The Four Mothers
The Moth, For sure
her soFter MouTh
rose (eros), Fur, heM, hotT ( strictly from the perspective of how a dad views ‘mom’ – his wife)
Generally, I do not ‘observe’ a date just because some group at some point decided to designate a certain day of the year to commemorate some cause or event, either real or invented and which years or centuries later Hallmark decided to capitalize upon and for which hundreds and thousands of flowers are plucked and bundled up. Nor do I think that people who are truly important in our lives and to whom we owe a lot should be wished and remembered only on the one day our calendar has demarcated us to. But some ‘designated days’ perhaps are named after those people without whom we would not have popped out into this world. Literally.
So since I’d thought of writing about these women some day in any case, I thought that it would be only appropriate that I send them a virtual salute on Mother’s Day. And I’ll keep it short ’cause even before I completed this paragraph my geeky mind had veered off into all the different connotations of the word and somehow I’d found myself wiki-ing the word ‘mother‘ and its translations in different languages. But, thankfully, I’m back after that meandering away from the Mother ship.
I have four mothers in my life. There is no other way to put it. And no, my father did not marry four times. In fact he is still married to the woman who gave birth to me. I have four mothers because I received love and learned from four women through different stages of my life. And since I lived in different cities and countries where my birth mother wasn’t always physically present, I had my other mother-figures as surrogates by accidental meetings. But because of these four very special, very wonderful women I have learned so much about love, about life, about learning and logic and limericks and laughter, it would seem unfair to say that one was less influential than the other.
To this day they love me, and I love them incredibly. And so this is my little ode to each of them. Though I am inclined to not cite their names, more so because I am very private in person, I still feel I should. When out there in the media, so many shallow women battle to get their names in and mentioned through acts of notoriety, I’d rather put forth instead the names (or at least parts of the names) of four authentic, beautiful, brilliant , humble and truly good-hearted women. I have used the maiden name for my mother here, and for the other two the family name they go by, and only the last lady mentioned here took on her husband’s family name.
Mom no. 1 (A. Dutsch): My birth mother. The one who shaped my first perceptions of the world around me. Gentle, calm, confident, beautiful and rational-to-an-extreme. A blend of four ethnicities. A doctorate in philosophy with a major in mathematics and a minor in political science. A perfect 100% score in mathematics in her high school graduation. Former math professor and teacher. And also a yoga teacher for a while. Still practices yoga daily and can do envious 180 degree splits and twist her body like a pretzel. The one due to whom I was exposed to books of both western and eastern philosophies early on, particularly Russell, Nietzsche and Aurobindo. To books of math, physics, paintings, puzzles. And M.C. Escher – her favourite. The one who made sure I ate healthy meals; who encouraged my fascination for jigsaws, riddles, Lego, scrabble, gymnastics, ballet, science books, Tintin & Asterix comics and trivia-quiz books (while my dad was only too happy to teach me about car engines and geologic rocks on Sundays).
The mom who was tolerant and accommodating of every little wounded bird and animal and critter I’d ‘rescue’ and bring home as a pet; who made me a member of a library at age 7 giving in to my incessant pleas; who attended every major event of my academic and cultural milestones to show her support and love: my first dance performance, every theatrical play I featured in later, my photo-shoots (‘just to make sure the photographer doesn’t take advantage of you!’), my music concerts, my award ceremonies for various quiz and debating contests, when I graduated from architecture school as valedictorian and snagged both the gold medals; at the inauguration of the first project I designed from the company I’d started, the look in her eyes when I showed her my work was the best fee a young architect could get.
The one who was strict towards me at times telling me I could have a boyfriend only after I graduated from university. The one who stayed up late in the nights when I’d pull all nighters at work just in case I needed something. The one who went up to the Himalayas later to convince me to not become a monk in the mountains nor quit through escapism; the one who decided to learn and master the Russian language at age 40 ‘for a lark’ and ended up acing her class. The one who finally reconciled with my hobby for extreme sports and mountaineering. (I think now sometimes how she did it…I wonder how I’d feel if I ever had a child and knew that he/she did high-risk acts.)
Efficient, ordered, introspective. A woman who abhors guilt-and-pity-inducing-displays by adults and yet is an immensely generous donor to animal shelters and for sponsoring street children. Quietly and privately and anonymously. And still loves roller coasters and amusement park rides.
