Seeing Myself in My Parents; Seeing My Parents in Myself

Sometime last year I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party. As I stood in the café area of our local swimming pool, chatting to one of the birthday girl’s grandparents, hands deep in the pockets of my bulky khaki-coloured parka, I suddenly had a moment of what can only be best described as déjà vu. Only it wasn’t that I’d experienced this moment before (because yes, I know, déjà vu is nothing uncanny, it’s just a memory short) it was that for a moment I was my dad and my dad was me. A memory of my dad had suddenly inhabited me. He was waiting for me in an equally unremarkable setting, hands deep in his pockets, rocking back and forth from the balls of his feet to his heels, effortlessly exchanging pleasantries with someone he’d only just met. I saw myself in him. And him in me.

And just the other day, driving my son to gymnastics, I saw him in the way I had splayed my fingers across the steering wheel. Another habit of my dad’s. My father also had a deep respect for science but, also, he loved an uncanny mystery. Erich von Däniken’s books fascinated him. One of the last ever conversations I had with him before he died was about the film Inner Space. He had picked me up from a friend’s house where I’d just seen it, and as we drove home we enthusiastically discussed the concept of miniaturization, whether it would ever be possible, and what its consequences would be for humans and whether or not it could play a role in medicine. (Something I explored in one of my short stories, which, one day, will hopefully be ‘out there’.)

I cherish these findings. Although of course they make me remember how much I miss him.

Because my dad died when I was pretty young (15) I never really went through the ‘I’m so embarrassed by my dad’ stage. However, I’m not sure whether or not I would have ever gone through this stage with him anyway. I’m pretty sure he was an HSP – though a ‘gregarious’ one, because he was adept at socializing – and so in public places he would keep a low profile. (Though this could’ve also been something to do with being an immigrant.) Anyway, he didn’t embarrass me. My mum, on the other hand, specialized in embarrassing me. (Although, interestingly, she is an immigrant too, and sensitive at heart. But she’s an off-the-scale extrovert. I guess that trumps all!)

For a start, she had a stint as a nude model. At a well-known private boys’ school. Then there was the Russian accent, flamboyant clothes, and a tendency to make everyone in a public place know that she was there. As an HSC (highly-sensitive child) tending towards introvertism this attention-grabbing (to my mind) behaviour made me cringe. All I wanted was to be ‘normal’ like the other kids. My mum was badly letting the side down.

 

An Important Lesson

However, from the one phrase that my dad said semi-regularly (the one thing that I didn’t like to hear him say, because of course, it meant I had a chore to do!): “Teika, sometimes in life, there are things that you don’t want to do. But you’ve still got to do them.” I must’ve subconsciously taken the following:

  1. Some things are out of our control. (Like having an embarrassing mum.)
  2. You have to find a way to get through them. (You keep your head down and promise yourself you’ll never embarrass your own kids in the future.)

Nowadays, I relish repeating his words to my kids. They groan and roll their eyes, but actually, it’s a wonderful thing to discuss, as it give us an opportunity to consider things like fairness, doing and sharing chores, and the importance of finishing tasks. It also leads on to bigger issues – must we like our work? If we don’t, do we stick with it, or not? – and other such things.

Now that I’m a lot older and understand more about my father’s background, and his home country, Latvia, which was besieged by both the Russians and the Germans in WWII, I can read far more into those words. In a wartorn homeland there will be difficult choices to make. Difficult things to do. I thank God that so far I haven’t had to make those kinds of difficult choices.

So when it comes to my childhood “suffering” as ‘being a bit embarrassed by my mum’ I see how trivial my apparent tribulations were. Still, as a child, fitting in seems to be so crucial, doesn’t it? We want our ‘tribe’ – our peers – to accept us, don’t we?

So I hope I’m getting the balance right for my kids. As an HSP my default is to keep my head down and keep quiet, not draw attention to myself. Yet there is a time and place to make a noise, kick up a fuss. My dad once spoke to me about making a fuss, going to the papers etc. if my school wouldn’t allow me to change one of my GCSEs (from Design to French) halfway through the first year of our GCSEs. The Head said it couldn’t be done; I’d be too far behind, I’d fail. When I asked him what he’d tell the school if they said ‘no’ he said that he’d threaten to chain himself to the radiators, and call in journalists. The headline would be ‘SCHOOL STOPS PUPIL FROM LEARNING!’. (We had it all figured out.) Thankfully, it never came to that. His diplomancy and quiet insistence won out. But still, his patient determination – being the discomforting stone in the Headteacher’s shoe – impressed on me. In many ways I’ve inherited this ‘rebellious’ streak, and my own ‘quiet’ acts of assertion on behalf of myself and my children when faced with ignorance, prejudice or baroque attitudes to education (or breastfeeding or whatever) have been bolstered by my memory of his fights on my behalf.

Oh, and by the way I got an A in GCSE French. (Take that, school!)

 

My Lovely Mum

I realize that this post has focussed more on my father than my mother (it can be easy to take a living loved one for granted, can’t it? I apologise Mum!) so I will remedy that now.

