Sense Memories

dustOne of the things I loved about Moira Young’s Dustlands trilogy was the way she describes smell.  The narrator protagonist Saba is caught in a love triangle, as the heroines of young adult fantasy and dystopias often are, and each of her love interests has his own characteristic smell.  (Actually, she has three men vying for her attention, but the third does not get a sense description, so we know that we can dismiss him as a contender fairly quickly.)  The books are set in a post-apocalyptic world of drought, dust and danger, and on those rare occasions when there is time and water available for bathing, it is described as something wonderfully soothing and quietly aromatic.  And her men?  One smells of sage and the other of juniper.

I had my first kiss in middle school, and the boyfriend in question smelled of Polo, the signature scent of boys in the eighties.  And when he gave me his jean jacket to wear, I could carry that smell around with me everywhere.  It was the smell of butterflies in my stomach, of relief to be paired up, of pride to show it off.  It was the sensory equivalent of the fog I was in in those heady days of fumbling around for a sense of place and selfhood.  I loved the smell then, and I took every opportunity to bury my nose in the soft, frayed collar of the jacket.  I smell it today with mixed emotions, not all of them pleasant.  What hindsight throws into stronger relief is the tumult of emotions that goes along with first kisses and first loves and first heartaches.  The 1000th and 10,000th kisses are so very much better, though they never fail to give me butterflies.

What is your scent memory of your first kiss?

 

Ladies, do you think you know your vagina? Think again!

photo (51)As a teenage girl, I would cringe if my mom talked about periods when my dad was within earshot. Clearly much has changed because as a grown woman, when I learned about the annual Kegels and Cocktails event hosted by fitness expert Samantha Montpetit-Huynh, certified Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist Julia Di Paolo and Kim Vopni, The Fitness Doula, I had to buy tickets. And drag along two of my close girlfriends who can yap about vaginas with the best of them.

When we arrived we were greeted by a cheerful woman at the door who was eager to make us feel welcome, “Let me get you some punch! With alcohol or without?” She sped away and I surveyed the crowded room noting several pregnant bellies and more than a few teeny infants. Our perky hostess returned seconds later balancing three fruity, pink punches expertly. “Here, have some pussy punch!”

And with those words, the night began.

To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had interviewed Samantha for an article I wrote last year for Viva Magazine and loved her energy. Immediately we bonded over our mutual hatred of “bump watches” and “post-baby body” stories that dominate the tabloid newsstands and breed unrealistic body expectations. I figured anything she was involved with, was something that I wanted to learn more about.

Boy, did I learn.

I walked into the event thinking, what are they going to tell me that I don’t already know? I do my kegels! I have three kids! I (and everyone on the 7th floor of Mount Sinai Hospital, and that stunned gift shop employee) know my vagina.

You know how Oprah talks about having an Ah-Ha! moment? Well, I had an Oh-Shit! moment.

Certified Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist Julia Di Paolo captivated everyone’s attention when she stood at the podium and made an impassioned plea for women to make pelvic wellness part of their overall healthcare. Di Paolo explained the importance of a well-functioning pelvic floor. She likens the pelvic floor muscles to a trampoline. A trampoline is taut and firm but it has flex, and will give but it will always return to its original form. Well-functioning pelvic floor muscles act the same. They have just the right amount of give (not too much or too little) and they retain their elasticity. If the muscles slacken too much and sag, they can’t effectively do their job, and internal organs like the uterus, rectum and bladder can shift and fall.

Then she dropped the bombs.

50% of women who’ve had children will have some prolapse. (Hagen & Stark, 2011)

Women who’ve had one vaginal delivery are at 4 times the risk of developing a prolapse and the risk increases 8.4 times with two or more vaginal deliveries. (Mantal et al. 1997)

But I don’t think I have a prolapse. Actually, I’m sure that I am fine; I generally have very good luck. I think this as I squiggle in my chair and straighten my posture acutely aware of my vagina.

Di Paolo clicks the mouse and the slide changes. There is audible murmuring from the room of women and my girlfriend who’s seated beside me lets out a deflated sigh.

