Reading My Mother's Journals Is Like Having Her Back, If Only For A Moment

It's now an annual Mother's Day ritual for me.
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For 92 years, we were inseparable. But ever one to enter the room with a flourish, my mother proved to be a master of the timely exit. She passed away right before Mother's Day.

She died unexpectedly after a brief hospital stay, an "annual blood-pressure tune-up," we had jokingly coined it when it became a predictable spring occurrence. But, at 92 and otherwise healthy, she contracted pneumonia. Within three days, she went from being cognitively alert, to laboured breathing on oxygen and permanent organ failure. Her last day — medicated for comfort, not recovery — was peaceful. Then she was gone.

Mother's Day that year was tough, but in her absence, as her only child and daughter, I had her hand-written journals. And it was immersed in those, wrapped in the comfort of her words, that I spent Mother's Day 2017. I went to her apartment the evening before, sat first on her deck overlooking the ocean, and later in her well-worn La-Z-Boy, tucked down for the evening with a bottle of wine and nothing but time, to read, reflect and connect through the written word with the woman I loved dearly. That evening turned into morning as I finished reading the last of her 12 journals. It was not the Mother's Day I had expected, yet it was oddly perfect.

My mother's journals.
My mother's journals.

The journals were not a surprise. In fact, we had encouraged this activity. But other than the occasional anecdotal glance through, or a discussion about something she had written, we had never taken the time to read them in their entirety while she was alive. She no doubt knew we would someday, and so remained dedicated to documenting stories and wisdom for future generations.

The volumes told of her family, friends and life history. They burst with both the familiar as well as new tales and insights. I learned of first love, paths not chosen and a few regrets. New information helped connect me with the daughter of a deceased foster child who would have been an adopted sister if events had played out differently.

Such gifts of the written word to one's family are rare these days.

There was history — a lot of history — and family stories that I've since been able to share with cousins. The journals offered perspectives on her world travels, her life as a young woman during the war years, a reflection on her career of teaching, a love of anything daring, a deep faith, and the times of a fiercely independent woman who could have travelled many routes, but deeply impacted those on the one she took.

Random notations of what she had for dinner, grocery items to pick up, errands to run, stock prices, societal trends and predictions for the future often randomly interjected her funny and reflective stories. The written page jumped about at times with excitement, not unlike a conversation with her (albeit a monologue in written form), and without the necessity of repeating statements while she turned up her hearing aids. It was like having a little piece of her back. From the profound to the mundane, the journals left me riveted until the morning, exhausted but satisfied.

Such gifts of the written word to one's family are rare these days. In an age where instant sharing online can be so gratifying, and can indeed keep a multi-generation family intimately connected, the need to communicate manually through scrip has become a lost art.

While that message might be preserved online through a blog or Facebook post, the possible impermanence in digital form, and difficulty in sharing broadly to future generations in time, is something we should all regard with caution. Fascination for online sharing, updating, liking and posting has also clipped narratives into a summation of headlines and photos or video, with decreasing emphasis on written storytelling. Letters and journals, in contrast, force us to create theatre of the mind as we fill the visual gaps through the descriptive words on a page. The result is an intimate and personal connection.

As the sun rose that morning, I wearily closed the cover on the last journal. In her physical absence she had created a permanent gift through the written word. Reading a few passages on Mother's Day is now an annual ritual.

Mary Charleson is a marketing speaker, writer and consultant by trade, and a travel writer by passion. She lives in North Vancouver with her family. Her mother Nancy Holborn was a resident of West Vancouver, a community she made her home after moving west from Ontario at age 77.

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