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

Portrait of Ludmila, by Marija Smits

After all the “years of embarrassment” of having an extrovert mother, when I was sure that our differences were so great we couldn’t possibly be related (!) I grew up. Mellowed. Heck, today is my 41st birthday. I can finally see our similarities. Both of us find inaction abhorrent. She seems to either be cooking or washing up continuously. Or cleaning our greenhouse (only to have the kids mess it up within a few minutes…). I can’t not tidy or pick up after the kids; I can’t not be writing or planning something creative in my head. We’re both musical and emotional, cry in church or at films or at the theatre. Or well… virtually anything that even somewhat pulls at our heartstrings. We’re both pretty optimistic, and she is big-hearted and generous. We’ve both got green fingers, laugh too loud and too long at silly jokes, and as I age I have to admit that physically, I’m pretty much just a slightly younger version of her (though definitely far less attractive, as she is a genuinely beautiful woman, a bit like a Russian Marilyn Monroe). She also likes to tell me that people still knock 20 years off her age most days. I agree that she doesn’t look her age (she’ll be 71 soon) so I smile when she tells me. (Although sometimes the old teenager-me kicks in and I roll my eyes!)

Now that I’m older I sometimes look back at my much younger self and feel bad about all the times I wished away my “ugly” dumpy body or stupid name or strange foreign parents. Sitting here, in my home, surrounded by much much love, I feel incredibly blessed to have had two wonderful parents who gave me so much in the way of gifts. Most days I don’t feel as though I can live up to all that potential; I’ve certainly failed when it comes to that ‘list of things I plan to do’ which I made as a teenager. But sometimes, when I catch myself just going about my everyday life: working, writing, cooking, gardening, hugging my children, husband and loved ones (as well as our new cat) I think that actually, I’m doing okay.

 

I'm never going to behave like that cartoon, by Marija Smits

Cartoon by Marija Smits. The wonky fringe in the top picture is not a mistake.

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Grief, and why it’s useful to grieve

I’ve been thinking about grief a lot recently. When I begin to type ‘Marija Smits’ into my Google search bar one of the suggestions Google comes up with is ‘Marija Smits grief’. Strange. Only it isn’t, I guess, because I’ve written about grief in the past and sometimes I try to search online for my poem on grief, ‘To Death, May He Be Pleased With His Handiwork’ (because Google is faster than me trawling through my folders of poems).

During Baby Loss Awareness Week here in the UK I read some of the moving posts on poet Wendy Pratt’s blog. What really struck me was the way that some of Wendy’s work colleagues simply couldn’t handle speaking to her after she’d lost her baby, and it made me think about how not only is this a communication issue (you could argue too that it’s an issue of empathy) but also an issue of how our society deals with death. Because, basically, it doesn’t.

Nobody wants to have to consider their own mortality, or their parents’ mortality, or – worst of all – their children’s mortality, but it’s something that we all have to do at some point in our lives. What we need are the words to express our fears and our sadness that death happens. We need words to express that we care about someone’s loss. We need to know that it’s okay to grieve.

I remember when I lost my dad at the age of fifteen; sometimes I hated it when people told me they were sorry for my loss. I hated it because it was another concrete reminder that he really was gone and this (although well-meant) phrase had the power to overwhelm me with a grief that threatened to eat me up from the inside out. I also couldn’t cope with the idea of being seen with tears streaming down my face, because crying in public was just one of those things that one DID NOT DO. I had already subconsciously taken on board society’s discomfort with grief. But now, in retrospect, I was glad that people had wanted to reach out and show that they cared.

I didn’t really get a chance to grieve properly because I had to be strong for my mum. I had to keep things together. And so I bundled away my grief and put a brave face on things and simply carried on. But when a person hasn’t had a chance to grieve properly, the grief has a way of manifesting itself in all manner of unhelpful behaviours and, depending on the individual, may lead to all sorts of problems which have to be dealt with in later life: low self-esteem, heavy drinking, drug taking, gambling, depression, OCD, anorexia, physical self-harm, anxiety, fear… in so many ways these things are all, in effect, self-harming and yet, of course, they can cause harm or hurt to others too.

And yet how many of those dealing with loss get a chance to grieve properly? Very few, I should think, because our society simply can’t handle it.

And I’m not talking only about death. How many of us are dealing with other kinds of grief? Grief for a childhood snatched away from us too early; grief for a parent or loved one who absented themselves, or hurt us, for whatever reason, knowingly or unknowingly. Grief for the loss of function in our bodies, be it infertility, the loss of a limb or damage or disability as a result of illness, accident or genetics. Grief for a birth that didn’t go to plan. Grief for the end of a breastfeeding relationship, perhaps curtailed too soon. Grief for the end of child-bearing years. Grief for romantic relationships which became distant or sour or ugly.

And then there is the grief for another kind of loss, a bittersweet kind of loss: loss of our youthful selves, loss of our children’s baby days, toddler years and even school years, loss of friends who have passed out of our lives, loss of the past phases of a current romantic relationship… I could go on.

The key thing is to acknowledge the loss. To grieve. To share your story and feelings about your story with someone absolutely trustworthy. To cry. And it is then that the path to now, and to the future, becomes a real option. It is then that the future holds possibilities – and joy – that can be seized wholeheartedly.

