For the last three years, since my mother died, I’ve been in therapy. Being asked to examine your life and report on your observations once a week cannot help but drive a person deep into memories from every era of life.
All too often, the memories that emerge as something worth examining seem trivial. They make me feel small and petty. I want something more momentous to discuss. But the fact is, the big stuff was cleared very early on and in therapy, the big stuff really can’t be addressed, much less fixed, until the small stuff, that forms the toxic soil that supports and sustains the big stuff can be understood and dismantled.
So in no particular order, I am going to write about these tiny cuts, with an eye to understanding them and helping them to heal. I want you to know, these moments reflect common pains, wounds and slights that I think most people can relate to. It’s also true that my husband has done all he can to help these cuts heal. As soon as he discovers the story behind a sore spot in the present, he sets about fixing it by reassuring me, this will never happen to me again. I am loved. I am safe. I am okay.
Most of all, I want you to know, if this is similar to something that happened to you, it wasn’t your doing. You didn’t do anything wrong. Someday, there will be someone in your life who will shield you from this kind of tiny psychic cut, and you, in return, will protect them. Depend on it. There’s someone out there to love you. (and one more thing, although it does not matter, I’ve had the opportunity to own a full dinner service of Portmerion Botanic Garden, I decided against it.)
So, the story goes like this:
This morning, I am having coffee in a cup my husband insisted on buying for me. We have too many cups but we had to have this one because this tiny little memory keeps popping up and I’m not sure what to do with it.
The cup is made by Portmerion, is is part of what I had always hoped would be my wedding set, “Botanic Garden.” It has a design of yellow gorse and blue butterflies surrounded by a garland of green leaves.
Yellow gorse, or “Scotch Broom” as it was called in Victoria, grew in abundance on the cliffs above the beaches of my childhood neighborhood. My name, “Stephanie” is a direct reference to the garland of laurel leaves placed on the head of a prize-winning poet in ancient Greek times, on this pattern of china, that garland turns up as a border around the rim of plates, cups and saucers. Symbolically, the set was meaningful to me. Ironically, now that I am a very keen gardener with nearly an acre of garden under my care, it’s even more on-point. But none of that makes the cup and its saucer meaningful. It didn’t then, it doesn’t now.
In Victoria, in the final years of my time there, I had a friend named Pam. She was from a wealthy family; “old money” they would say in Victorian terms. What that really meant was her family came to Victoria to escape an “unsavory situation” in England nearly two centuries ago, and, recognizing the value of land, bought as much of it as they could get, establishing themselves as new world gentry.
Pam’s family had waterfront property in the most expensive part of town. Her father owned an investment firm and a real estate brokerage. They owned a lake. They owned commercial buildings, even a golf course once. This was my first brush with real money. I didn’t know what to make of it.
Pam still spoke with an English accent. Her whole family did. This was despite roots in the area so deep that many of the roads, parks and landmarks in Victoria were (and are) named for Pam’s family. Just th same, coming from Montreal, I never thought twice about Pam’s accent. Everything in Victoria was strange and at least a little annoying, this was just one more inexplicable thing. I assumed her family spent a great deal of time in England and therefore, had British accents, slightly plummy, slightly upper class. They sounded very much like the people in the English murder mysteries on PBS. Her speech was perfectly intelligible, so what did I care about her accent?
There came a time in her life when Pam, with the support of her family decided it was time for her to visit England on her own, as an adult. This was her first visit. Thinking back on that, I realize it’s a bit of a leap of faith to accept her accent as something she came by naturally when she was born and raised in Canada and had never ventured far from Vancouver Island. What can I say? I was trusting soul, or maybe just inattentive, it’s hard to say which. Regardless, I was happy for her and looked forward to a lot of photos and interesting stories on her return.
Two things happened that I did not expect: first, she visited my father in Yorkshire and the first story she decided to tell was about that visit. She told it at a large, social dinner at a small, quiet restaurant. She recounted how popular my father was and how his staff loved him and asked me why I had never told her my family was French Canadian.
“We’re not,” I answered, “We’re British.” “But,” Pam continued, “Your father has a very thick Quebecois accent, so obviously, you’re French Canadian” “Well Pam, I don’t know what to tell you but you know my last name and you know it’s not French. My Dad runs a pub in Yorkshire, his adopted parents were both from England. He lived in the English section of Montreal, as did we all, we’re British.” At that time, my father had lived in Yorkshire for a decade. But, undaunted, Pam kept going on about his accent. It was clear to me my father was fooling with her, lying to her to look more interesting than he was. As an adoptee who was pretty scarred from his upbringing, that sort of thing is a quirk my father relied on to both deflect attention from his personal reality and to gain approval from strangers. I found it deeply embarrassing. It wasn’t until much later that another friend asked my why I didn’t ask Pam about her own, obviously strange, British accent. The truth is, it never occured to me to pick on something like that. I just didn’t think anyone owed anyone else an explanation about their mode of speech.
