LEGO, Parenting Mistakes, and a Stroke of Marketing Brilliance

With the Oscars just a one more sleep away I’d like to say I’ve spent the last week filling gaps in my 2013 movie viewing repertoire.  Unfortunately, the polar vortex and its ensuing cabin fever resulted in the Lego Movie as my last visit to the cinema.

In my opinion, most movies for kids are best viewed after the DVD release.  This way, the kids can watch while we parents do something else.  Those few kids’ movies that earn box office success, do so thanks to reviews that endorse them as bearable for the parent audience to endure.  The very best of these include a hearty helping of pop culture references and adult innuendo to elicit frequent laughs from grown-ups, and the Lego Movie was one of these.  Of COURSE the Batman Lego man is cloaked in a looming aura of doom and will only build with black or “very dark grey” blocks.  Ha!

But for me, the brilliance of the Lego Movie is in its marketing genius. 

When I was a kid, my Lego kits promised that I could build two or three things; maybe a couple of simple houses.  Inside the box were various colours of big rectangles, squares and ‘the little ones.’  If the kit was fancy, I might find a few flat shapes and maybe a window or door.  That was it.  The instructions were simple, which was a good thing because in those days children were expected to amuse themselves with their toys without parental assistance.  Once I finished the structure pictured on the front of the box and used it to elicit praise from the nearest adult, I felt no hesitation in tearing it apart and making something else.  Eventually, the instructions would be tossed and the pieces would be added to my jumbled bucket of mixed shapes and colors from kits gone by. 

For years, I found entertainment in that bucket, never constructing the same thing twice, mixing and matching pieces to build something new every time with only a vague idea of the end game.  I loved my Lego, and so it’s been a bit of a disappointment that my kids don’t share this devotion.   

Lego kits today contain what feels like a million different, highly specialized pieces in every box.  No longer can you simply ask a friend to help you find all the ‘flat-white-eight ones.’  Now it’s a search for the ‘little clear button shaped one with a hinge’, and finding it is like seeking a needle in a haystack. 

Neither Craig nor I would ever claim to be engineering wizards, but we’re not dummies either, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the instructions in Jack and Taylor’s Lego kits can baffle us.  The designs are so complex that following them feels a bit like tackling homework.  There are frustrated voices, garbled comments thrown in from people on the sidelines and occasionally angry tears.  More often than not, a parent takes over; eventually the kid gets bored watching and wanders away. 

When the thing is finally finished though, it’s fantastic.  One of Jack’s kits turned out a garbage truck that was completely operational.  The driver, glorious in his five o-clock shadow, was able to grip the steering wheel, the garbage compartment cantilevered perfectly and the wheels swiveled to produce a remarkable turning radius.  It was so fantastic that today, more than five years later, it remains intact and on display in Jack’s bookshelf. 

And therein lays the issue.  The garbage truck was too good, and the idea of tearing it apart felt sacrilegious.  It took us SO long to assemble!  Where would we put the pieces if we tore it apart?  Certainly we couldn’t fathom mixing them in with other pieces from other kits!  If that one, critically important, unique piece was difficult to find in a kit of 500 pieces, imagine trying to find it amidst a mountain of 5,000!  Never mind the risk that the whole search might be futile, should that special piece have been long ago sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.

When we realized that a finished Lego structure was simply too big to store, and we could finally bring ourselves to disassemble it, the pieces were carefully separated and hermetically sealed in a kit-specific Ziploc bag along with the instructions.  The idea was that one day we would assemble it again.  But once you’d assembled it once, and undergone all of the associated stress and crying, who in their right mind would want to do that again? 

Trying to build something else out of those pieces seemed like a waste of time.  It was patently clear that anything else we might try to assemble from that special mix of highly engineered pieces would be inferior to the thing that was pictured on the box.  In the absence of achieving this level of perfection the entire exercise felt useless.

And so my kids’ Lego collections sit, gathering dust either as completed display models or in collections of lonely pieces in the backs of cupboards.

My kids have Lego because my generation loved it.  While my childhood reaction to Lego was ‘yay”, the mention of Lego to my kids is much more likely to elicit an ‘ugh.’  I hazard to guess that my kids will not be rushing to buy Lego for the next generation.