 

The Sad Russian Doll by Marija Smits

The Sad Russian Doll by Marija Smits

 

And as an aside, I did want to add that in my own personal experience of grief, loss and how to better communicate my feelings with loved ones I have found the following books useful:

Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Times of Loss, Grief, and Change by Barbara Coloroso

People Skills by Robert Bolton

The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron

Writing Bubble
And thank you to Maddy for suggesting that I link up this reflective post with #WhatImWriting.

Wistful

I own this very old dictionary named Cassell’s Concise English Dictionary which is still very much loved and used by me.  It’s nowhere near as large as my Oxford Concise English Dictionary but I still like to look words up in it because it has so many beautiful archaic words in it.

Anyway… so its definition of wistful is this: Full of vague yearnings, sadly longing; pensive.

Which somehow captures my mood at the moment.

Recently, when out and about with the kids, I’ve really enjoyed seeing them making a fuss over a friendly cat in the street. It’s made me remember how much I used to adore cats when I was a kid too. And it makes me want to get another cat someday. Yet it’s still not the right time for us – more for practical and financial reasons rather than anything else, but of course I can’t help but remember our dear old chap Moggy, who died two years ago, round about this time. I still miss him, and of course I can’t help feeling wistful when I see how much joy a cat can bring to a human.

So here’s to you old chap, Moggy, our very own king of cats.

Moggy and the blue fabric by Marija Smits

Moggy and the blue fabric by Marija Smits

 

Thanks to Amanda over at WriteAlm for the continued writing prompts. Much appreciated.

 

 

GRIEF it has withered me, hollowed me out;

It is ironic that a poem of mine (a triolet) about grief is about to be published whilst I am experiencing grief.

Our beloved cat, our pet of many years, died last week and I am ‘still’ experiencing waves of grief. It would belittle my grief – and our loving cat – to make light of his death. Yes, he was ‘only an animal’ (so are we humans, let’s not forget) but grief is difficult, it is withering, and it has the potential to hollow a person out. Here are the first two lines of my triolet which is entitled:

To Death, may he be pleased with his handiwork

GRIEF it has withered me, hollowed me out;

I am brittle and frail, like a skeleton leaf.

*

What is difficult about grief is its ferocity. To my mind, feelings just ‘are’. They are neither good, nor bad. But there is no doubt that say, happiness, makes us feel good – or rather, it has a positive effect on a person’s mind and body. Other feelings, such as grief, anger, guilt or anxiety make a person feel ‘bad’. They have a negative effect on our mind and body. But taking some enlightening pointers from the book Women Who Run With the Wolves the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are not helpful in how we live our lives. Things, feelings, are either useful or not useful.

What is wise is to be able to acknowledge these emotions that make us feel bad; to recognize them, to explore them, and to be able to express and release them in a safe way. If – or rather when – I am angry I punch the air or go and throw bricks around the lawn. In an enclosed space, I stamp my feet and make as loud a noise as I can (without totally frightening my children!). After releasing this pent-up emotion which threatens to strangle my throat, it begins to leave my body, and in time, it leaves my mind too.

I have been crying a lot lately, and releasing my grief in this way. Things will then be fine for many hours until… another wave of grief hits me and I am crying again. I let myself cry, because there is tremendous healing power in tears.

I wonder what use there is in grief. Particularly in the first stages when a human can only feel shocked, numbed and weak. After this first stage comes a deep sorrow that weighs one down, and it feels as though this will never pass. My poem is about this middle stage. Finally, there comes acceptance, and a muted sadness that resides within the soul, next to the wonder, joy and peace that life can bring.

As I wrote earlier, though, what I find particularly difficult about grief is its ferocity. And how it will remind a person of other deaths, earlier deaths… and it makes a person think of future deaths, and of one’s own mortality. I am fully aware that this death has caused me much pain because it has made me revisit the death of my father, and though this happened more than 20 years ago, grief’s ferocity will make this 20 years become a mere 20 minutes…

***

So what can I usefully make of this grief? I will use it to focus my attention and my heart on my loved ones; I will use it to cherish the beauty of life; I will use it to enrich my empathy towards others; I will use it to deepen my understanding of what it means to be human; I will use it to strengthen my resolve to follow my dreams; I will use it as a reminder to be gentle on myself; I will use it to write, to share my thoughts and perhaps provide a little solace to others. And I will release it in a way that shows my children that it is right and important to grieve, to mourn, and to cry. In my poem I write:

All my Joy has been stolen, by Death, petty thief;

But I am feeling rebellious today. I will not let Death have me think there is nothing to be gained by grieving. It was the right time for my cat to die; he was old and ill. But death hurts, and I don’t want it to. Still, I do not want this grief to be useless. So I will examine my grief, reflect on my emotions and find the usefulness therein.

***

Print copies of The Road Less Travelled in which my poem ‘To Death, may he be pleased with his handiwork’ appears can be found here: The Road Less Travelled, published by Dagda Publishing

The full poem can be found on my blog here: Sample Poetry