When I was five years old, my parents separated. At the time we were living in Reykjavík, in a one-bedroom condominium on which my parents had recently put a small down payment. To flee the fallout from the separation, my mother travelled to Canada to visit my aunt – her sister – who was married to a Canadian and was about to give birth to her second child. She took me with her.
The visit, initially meant to be only a few weeks, was extended to several months, and when my aunt’s husband accepted a job offer in Cyprus they invited my mother and me to join them. That stay ended up lasting for one and a half years. When we returned to Iceland, I was in my eighth year and went directly into grade three. It was my first introduction to formal education.
At that time, my parents’ divorce became final. In order to avoid having to sell their condo and to ensure that we would have a secure place to live, my mother and father agreed that it should be put into my name. At the time, inflation was very high in Iceland and mortgages were not yet indexed to the rate of inflation, so over the years, as prices and salaries rose and mortgages stayed the same, the mortgage effectively disappeared and the condo became my property.
Three years after we had returned to Iceland, just as the dust from my parents’ divorce was beginning to settle, my mother decided that she wanted to move to Canada. I still remember the dread I felt when she made that announcement. I did not want to leave again. Iceland was my home. It was where my extended family was, my [paternal] grandparents, my roots. But my mother insisted. In the end she played her trump card: if I came to Canada, she said, I could have what I wanted most in the whole world: a dog. Maybe even a horse, too, if we moved to the country. Perhaps we would move to Calgary, where there was lots of land and much economic prosperity.
So when I was ten, we returned to Canada and moved in with my aunt and her husband. Just over a month later, I started school. I remember it being an absolute, utter nightmare. I only understood about ten percent of what was being said. I was put back a grade as a result. I was whispered about and teased because of my accent and my lack of comprehension. I still have a vivid memory of standing out in left field – literally – with a big mitten on my hand during a baseball game in gym class, listening to the shouts of wrath from my teammates because I was supposed to catch the ball. I didn’t know. Nobody had bothered to explain the rules to me. I didn’t even know what baseball was. And I was too scared to ask.
What kept me going was the promise of the dog. That became a symbol of comfort, understanding and solace. When I asked my mother, she told me to work hard in school, get back up to my normal grade, and we would then talk about it. I worked hard. By the following January I had made it up to my normal grade. But by then, we had moved to a small rental apartment and dogs were not allowed.
My mother had begun dating a man, and shortly afterwards we moved into an apartment with him. He was a professor at a military college, hung swords and military memorabilia on the walls, and was miserly to the point of insanity [a topic for another installment, perhaps]. He was also obsessively controlling – the ‘little secrets’ that were the real reasons for his tyranny were exposed many years later – and he despised me.
We moved to a house on the outskirts of town when I was thirteen. My mother and I had been in Canada for three years, and I had changed schools three times. I remember virtually nothing of my education during that time – or subsequently. Everything I had went into adapting to ever-changing circumstances, and trying to survive the dysfunction and emotional abuse at home. The dog was still a topic of discussion, but by this time the excuse had become that my mother’s new boyfriend – and soon-to-be husband – didn’t want a dog.
Which is why it came as a complete surprise when, a short while later, my mother bought him a dog for his birthday. The reason? “Because he has always wanted a dog.” […!] This dog was a big, fierce German Shephard named ‘Chappy’ who lived in the garage and who I was not to go near because he was supposed to be “disciplined”. A few months later, Chappy met his demise when he was taken to the vet, attacked the vet’s assistant, and had to be put down.
The dog was only one in a series of bizarre betrayals and rejections I experienced at the hands of my mother. The next major one came a couple of years later, when she and her husband decided to move to the country, to a farm in the middle of nowhere. I was fifteen, going on sixteen. Again I was gripped with unspeakable dread; living alone with them out in the suburbs, steeped in dysfunction and insanity, was utterly soul destroying, and the thought of moving away into still more isolation, was unthinkable. I said I wouldn’t go.