The future of Lego looks bleak.  A marketing conundrum for sure!

Enter the Lego Movie.

The plotline of the Lego Movie involves an evil overlord that insists on the creation of distinct Lego worlds.  The Lego space world shall remain separate from the Lego cowboy world.  The Lego big city world shall remain separate from the whimsical Lego circus world.  No mixing allowed.   The Lego people in the various worlds follow strict instructions as to how to navigate through their day.  They must ALWAYS follow the instructions. 

Every evil overlord these days needs a weapon of mass destruction and in this story, that weapon is the dreaded Kragle (aka Krazy Glue).  Once an army of ‘Micro-managers’ gets every piece in the perfect position, the plan is to Kragle them in place so that eventually the worlds will be permanently sealed in their most perfectly, perfect state.

As you can imagine, a hero emerges to save the Lego worlds from this grim fate.  He sets out on a mission to free the Lego people, encouraging them to unleash their inner ‘Master Builders,’ casting instructions aside, and intermixing pieces from various worlds to create unlimited construction possibilities.

For parents of my generation, the movie connects with our memory of the Lego of our youth and the sadness we feel about how Lego isn’t as fun as it once was.  Interestingly, although it’s us parents that mourn the loss of that historic Lego experience, it’s also us that, like the evil overlord in the Lego movie, are robbing it from our kids. 

It is us that demand instructions must be followed (‘at least once!’).  It is us that feels compelled to save that remarkable item once it’s built.  It is us that shudder when our kids dump the pieces on the living room floor and some of them tumble under the couch.

From a marketing perspective, the Lego Movie is admirable in its potential to drive demand for a decades old product.  However, its true brilliance lies in consumer insight into the barriers that will inhibit sustained demand. 

It was my kids who wanted to see the Lego Movie, but the more I think about it the more I realize that perhaps it wasn’t intended for kids after all.

Apple Seed

I take full responsibility for the fact that my kids are late adopters of technology.  And while I’d like to say this is because I’d rather them play real sports than wave wands in front of a television screen, the truth is it’s because I’m cheap.

I’ve always been tight with a dollar but when I quit my corporate job the household budget came under new scrutiny and my frugal tendencies kicked into full bloom.  I became the electricity police, trailing behind family members unplugging devices and turning off lights.  I began to consider whether expiry dates might be a suggestion rather than a rule.  And I made every effort to ensure that my kids knew the full cost of things.

“Why can’t we have a pool?” they asked.

“We could have a pool, but Mommy would have to go back to work in order to pay for it.”

Today, Jack and Taylor stroll home after school with their friends, enjoy a homemade snack and plop down in front of the television.  Comparing this to the alternative of a YMCA after school program where chaotic groups of ill-behaved kids amuse themselves until their work-weary parents arrive to pick them up, my point was crystal clear.  A pool wasn’t worth the price.

To drive home the point that life’s extras need to be earned, Craig and I insist that Jack and Taylor save their allowance to purchase their own big ticket items.  Jack eventually saved enough to buy an iPod, and thanks to an infusion of cash a couple of Christmases ago, Taylor was able to purchase her first Lululemon sweater.  But something as expensive as an iPad was out of reach.

That is, until one day a leaflet fluttered out of our community newspaper advertising jobs for carriers in our area.

For a whole year, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Taylor lugged bundles of newspaper and flyers from the base of our driveway into the house, where she assembled them.  Inky fingerprints dotted our foyer walls and elastics found their way everywhere.  Through all sorts of weather she dutifully delivered papers to 51 houses in our neighbourhood, encountering yappy dogs, terror-inducing bees and a cranky old man who declared, “This rag isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on!”

But when the iPad3 was released this spring, she was finally ready to purchase.  It was a proud day for all of us.  In short order, Taylor accumulated a stunning library of music, photos and unflattering video clips of her family and friends, and mastered a plethora of apps.  She was rarely without her iPad by her side.  It came to Jack’s hockey games.  It went on sleepovers.  And on a family camping trip this summer, she even took it to the beach.

