By Regina Peters
1. Every mother is a working mother, and every woman should choose her work.
When I was born, my mother was writing her PhD and working as a teaching assistant at the University of Rostock. When I turned three, she quit her job to follow my father to Montreal, Canada. Some people might consider this a step backward, but we know better. She did not abandon her goals; she pursued them.
Firstly, she never enjoyed teaching. Secondly, her thesis topic was chosen for her. Thirdly, as she puts it, “Why work myself to death paying for someone else to take care of you, when I’d rather do it myself?”
This is not to say she doesn’t value education or a career, because she does. I was sent to the finest private school available, and later on to university. But it was a choice, more than anything, that my mother wanted for me: the chance to decide my own future, and the promise to support me no matter what. Even when I chose to major in creative writing – considered not a very practical career path – she told me to “go for it.”
That, in my eyes, makes her a feminist, and a role model worth looking up to.
2. Home is not a place – it’s the people in it.
Moving from the former German Democratic Republic to Canada couldn’t have been easy. I was three; all I remember is putting on snow pants and learning Frere Jacques from the cleaning lady. But my mother had to adjust to two foreign languages, an ocean-wide separation from her family and friends, an apartment next to a roaring highway and a city that was bigger, louder, and faster than any place she’d ever known.
But where my father went, so did my mother. We learned English simultaneously from watching Sesame Street and reading Beatrix Potter; my father took us to La Ronde, Disney on Ice and, when that first winter became unbearable, to Mexico. My mother developed a ritual of calling her sister on the phone every Saturday. In other words, we adapted. Eventually we moved to a house with a garden in the West Island suburbs, which she has made, and continues to make, into the best home I could wish for – mice, leaky basement, cracked tiles and all. And if I ever leave them for a home and family of my own, I will rely on her for advice on how to make my place as peaceful and as comfortable as hers.
3. Books are happiness, made easier to carry.
When I was a little girl, my parents read aloud to me every evening. I can’t describe how lucky I feel to have those memories. When I was sick, their stories were more comforting than chicken soup; when I was upset, they never failed to make me fall asleep with a smile. The worst punishment they could think of was refusing to read to me; I can’t remember what I did to deserve that, but I certainly didn’t do it again.
There are certain stories that still come to me in my mother’s quiet German voice: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. My father, who doesn’t care for fantasy, always read in a deliberate monotone to make me sleepy, but my mother shared my favourites and made them come alive.
If ever I become a published author, it will be thanks to her.
4. Free speech is precious.
In middle school, I was astonished to learn that, loving books the way she does, my mother never enjoyed literature classes when she was my age. That was the time I began to get goosebumps from Edgar Allan Poe’s Annabel Lee, pump my fist for Schiller’s William Tell, and wonder what Emily Dickinson meant by riding in Death’s carriage. Later on, in high school, CEGEP and university, many of my teachers made a point of supporting free expression. I pointed out flat characters in Alice Munro, feminist subtext in Charles Dickens, and – horror of horrors – wrote poetry in Comic Sans, and no one batted an eye.
When my mother was in school, this is a sample of what she had to read: German post-WWII angst at its bleakest. “And as for interpretation,” she says, “Forget it. There was only one way to read a poem, and that was the way we were told.”
I couldn’t imagine growing up in a culture like that. I still can’t. I’m only glad I never had to.
5. Food is not your enemy.
My mother loves to cook. She grows her own herbs, experiments with curries, makes jam from the berries in our yard every summer, and goes through the local farmer’s market like Carrie Bradshaw goes through shoe stores. My father literally purrs over her cakes.
“Diet” is not a word in our house. When I used to sulk about my weight the way teenage girls do, my mother never dreamed of putting me on a regimen of carrot sticks the way some mothers might have done. “You eat just enough,” she told me. “Not too much and not too little. Where would be the happiness in life if we couldn’t enjoy our food?”
I regret to say that, so far, I share neither her culinary talent nor her relish for fresh fruit and vegetables, but that might come along when I get older. For now, though, I am happy to say that I can eat a whole slice of cheesecake without being ashamed.
6. Love yourself.
To be honest, this one is decidedly a work in progress. I’m only 23, however, and I’ve got plenty of time to learn it. When I’m feeling down, all I have to do is ask my mother to remind me of what happened when I was five.
I don’t remember it. What I do remember is trying to build a house for my stuffed cat, not understanding why this other girl kept babbling at me and breaking my concentration. According to my mother, the kindergarten teacher wanted to send me to therapy because of my lack of social skills. My mother refused, and to this day, she – one of the most even-tempered people I’ve ever known – breathes fire when that teacher’s name is mentioned.
“There is nothing wrong with you!” she tells me. “That woman should’ve known better than to fit all children into the same mold.”
Whether the therapy could have improved me is another matter. I’m not arguing against it; in my last year of university, speaking to a counselor proved very helpful. My point is that, as long as one person believes there is nothing wrong with me (two, counting my father), that makes it immeasurably easier to believe it for myself.
A very happy birthday, Mom. You’ve earned it.
Regina Peters was born in Rostock, Germany. Her family immigrated to Montreal when she was three years old. She studied Creative Writing at Concordia University. She may or may not be part Vulcan.