Symptoms of a prolapse:

  • Feeling pelvic pressure
  • Feeling uncomfortable within the pelvic cavity
  • Rectal pressure
  • Constipation
  • Feeling like your insides are falling out
  • Incontinence or retention of urine
  • Tampons do not stay in place
  • Some women are asymptomatic

Oh-Shit!

Di Paolo has made it her mission to empower women before, during and after pregnancy about the importance of a healthy pelvic floor. She maintains there are many ways to help prevent or reduce the severity of prolapse.

What to do?

  • Learn to do kegels the right way (Note: I was doing them wrong and judging by the collective gasp in the room, I wasn’t the only one)
  • Modify your workout routine since many popular exercises can actually exacerbate pelvic floor weakness and prolapse
  • Stay hydrated
  • Stop being so sedentary, get out and walk more!
  • If you’re thinking of getting pregnant or are pregnant, see a pelvic floor physiotherapist before you give birth!

Most importantly book an appointment with a pelvic floor physiotherapist and learn about your body. Don’t assume that the damage is done or that you have to live with discomfort. Di Paolo says with treatment most of the time patients are able to restore their prolapse by one degree and learn how to prevent further damage.  Bottom line: be informed, be proactive so that you are not dealing with issues years down the road.

To find a registered pelvic floor physiotherapist in Ontario click here. To contact Julia Di Paolo or a member of her team of Pelvic Floor Physiotherapists, visit her Women’s and Pelvic Health clinic PhysioExcellence located in Toronto, Ontario.

The Eras of Childhood, As Measured by Trips to the E.R.

A light-hearted look at our trips to the emergency room, written while touching wood and counting our blessings that we can laugh about them now.  4Mothers would like to say that we are extremely grateful to be able to take our emergencies to The Hospital for Sick Children.  Every time I go in there, I feel so proud and so blessed to be a Canadian tax payer!

The Era of Croup, infancy

“Who are you and what have you done with my baby?!” you say to the seal who seems to have possessed your barking infant.  Off you rush to the E.R., because it’s 3 a.m. and you have a seal in the crib, but apparently, this is so benign it does not even require medical attention.  “Walk around outside [in -20 degree cold] for a few minutes,” says Doctor.  The cold air will, indeed, fix it.

The Era of the Ear Infection, infancy to 3

It’s Friday night.  Your child has had a cold all week, and it’s gotten steadily worse.  Now that the doctor’s office is closed, his little ear canals have filled up and festered, his fever has spiked and he is screaming blue murder every time he goes horizontal.  You know it’s an ear infection.  The pharmacist knows it’s an ear infection.  Neither of you can do anything about it without a prescription from a doctor.  He will finally fall asleep in the ER.

The Era of Allergies, toddler to school age

The definition of an anaphylactic allergy is that two or more of the body’s systems react violently to the allergen.  Skin.  Respiratory.  Digestive.  If you are lucky, you will rush your little lobster to the ER, both of you covered in vomit, and pray that you have enough diapers to get through the visit.

The Era of Poisoning, toddler to school age

Rhubarb leaf.  Who knew?

Concussion, school age

Head meets ice through helmet.  Headache and vomiting ensue.  Get thee to the ER.  Always better to be safe than sorry.

The Era of Broken Bones, school age

You will go into the ER, for example, with Eldest, who has a broken bone in his hand, and while you wait, a lovely, eager medical student will zip over to ask you to fill out a questionnaire about Trampoline Safety.  You will say yes because that’s the kind of Helpful Person that you are.  You will fill out the questionnaire then read the safety guidelines that she hands you informing you that, actually, Canadian pediatricians are asking for a ban on all backyard trampolines.  You will say to her, in all certainty, that as a mother of three boys, “A trampoline will be the reason for my next visit to the ER.”  You will be right.

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Did I miss any?

We’re All in This Together

Anne Taintor, we love you!  Shop here.

Anne Taintor, we love you! Shop here.

I often catch myself saying to one of the boys, “Can you do me a favour, please?  Can you sweep the floor/set the table/put the groceries away?”