But it’s risky to take a fragile device everywhere you go.  A couple of weeks ago, in a split second of carelessness, Taylor leaned on her precious iPad and sent a spiderweb of cracks across the screen.  She was furious with herself.  Horrified.  And grief stricken.

The web is full of tales of woe from iPad owners who have experienced similar mishaps, and Taylor and I were pleased to discover that many had received remarkable service and sympathy at their local Apple store.  Some even claimed that Apple had replaced their device for free.  Well, what could be more sympathetic than a 12 year old girl who saved for a year to purchase her own iPad, only to have it meet this untimely demise?

So off we went to our nearest Apple store, conveniently located 35km away, to plead our case.

The store’s sleek design dazzled us, as did the table groups of Apple devotees raptly absorbing information from user tutorials.  Employees strode purposefully past us, and Taylor and I paused for a moment in the midst of all this activity wondering what we should do.   Was there some sort of secret signal we were supposed to make to indicate that we needed service?

We cautiously approached a rectangular table at the back of the store where a number of employees were talking to each other.  After some time, I found a break in their conversation and interjected.

“I’m wondering if someone can help me.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“What?”

It had never crossed my mind that I’d need an appointment to ask a question in a retail store.

“I really just wanted to speak to someone about my daughter’s iPad.  She cracked the screen the other day.”

“You need to see someone at the Genius Bar about that.  We don’t have any appointments today but I could fit you in tomorrow afternoon.”

Genius Bar?  Really?  I mean, I know Steve Jobs was really full of himself but isn’t it a bit of a stretch to start calling the guys who work here geniuses?  What do they make; maybe $15 an hour?  I began to wonder if I might be on some kind of candid camera show.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware I’d need an appointment… and we’ve traveled a bit of a distance to get here.  We can’t come back tomorrow afternoon; my daughter will be in school.”

“You could try the Burlington store.”

“I guess I don’t understand why someone who is here right now can’t answer our question.”

With a heavy sigh, he turned to one of three employees next to him, who were leaning idly against the table.  “Can you deal with these people?”

In the end, I suppose we got the information we needed.  No free replacement.  No interest in hearing our tale of woe.  No sympathy for the little girl who saved for a year, only to see the fruits of her labour damaged in a split second of poor judgement.

The cost of repair was close to the cost of a new iPad, and came with a stern warning that we really should purchase AppleCare to protect us from such mishaps, and a ‘tut tut’ that we didn’t do so the first time around.  The sad fact was that Taylor didn’t have enough money in her bank account to pay for the repair that Apple offered, never mind the extra cost of AppleCare.

The whole experience left us feeling somewhat sour.

A non-Apple repair shop is a less expensive option that Taylor has enough money for today, but with a bit of time to think it over she’s not sure it’s worth it.  Right now she’s thinking she’ll keep her money in the bank and work around the cracked screen.

My tree.  My little apple.

The Glorious Death of Impossible Standards

A week or so ago, Taylor and I had some time to spare and so we popped into our local PetSmart.  Time has passed since Taylor’s hamster, Chester, passed away and she felt ready to consider a replacement.   But we couldn’t limit ourselves to this section of the store.  We spent time with the cats and the birds, and browsed a whole aisle of pet rodent accessories until we finally found ourselves in the pet clothing section.  I can see that there might be an actual need for smaller dogs to have sweaters in the winter, and although I don’t believe that they require rain gear, I can appreciate that some pet parents might disagree.  But my jaw dropped when we stumbled upon a doggie BATHROBE.  Who on earth would consider dressing their dog in a bathrobe?

Martha Stewart, that’s who.  There, amidst an entire collection of rather ridiculous Martha Stewart brand pet clothing, was a rack full of them.  Regular price of $19.99, now on sale for $4.99.

Martha has been haunting us high achievers since 1982.  Between the book that launched her career “Entertaining,” the Martha Stewart Living magazine that followed in 1990 and The Martha Stewart Show, she’s been setting the bar unreachably high for well over two decades.

