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From the archives

Referendum Trudeau

He campaigned in poetry but governed in prose

Rinkside Reading

What does hockey’s literature say about the sport?

Alarm Bells

Fort McMurray and fires hence

Down the 401

A mother and daughter’s next chapter

Ruth Panofsky

When my mother announced that she would be moving to Toronto, I was uneasy. For more than forty years we had been living in separate cities. I could not imagine having her nearby. “What kind of daughter are you?” demanded the voice in my head. The reproach was familiar, for I often feel remiss when it comes to my mother. But there was a new urgency to the question, summoned by her imminent move.

My mother and I are similar in looks. We both reach around five foot two, and our brunette hair has never been dyed. Only relatively recently, at age eighty-five, has she gone silver at the temples. So far, I seem to have inherited her remarkable resistance to grey.

For over two decades, following the death of my father, my mother had been content to live alone. She was independent, stayed active, and enjoyed a wide social circle of friends and family. There was a well-established rhythm to each year. She spent the winter months in Coconut Creek, Florida, and in the spring returned to Montreal, the city she knows and loves.

By the time she entered her nineties, however, her autonomous life was no longer practical. Preparing meals for herself was once a creative outlet; now it was a burden. Driving was once the key to her freedom; now it was precarious, particularly when she lost her way. Most worrying was her waning short-term memory.

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She resolved to swap her spacious condominium in the enclave of Côte Saint‑Luc for a small apartment in North York. She was moving to be near her three daughters — each of us had long ago quit Montreal for Toronto — and to take advantage of the assisted living support available in her new residence.

Despite the distance between us, my mother and I always maintained a connection. She never mastered the technology of the smartphone or tablet and thus depended on her land line. Over the phone, she would deliver the latest news and gossip, while I kept her abreast of each advancing stage of my life: my teaching and writing, as well as my children’s development and achievements.

There were countless visits. My mother was undaunted by the six-hour drive down the 401, a trip she would make on her own or with friends, even through light snow or heavy rain. I found the same interminable stretch of highway difficult, especially when my kids were young. More recently, I ditched the car in favour of a comfortable train ride or short flight.

My mother never lived at a great distance from her parents. When I was a child, we visited my maternal grandparents every week. We would leave our 1950s suburban bungalow in Laval and drive across Cartierville Bridge into the city — my mother often singing along to Doris Day to keep us entertained — to spend Sunday afternoons. I loved visiting my grandparents in their upper duplex in Snowdon, with its ten-foot ceilings, wide central hallway, and thick mahogany doors, and I could see that my mother felt the same way. Seated across from each other at the kitchen table — actually, a repurposed workbench — the two women would chat freely. Invariably, the afternoon would conclude with my grandmother reading tea leaves. Looking into a future not ours to see, she nonetheless prophesied good fortune for my mother and for me. I lingered close during these stays.

In contrast, I had no adult sense of what it’s like to live in proximity to parents. When I left home at eighteen, it was for good. I spent four years as an undergraduate in Ottawa and then settled in southern Ontario, where I came to accept our geographical divide.

My mother’s decline has been gradual but challenging. Always fiercely proud of her capacity to get things done by herself, she resisted the notion that she might need the help of others. I, too, counted on her self-sufficiency, willfulness, and energy. I must have thought she would live forever. I certainly never imagined that she would live anywhere other than Montreal. My reaction to her decision to move troubled me, and I could not understand why. Did I fear tension or anticipate added responsibility?

It’s been several months now, and my mother seems to have settled into her new place. She is living among cherished possessions: a front hall console in black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay, a red velvet couch, a small display cabinet that holds her prized Royal Albert china, and a grandfather clock that has long been silent. Pictures of family and friends are on display as they have always been. When she says she feels at home, I am comforted. I know that leaving her condominium and her long-familiar surroundings was disruptive.

I, too, am composed. Initially addled, I worried that I wouldn’t know how to behave as an adult daughter residing in close vicinity to my elderly parent. So I didn’t expect to feel this way: content knowing that my mother lives a short distance by car and that I can call on her whenever I like.

I now realize that I should have trusted in the tie that binds us to each other. Each time I arrive, my mother is happy to see me. When I leave, she thanks me for coming, and I always respond the same way: “You don’t have to thank me.” I mean it. I enjoy spending time with her, doing what we’ve done consistently: catching up and sharing news. Now, though, I also help her remember.

When she wonders at the loss of her parents, I share my recollections, and soon her own resurface in memory. I invite remembrance of her beloved grandfather and the oft-told tale of his funeral. As a peddler who travelled beyond the city limits, he developed a close enough relationship with the Mohawks of Kahnawake that they visited his home to offer their respects when he died. I revive Mary, my mother’s oldest and dearest friend; they both grew up on the scrappy streets around the Main. I ask about her brief stay at a dude ranch in the Laurentians, where she met my father (he first spotted her emerging from a swim in the local lake). And when confusion sets in — those moments when she anticipates her return to Montreal — I try to reorient her by concentrating on the snow-covered rooftops on view from her sitting room window. Together, we recover the past and focus on the present.

My favourite time to visit is during the magic hour between two and three o’clock on Sunday afternoon. Each week, in the large lobby of her building, an affable and talented pianist sets up his portable keyboard and plays timeless tunes that my mother recalls. She has always sung beautifully, and now I get to hear her regularly. On otherwise ordinary Sundays, and especially as she harmonizes to “Que Sera, Sera,” I’m taken back to my childhood, when she would sing to me with love and promise in her voice.

Ruth Panofsky is a professor of English at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she specializes in Canadian literature and culture.