Implicit in the way I ask the question, of course, is the idea that it’s my job and that they are helping me to do my job rather than helping to do a job that just needs doing.  This is not the ethos I’m consciously trying to nurture in my house, though.  It’s a throw-back to my mother’s way of doing things.  Not only did she do all of the repair/electrical/plumbing/carpentry/painting work, she did all of the housework, rarely asked for help, and was rarely offered any, more’s the pity.  My father is much better now, but when I was growing up, he didn’t even clear his own plate from the dinner table.

Not on my watch, mister.  No way.

Let me tell you, kids get readily invited back to this house on the basis of who clears his own plate after eating.  It’s not about housework; it’s not about gender; it’s about respect.  And I hope that when my kids visit other people, they are pulling their weight around the house.

But what will happen when they have houses of their own?  A lot, not all, but a lot, of that depends on the here and now.  My hope is that they will see a clean house as a thing of joy and beauty and just do what needs to be done to get it clean and keep it there.  In order to model that, I try to avoid martyrdom, I pose housework as a set of problems that need to be solved by us all, I make the clock and the schedule the boss.  Housework is just a job that needs to be done, and we do more of it before company comes over, but the house is usually in good shape.

I am a SAHM, for now, and for that reason, I do more housework than my husband.  When we both worked, the division was more even.  Maybe it will be again one day.  It really does not register anywhere on my radar of things to fuss about.  Maybe that’s because my husband clears his own plate.

Stephen Marche notes that while men have picked up a larger share of childcare and of cooking, they still are not pulling their weight with housework.

The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it. …  The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.

A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.

Forgive me if I am not in a rush to embrace this particular vision of equality, but “squalor” is not and never will be part of the vocabulary of this house.  Hell, no.  There may be a gender inequality between the married parties, but all three of our boys do chores and will, I hope, grow up to think themselves capable of and responsible for the care and nurturing of all aspects of the household.  Period.

At Issue: Housework

A while back, Stephen Marche wrote an op-ed piece about housework for the New York Times.  He notes that while men have picked up a larger share of childcare (cool dads!) and of cooking (manly, manly bbq!), they still are not pulling their weight with housework.

At least one thing is becoming clear: The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it. …  The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.

A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.

Lower the standards, he says, and the problem can go away.  Marche  is at work on a book about the end of the gender wars, and this, we are given to understand, constitutes part of that body of work.  It’s a great read, but so is the angry response from Jessica Gross.

She is quick to point out that lowering standards to let slacker men off the hook is no solution at all:

once you have kids, you can’t let them live in filth. Toddlers will eat dust bunnies, and parents will trip on the miles of plastic crap lying around. We’re not talking Martha Stewart perfection; we’re talking a baseline of cleanliness.

What’s more, she says, she has written a lot about the debate with which he engages, and he fails to credit her ideas:

In a way, this is just a classic example of chauvinism: belittling and ignoring female contributions, whether they are intellectual or domestic.

Will this quarrel over housework ever go away?

This week, 4Mothers will discuss gender and housework and how things look to us.  We love it when you join in, whether to offer your own perspective or to simply say that you enjoyed a read.  Don’t be shy; drop us a line.

Our guest this week will be Kelly Quinn, who has written for us before, and whose idea this was in the first place.  Thanks, Kelly!

 

(Multiple) Guest Post: Mothers in Children’s Books

Oh, the glories of book shops!  Where you can go along of a summer evening and listen to a group of interesting and funny women talk about books, and mothers in kids’ books to boot.

Kerry Clare and some of the other contributors to The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood gathered at Parentbooks on Harbord Street to discuss the representation of mothers in children’s books.  They brought books and food and insights and laughter to share and it was a wonderfully intimate discussion about  finding or not finding mothers on the pages of our kids’ books.

Kerry began by telling us that one inspiration for the topic was a blog post by Liz Harmer about how, at one point in her parenting life, the picture books she was reading to her children were more helpful to her as a struggling mother than parenting books:

in the horror-show that was my life after the second child was born I had already found my parenting identity in martyrdom. All I knew how to feel was guilt. I had no idea that a new baby would find all of the breathing room in my full life and take it for herself. I had no idea that the toddler would respond to my being overwhelmed by cranking up her own despair.

