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.