In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want them to leave – although in hindsight, I wonder if it wasn’t ultimately the best thing for me. I was terrified to be left on my own. But that’s what happened. They left, and I stayed in the house, which was put up for sale. Bit by bit, they removed the furniture, until basically all that was left was my bedroom stuff and a kitchen table and chairs. Soon afterwards, my mother sold the condo in Iceland, transferred the funds to Canada, and because of a favourable exchange rate, was able to buy a small house for me to live in. And so, at seventeen, I was installed in my own property, was managing tenants who lived in half of it [which provided funds for me to live on], was struggling to finish high school, worked two nights a week plus Saturdays, and on the surface played the role of capable young woman. On the inside, however, I was devastated. I developed an eating disorder, used alcohol and drugs indiscriminately, and hid from people.
Two years later, having finished school and moved to Toronto [knowingly only that I needed to get away] I fell into a black hole. I won’t go into the details – except to say that it was my great fortune and blessing to be guided to a kind psychiatrist who with great patience helped me, over a period of about two years, to see some sort of light and regain a semblance of hope.
It’s been a long journey since then. Many things have happened, too many and too complex to explain in this small space. Suffice it to say that at times I have quite literally struggled for my life. But I am incredibly lucky to have been guided to people who have helped me see that what happened in my childhood was not normal, and not okay.
As I alluded to in an earlier post, I had to come to terms with the fact that my mother was not the mother I needed. Whatever her reasons, she did not nurture me, did not support me, made no sacrifices, and ultimately abandoned me. She could also be incredibly cruel. About fourteen years ago, when I was a single mother in a foreign country and absolutely terrified for the future, I turned to her for help that she had previously offered. She harshly rebuffed me. My appeals for assistance – which note bene were very modest – were rejected outright. Her advice: return to Iceland, and work to overcome my ‘deadly sins’. After all, according to her, I’d had every opportunity at my fingertips, and had squandered them all. And Iceland was now the only country I had any claim to.
At that point I made a vow to myself that I would never, ever, ask her for anything again. I kept that promise, with one exception: I asked whether she would be willing to pay for AAH’s flight ticket to come to visit her last year, and she agreed.
In the last few months of her life, I thought I’d finally arrived at the point where I could simply love her, without being hurt by her. I was wrong. Last week, I was informed that I would receive no inheritance from my mother. She had made a will, and her wish was that I should not be in it. Her entire [50 percent] share of the farm and land she owned with her ‘husband’ [they had separated, but still lived with under the same roof], all her assets, government bonds, personal belongings, everything, went to my half-sister. Meanwhile, all the papers regarding the sale, years ago, of the condo here in Iceland and the subsequent transactions of the property in Canada, had been meticulously kept and recorded as ‘advance inheritance’. No attempt had been made to calculate whether this was an equal sum. No allowance for the fact that at the time I was a child who needed somewhere to live, and something to live on. No gesture made indicating that she had not one daughter, but two. Not even allowance for a flight ticket for me to travel to Canada for her memorial. One hundred percent eliminated. Except for one thing: I was to receive her Icelandic books – presumably because no-one in Canada can read them, and no used book shop will have them.
This is easily the longest post I have ever written. I wondered if this was the appropriate forum in which to vent. I don’t know. Undoubtedly some people reading this will feel that I am wallowing, steeped in self-pity, or be shocked or angry that I’m airing my dirty laundry in public. Others may think I’m exaggerating – I assure you I am not. There is much that has been left out here. Still others may think, what’s the big deal, everyone’s had a terrible childhood. Perhaps that’s true. But that doesn’t make it better – for any of us.
Everyone has their story. And everyone has a voice. This is mine.
PS. If you’re new here, have managed to make it through to this point, and are scratching your head in confusion, don’t worry – this is definitely not the way things are around here normally. We normally stick to lighter fare – like the weather. Today it happens to be windy, overcast, with a damp kind of cold. 5°C. Sunrise was at 09.14 and sunset at 18.11.