I give myself credit for hanging in the neutral zone long enough to sort things out. It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey. My choices have had their consequences but I regret nothing.

Women's Day....

Woman’s Day

Heidi Katharina Wiedemann

Today was International Woman’s Day - and appropriately enough my activities revolved around woman things. I nurtured an elderly woman friend of mine - took care of her needs rather than my own. She lives alone, has no one to care for her - and is isolated. She is living out the consequences of her choices, I wonder if she sees that. We had tea; I did some cleaning, some chatting, gave her a hug and went on my way - glad for my ability to do so.

I then went to fetch my 15 year old daughter, who I was supposed to have dinner with. I picked her up and while we drove we tried to decide where to go. I thought of my mother - clear across the island - and said let’s go there. So on this Woman’s Day, I found myself with my mother and daughter, the three of us breaking bread together.

I was conscious of the three individuals - how very different we each were, how our stories would sound so unique - and in that, how similar we were. We share a thread of pain and hardship, of difficult choices and difficult consequences.

Holly, being fifteen, spoke to my mom about sex. I wasn’t surprised - what else do fifteen year olds talk about? - even better, fifteen year olds with other women. I guess I bristled somewhat thinking it would be nice to find a space with my daughter where that was not the central topic of conversation - and my mom noticed. She reacted by saying she never knew I was such a prude! What a delicious laugh I had!

I brought my mom two boxes of old records my elderly woman friend had given me earlier in the day. She loved them and while my daughter and I were there, she played several of them, playing a particular song and changing the record. I thought about how the life of the woman who gave me the records had now woven itself into my mothers life. The records gave my mother joy - as I am sure they once did for the woman who gave them away - it all seemed somewhat circular to me, the great wheel of life.

I spent my energy on relationships today. I read that that’s what women do - Thank God I’m a woman. I was conscious of the nurturing and cultivating I did today. I see the threads between my mother and daughter. Those two have found allies in each other. Holly doesn’t hold a daughter’s grudge against her grandmother and her grandmother no longer has that shadow of fear - or was it disappointment - in her eye. She beams with pride at her granddaughter’s womanhood - and as I write the thought occurs - well finally I did something right.

As we ate, I sat between them, sandwiched as it were. For moments I felt closer to my mother - and her time, age or position - I’m not sure which - than I did to my daughter. Holly was a glowing, funny, raging hormonal teenager, sitting next to me. I didn’t feel old, but I felt like an adult. I suppose that will be happening more often. I loved how my mother and I let her know her place - not so much by what we said to her - but by what we didn’t say, what we chose not to acknowledge and without having planned it. It was at those times I felt my own womanpower - and I was conscious of Holly’s place in the circle. I have a feeling she may have been too - and respected that. What a fine young woman! My beautiful woman-child struggling to make sense of herself, the world, and her place in it. What work!

I love my mother. I am so pleased to say that. She shared with me bits and pieces of her life the other night, explaining her choices and the consequences she suffered - I believe I said I forgave her, and that I understood her. I believe she understood me - and really what greater gift could we ever, ever have given each other.

She was, or is - I’m not sure, but was a woman trapped in her time, her beliefs, her upbringing, her pain. Her fear of losing her children was so great it blinded her to any other possibilities.

I asked my mother what she was most proud of as a woman and her answer was her daughters. Thanks Mom.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Just Maybe, This Time

Just Maybe, This Time

Heidi Katharina Wiedemann

I hadn’t heard from her in ages. Nothing new in that, except yesterday the aunt called. “Have you heard from her?”

“No, why?”

“Cause I haven’t and I’m really worried. I had a dream that something happened to her.” So had I.

Whenever I dream of her it is always dark and brooding – she is going to prison, or she’s panhandling, her baby in a car seat in some broken up Ford, parked close by. She is either asking for money, or mocking me. I never know how to help her.

That’s how it is in the waking. She chooses to live on the fringe, and I never “get it”. I never understand why I am supposed to support her when she has left home, a good home, to live with her boyfriend in an unfurnished basement apartment. They have no money, no job, and no plan. She complains bitterly that I never approve, I am never “there” for her. On and on the accusations fly, until my bones feel weary and tired of it all. It is all I can do to hang up the phone. Yet she always calls back.

This time the pause between calls seems longer. No one attached to the spokes in her wheel of life has heard from her. I often feel able to tolerate the distance between us because I can rely on the other “spoke” people to pass on information. Information like is she still alive? On drugs? In prison? The baby?