When I left my job in 2010, I had high hopes that I could use some of my newfound time to narrow the gap between my own performance as a homemaker and the Martha Stewart ideal.  On my second day at home I reorganized all of the cupboards underneath our bathroom sinks.  By the end of the afternoon I had a trash bag full of expired beauty products, cheap shower gels in age-brittle bottles, and crumpled packaging from a surprisingly diverse variety of product categories.  All of Taylor’s bobby pins were stored in a pretty glass bottle, first aid supplies were neatly organized in a drawer of their own and every surface of the cupboards had been wiped clean.   My knees ached, but my heart soared every time I found an excuse to open those cupboards to (oh so efficiently) retrieve something, and had the opportunity to admire my handiwork.

I was never a Martha devote, but whenever I stumbled upon an episode of her show I would find myself strangely captivated by her soothing voice and metered speaking patterns.  An otherwise rational person, I began to wish that I too could find time for good things, like elaborately decorating Easter eggs or raising ducks in my backyard.

But even I was creeped out by an episode with a guest appearance by Dwayne Johnson, aka ‘The Rock’ of WWF fame.   The segment opens with The Rock showing Martha the types of foods he eats to maintain his athletic physique and at one point Martha coos, “You look like a healthy boy.”  Dressed in an odd looking tracksuit, Martha proceeds to show ‘The Rock’ how to make her favourite recipe for chocolate chip cookies.  Check out the attached clip and throw back a shot of peach schnapps every time Martha says ‘cream,’ ‘creamy,’ or ‘creamed.’ — I dare you.  On second thought, you’d better not.

“Are we missing some fluid in here?”  asks The Rock, as his muscles strain to cream together the ingredients she’s given him.  Oh no…. that’s the way Martha likes it.  No electric mixer for her.

But the tides have shifted under Martha’s feet.  In early January, the New York Post reported that The Hallmark Channel has decided to cancel The Martha Stewart Show.  It sounds like Home Depot is planning to drop Martha Stewart paint colours, and her doggie bathrobe is clearly not selling.  Things are looking grim.

Years ago, I saw Martha on the Oprah show, demonstrating how to fold a fitted sheet.  Oprah was amazed, presumably because folding sheets is an entirely foreign concept to her.  Martha’s amazing tip?  Grasp the fitted sheet from the corners, fold in the gathered edges until you have something that looks like a rectangle, and then start folding.   Watching it, I was struck with the realization that Martha must think we’re a bunch of morons.  Of course we know that’s the concept!  Most of us are not rumpling up our fitted sheets and stuffing them in our closets like we’ve lost all dexterity in our fingers.  We’re trying to get the perfect rectangle… it’s just that our phone is ringing, and kids are crying and something’s burning on the stove while we’re trying to get the laundry put away.

If only we all had the luxury of time to smooth and straighten those edges; fold and unfold until it’s perfect.  Perhaps the reason why ‘Brand Martha’ is disintegrating is because we have begun to realize that if we did have time to spend folding the perfect fitted sheet, most of us wouldn’t choose to spend our precious time this way.  We’d be outside enjoying the fresh air, reconnecting with friends or playing with our kids.  Life is messy, Martha.  And we like it that way.

Oh, and in case you had any doubt…. my bathroom cupboards are a shambles again.

Nothing says Christmas like a form letter

I started sending Christmas cards in November of 1991 which I now realize, with shock and awe, was twenty years ago.  My university graduation photos were barely dry, but I was proud to be living in a shared apartment and supporting myself (more or less) on the modest salary of my first, entry level job in marketing.  My roommate and I had discarded the standard, starving-student milk crate shelving system in favour of an IKEA model.  We had dressed our living room window with a cheap, cotton valence stuffed with tissue paper and invested in colour co-ordinated towels for our bathroom; all in an effort to start living like grown-ups.  Sending a batch of Christmas cards was just one more grown-up thing to do.

But it wasn’t until 1998 that my Christmas card list exploded.  Fresh off our August wedding, Craig and I had complete addresses for 162 of our closest friends and family, and I was still filled with gratitude for the generous good wishes that they had showered upon us.  At the time we lived in a condo.  There was no snow shovelling to be done, little space to decorate and Moms on both sides that would take care of the holiday cooking.  I had time on my hands and so I was up for the challenge of tackling our huge list.  I simply put on some Christmas music, poured myself a brown cow and revelled in the holiday spirit as the pile of heartfelt cards grew beside me.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep up my tradition of Christmas cards.  In some cases it would be our only contact that year with far away friends and family, and so I was eager to keep the connection going.  But as our family grew, so did the number of traditions we accumulated.  One Christmas tree to decorate grew to three; one container of outdoor holiday greens grew to nine; and one batch of favourite cookies grew to six different varieties.

