Often in the summers of my childhood Mom would ask me to go out to the garden and cut her a handful of parsley or chives. I particularly enjoyed this act of harvesting, which felt like an honour somehow. When I returned from the garden, fragrant bouquet in hand I would present it to Mom.
"How's this?" I would ask.
"That is just perfect," she would say with satisfying approval glowing through her chocolate brown eyes. My heart would lift when I heard these words, seemingly so simple but striking a chord so sweet and true in my young heart, just like when my dad called me 'Princess'. No words could be more welcome to me than those few syllables of love, ultimate acceptance and encouragement. No matter how tricky the world became to navigate I could always count on those occasions when all felt right in my world. I knew deep down that 'perfect' and 'princess' were exaggerations. Neither word described me nor my actions in actual fact, but both terms embodied the hopes of every child - to be held precious and full of promise in their parents' eyes.
Twenty years later I was living with my husband and young family at a remote outdoor education lodge on Vancouver Island, and finding the experience emotionally taxing. My husband was the lodge's program director, a position that required his full time presence. Unfortunately, family accommodation was scarce and we were living in a previously condemned cabin that we had fixed up to the best of our ability, yet it became infested with three kinds of ants every spring and was overrun with mice year round. We vacuumed the ants and spray-foamed the hole where they were getting in. We caught at least one mouse every night that first year, and once, we caught two at once by their noses in the same trap. The mice ran inside the wall behind our bed all night and, though once I would have cried at the flap-flapping sound of a suffering mouse caught in a trap, I now rejoiced - YES! Nevertheless we were cozy in our wood heated cabin with the marine-blue painted floors and the loft where we all slept together. The forested lakefront location was stunningly, achingly beautiful, and I was writing a lot - letters, a rewrite of my novel, limping attempts at poetry - but the population of the lodge was small, about twenty in the winter and sixty in the summer, and my children's relationships with the few resident children were at times fraught with difficulties. My nerves were often strung to their limit during our first years there and every situation was easily blown out of proportion.
One day during a run through the kitchen into the toy area my young boys asked me what had been the best time in my life. I responded without hesitation that it was when I had married their dad and had them and their sister (the other sister came along a few years later). They both stopped in their tracks.
"Really?" said my six year old with a glowing face full of surprise and delight. He had recently seen me in some of my darkest moments and had often given me that deep questioning look that shows parents how emotionally tuned-in children can be. "Hey brother, Mom says the best time in her life was when she had us!"
"Really?" chimed in my five year old, jumping up and down with a toy in his chubby little fist.
It was as if I had turned on a light switch in their little bodies with my words. I admit I was just as surprised by their reaction. Hadn't they known this all along? Perhaps I had been lacking in the praise department or spent far too much time growling at them. Either way, I realized rather sharply that whatever muck I was wading through personally, or no matter what difficult phase each child was struggling with, I needed to let my children know very often how much they meant to me, how precious they were in my eyes. I needed to find time to focus in on each child and give them a gem of hope to hold on to when the world and/or their parents seemed to be against them.
From that day on, our household was more peaceful. I gradually, stubbornly learned the importance of digging deeper into myself in order to give my children more and the kids soaked it up like the little sponges they were, miraculously forgiving me for all my past wrongs, and aiming increasingly to make me proud of them. I am not saying every day was without challenges. It was just that we were getting better at loving each other within our family and that freed up more love to give outside of it, which I began to realize was one of the purposes of a family.
I have found that parents create a sort of climate within the family they can live in and though this may be different for every family, peace ends up being the ultimate goal when all is said and done. Living at the lodge gave us the opportunity to grow as a family and I will admit the growing had to start with me. I had to rid myself of all preconceived notions about other people as I learned that most social trails are the result of misunderstandings and presumption. I poured myself into home schooling my children, which I did for four years and which turned out to be an excellent experience for all of us. It gave me an unavoidable focus and a way to keep my children's interactions with the community scheduled and, therefore, manageable. I also got to know my children in ways I would not have otherwise. Before then, I think I was a subsistence parent - I did what was required, but I don't believe I was as deeply invested as I could have been, or as my husband steadily had been from day one. Waking up to that cold fact on that fateful day, and, in readily answering my son's question, realizing that deep down I did at least want to put my family first, was a very hopeful first step in my new life as a mom. Everything in my life now seemed washed in a mellow light. I knew difficulties would come again, but I might be ready for them next time if I remained open, attentive, and purposeful.
Lately, I feel as if I am wavering above and below the line of calm. I am at times overwhelmed in my new role as a parent of teenagers. The lodge seems long ago and far away. It has been a long time since my husband and I were the sole educators of our children in a remote location. We share that role with their schools, television, their friends, and the internet. I know this is how it is supposed to be. One day not far from now I will need to start letting them go, refocusing my desire to educate them into letting them make what their dad and I have taught them their own, so it will truly be theirs to take when they go out into the world.
The view is from the shore of the lodge where we used to live.