The mother who briefly teared up for only the second time I saw her cry in my life when I boarded the plane to go far away from home. The one who cheered as I won four fellowships in grad school. The one who would exasperate me at times reminding me of the writers, doctors, mathematicians and Euro-socialist politicians from her side of the family. That our “genes kick in sooner or later, until we use our Will to shape our futures.” The one who would call me ‘impractical’ because I’d follow my heart; till the day she finally admitted I was more intelligent than her and made good decisions.
The one who sent me long philosophical hand-written letters, who called in to check once every 2 weeks, who has a tendency to never display her own needs partly out of self-discipline and partly out of pride to never show her vulnerability. Yet almost telepathically calls me when she ‘senses’ something’s wrong at my end. The one who is so darn rational, unemotional and unruffled, at times I suspected this year that she might have a mild touch of Asperger’s. Who took so effortlessly to her first laptop late in her life without even any instruction manual that I had the aha moment that my mother all along had been an ubergeek born before her times.
The one who had told me to “be strong, don’t cry” so forcefully and repeatedly every time I’d come home after facing bullying in school, that it took me years before I learned to not be so Spock-like stoic, but take time to quietly cry if I did feel sad. The one who follows her head more than her heart (except when she had fallen in love with my dad at 18). The mom I have never ever seen screaming, yelling, raging or ranting. Nor ever fight with my father. Not one single day for all the years I have known her. The one who is calm and strength and stability personified. Whose girlish feminine voice belies the undisturbed steel inside.
The woman with an age-and-gravity-defying bosom (genes I’ve hopefully inherited.).
The one who loves discussing about science, philosophy, the inter-connections of the world around us, yoga, the problem with religious and medical quacks, sees the ridiculousness of most forms of ritualism and bursts out laughing at those…..the one who told me and often repeats: “There is no compromise to personal dignity.” (Please check the ‘AFTERTHOUGHTS’ addition at the end for a more ‘human’ painting that represents my mother.)
Mom no. 2 (R. Zimberg): Funny, fiery, feisty, optimistic, freckled, petite, bursting-with-chutzpah redheaded Rochelle. Where do I begin?
She took me into her house on Dudley Avenue one windy grey November night when I had to move out from two very cruel roommates during grad school. My landlady, my friend, my mentor on financial acumen, my part-time surrogate mom – to me and to many other girls who by an incredible luck in life ended up as her tenants.
A former Director of the association of Canadian municipalities for her entire province. Former Liberal Party of Canada member and election candidate. Breast-cancer survivor and proud of it. Avid golfer; dragon-boat-rower; Entrepreneur. Art-collector. Aunt to many kids, godmother to others. Never got married. An infectious laugh that brings a room to life. Canadian. Australian. Russian-Jewish. Had two cats, Peanut and Pi – the latter who lived for a record 24 years. Open, adventurous (at 23 she went off for over a year hitch-hiking all through Europe and the Middle East after catching a Dutch freighter from the port of Montreal after a visit to the Expo and later went on to scale the Tibetan mountains at the age of 65) and traveled widely. Went off for 3 years in 2006 to start up and work as a principal in a school in China. Wrote a series of ‘postcards’ about all her travels from Mongolia to Vietnam and everything in between.
Rochelle, who would leave treats for me when I’d come back home from long nights at the studio; who told me that a man ‘unwinds’ in front of the TV and a woman unwinds in a bubble bath jacuzzi. Rochelle – who drove me many times to the airport when I’d just be about to miss my flights; Rochelle – who taught me all the tricks and trades of good financial decisions, investments and financial independence and security; Rochelle – who loved hosting dinner parties with great panache, candles, silverware and all the works; Rochelle – who held me tightly as I cried inconsolably the evening my very first boyfriend broke my heart and when I was done crying I looked out at the yellow-pink sky after a storm and saw a rainbow and solemnly announced to her that ‘This rainbow is my new beginning’ and she said with all her chutzpah – “There you go, girl. Never, never have regrets in life; and never look back, only ahead.” Rochelle who– when I in order not to be noticed too much after an incident in grad school had started dressing dowdy – stopped me in front of the mirror one morning on the way out and told me: “Now listen. Never, never give up your personality and never dress dowdy just to appease those who are insecure. If you are a lady and other women get jealous of that, that’s their problem. And if men get attracted because of how you look, that’s their problem too. Promise me that you won’t lose who you are because of those who like to bully a good girl.” And then she made me change back from the shapeless gray smock I was wearing to an elegant red blouse – one of my favourite colours.
