Every once in a while I get invited to give a talk, sit on a panel or chair a board of directors and a request for a headshot inevitably follows. It always feels something less than professional to send my latest selfie but all the other pictures of me were taken my children and involve either my less flattering appendages, booze, or both.
A nagging little voice kept telling me that I should pay for professional headshots but an even less pleasant little voice always answered “It’s not like you’re paid for these gigs, right?” Why should I fork real money to be reminded how old and doughy I’m getting? When there are guitars to buy and live shows to attend?
And so the little voices stood at a standstill on my shoulder until I had to apply for a job using LinkedIn, making my profile selfie my first chance to make a good impression. Chastised, I booked an appointment with a fellow mom and local photographer and started planning my 5 minutes of glamour.
First, I would get a new outfit. Simple but classy, I had it all figured out: new skinny jeans, a loose-fitting linen tunic with some new jewelry and a new pair of sneakers. Then I would book the few hours before my headshots for a haircut and getting my nails done. My bangs are almost nose-length, it was necessary anyway, and my hair person could style it for me, a skill I was not blessed with at birth. It would be a headshot session doubling as a day of beautification and pampering, the perfect antidote to a sagging spirit. Monday would be clothes shopping day. Tuesday would be eyebrow threading and leg waxing. Wednesday was hair and pictures. Everything blissfully booked while my children were at school.
It all came crashing in a thundering mess on the Sunday evening when I got the photographer’s email reminder. “We’re looking forward to see you tomorrow, Monday June 12th for your session” … I had it all planned out on the WRONG DAY! Right date, wrong day. I had nothing to wear, an overgrown haircut and bushy eyebrows.
In a panic, I hit my oldest daughter’s closet for a dress, any dress. Unfortunately, my oldest daughter, while statuesque, doesn’t have the right curves at the right place. One does not simply carry 9 children to term and expect to fit in a dress from Sirens, even in a size 10. I grabbed some XL shape wear with the desperate energy of the moribund and almost died trying to get it off. Relieved that the jaws of life were not necessary to get me out it, I reluctantly accepted that I was too shapely for shapewear. I grabbed a simple black and white dress from Walmart that made me look as grumpy and unkempt as the Walmart in my small town but at least it covered the right parts and I could take it off without calling the fire department.
The little voice of insanity kept whispering in my ear that Monday morning would not be too late to go dress-shopping. Like a Home Depot ad suggesting “You can do it, we can help.” Like the Scotiabank’s “You’re richer than you think” So many reminders that stupidity could pay off, if only, NO STOP IT!!
On the morning of the photo shoot, I concluded that the only way to avoid a desperate attempt at dress shopping and hair cutting would be to go to the gym. I could shower and dress at the gym with only minutes to spare for make-up, which should discourage any delusions of grandeur but the most humble slapping of foundation and mascara. On my way out the door to drive the children to school I grabbed a curling iron, a flask of tinted moisturizer and my daughters’ mascara; threw the Walmart dress on top of my gym bag and attacked the day with a significant lump in my throat. The day of pampering and beautification had become just another fight with chaos.
After my workout and shower, my hair was kinked in its usual pony tail shape and I knew I couldn’t beat it so I might as well join it. I arranged my hair in a high pony tail and tried to curl some of it behind my back. I didn’t even know how to turn-on the contraption but maybe I could use it backwards with my arms extended on the wrong side of my head, the one without eyes. Once I found the “on” button, I let the device heat on a ziplock bag of bobby pins. I curled molten plastic into my hair repeatedly before cluing-in, combed it out over the next five days. So far so good.
Undeterred, I whipped my daughters’ new mascara out of my bag. My daughters, while genetically-related to me, have a gift for make-up. It’s a form of artistic expression. See for yourselves.
If your main consideration when choosing mascara is “can this brush maim me permanently?” you shouldn’t borrow it from my daughters: they’ve been using it without poking their eyes out since grade 1. This was my reflection as I beheld the sickle-shaped, black-paint laden, rigid object I was about to take dangerously close to my eyes.
I emerged from the gym’s change room with a “this is my normal face” attitude, hoping that no one had seen me wipe melted ziplock off my curling iron, and stepped into the car for a mad drive across town. I knocked on Sara’s door taking my first breath since breakfast and greeted her with an executive summary of my confusion and the effort exerted to get my butt into her studio. She laughed and said “On the other hand, this is exactly what you look like in real life. Sometimes I meet people at business events and I don’t recognize them from their headshots.”
She’s right isn’t she? I don’t wear make-up because it bugs me. I don’t have nice clothes because I hate shopping. I’d rather spend my time writing, playing music and answering emails about parenting struggles and victories. I’m not at an age and stage where I can look polished and be a decent human being at the same time. Every morning, I choose being present and un-rushed to being properly dressed and styled because being-both-level has not been unlocked yet. This is who I am.
