Walk by a yard which is hidden by a fence, and you still see the yard as though through ghosted wood. Motion and persistence of vision allow you to reconstruct what is beyond the fence, to see it whole and seamless. The fence slats fade in the illusion, yet it is not the fence which is the illusion.
What we call experience is only motion acted out against a copy of what we froze in our memory a moment before. Walking by a slatted fence gives us a special peek-a-boo example of what is always and everyday happening in our consciousness, except without our noticing it. Experience, therefore, is actually experience reconstructed and theorized.
Experience is a theory.
How can memory not be?
I know hardly anything of my mother. She died in 1952, before I was two years old, before my brother Tommy was one. She was already sickly by the time she had Tommy.
My sister Marylou, who is a year and half older than me, says she remembers her. My sister Irene, who is four years older than me, clearly remembers her. I have no sense of even missing her.
I must imagine who my mother was from the children that she had. From the children of her siblings whom I have met. From mere glimpses of her siblings themselves. From slight touches of biography.
There is really not much to go on.
My mother’s name was Ramona Evelyn Cecil, but everybody knew her as Mona. In my own generation, until—having to do some business with the government—we encountered her name written in full on her death certificate, Mona Cecil was the only name we knew her by. A granddaughter had been named after her, but was called Mona not Ramona, because no one in our generation then knew our mother’s name in expanded form.
(The granddaughter was not pleased–she said so, she exasperated over it in the living room–when she learned that her name really should have been Ramona—but that’s a later story.)
My mother had a little genetic disfigurement above her lip which she passed on to my sister Irene and to me, more my sister than me, but which hardly shows or matters anyway.
My father said of her—one of the rare things that he ever said about her—that she liked to hang about and watch the men play cards.
There is a special Jewish term for such behaviour which I encountered somewhere. What that term is I can’t recall. But if there’s a word for it, that’s evidence of a particular personality type, I suppose.
On another occasion, I don’t really remember when it was, my father spoke to us, Marylou, Irene and me together, and—with the stiffened manner and serious voice of someone who is saying something unpleasant but necessary—told us, “You may as well know it. Your mother was a bitch.”
Actually, in recalling that occasion, I was more bemused by my father’s manner than by what he was saying about my mother. He was speaking about somebody real to him. Someone he had to brace himself to speak poorly of.
For me on the other hand, my mother was so far from being real that through most of my childhood I omitted to even imagine her. I neither missed her, nor knew to miss her. And to be utterly honest, when it occurred to me to remember her at all, I mostly and ungratefully thought it convenient that she wasn’t around.
If she had been around, as I saw it, then the life I had, and the particular relationship I depended on with my father, would not have been possible. And growing up, I did not like the idea of anyone interfering with that. Not even my mother.
To return to what my father said about her, while it could be true that my mother was a bitch, it could also be true that my father was not objective.
I must first admit that I would not be surprised if he was right about my mother, even if also a little judgmental. In our family, we possess our allotted share—at least—of strong and difficult personalities, and some of those strong and difficult personalities are female. Yes, they are.
But you can’t know in individual cases how much of a person’s personality is passed down, and how much of it develops along the way.
And I also know my father’s theory of women. They were a burden, in his opinion, an interference with a man’s freedom, with what was to him a necessary freedom. He warned me of this matter of women many times growing up. And I even believed him for some of my life—not so it noticeably affected anything—but that theory went away when nature moved in.
My father also said—and I’m not even sure if he said it directly to me—that most of the women in his life chased him down. I don’t doubt that that is true, either, given his attitude and given his undoubted desirability to women. (He was, after all, handsome, intelligent, athletic and sober—but more of that later.)
I suspect that chase my father down and wrestle him to the ground is exactly what my mother did. Whatever it required. And it undoubtedly takes a certain kind of strong personality to engage in takedowns of vaguely female-phobic bachelors. And that flavour of personality might sometimes—maybe even accurately—be called bitchy.
Especially by said victim, still a little smarting and unforgiving about being thus wrestled to the ground and tied about with the moral chains of family.
The only other thing I know about my mother is that she favoured my father’s genetics. My brother Tom and I shared a father. However, Marylou’s father was my uncle Jim, Dad’s brother. That means Marylou’s grandparents are the same as my own, and that she’s simultaneously my half sister and my first cousin as well. Marylou and I couldn’t possibly be more related without actually sharing both parents.
She has never felt like a half sister to me.
Irene’s father I know nothing about. What I do know is that after having a kid with Irene’s father in 1946, my mother then moved on to having a kid with my Uncle Jim in 1948. Marylou. And deciding, I guess, that she liked the Collins brand name, my mother then switched brothers while Jim was out fishing, and landed George.
I don’t think that’s as scandalous as it might seem. My Uncle Jim was even less a family-type man than my father was. I don’t think he was away fishing intending to come back to my mother. He was just away fishing. Regardless, if there was any trouble arising between George and Jim because of Mom switching brothers that way, no rumour of it ever got to me.
Thus in 1950, I arrived. That year in June, the month after my birth, my father and mother were married. In 1951, ten and a half months after my birth, my brother Tommy came along. As mentioned, my mother was already ill at Tommy’s birth. She had cancer. And in March of 1952, in a Prince Rupert hospital, my mother died from complications from that cancer. She was then about 27 years old.
With my mother’s death, one set of possibilities disappeared from my life. I’m not sure that for most of my life I understood this. I lost the possibility of a normal childhood lived in one place in a home with sisters and brothers.
I don’t know—how could I?—how real the possibilities for such a life ever were. But if such hopes ever were realistic, it is clear they withered away when my mother died. As we shall see….
With my mother’s death our family fragmented. Marylou and Irene went to live with my mother’s sister in Aiyansh. My brother Tommy was put up for adoption. He was sickly because my mother was already sick when she had him, and my father chose him for adoption because of that. My father said so many times.
Our doctor—I don’t know what his name was—set up the adoption. He had heard that Heber Clifton, a Tsimshian of high name and family from Hartley Bay, was looking for a child to adopt, and the doctor told Heber about Tommy—and my father about Heber, I suppose—and introduced the families. And so it was arranged.
And as for me—and this is the way I have always felt—I was the lucky one, the healthy one, the chosen inheritor, the one who remained behind after everyone else had to leave.
I was the chosen boy.
I was the one my father kept.
Continues at Legends of Myself 3