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.


Starzz said...

Hi Marylou,
I read about your Mom with fascination and recognition. I have been privileged to hear some of these stories. I admire your openess and honesty in sharing your thoughts and feelings,... written in a way that makes me want more and more.I have to admit though..your last few words brought a tear to my eye.

Thank you,

persephone said...

Hello Marylou,

What a lovely blog you wrote and I admire your 'sister pact' .

As an R.N. myself I found the story of your mother's second career fascinating! Nurse Ethel sounded like she was in her element. What a dynamo!

I laughed at the sweetheart bit as one of my sisters called her former hubbie S.H. at times and depending on tone of voice it could mean one of two things...sweetheart or something vile!

Carol shared your mother's answer to your blog in an e-mail this morning. I hope that Ethel eventually gets it onto the comment page as she wrote so beautifully that you (Marylou) 'paint such pictures in my mind with your words '

I still hear my mother's voice and her mother's voice in my dreams though they are with me in spirit only.

Thank you Marylou. You do have a way with words.


Darlene said...

I don't think my sisters and I made a conscious pact to only speak of our mother in kind terms and forget her weaknesses. However, that's what we do. I have never heard a bad word about our mother from them nor they from me.

She was not perfect, but she was so much better than I am. I only hope my children will focus on my good points when talking about me.

Tessa said...

Lovely story, Marylou. I'm fascinated by the strong physical resemblance between you and your mother, as she was in that photo. And she certainly passed on the melodious voice ...!

Wisewebwoman said...

Thank you Marylou. I totally enjoyed this peep at your fascinating mother, very much her own woman. I lost mine far too early and wrote about her recently on her birthday (Jan 31).
You are fortunate to have yours still on this side of the flowerbeds but I know, too, how cantankerous my friends' mothers can be, so it's not all sunshine and roses!!

Sylvia K said...

Hi Marylou,
I enjoyed reading your post and found myself a little wistful as I usuallly do when I read someone's writings about their mothers and what wonderful memories they have. I don't have those. I have tried to be the kind of mother to my four that I had so longed for as a child and as a young girl. But things happen for whatever reasons. I don't feel any anger or anything like that, just wistful. Beautiful words and thoughts. Thank you.

20th Century Woman said...

What a pleasure to find a blog new to me that I know I will want to read from now on. You have written a wonderful story about your mother. I hope it's okay to put a link in my blog.