At this point, any parenting advice was a smart to the open wound I’d become.

And so, we began to talk about mothers and parenting and how they unfold on the pages of children’s books.  What do we find there and how does it speak to or about us?

pippi_longstocking1Heather Birrell read from her own childhood copy of Pippi Longstocking and talked about how, while her own daughter is rather indifferent to the book, as a writer and a mother, she loves the fact that Pippi is motherless.  She is successfully independent as an orphan of nine, and a lot more likeable than the kids up the street with intact families .  The absent mother in kids books, a remarkably frequent thing, allows kids independence, freedom from rules and from cloying love or authority.  Pippi’s mother, so Pippi imagines, watches her from her perch in the sky through a little hole in the clouds, and Pippi is always able to assure her that she is doing perfectly well.  As a writer herself, Birrell said she is always killing off mothers in her short stories.  It’s just so much more convenient to the engine of the plot and character development to have them out of the way.

We agreed that it was wonderful to find yourself, as a mother, celebrating books that did away with mothers so that kids can bloom, because isn’t that what we want for our kids, after all?

roseiAmy Lavender Harris talked about how grandmothers often fill the maternal role in the Eastern European tradition, and she read from Rosie’s Dream Cape by Zelda Freeman to illustrate the multiple roles that the grandmother fulfills; she is the figure of authority, conscience, forgiveness, generosity and connection to the old world and to the missing mother.

 

eddie

Heidi Reimer read from one of Sarah Garland’s Eddie books, Eddie’s Kitchen, and made the wondenderful observation that the illustrations enable a kind of covert and underground conversation, mother-to-mother.  The illustrations are wonderfully lush, and the house is packed and cluttered.  The mother in these books exemplifies grace in the chaos of family life, though the illustrator is also careful to portray her outside of her role as mother.  At one point, she is huddled on the stairs, alone, speaking on the phone to a friend who is having a rough day.

Patricia Storms chose Tomi Ungerer’s No Kiss for Mother from which to read and reveled in the illustrations that would never pass muster today: a depiction of kids smoking stolen cigars and parents punishing their kids (with canes no less!).  Originally published in the 1970s, the book has been reissued by Phaidon, and perhaps the fact that the family in the book is a family of anthropomorphic cats makes it possible to publish it again today.  She admired that the conclusion of the book does actually provide a conclusion to the tension between an adoring mother and a son who does not like to be coddled and kissed.  They compromise; each gives ground.  The ground has shifted for both of them by story’s end, and the rebellious child is not simply drawn back into the normative family fold.  That family has had to change, just a bit, to accommodate him.9780714864754

Kerry finished off the night with a discussion of one of Shirley Hughes’s Alfie books, Alfie Gets in First.  Kerry remarked on how wonderful it was to read about another mother struggling with the mind-numbingly boring but immensely difficult negotiations of motherhood: how to get the stroller through the door and up the stairs, ditto with baby.  Predictably, Alfie gets into the house before mother and stroller and baby and locks himself in and them out.  Panic ensues.  Kerry was grateful for the feeling of solidarity she felt with the mother in the illustrations and how she felt a lot less alone reading those books to her children.  Again, the illustrations are lush and chaotic and depict the clutter and detritus of the busy family home.

alfie-gets-in-first

Kerry finished up with a reading of Stephany Aulenback’s lovely  If I Wrote a Book About You and talked about how motherhood enables creativity and productivity and how finding solutions to the stupid problem of the stroller on the sidewalk and through the narrow door could be worthwhile in and of itself as well as leading to all manner of other kinds of creativity.

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My Car: The Backseat Boys and Me

Our family bought two cars within six months last year. Hubby got a sweet sky blue hybrid (he has some significant commuting); I got a 2004 Corolla. It’s okay: you may find it hard to believe, but I opted for this.  I wanted something as little as we could manage because of ecological and financial reasons, because I wouldn’t be driving long distances, because I didn’t want to make driving more tempting than it already is, and because we can get away with it now. When my boys become long-legged creatures like their dad, we’ll re-assess.

