ethics,  family,  introspection,  motherhood,  writing

Happy New Year!

blue_new_year_greeting_card_266209I spent the last day of 2015 switching between taking care of a sick baby, a sick cat and sorting through boxes of my mother’s things.  It’s not just my mother’s things — we are hoping to move in the spring, so I’ve spent the last week decluttering our basement storage so that when we show the house to potential buyers that it looks like a place where you can put things.  I’ve been going through all the stuff that we’ve forgotten that we owned, like fish tanks and snorkel fins and Halloween decorations, and trying to find new homes for them so that our house looks like a place where someone else can put their forgotten stuff.

Ironic, isn’t it?

The upshot is that Baba and the cat are both on the mend.  Our eighteen-year-old tabby tore out the dew claw on his hind foot on Christmas Eve, which led to him spraying blood all over our kitchen floor and being very indignant about all the antibiotics and pain medication that I’ve been force-feeding him for the last week.  He’s also been cordoned off from the back yard, which wasn’t too big of a deal until he started feeling better.  It has been Howl O’Clock ever since.  On Thursday, I strapped Baba to my chest and slung the cat carrier over my shoulder and went back to the vet for the follow-up exam.  Baba ate much of the furniture in the exam room while we waited, but the cat’s prognosis is good, even if he is still forbidden from his backyard prowling for another week.  Howl, howl, howl.

Baba is a little slower to heal, and we’ve spent most of last few nights attending to her cough. It wasn’t exactly my plan for ringing in 2016, but it is what it is. In a sense, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to ring out 2015 than to stumble around with exhaustion after a long night of baby tending.  Here’s to more sleep in 2016.

After a hard week’s work, I am also beginning to see an end to the basement clean-up. It is a fitting project for the end of the year — trolling through old photographs, journals and letters puts me in a deeply reflective mood. I’ve now outlived enough of my relatives to have accumulated  generations of memories, so many of the letters and photographs that I’m rediscovering aren’t even mine.  Now, I am saving them for Baba, in the hopes that some day she will care as much about our family history as I do.

I did find my childhood diary, which has only fuelled my recent desire to take up journalling again. For a writer, the benefits are obvious.  I have journalled privately on and off through the years, but it has been off again since Baba was born.  I already struggle with finding enough time to work on fiction and this blog, and journalling was competing with that time.  Time may be a finite resource, but I find that I’ve missed the clarity that journalling gives my thoughts and emotions.

And yet, after finding my mother’s diaries, I am not certain about leaving behind such a detailed written record for Baba to find one day. My mother died suddenly, decades before she expected to. Her journals are filled with beautiful writing, but it is clear that they were an outlet for her when she was troubled or struggling with the depression that always chased her. This isn’t the picture of her grandmother that I want to leave behind for Baba. Every time I find my mother’s journals, I can barely stand to read more then an entry or two, because I know they weren’t meant for me. I know that I should destroy them, but I also can’t seem to bring myself to do so, knowing that they might have answers to some of the questions of my early life. They provide context to my memories, which my mother might have been able to do if she had lived longer.  I was raised thousands of miles from our extended family, so I don’t have the network of shared memories from cousins and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents that so many people do.  I just had my mother, who died too soon.

In this cleaning, I found a baby memory book that she wrote for me, which has satisfied my curiosity about many questions that I’ve had this year. No one remembers when I began to walk, but my mother wrote it down for me. I found when I got my first tooth, grew my head of hair, began to sit up. I’ve wanted to know this all year so that I might know what to expect with Baba’s development. And here is a book that tells me everything!  I was so excited by this that I turned around and ordered a memory book to fill in for Baba, in case she finds herself in the same position that I am in now.

What if there are more answers, more context, in my mother’s journals and letters? I remember my mother, mostly as the grinning, silly, playful person that she was much of the time. But Baba would only know her through these very painful journal entries. That isn’t a fair picture at all. And yet, my mother kept journals from 20 years before she died. Did she want us to find them?  Could she just not stand to them go?  There are some questions I just can’t answer.

For now, I’ve put the journals and letters back in labelled boxes and pushed them to the back of our storage area.  I tell myself that after we sell our house and move that I might pull them out and read through them, but I know that a thousand things will take a higher priority.  They are journeys into the past and it is, after all, a new year now, ripe with the excitement new stories and memories to come.

Happy New Year!



  • joey

    I love that Baba chewed on all the furniture and the Howl Howl Howl 😀
    I understand your reluctance to save your mother’s writing, but I hope you won’t destroy it. There will be considerable distance between those writings and Baba — and you will tell other, happier tales of her grandmother. If nothing else, it will connect her intimately when she’s an adult, and let her know that even our darkest feelings can be kept in a safe place.
    I’m glad you found your baby info. I agree, those are nice records to have and to keep 🙂

    • Mae McDonnell

      I like your perspective, Joey! I have a hard time thinking of her as ever needing to know how to survive sadness, because she is my happy, cheerful child, but of course she will have to learn one day. That’s a good reason to keep them, for sure.

  • Julie Christine

    Happy New year, Mae. Bringing up the past as you prepare for the future is such an emotional thing. I wish you the time and space to explore what your mother’s words mean to you. Are you familiar with Terry Tempest Williams’ “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice” She also had her mother’s journals, but found something very different than what she was expecting in the pages. It’s a beautiful meditation on grief and the bond between women, mothers, daughters.

    Best wishes for that move! We’re hoping 2016 has a change of house in store for us and I can’t wait to clean out and reorganize past and present!

    • Mae McDonnell

      Best of luck with your move, Julie! It sure is daunting, but I admit that my inner beaver appreciates all the organization and cleanliness after.

      I will definitely check out “When Women Were Birds.” It sounds like a book that I’ll get a lot out of, given the emotions of the last week or so.

      Happy New Year!

  • ccyager

    It must be in the Zeitgeist this strong impulse to declutter and clean and record! My apartment badly needs a thorough declutter but I put it off because I know how much time and energy it will demand of me. But cleaning will be much easier afterward. And I also know how I’ll feel after it’s done. Deep satisfaction and relief.

    I find your response to your mother’s journals very interesting. I’ve kept a journal since I was 11, inspired by Anne Frank, and I’m at the point in my life when I need to decide what will happen to all those journals. Being a writer, I think they are a window into my mind and the personal struggles I’ve had throughout my life. On the other hand, I believe that I wouldn’t want them to be read by anyone until at least 50 years after my death. I don’t have any children, but I do have nieces and nephews. Thank you for putting this issue in front of me again so I’ll think more about it and take action.

    Happy New Year and good luck with the big move!

    • Mae McDonnell

      Hey Cinda –

      It certainly is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? I protected her journals from being read by anyone but me, because I know it’s not how she’d want to be remembered by her family. She never knew Baba, though…

      I tried journaling on the computer, but it’s just not the same. There’s something about the physical process of writing that helps me think better. I think it might just be the pacing. I type a lot faster than I write!

      • ccyager

        I can’t type my journal either! I agree about writing by hand — it slows me down so that I can think about what I’m writing. I miss that kind of writing, and realize I need to get back to it in 2016. Good luck with your writing!

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