So we all take measures to reach out, tentatively, mind you, lest a connection be made and we're the one stuck with it. Just enough to ease the gently nagging worry that maybe she isn’t alive, or is in jail, or isn’t ok. Just maybe, this time. Of course, she is fine. The phone had been disconnected. Was this the sixth or seventh time?

“Oh yeah, you’re worried? If you’re so worried why don’t you send some money?” Again, that drowning, sleepy feeling comes, the phone receiver heavy, her voice like nails on a blackboard.

After this episode, Katie, her younger sister, decides to pay a visit, make sure things are OK. Katie, too, had a dream, her sister was on heroin again, and she awoke from that determined to save someone – if not her sister, then the baby. Upon her return, Katie reports that she had a lovely visit. She seems buoyed by the “ok-ness” of her sister. She speaks glowingly of how well the baby is. It is obvious her sister is putting the baby’s needs before her own. The baby is fat, bigger than one would expect for an eighteen month old, half the size of his petite, hungry looking mother.

It is easy to feel hopeful. Maybe the young mother has turned a corner. While no one really approves (is it just me?) of where she is living, waiting out her lover’s prison sentence, she is, it seems, OK, no longer lost to a world of crime and drugs. Katie’s optimism is contagious. I begin to imagine taking the two-hour drive. I have only held Jonathan once, when he was born. His mother moved shortly thereafter. Katie brings pictures home that she may show me, but not give me, orders from her sister. “If mom wants pictures of Jonathan, she’ll have to come get them herself.” After repeated requests, I still haven’t been given an address, much less a phone number.

The pictures of Jonathan and his mother are beautiful. She looks a little ragged around the eyes, a little thin, but her smile of joy and love for her child are undeniable. I feel a twinge. As I look through the pictures, Katie regales me with stories; how Jonathan walked, giggled, hid behind his mother, ate a banana. How Jonathan was drawn to Katie’s boyfriend, how the four of them had a great time. The germ begins to spread; hope begins to gnaw at me. Just maybe, this time.
The possibility of visiting begins to seem real. A gift list forms. I will get things I know my daughter would not have the money for, a nice outfit, and some bubble bath. Jonathan will get an outfit too. What size might he be? He seems a big boy for his age. She has no way of knowing these fantasies are brewing, has no way of knowing I think of her at all. But I do. Often.

She calls today, fourth time in a week, more than we have spoken in the last year. Hope growing like a hot air balloon. She hasn’t asked me for anything. No money, no condition for our conversation, we are just talking. How is the weather, the baby, you? I’m finished school, your grandmother died, and so we go on. And with every call that balloon grows. And then it comes.

It begins this time with a discussion of how her father is now the one getting her a phone in his name. This will be her seventh.

“You wouldn’t do that for me would you, get me a line?” she asks. My radar should be going on, but it doesn’t. Hope is running interference.

“No” I answer far too quickly. To back up my answer I remind her of the many lines she has had, the bad credit that has developed as a function of taking long distance collect calls from the prisoner, how she has no hope of ever being able to pay a 700$ phone bill, let alone several of them. On and on I go, I can’t seem to shut up. What should I say? Nothing? She doesn’t let me get away with “nothing”. She wants me to spill the beans, attack her, and justify the shitty relationship.

My defensiveness falls on deaf ears and the tirade begins. The tirade of how selfish I am. What kind of a mother am I to not even care if she, my daughter, is hungry? What is wrong with me that I don’t see I should be paying her phone and food bills, that because I am living well it is my responsibility to make sure she is not in need. I should jump at the chance to provide for her mother-in-law. The drowning, sleepy feeling, the incredulousness of it all, creeps up on me. The heaviness sets into my shoulders, tears at my heart.

I try to interrupt, “Wait! Stop! Where is this going? Why is this spinning out of control?” I hear the hiss as the air fizzles out of the balloon, the realization setting in that I won’t be taking a day trip anytime soon.

It’s the day Jonathan is born. I peek around the corner to make sure it is the right room. She cranes her neck as she hears me coming, “Oh, it’s you”, disappointment weighing heavy in everyone’s shoulders. Never mind, I think to myself, just move on.

Maude, the mother-in-law, stepping in for her incarcerated son, is by my daughter’s side, stroking her small, nicotine stained hand. I stand on the opposite side of the bed, looking at her, ask how she is feeling. “Can you cut me a cheque for $25?”


“A cheque, can you cut me a cheque for 25$?” Curt. Bristling. Is it the labour pains?