But the main point is that the car is small, and not especially convenient for a family with three kids.  Though I prefer it this way, I offer this preface to contextualize the state of the car.  Without further ado, and in notable contrast to the good-looking/clean vehicles that I knew Nathalie and Beth-Anne would present on this blog without any consideration for me, here we go.

001

This is the foot area of the passenger seat.  Frequently, the seat itself looks similar because it carries a passenger about 5% of the time and I need the space for storage.  I thought about cleaning up some of the garbage for this photo shoot and then thought whatever.

On closer examination… the paper bag contains food and paper garbage that perpetually manifests in the car.  The grey bag contains an extra pair of shoes for my 2 year old (and there is another unphotographed pair wedged under the seat).   The white shoebox contains music for the car.  The baggie contains craft supplies for a preschool project that my son refused to do.  The yellow bits are a mapbook and a school folder containing important unread papers.  The blue plastic cup came home from a friend’s house because holding it was the only way my son would leave.  The Scotties box is our house’s prized box of tissues – I try to avoid paper products and we mostly use handkerchiefs – but I keep tissues at home for guests or as a treat to myself.  This one made it to the car a couple of months ago when my nose would not stop running and hasn’t emerged since.  The teaspoon was salvaged from the schoolyard.

002This is what sits behind the glove compartment that fell off when we tried to open it after a particularly cold winter day.  (The glove compartment now sits in the car trunk, which I forgot to photograph.)

004Love this feature of the car – the tape deck.  Tapes!  It’s so much fun to find kids’ tapes at rummage sales – they’re necessarily older and kitschy and I even found a reading of Caps for Sale.  Since you can’t even buy a freezie for a dime or a quarter anymore, they are basically cost-free fun for the kids.  Oh, and the cassette under the player (next to the harmonica and hand salve – best place to moisturize your hands is at stoplights) was made by my brother for me 20 years ago and probably features Billy Joel.

017The carseats.  Bane of early motherhood.

018The only ding in the car, created by me.  I carefully brought back a big stack of wooden boards home from Home Depot to make raised garden beds.  Then I not carefully took one off the top of the car in the garage, and it fell on the car.

020The bike rack my husband used to take my messed up bike to the repair shop, to facilitate leaving this precious dreadful car in the garage more often.

022The garage door opener/closer – the best feature of the car by a long shot for my two year old.  Also the rearview mirror, perhaps the best feature of the car for me, because I get to see my backseat boy brood with it.

 

 

Other Mothers

10267762_10154070721210014_6298337845483811914_nThere’s something I’ve noticed about the way I occasionally think about and judge myself as a parent.  I love structure and order and discipline, and for the most part, I stand by the parenting decisions that fall under that category of order and predictability.  Sometimes, though, sometimes the further outside of my comfort zone I stray, the more unlike my usual self I am, the more I feel that I deserve some kind of a parenting gold star.  It’s as if by not being myself, I am being a better self.  The hard work of keeping life on schedule and enforcing rules of civility actually feels pretty effortless to me.  It’s allowing the rules and the schedule to relax that feels like hard work.  To be honest, sometimes fun feels like hard work, and that’s when I most doubt the parenting path I have chosen.

I let the kids splash in rain puddles, I give myself a pat on the back for not freaking out about the mess (while secretly freaking out about the mess).

I say “yes” to letting the kids dog-sit, professing a kind of generosity of spirit while feeling anything but generous.

I let them stay up late to watch the hockey game, and for most of every minute past bedtime, I’m on edge, but I congratulate myself for being able to let fandom prevail over clock-watching.

More troubling, I herd my children home from the park for bath and bed and watch other parents letting their little ones stay up later and get dirtier than my kids (ie. letting them have more fun) and I wonder if they are doing it better.  Do those Other Mothers have more gold stars?  Are the mothers who say “no” less often better in some essential, incontrovertible way?

Fruitless feeding of the mommy guilt machine.  It’s the dark side of empathy: moving so much outside of yourself that you begin to question that self and all it holds dear.

The really refreshing thing about reading many of the essays in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood, was that I could really immerse myself in other ways, in others’ ways of being and simply enjoy that otherness without thinking, “I have to be more like that.”  It was glorious to look into that kaleidoscope and feel as much myself as ever; it was wonderful to look at difference without feeling the need to be different.