After the dinner, we all went back to Pam’s because she had bought little gifts and mementoes for all her friends. There were about six of us. The souvenirs were nothing expensive but they were very personal. Every one was an object that reflected an aspect of each friend’s personality. A small silver necklace, a honey jar, a door knocker, all different, all personal.
For me, Pam had chosen two things, one was something impersonal; I don’t remember what it was but it was some generic thing, and the other, the one she had chosen for me in particular, was a cup and saucer from the Portmerion factory she had visited as part of her trip. It was in my pattern, Botanic Garden, she knew I loved that pattern and hoped to choose it as a bridal pattern someday so it was intensely personal. But it was chipped. She bought it for a fraction of its value because it had a chipped rim.
I chose the cup and thanked her. I kept it for years. It bothered me for years. Every time I looked at it, I felt bad about being petty and not fully appreciating my friend for her generosity. After all, Pam had thought of me, specifically, and chose something that suited me. So what if it was a bargain basement version of that thing? My family was not rich. I could never have expected to afford to buy myself a perfect Portmerion cup and I would likely never visit the factory to choose a bargain version. I told myself I should feel lucky to have a friend who could go directly to the factory and spend some of her money on this gift for me. I should be grateful to have it and know what it’s like to use one even if it was chipped. No matter what a gift is, we should always be grateful for it. A gift means someone thought of me. A gift is a feeling presented in tangible form, right? It’s a gift. Be kind, be gracious, appreciate it.
But you know, secretly, I hated that gift. It reminded me that I wasn’t good enough for the real thing. It reminded me of how very wealthy Pam’s family was, and how she never made a sacrifice to make a gift to anyone, not really. Unlike me, Pam never cut back on that week’s grocery budget to buy a nice birthday present or attend a social event. She took on jobs that mimicked what her poor friends were doing but it was obvious she didn’t need the money she earned from them, even though she pretended she did. So when she asked me why I didn’t just go out and replace something broken in my apartment, or why I couldn’t just go out and get some new furniture when I needed it, I felt ashamed that I was such a bad money manager that I couldn’t do the things Pam could do.
That gift also reminded me of the big drawer of gifts she kept in her kitchen. It was an oversized drawer in the bottom of an antique Welsh dresser her father had gifted her. It was full of things that people might like, so she need never be caught empty handed if she was invited somewhere that called for a gift. She need never even bother to shop, she had a little gift store in her house. She had a stash of things that served the purpose of making her look thoughtful, kind and gracious without any effort at all. She had that gift drawer in a house that her father gave to her, a beautiful house, in a lovely neighborhood.
As I write this, I can see how this interaction might be completely inconsequential to my friend and how it still might leave a scar on me.
My family struggled in every way. My father had been successful in Montreal and was driven out of the restaurant business by the mafia. (no joke, I thought it was imaginary, it was not.) My parents fought constantly. We lived in rented places until I was 12 when my parents bought real estate and divorced in the same year. I think my parents wanted my sister and I to have the ability to keep up with our friends but I kept attracting rich kids as friends and it was impossible to keep pace with their standards. My mother resented me for that. I’m not sure my father noticed. He moved to England when I was 17. Things were a mess in my life, the years between age 18 and 25 were filled with one minor disaster after another. University seemed like a vainglorious dream. I assumed I would work in the service industry or work as a preschool teacher forever. (and frankly, I was disappointed to learn how meagre my wages would be as a teacher.) Pam’s friendship seemed like a real emotional lifeline to me in many ways, but in many ways it was damaging all by itself.
Pam could know, but she could never understand, how it was to be dealing with parents who were struggling. She would certainly never know how it felt to do life without a safety net or struggle herself. She couldn’t know how it felt to watch someone set the bar for attainment higher and higher just by living their life. She couldn’t know the shame she heaped on me by giving me a broken cup and expecting me to be grateful for it.
But I knew. Inside I knew. I couldn’t say it out loud, the shame kept me silent, but I can say it now. A few months ago, I threw Pam’s gift away. A few weeks later, my husband bought me the cup pictured here.
A real gift, from a real love, for a real life, whole and unbroken.