I did my best to maintain my tradition of inscribing holiday cards with personal notes on the dim hope that my friends and family would take this as a signal of how deeply I cared about them.  However I had a sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning might have been missed by the recipients.  After all, while the first ten or so were full of detail and witty remarks, the next twenty were more general.  As time went on, the notes became increasingly brief and littered with plagiarism from my previous missives.  By card #56 I was down to: “All is well with us.”  I’ve always felt guilty about those last few.

So this year I decided to join the ranks of the standard holiday update letter.   Call it a throwback to my years of training in corporate efficiency but standardization seems like a sensible approach to ensuring high quality communications across the board.  And as an added bonus, my elderly relatives will no longer be challenged to decipher my sloppy handwriting.

I’ll admit that it has crossed my mind before to take the leap, but my Mother had strong negative feelings about this practice.  In her mind, these letters were all about bragging.  Little Susie won a prize, Thomas Junior graduated with honours and big Joe lost 40 pounds.  None of this went over particularly well in my immediate family where applause was sporadic and always tempered by a healthy dose of: “Don’t get too full of yourself.”

But personally, I have always loved receiving these updates.  Especially for families that I see infrequently, it makes me feel closer to them to know what they’ve been up to over the past year.  A friend the other day said that she once received an update letter that gave a blow by blow of the many traumas experienced by a particular family over the past year: divorce, sickness, loss.  What kind of a holiday greeting is that!?  In my humble opinion, if there’s ever a time to sugar coat, Christmas is it!

So if you’re someone who sends me a holiday update letter, keep ‘em coming!   And if you’re one of those update letter haters out there, please accept my sincere apologies for the sunny picture painted in my holiday greeting.  Would it help if I told you I had a wicked case of hemorrhoids last spring?

Happy holidays everyone!

I Dreamed I Won the Lottery

Yesterday, as I opened the card attached to a gift from Craig and the kids, out tumbled a “Classic Black” lottery ticket promising a top prize of $500,000. Imagine if I won!?  I couldn’t get to the cutlery drawer fast enough, to fetch a spoon and start scratching!

My brother Stephen says lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid, and I used to agree.  After all, the odds of winning anything substantial are so remote that regardless of
whether you have one ticket or twenty, they’re pretty much the same.  Close to zilch.

Back in the olden days, when I had a real job and a big salary, I almost never bought lottery tickets.  However, now that I don’t have a steady source of income I’ve found
myself buying tickets on a semi-regular basis.  How else are we going to get our hands on a cool quarter million???  We’re certainly not going to be able to save that figure in the near future.  A lottery win has become our only chance.

Plus, I now have time to buy a ticket.  In my prior life, shopping was all business.  I didn’t have time to dilly dally around, trying to choose a scratch ticket from the display case.  Even if someone gave me a scratch ticket as a gift, I could barely find time to enjoy the experience of uncovering the bingo/keno/scrabble spaces to see if I had won.

But now, not only do I need the money, but I have the time.

Although I have a fair amount of hope pinned on a lottery win in the near future, I know from my days in consumer packaged goods marketing that the odds are much better on the contests and sweepstakes offered by commercial companies.  So I’ve become quite active in these as well.  Every month, when my issue of Chatelaine arrives I flip to the ‘Have Your Say’ section in search of the question of the month and the associated prize pack.   I do my best to pen a witty response and monitor my inbox for a message containing the good news that I have won (any day now, I’m sure.)

Two years ago, the chance to win a Game Day Experience with Sidney Crosby would have been tossed in the trash with our Dempster’s bread wrapper but today the PINs pile up on my kitchen counter along with contests and offers from other products that I regularly buy, until I can find time to go online and enter them all.

A couple of weekends ago I sat down at the computer to attack this pile.