Whenever I come across any good-hearted young girl who has moved to or is visiting Canada, and if she needs some help or advice, my heart goes out to her like an older sister. When one lovely girl I met last year wanted to thank me, I told her it wasn’t necessary – I was only passing on Rochelle’s legacy. For once I had been alone and naive and because of her I had been safe from a storm. And even to this day I can call her when I want and talk to her about my life. My work. My dilemmas. Or lament why I tended to get attracted to insanely intelligent eccentric men, who would mostly turn out to be Jewish. And she would let out her characteristic laugh and say: “Oy vey! as long as you can deal with the Mother!”
Update (2010): Since writing this article, Rochelle went off on a two year stint in Egypt taking up another school Principal assignment. The revolution in Egypt started and she had to run to Israel for security. After her return to Canada, she will soon be off to Arizona. Her adventures continue……
Mom no. 3 (S. Brien): I fell in love with Sylvie at first sight. Completely. Irrevocably. Unfathomably. Not because she resembled a Raphael-esque version of a Marilyn Monroe but with higher cheek bones, not because she was the mother of the Frenchman I was with at the time and would stay with for many years, and not because of her poise and elegance. It was because of a powerful connection to a heart that was softly, beautifully, unconditionally good. Pure unadulterated Goodness. That stood out at our first meeting. The first hug. The first smile. We recognized something in each other that I still cannot find the words to explain.
She was the mother I still consider as the one who gave me the softest, warmest kind of unconditional love. My real mother loves me unconditionally too, but as I’d mentioned she is rational and ruled-by-her head. Sylvie was all heart. She took me into her family like a long-lost daughter. She told me that she’d always wanted a daughter, after her 3 sons, and had gone as far as trying to adopt a girl (which never happened as some corrupted officials of the country from where she was adopting, as she later found out, had stolen the money and bungled the process.) Sylvie herself had been adopted. Along with her twin sibling and two other children by a kind dentist and his wife.
Sometimes, when I need courage and/or inspiration in life I think of her personal story of strength and resolve. Her life itself, which I will not talk about, was like the fantastic plot-line of a novel – one that she herself should write a book about someday – as she had transformed from a mother-of-twins-at-19 to a lawyer to a best-selling author in French both for adult and children’s books. She became the first woman and only the second writer from Quebec that the exclusive French publishing house Gallimard had signed up and her books are widely read in both Quebec and France. Currently one of her books is being made into a film. When you hear a young girl on French TV say that her favourite young-adult writers are J.K. Rowling and Sylvie Brien, you know that you’re writing something that young teens love to read. Albeit the French market is very small.
In the last few years she has already produced 20 books and now makes her living as a writer. Complete with a cottage in the picturesque Laurentian mountains which she recently acquired. But when I’d met her she was still practicing law. A workplace accident that forced her to take rest for a year made her decide to write her first book and there was no looking back. The first book I still think was her best – a story about a woman’s journey through time and of love and loss, written with an extremely elegant literary flourish.
It is from Sylvie that I learned the most how beautifully a woman could combine femininity and feminism (that of inner-strength and intrinsic self-worth, not the angry ideological kind), to have kick-ass time management and organizational skills and yet retain soft-loving-kindness. To manage to be a mother, wife, writer, traveler without losing any of her strength to her delicate appearance. One day an evening a few years back, I was passing by a book store on a street in downtown Montreal and saw the store window lined with her books and a huge picture of her. The book ‘Les Templiers du Nouveau Monde,’ had been written a year before the Da Vinci Code and was a work of literature unlike the latter, but the curiosity of the Templars increased by the Code had boosted the sales of her book. Sylvie was very embarrassed about it and wished the timing had been different.