And this is exactly what I look like.
On May 13th, my parents celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary. As a child, I remember looking at their wedding album with fascination. I could see my older cousins as children, lining-up on the Church’s gravel path as flower girls and pages: the boys wearing matching suits, the girls wearing handmade smocked dresses. I marveled at my parents’ youth and beauty. My father’s light-coloured plaid suit and his honeycombed tie screamed 1972 but almost as to tell the story of two worlds colliding, everything about my mother was timeless and classic. Her white dress had no adornments but round pearl buttons complementing the single pearl she wore around her neck. She had eschewed the traditional veil for a tasteful updo, held together by a wide white bow falling in loose coils down her shoulders. My parents had met in the United-States and were married in France in my mother’s hometown before moving to Canada, my father’s home. I always felt a strong attachment to my mother’s homeland and my parents’ wedding album was a key to the mystery of dislocation, of never feeling settled, of belonging to two worlds and, at the same time, never being home.
On their anniversary, when my children announced — upon checking Facebook — that my parents were celebrating 45 years of marriage, my first exclamation was “This is impossible, I’m not that old!” but sadly, yes, I am. I was born 18 months after my parents’ wedding. Firstborn to a francophile and a Frenchwoman, I grew-up in the blissful ignorance of my deviance until I started school. There, my lovely accent, a bastard of France’s clear enunciation and Quebec’s slur — one Quebec humorist once described the French accent as “speaking French with teeth” — attracted taunts, laughs and calls to “go back to where I came from.” Teachers would ask me to speak just so they could laugh. My family’s fashion sense, always tasteful and timeless, became old-fashioned. Creativity became delusion, daydreaming was a punishable offence and public shaming an acceptable mode of righting the wrong, straightening the crooked, homogenizing the colourful.
I grew-up as “the other” in a community that was so overwhelmingly White-French-Canadian that the white France-French kid was considered the outsider. I lived in an interesting dichotomy where everything that was ridiculed at school — my speech, my clothing, my imagination, my creativity — was celebrated at home. My parents’ marriage, with their worlds colliding, had created a place where being different was safe, even desirable. It was a safe-haven from the rejections and mockeries of my friends and teachers. The stark contrast between the artificial conditional love of the world and my family’s unconditional love was a school in the pain that lies in the hearts of hurtful people.
My parents’ marriage wasn’t the stuff movies are made of. It had no artifices, no false pretences. Buoyed by the intrepidity of youth, my mother had left home and family in Europe for a life in Canada at a time when plane tickets had roughly the same face-value they have today on a dollar that was a lot harder to earn. Long-distance phone calls across the Atlantic were priced in dollars per minute. My mother raised us without the support of family, save for the regular handwritten letters she would get from her mom and sisters. I saw how the ocean grew wider as her parents grew older and sicker; and wider still today as her siblings are reaching the end of their journey. My parents cared for each other in ways that were not always perfect. But they held each other by the force of commitment and the willingness to make way to the needs of others.
I always understood without being able to articulate it that my mother had chosen a man, not a country. She struggled to retain as much of her French identity as she could in a society where it was viewed as snobbish and pretentious. She was called “nice, for a Frenchwoman.” Almost fifty years later, she still speaks with a French accent and has never tasted poutine. At my parents’ 45th anniversary dinner my siblings and I cracked jokes about the poutine story, shaking our heads about “those immigrants who refuse to integrate…” My mother still has a foot in both worlds and I always knew that her family, the one she had made in Canada with my father, was her anchor. Without it, she would float away eastward to the Atlantic and over back to France. Her love was freely given, yet its cost was always in plain sight.
The gift of unconditional love is my secret weapon as I move through the world today, raising my own family. It was given to me by my parents, inscribed in my DNA. I soaked in it in the quiet ignorance of the womb. It caught me when I tripped as a toddler. It wrapped its arms around me when I was cold and alone. It patched me up when my heart was broken. It reassured me when I was mocked and ridiculed. I did nothing to earn it and yet, it weights on every aspect of my life.
Unconditional love is a disposition of the heart expressed in the simplest words and actions. Yet, we struggle to understand how to love our children. Driven by guilt we grasp at anything that resembles unconditional love whether it’s a new diet, a new opportunity, a participation trophy. We need to make love tangible, measurable, when we know, deep down in our innermost heart, that it cannot be. We rip a page from our children’s playbooks, confusing their wants and needs, unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, as if the need for food and the want for organic local food were one and the same.
My parents’ marriage is my gift and my inheritance. Quiet and unassuming, love changes the world one family at a time.