“You’re lying here having a baby, you don’t need a cheque.”

“Maude needs cigarettes.”

“Oh well” I respond. This is not going well. I already want to leave. All of a sudden, she has a contraction. She turns and curls up, fetal like, into the mother-in-law, who enfolds her, rubs her back, and helps her through the spasm. It is clear I should not be touching her.

More women arrive, her friend, the Aunt, the room is filling up. Nurses are coming and going. As the contraction subsides, she continues her barrage “Can’t you help me?”

“You are lying here in a hospital bed, about to have a baby, what do you need a cheque for?”

“That’s none of your fucking business. Why won’t you ever help me? Maude needs cigarettes, and we need stuff at home. Why do you always refuse to help us? You’re such a bitch!” Won’t anyone come to my defense? Why won’t I?

The Aunt, trying to change the subject, or save me, exclaims in a singsong voice, “I had a dream last night that there was a baby white elephant running in the middle of the room and I kept trying to catch it but I couldn’t.”

“No kidding” I reply, “A white elephant in the room”, the words bang off the walls, and out the window. The nurse reappears, I inquire as to how long this labor will take.

“Oh this baby won’t be here until at least tomorrow morning.” Relieved, I leave to return to my art class, promising to call later. She does not seem to mind my departure except that she still has not gotten a cheque out of me. I leave feeling sad, angry, that heavy feeling in my shoulders, I want to hang up – I think I have.

At 9:45, just before the end of class, I call the hospital to see how things are progressing. Mother-in-law answers, says oh yes, things have moved along rapidly, she’ll be having it any minute. Somewhere there is a twinge of not having known, not having been there.

I charge to the hospital. Despite everything, I want to be there to greet my grandson into the world. I arrive to much bustling and my daughter howling. I get on the opposite side of the bed from Maude. Another contraction. I am rubbing my daughter’s back. As the contraction begins to subside she turns her head and shrieks at me to stop rubbing her back, it’s bugging her. So I stop. During the next contraction, the nurse instructs me to remind my daughter to breathe, get her to relax. I attempt to do this. She tells me to fuck off, to stop telling her what to do; she’ll breathe how she wants. I have had children. I understand the mindset in the middle of childbirth. I am forgiving I guess.

She has another contraction. They are getting stronger. I am holding her hand, I must be squeezing it, she veers her head at me again, spittle on her chin, shrieks that I am hurting her fucking hand. Her aunt scoffs at her saying “Child, for God sake you’re giving birth, your mother holding your hand can’t hurt”. I want to thank her I think. I feel myself numbing out. Leaving doesn't seem an option.

The baby arrives. He is slimy, beautiful, screaming like a banshee. The nurse places him on her stomach. Someone has to cut the umbilical cord. She is about to hand the scissors to me. My daughter bolts to attention and says, “I want Maude to do it”. I feel the sting of tears, and I hurt, a pure, unadulterated hurt. I stay quiet. This is not my time; it is for her and Jonathan. She must choose how she wants to experience this. Everyone is only born once.

The nurse needs her to hand the baby off; they have to clean her up. I stretch out my hands, eager to touch him, she turns to Maude and hands her the baby. Everything has a price it seems. I am invisible and as devastated as I have ever been. Thirty minutes into Jonathan’s life, I get to hold him. I go to the phone, have him cradled in my arms, and call my mother, his great-grandmother, to share the news with her. My mother asks to speak to her granddaughter. I pass the phone. My daughter is brief, discourteous, and cuts the conversation short. I have to give the boy back. That is all I get of my grandson.

After enough fake smiles, enough phony “oohs” and “aahs”, and a final request for money that I am not going to give, I leave. I get to my car, sit, and weep for what could have been. It is not the first time I weep for what could have been, and I know it is not the last. I know she will call again, I know I will hang on to hope again, let it colour the lens of reality, act as the salve, make me believe what ordinarily I would not believe. Just maybe, this time I will be the mother my daughter wants me to be. Or, just maybe this time, we will finally find in each other what we both so desperately want.

Just maybe, this time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

You have to wonder sometimes what it is about the human animal that mucks it up so. In every pair - be it husband and wife, or mother and daughter - there is a pursuer and a withdrawer... what is that all about? Where is the coming together? The mutual understanding? The compromise? Where is the basic human decency of understanding.... bloody hell. Sometimes, life is hard - for nothing!

Monday, September 21, 2009


Heidi Katharina Wiedemann

So vast was the space created by my mother’s death that I went ahead and hosted a 20 person sit-down dinner the following night.