Carrie Snyder’s wonderful essay about reveling in being a mother of four did not make me feel like I had to have a fourth in order to keep up.  I simply enjoyed her telling of her tale of motherhood.

Heidi Reimer’s essay about adopting her infant niece made my heart fill with joy that there are such generous and daring people in the world, people who can let love into their lives, and make it multiply, in spite of the enormous emotional risk.

But I was most affected by the essays by women who are not mothers, by choice.  It’s dangerous territory, walking with the happily child-free.  It’s not like I, a mother of three, could ever go there.  Would they make it sound too appealing?  Would their profession of their child-free bliss, their certainty, open some part of me to gnawing jealousy or doubt?  Would my hard-earned share of parental satisfaction be diminished by opening myself to their stories?

Not in the least.  As certain as they are about being childless, I am certain that motherhood, and the way I am practicing it, is exactly the right choice for me.  It was the best kind of exercise in empathy.  It was a chance to have a privileged perspective on another way of being without feeling in the least bit diminished by it.  On the contrary, I felt enlarged by reading these essays, I felt certain about my own choices without the least trace of smugness or self-righteousness.

Sometimes what defines us is what we are not.  Sometimes that’s a tricky thing to negotiate.  In this collection of essays about motherhood, in all its manifestations, nothing felt tricky.  None of the stories about what I am not made me think less of myself.  Some of the essays were difficult to read because they tackled difficult topics, but they did what good art does: it moves you, it purifies and purges the emotions and offers renewal and restoration.

A Trial Run with a Dog

photoA few weeks back, I pondered if I was ready for a dog.  Eldest had come back from a dog sledding trip positively bursting to get a dog.  I did not say no; I suggested some further investigation was in order.

When his uncle and aunt had a baby a few weeks ago, Eldest suggested that, as a shower gift, he would look after their dog for a week.  I thought it a great plan: a chance to help out and a chance for a trial run with a dog.

Well, I am thrilled to report that Eldest knocked it out of the park.  He got up at 6 every morning this week to walk the dog.  He came straight home from school to walk him.  He fed him dinner promptly at 6.  He took him for an abundance of walks.  He lavished him with attention.  The dog slept in his room each night, so none of the rest of us had a moment of disturbed sleep.

All three boys are so happy to share his company.   The dog herds the youngest two to school, and he is reluctant to leave them there, staring longingly at the doors after the bell has gone.  There is much joy and rejoicing on the occasion of every reunion.  We went for a lovely long walk with him after dinner last night, and when Middlest gave me a dandelion clock to make a wish on, I wished for more nights exactly like that one.  I am extraordinarily proud of Eldest, who demonstrated absolute readiness to take on the responsibility of a dog.

His mother, however…..  His mother is.  Just.  Not.  Ready.

Even with Eldest’s excellent performance, and the abundance of joy in our house, and a dog with the friendliest, most relaxed temperament, I have found it so very draining to have another dependent living being on my radar.  I am on edge.  I feel like I have not been able to recharge my batteries all week.  I cannot really account for it based on how low stress a dog this is, but there is no arguing with the spike in my anxiety.  I had no idea I was so close to the edge of my limit, but the dog has shown me that this whole time that I have been operating with the sense that I am on top of things, I’m still basically a hair’s breadth from a meltdown.

It has been a huge disappointment to discover my limits this week, especially since Eldest did all we could reasonably require (and more) in terms of demonstrating his maturity and responsibility.

But this is what trial runs are for: exploring, experimenting, testing our limits.

Shadow Eyes: Reflecting on Dementia

wbhi_silver_pendant4_grandeA few weeks ago I mentioned that I was researching my family tree and working on a keepsake book.  It’s a project that was intended to be a hobby, a brief diversion from the everyday, but it’s taken on a life of its own.  I have accumulated documentation and pictures galore, uncovered some family “scandals” and discovered babies who lived for such a short time that no one living knows they ever existed.

