Rocking Through Transition.
I am sitting on the front steps of my 96-year-old mother’s home. It’s my first visit in 18 months and long overdue, as is the haircut which was item No.1 on her to-do list.
She’s lived at this same address in Toronto for almost my entire life, all 60 years I’ll be celebrating this summer. The seeming stability of these decades is a compensatory camouflage. It disguises the turbulence of her war-torn, erring-across-Europe, Holocaust-survivor-youth. And the loss of a brilliant husband who died blisteringly young, leaving her with three young children in a new city where she didn’t speak the language. Decades of trauma, then decades of calm. It’s very quiet now.
I mull over this as I sit on the front lawn admiring the huge trees I remember watching planted. I’m sanding a small wooden rocking horse, designed (I discovered by hunting around online with my husband) by Kay Bojesen in Denmark in 1936. I don’t remember riding this little horse, bought before I was born. But he may explain my adolescent passion for the real thing, passed on to my daughter who even owned a real one – and our shared, lifelong love of animals. From the horses that saved my teenage sanity (and hers), to the hedgehogs I’ve been feeding in the English countryside where I spent this lockdown year and, of course, my dog Daisy from whom I’m largely inseparable.
This particular wooden rocking horse has been engraved in my memory by a lovely photo my father took of my two toddler brothers, squeezed together as chummy cavaliers. It has hung in the house all my life, a lens into my father’s eyes – a sight I lost aged three. The photo is lovely, and speaks to my own photographer’s eye, connecting me with this man I cannot remember. The angle, the mood, the light are all perfectly rendered, painting a touching portrait of innocent brotherhood.
Not the brothers I knew, who fought and argued and climbed almost anything anywhere every livelong day. They were the only men I was exposed to and they turbulently dominated my early years, ever careening slightly out of control. But this picture reminds me they were two innocent boys held by the gaze – and the love – behind the lens. They lost the father they desperately needed, while I gained a powerfully empowered single mom. She grew through loss and crisis. Showed the way and did it with style and grace. She was all I needed. And remains indomitable even as she shrinks and fades, walking daily around the block - as though her life depends on it.
As she sleeps in her familiar matriarchal chair, I sand and refresh this little symbol of childhood, rescued from the depths of my mother’s Babel of a basement. I am psychologically rocking between my mother’s end in Canada and the impending arrival of my first granddaughter in Senegal. I am in-between in almost every sense of the word. At home in London, spread-eagled between my far-flung nuclear brood, between generations and continents, witnessing the transitions of those I love most.
This little horse will ride forth on UPS wings next week. I will fly home to London, while he sets flight across the sea and the deserts, back from the New World to the first world, moving from immigrant lives to indigenous roots. He will rock another generation. The hands holding the reins will be the genetic connection between my mother’s late Canadian rootedness, my European return and my granddaughter’s firm grip (I know it will be firm, like all the other women in her lineage). Where will she gallop? What sibling will join her for a photo opp? What meaning will she pull from this pony’s tail swishing through history?
I wish her one thing beyond all others. That she keeps her father’s loving gaze fixed squarely on the wonder of her rocking. A magic side of men I would have loved to have known. It will be deliriously sweet to watch my son become the father I never had. My heart swells at the thought. And I see my granddaughter rocking faster and the two of them laughing louder, in constant, complicit cahoots, as he snaps the camera. And sends me the photo.
Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, an MEA alumni, is the London-based CEO of 20-first, an expert in gender and generational balance, a writer for HBR and FORBES, a 3x TEDx speaker, and a coach, parent, daughter, wife and globalist. Her most recent book is Late Love: Mating in Maturity and today is her 60th birthday.