My mother died the night before Passover, and while she was a Catholic, not a devout one, and I was baptized a Lutheran, my husband is a Jew. After sixteen years together we, I, have inherited the responsibility of hosting at least one of the holiday dinners. This year it was Passover.

The turkey was marinating, the Matzo ball recipe tested, the kugel delicious. I had put aside these last few days to practice making Polish Passover specialties. Every year I attach a certain theme to the dinners, which I began hosting the year my husband’s aunt was diagnosed with cancer. She was having a particularly difficult time going through chemotherapy – I felt it important to host a dinner in gratitude of her still being with us. And so I took my place in my husband’s family, squeezed myself into the ranks of the women. Not a small feat for a divorced, Lutheran, German girl in a Jewish family.

This year for Passover, I wanted to honour Bubby, our 91-year-old matriarch. Bubby used to make all the holiday dinners, all of them: two for Passover, two for Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, at least one for Chanukah. She crowded us around her single dining room table, used her own china, and stayed true to tradition. She also used to make Friday night Shabbats dinners, but she hasn’t been doing that for a while now, and I miss that. That’s what got me thinking about dedicating this year’s dinner to her.

It’s silly this idea of a theme, of a dedication – no one but me notices, or appreciates the idea. The other silly part was that I was cooking foods Bubby used to cook, in honour of her, for her – but Bubby never eats anyone else’s food.

And then, as I was running errands to buy the last perfect touches to my big dinner, hurrying to make it home before the delivery men arrived with tables, chairs, and dishes, my phone rang. It was my sister. She asked me where I was, asked me to pull over, asked me to stop driving, told me our mother had died moments ago.

What do you do when you hear news like that? I sat waiting, waiting for what I didn’t know. I had a hiccup of a sob, something that felt more like an accidental expansion of my esophageous than a cry. My sister too, seemed at a loss.

My mother was an alcoholic. Up until a month and a half before her death, she lived in isolation, drinking herself into oblivion more often than not. In October, six months before she died, I received another phone call, this time at one in the morning. It was her landlady. “You better come, this time it’s really bad”.

I arrived to find my mother lying naked across the doorway from her bathroom, apparently she fell off the toilet. The landlady had kindly covered her in some threadbare towels in an attempt to spare me the indignity. She needn’t have bothered. Been there, done that.

My mother was delirious-drunk. She had been on such a binge that all her extremities were swollen; her face and head being so bloated her glasses no longer fit. The ambulance came, waited patiently as I struggled with my mother to get her underwear on. She left to the hospital without any shoes. As the paramedics wheeled her out of her stinking apartment, I noticed feces on the walls.

I’m left now with the work of unraveling the space left by her death. How do I mourn a woman that literally drowned her own sad pain and misery, drowned out her life? A woman so undone by her own tragedies I, her daughter, seemed but a footnote next to all that suffering.

How do you fill a space once kept up by hope, longing, hate, love, pain, and shit and misery? And then, why ask how to fill it? I don’t have to wonder anymore if she is lying dead in a pool of urine and vomit in her apartment. I don’t have to wonder if she is sober because I can’t call her anymore anyway. I don’t have to feel guilty about adding to her pail of misery because I haven’t called or gone to see her. I don’t have to worry if she is starving because she spent all her money on alcohol. I don’t have to worry when the phone rings that it might be the police telling me they picked my mother up drunk somewhere.

All that space freed up.

And when she moved to my sister’s shortly before her death, I worried about her getting drunk around the kids, me wanting to spare them the horror I had experienced as a child. Yet somehow no one else saw my mother as the terrifying witch that I did. No one else saw the spittle flying as she raged drunkenly at all the injustice done her. No one else seemed to see the tear-stained, snot-faced woman who reeked of urine and beer, who, once the rage passed, wailed out her sorrow over her own dead mother, lost to her at the age of eleven. All drunken roads led home for her, every one of them.

What space that took up in her life, in mine.

And I’m struck by the extremes – my mother’s life so affected by her mother’s death, my dinner party the night after her own. I worry my own ambivalence may be a reaction to her inability to deal with her pain, to package it, to stop it from consuming her. She drank it all, I refuse to taste – in the end both deprive themselves of knowing the thing for what it is. I can’t know it because I choose not to get close enough. She could not stand apart long enough to see anything other than the pain of loss, of mother, of love and hope – as something that might have been just a little separate from her. Separate enough maybe to make space for something, or for someone.