Hello muddah, hello faddah

I re-read my 1986 letters to my parents from summer camp, and I didn't barf.

Sandra Boynton, obviously.

Sandra Boynton, obviously.


In a fit of decluttering last week, I came across an envelope that contained some of the letters I wrote to my parents during the year I was a CIT (or, as we called them, LITs, for leaders in training) at summer camp. Which was also known as 1986. Or the summer I was 14 years old.

I read through them all, and they didn’t even make me feel like throwing up, which is what happened when I tried to read my diaries from first-year university. I guess the existential angst hadn’t settled in yet. Or maybe there’s a difference between the letters you write to your parents and the words you keep private because they’re so full of doubt and hope and misery and embarrassment that decades later they leave make you dry heave after two paragraphs.

But, no. These letters are downright cheerful. I am resolutely upbeat about being put into a tent with my nemesis from the previous year (“… We aren’t going to get into any fights this year. We’re going to be friends (<-- positive thinking)” and, later, “actually, it’s not that bad with her. I am TOLERATING her and NOT LETTING HER GET TO ME. I UNDERSTAND THAT SHE IS INSECURE AND ACTS THE WAY SHE DOES TO COVER UP FOR IT. Aren’t I learning?”). Unsurprisingly, I am sick all summer: “My strep throat and ear infection are much better.” I write at length and fairly openly about social dynamics, who likes whom, the way the little kids look up to us and how cool that is, the evening program we planned (a giant murder mystery). “Could you send a GQ magazine?” I ask my dad. “It’s a man’s magazine with all these gorgeous male models in it. I need something to put up in our tent.” In one letter, I am thrilled about how my audition went for Grease (one of the counsellors, “told me privately that I was her first choice for Sandy, and that she loved my voice, so I was really excited”), disappointed to be cast as Marty Maraschino (“‘Like the cherry’”), elated to find out they were giving me a song after all (“Freddie my Love,” which never made it into the actual movie but was a solo nonetheless). I troll unremittingly for letters and gum and care packages.

I’m fascinated by my own handwriting, by my unabashed use of exclamation marks, and by how guilelessly open I am with my parents. (Of one of the girls in a younger unit I write: “She’s changed [since last year]. She’s punk, a slut & into drugs, and she was forced to come to camp. She’s going to try and get kicked out. Get the picture?”). I thought of myself as closed off, despondent, in my own little universe where parents weren’t allowed. I think I was wrong.

I wonder about my own boys, and whether they will ever send letters home like these to me. I hope they do. I’ll probably keep them forever.


Kangaroo, alligators, Milky Way

I found this scrap of paper on my desk — it’s a page, come loose and migrated from one of the small notebooks I tend to carry around, in case inspiration strikes. I need to get more organized about this notebook thing — right now, I have at least two on the go, with notes jotted down, undated, on random pages.

I suppose should progress through one notebook at the time, in some kind of orderly, numbered fashion. But then I would lose the mystery of wandering through pages and coming across “30 X 30 inches – so buy 33 X 33,” next to “FWPGRJ” (which looks to me like a flight reservation number). There are notes from therapy appointments, notes on my long-abandoned (and possibly one day soon resurrected) novel, notes on essays (“JT hiding in her garage during Hebrew school). There are phone numbers and e-mail addresses for people I didn’t know then and who are now close friends (and phone numbers and e-mail addresses for people I didn’t know then and still don’t). There’s a quote from Richard Wagamese (“Don’t work toward the dream. Work toward taking the next small action that brings the dream closer. If you work toward the dream, you’re going to work awfully hard.”), doodles, calculations, memories, games of hangman with Rowan, errands and gift ideas.

And this, this tiny scrap of a memory, floating up from the flotsam and jetsam to take me back in time:

Tuesday — I[saac] has a nap, cuddling him to sleep — the way you know by the angle of your own child’s eyelashes whether his eyes are closed.


"Heroine," 2000, oil on canvas, by Shaan Syed. Photo by me. Image used with permission.

"Heroine," 2000, oil on canvas, by Shaan Syed. Photo by me. Image used with permission.

Today is/would have been my mother’s 70th birthday.

And now I’m stuck on tense: past or present? The date, after all, remains the same, no matter what — it is her birthday, even if she’s not here to celebrate it. Let’s stick with is, then, go with the present in all its meanings, the gifts she gave me and the ways in which they still, always, enrich my life.

Like this painting, the first piece of art I ever bought and still one of my favourites (although that doesn’t say much: all the art is all my favourites, but especially this one).

The year 2000, living on Trinity Bellwoods Park, off Queen West in Toronto, surrounded by galleries when they could still afford the rent. And I’d been hankering, the urge building slowly but powerfully, to buy a painting. Dana Holst had a show at the Angell Gallery right on the corner of my street, and I remember walking in the day before it opened, on my way home from some errand, and being transfixed by Holst’s glowing, creepy babies and angry children, those girls floating on their black backgrounds, and wondering if (ha!) $500 was too much — even possible — for a single, huge, work, if I could be part of that world. That show sold out within days, without me.

I remember talking to my mother about it, saying, “I like this painting, but I really don’t know if I should spend the money.” I think I had expected her to nod in sympathy, to counsel me to be prudent, conservative, with my cash, to spend it on something more practical than art.

But she said, “Of course you can afford it. Always buy art, especially if it speaks to you.”

And so, I made an appointment to visit Shaan Syed at his tiny, cramped studio space somewhere near Queen and Parliament. Shaan was maybe in his mid-20s. He’d been a roommate of a good friend of mine in Montreal, and I’d been taken with his work whenever I visited. He’d just finished this painting, one in a series about swimmers. And there was something, again, about the way that girl glowed, hovering in midair in her striped bathing suit and water wings, that captivated me. The canvas wasn’t quite dry. He’d painted over a different painting, Shaan explained, one of him and two friends at day jobs they’d held while trying to make it as artists — in the bottom right-hand corner, you could still see the vague outline of the paint roller he’d held in the underpainting. I love knowing that detail.

Reader, I bought that painting, with the word “heroine” etched into the paint at its top. You can barely make it out, but I know it’s there.

And she hovers, now, my water-winged angel, over the desk in the back hall on the main floor of my house, looking out onto us, looking out for us, as we cook and eat and clean and play and come and go. She’s a gift to myself, from my mother, a constant reminder of what’s important, what to value, what you can never lose even in the spectre of its absence. That's where my mother is, etched into my soul  always is, has been, now and forever.