It was weird when I saw her poster – to me she was the woman who would bake the best banana cake at Christmas and serve a meal to remember every time I went to her place, but to the buyers in the store she was ‘an author’ for whose signed copies they had lined up. She’d take me along at times to her book readings and launches. She does not like driving and has a hard-to-resist vulnerability that belies her inner will. It is truly strange how when you know someone on a personal level, their public persona is something you can never get used to. Another book of hers went on to get chosen by the UNESCO to represent Montreal when the city was declared the world book capital in 2006. She has told me many times to write my own books and said it was an injustice to one’s heart to let words and thoughts remain unexpressed. “The first book is always autobiographical,” she said. “Therapeutic. And after that you are set free.”
The French literary world may view her as a successful writer for youth and adults, but to me she will always remain Sylvie, the soft, kind, loving mother who always wore her heart and vulnerability on her sleeve for me, who hugged me the day I went crying to her over my lost cat, the one who understood the cruelty of the world to women with good hearts, the one who always baked a cake for me on my birthdays and gave a thoughtful present on Christmas (including the very first bottle of French perfume anyone had ever gifted me), the one who took my side over her own son when he’d make errors, the one who even after I was no longer with her son warmly invited me to stay over at her house when I had moved away from Montreal and no longer had a place of my own to stay in the city on a visit back there, the one who told me that she loves me so much that the bond she and I share would always be there, no matter who I chose to be with. That some connections of love can never be broken because they are framed not by blood and legal ties, but by ‘the language of the heart.’ And by the recognition of inherent goodness.
Mom no. 4 (A. Hanganu): At Le Groupe Arcop, Anca was called the ‘resident nut.’ Lovingly of course. The first impression when I saw her at my first job at a Montreal firm (after my free-lance days) was of a woman who was unique. And exceptionally different in every which way. Stunningly beautiful. With the saddest, craziest pair of green eyes that saw right through you. Intelligent and talented to the point of insanity. And eccentric. Oh yes! Eccentric.
I told her years later that even though she was much older, I had felt an attraction to her first that had been strongly, alarmingly, almost sexual. (Nothing of that sort materialized in reality, for those with imaginative minds reading this ;-)
Anca, who could dine with kings and heads of state at building inaugurations like an elegant fashionista in the most refined locales of the world, then fly off in a rickety helicopter to do a project all on her own for a school in rural Bangladesh, then go off to exotic lands like Tajikistan, forests in Madagascar, tea gardens in Darjeeling and war zones in Afghanistan. She possessed the stubbornness of a mule, the courage of a lioness and the litheness of a gazelle. A mother to two gorgeous daughters. Today at 62, her works and designs as an award-winning architect are splattered through the world.
The firm paired us up almost immediately in the year 2000. “She’s a very difficult woman to work with,” said Bruce, a senior partner, “but for some reason she likes you a lot and you seem to get her. Yes, in fact you seem to get along very well with her. Damn, I think she loves you.”
The question was – how could I not get along with her?
This was a woman after my own heart. Free. Feminine. Fearless. And incredibly, yes, incredibly, unfathomably kind. The same Anca, who could grab a contractor on site by his collar and speak to him like a man over some construction issue, could delay a meeting at work if she had to help some stranger on the street or fight for a social cause where someone had faced injustice. Her work in the world included as much architecture as it did social justice. Especially for the women in forgotten parts. With an abhorrence for publicity and an adherence to only her integrity. To write of her works would take an entire post so I will not include them here.
With her I had spent countless hours at the office, pouring in cups of coffee and poring over drawings till 4 in the morning at times. Accompanied her to crazy places and sites and discussed design with the passionate fire that had kept us in the profession despite all its trials and tribulations. Straight lines, sinewed curves, drafting, daftness, defiance, devotion. We would often describe the thrill we got as we created concepts and designs to an orgasmic experience. It was largely due to my proximity and dialogues with her that I got released to be free with the sexual metaphors that are used in the architectural workplace. Anca was uninhibited. Wild -yet-principled. Never cared for the status quo nor gave a damn for protocol. She still remains that way.
Those long nights of work, dinners at sushi restaurants, little gifts she would bring for me from her travels, free discussions about sex, philosophy, life, love, those caring, loving, wild, free, gypsy eyes…..it is always with a twinge that I remember both the exhaustion and exhilaration of working, working and designing with her, before she sent me to work for her famous and even more eccentric husband as he asked her if he could ‘borrow’ me at his firm.
