Monday, 9 February 2009


“You sound just like your mother.” How many of us have heard that phrase over the years? And how do we interpret it? For me, it has been both a compliment and a criticism. "Please, anything but that." Several years ago, my two sisters and I made a pact that we would try to honour the best of our mother, appreciate and respect those features of her personality and character that we admired, and rage, rage against any embarrassing elements that might somehow have made their way to our personal domains.

My mother has always had a youthful, melodic voice. She was the daughter of a Unitarian minister who was admired and respected for his oratorical skills. So, at ten years of age, while other girls were taking ballet or piano lessons, she was enrolled in elocution lessons, and as a result, even with only two years of post secondary education, she spoke with the precision of a Harvard graduate. It didn’t matter if we slouched, or held our fork awkwardly, although those points of etiquette were addressed, but “god forbid” that we mumbled, slurred, or mispronounced a word. “Speak up,” she would say. Or, in one of her scathing, sarcastic octaves, “Did you mean to say…?”

When my mother was in her fifties, she changed careers and realized a livelong dream of becoming a “nurse”. Well, not an RN exactly, but close. A family associate, who needed a temporary receptionist for his medical practice, called upon my mother to fill in for a few weeks. As sometimes happens, those weeks turned into years, as my mother, who had never been one to run an efficient household, suddenly found her niche as receptionist, bookkeeper, witness to patient examinations, and much more. On many occasions she would give needles and apply bandages. And when someone referred to her as “Nurse Ethel”, dressed as she was in her white uniform, she never bothered to correct them.

One day a young pregnant woman suddenly began haemorrhaging in the middle of the waiting room. Once Mom had urgently settled the woman in a separate room and called the doctor, she then quickly proceeded to clean up the mess on the floor. Ironically, her reasons for not training as a nurse had been because she couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Well, “God dammit”. She would say when retelling the story, "all these years I had been deceived by a myth of my own making."

The patients loved her ribald sense of humour and her "take no prisoners" attitude. You were either a “gorgeous creature” or “a silly bugger”. One quickly learned their place in the Nurse Ethel hierarchy of favourites. If she called you “darling” or “honey”, you knew you had a chance to get an early appointment. The term “sweetheart” could sometimes be delivered ambiguously. As in, “sweetheart, not a chance in hell.” Or, “sweetheart, forget it.” The voice could variously drip with honey or disgust in equal measure. It would be a kindness to say that she “did not suffer fools gladly”. In truth, she just did not suffer anyone she chose to dislike.

One of her favourite stories is of a young man (i.e. much younger than her) who had called several times, without success, for an immediate appointment. She liked his sense of humour on the phone this particular day and booked an appointment at the earliest date possible, concluding the phone call with her most charming, youthful voice.“Honey, I’ll look forward to seeing you next Tuesday.” At which point, he responded that he too was looking forward to finally meeting her. She chuckles as she says, “You should have seen the look on his face when he walked through the door, expecting to see some sweet, young receptionist and, instead, there I was, a plump, middle-aged, white haired grandmother.”

Up until last year, at the age of 93, my mother’s voice still had the youthful, playful lilt that I have always loved. This past year, after 3 bouts of bronchitis, and seemingly incessant coughing, she has suddenly assumed the raspy, sometimes childlike voice consistent with her age. Her sense of humour is still there, the sparkle in her eyes, and language that would make the devil quake, but I miss that marvellous voice. Maybe T. S. Eliot was right. It will all end someday, not with a bang, but with a whimper.