While I was scanning several photos onto my computer, my 6 year-old son offered to help.  He was keen to ask questions about the grainy black and whites that he gingerly passed to me.  He asked about the old-fashioned clothing, the dour backdrops and the sour expressions.  His comments, as they always do, caused me to laugh but also to reflect on how childhood has evolved over generations.

He passed me a square sepia photo; the edges soft and worn thin.  The year 1929 is scrawled in faded ink on the back. A baby, maybe 6 months old, is dressed for winter.  Tiny mittens covering tiny hands, a knitted cap pulled down low, and a blanket pulled up high exposing only pudgy cheeks that appear flush from the cold, a button nose and dancing eyes.

“Do you know who this is?” I asked him; sure that he wouldn’t have the faintest idea.

“It’s grandma,” he said with certainty, without pause, without even a moment to focus on the face of his great-grandmother.

It had taken me a few minutes to place my grandmother’s face.  I had to take care not to confuse her distinct features with those of her siblings, consulting the date to prove my guess.

“How did you know it’s her?”

“Because her eyes are the same.”  He says this as he scoots off the chair and races out of the room. Bored with scanning pictures and hearing about orphaned relatives.

Of course he’s right.  I stared at that picture and compared it with a more recent one of my grandmother, accurately representing her 86 years. I laid both pictures along side several others.

Pictures of her as a young woman with a page-boy and a clingy sweater, as a young mother cradling her third baby on the front porch in the spring of ’56, the undeniably 70’s era shot where she leans into the camera flashing a smile while holding my grandfather’s shoulder, another image of her holding his same shoulder but this time decades later at their 50th wedding anniversary celebration.  All of these photos are on the table, looking up at me.  The hairstyles, the fashions, the décor are different in each photo, telling a story of their own and yet her eyes remain the same.

But my son was only partly right.  Her eyes may be same shape, the same colour blue dotted with flecks of black, but they are not same.  They are shadowed now.

I come from a long line of octogenarians.  Most of my predecessors have lived well into their seventies, eighties and nineties – even back two hundred years ago.  I like to loom this over my husband’s head from time-to-time.  I like to remind him that when he finds me annoying after 10 years of marriage, I have the potential to give him at least another 40 more.  He likes to remind me that his genes don’t offer such promises.  Sometimes I wonder which of us is holding the winning hand.

Times are changing and people are living longer and more enriching lives.  For the most part people (who live in this country anyway) don’t die from diseases that their ancestors may have succumbed to.  It’s rare to hear of someone dying from tuberculosis or dysentery today just as it was less common to see people living well into old-age hundreds of years ago.

However, it is estimated today that 550,000 people living in Canada have Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia.  Like most diseases, the patient is ground zero and families feel the collateral damage.  Caregiver fatigue and the Sandwich Generation are hot topics with politicians, policy makers and employers, never mind the voice writers and researchers give to the thousands of people who identify themselves as such.

Lynn Posluns, a long time Toronto volunteer, philanthropist and activist, is one such voice and a powerful one at that.  She recently founded the Women’s Brain Health Initiative to raise awareness about the inequity in brain aging research funding for women.

Women are twice as likely as men as to suffer from brain aging illnesses, stroke and depression.  In fact, 70% of newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s patients are women.

The WBHI puts out an informative magazine (available online here) with articles written by leading researchers and doctors about how estrogen, stress, cortisol and pregnancy/motherhood may influence your overall brain health as well as simple lifestyle modifications that may have significant long-term benefits.

I have discovered that while my genes my have a ticket for longevity, I want to those years to be as fulfilling as possible.

More and more the research is showing that the choices we make while we are young and healthy directly affect how we age.

I see my grandmother in these pictures as a young woman, a wife, a sister, a mother.  I see how she changes with each passing decade.  I see how her role changes too. No longer is she the central hub of her family, mothering her four children.  No longer is she the grandmother called upon to host family dinners or arrange annual reunions.

Time is sneaky.  The photographs are all the proof that I need.  Generations pass in an instant leaving nothing more than a trail of pictures, and if you’re lucky, memories.

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Visit the Women’s Brain Health Initiative.

The Hope-Knot designed by Mark Lash, to represent brain health, is available as sterling cufflinks, a pin or a sterling pendant and chain.  Prices start at $10.

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