I never understood how she loved him the way she did, and one day I understood when I felt that for someone else. When I did, I told her husband words he said he will never forget: and which had made him cry: “I often used to wonder how your wife can love you as she does, no matter the difficulties and disappointments you have given to her in Life, although you are a genius at your Work. Most would say she’s a fool to love you the way she does. But the truth is, and it shows in her eyes, she stays by your side as your greatest supporter, your deepest lover and your most faithful friend simply because she loves you. Immensely. Her love is so complete that it never edits out any part of you. She had once said to me that when you had married her she had told you that she would love you just the way you were and you never had to change a thing. I can see now how she lived up to her words. Once, when I had asked her how she could put up with all your moods and ways, she had told me laughingly – “It’s so easy!! People like to complicate things and look for all sorts of intellectual, philosophical, material and psychological explanations; but the simple truth is that when you love someone completely and unconditionally, it all becomes easy. SO easy!!” And she had laughed in her carefree and mad way. I used to wonder what force kept her going. But now I understand that when love is real and based on acceptance and not expectation – nothing, that’s right, nothing that that person says or does, no matter how his moods sway, all of him is taken in by the love you hold for him. That love like that lives, inspires and redeems for itself.”
Yes, it was understanding Anca and her unique way of perceiving the world that made me decipher something very powerful in life. A lesson even more important than the work and the architecture that had bound us intrinsically together and lived through our joint designs in sandstone and steel. silk and stucco. Anca my work-Mother who taught me what real love, talent, passion, artistry, invincibility and eccentricity truly are and why those qualities when added with everything else makes a woman so remarkably unique.
Here’s to my four mothers! The scientist-philosopher, the leader-entrepreneur, the poet-planner and the architect-activist. Definitely the four most important and influential women in my world who taught me lessons on love, life, logic, language, laughter and learning. I wonder sometimes if life chooses our mothers for us or we choose the mothers in our life…in any case I feel incredibly blessed to have had both. A happy day to my quartet maternelle – and to all the kind, loving, wonderful mothers around the world…
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AFTERTHOUGHTS ON MOTHER NO. 1
I realised this evening after publishing this post that M.C. Escher is my mother’s favourite artist along with Dali and Picasso, so the Escher etching represents more her mind or her mode of thinking, but it does not represent her femininity. So I chose two paintings which to me capture my mother’s essence the most and her favourite colour blue; her high level of comfort with her body; her love for the ocean; the way my father whose hobbies included photography would capture her in his photos in earlier days; and the way I myself had photographed her once draped only in blue fabric. The woman in ‘Le Magie Noir’ represents more her calmness – her abstract, yet complex mathematical way of thinking while the one in ‘La robe du soir’ is more of my first memories of her physical appearance and her long hair. It had to be Magritte because if Escher is the ‘harder’ representation of her mind, Magritte is definitely her softer, mysterious side.
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Note: When I had started this blog I had promised myself that this would cover topics that were not just reflective and thought-provoking, but that in the process of sensitivities, the harder and not-so-pretty facts of life would not be omitted. So in light of the day, I’d like to point out that those of us who are lucky in life to have had good moms, consider yourself exceptionally fortunate. Unfortunately for some people, and I hope that is a real minority, this may not be the case….Long before neuroscience and experimental psychology found how stress-and-fear related hormones like cortisol in our systems can be permanently affected by the way a mother loves/or does not love her children, and how so much of our mothers’ behaviour affects our psychology later in life, Sigmund Freud had already found the connection between mothers and children in the shaping of our future patterns and choices in life. So in order to keep the truth objective, and to leave it to the reader to continue their own research should they want, I have attached this link about a new book that has hit the stands ‘Mean Mothers’ by Pegg Streep and its related article : ‘Freud was right : Mean mothers can scar for life.’ For those of us with good mothers who were not affected by BPD, NPD, HPD and other mood/empathy disorders please feel lucky, very very lucky. And perhaps that itself is enough reason to wish your mother warmly today and at many other times through the year.
Also – Rebecca Walker- the daughter of famed feminist Alice Walker – writes how her mother’s fanatical ideologies tore them apart, and how her mother’s public persona of a woman’s rights activist was sharply contrasted by the reality of how ruthless, emotionally withholding and narcissistic she was in her private life towards her own daughter. A must-read : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1021293/How-mothers-fanatical-feminist-views-tore-apart-daughter-The-Color-Purple-author.html