The first website I typed in was for Elle Magazine and their monthly ‘Win It’ promotion; the colour of the nail polish in the prize pack had caught my eye.  Unfortunately, the contest website address didn’t work.  Never one to give up easy, I tried going through the magazine’s main site.  Typing ‘Win It’ into the search box yielded nothing of value, nor did typing in the issue date of ‘October 2011.’  It was fifteen minutes before I was finally able to locate the contest entry screen, by which time I was convinced I would be the only entrant, given how difficult it was to find.  Diligently, I filled in the required data and pushed the ‘submit’ button, only to be met with a warning from my computer that I should think twice before going any further; the site was trying to attach cookies to my machine.  I do love cookies, but I vaguely recalled that techno ‘cookies’ were designed to function as little spies  monitoring your online activities and sending information back to the Mother Ship.  Crap!  I knew that Craig would have my head if I did anything to compromise the security of his beloved iMac, so I reluctantly aborted my quest for the nail polish.

Next, I pulled out the Rice Krispies box we had emptied at breakfast that morning.  A free $5 gas card promotion had motivated me to purchase this humungous package.  Eagerly, I tore open the carton to retrieve the unique PIN code printed inside.   This time, the web address I entered worked fine but the page gloomily declared that the promotion was over.  What?!  How old was the cereal that I’d fed my children that day?  Holding the carton at an angle where the embossed expiry date caught just enough light to become legible, I was shocked to discover that the product had been expired when I purchased it.   Now, I’m wise enough to check expiry dates on hamburger buns, yogurt and even pre-packaged deli meat, but Rice Krispies!?  Do I really have to start checking
expiry dates on shelf stable products?  I shuddered at the thought of how long it would take to do our weekly grocery shop.

Thankfully I thought, I had saved the best for last.  My latest box of Sunlight laundry detergent had contained a little instant win card that promised every PIN code was a winner, and so I held high hope for a positive experience.  In a few clicks I learned that I wasn’t a winner of one of the big prizes but I could still get a valuable coupon by continuing to enter information.  One of the pieces of information requested was the size and fragrance of the Sunlight I had bought.  Sadly, this was not on the tip of my tongue.  And so I humped my way up the stairs from the computer in the basement to our laundry room on the second floor to collect this information.  Lemon scent 64 loads, I chanted in my head on my way back down.  I proceeded to enter my name and address but hesitated when the site asked for my complete birth date.  Isn’t this a no-no?  I tried to enter just the year of birth but the site refused to process my submission without complete information.   I weighed the odds of the good folks at Unilever stealing my identity with my personal desire to have at least a measly coupon to show for the time I had spent online, and eventually entered the full date.  (Craig later tsk tsk’ed me for revealing this information and asked why I hadn’t entered a fake date of birth.  Good idea for next time.)

Finally, the site asked me to complete a skill testing question.  I’d had my morning coffee, but to be on the safe side I pulled out a calculator to do the math and then carefully typed in my answer.

“Your answer to the skill testing question was incorrect”

What?????   I used a calculator!  How could it be wrong?  I pushed the back button in an attempt to see the original question and identify the error I had made but the site wouldn’t let me get back.

With steam pouring from my ears I located the ‘contact us’ page and banged out a letter of complaint.  The icing on this bitter cake was the fact that I couldn’t find the ‘submit’ button to send my rant to the powers that be.   Arrrggghhhh!

I look back on my marketing days and regret that I didn’t spend more time pretending to be a consumer interacting with our products and the promotions we offered.  I spent so much time making sure that our communications OUT to consumers were strategically on target and legally sound, that I ran out of time to check to see what it was like for a consumer trying to engage IN.

Oooops!

Maybe the lottery is your better bet after all.

Carpe Diem

This is the final post in a series dedicated to my Mom, who passed away a year ago on October 2nd  2010.

My Mother loved her husband.  She loved her children, her grandchildren, her home, and her garden.  She loved her life.

Unfortunately, genetics were not her friend and hardening of the arteries came to haunt her early.  At age 52 she underwent a heart bypass operation.  Given the state of her arteries, the surgeon marvelled at the fact that she hadn’t already suffered a heart attack and during the surgery he changed the planned triple bypass to a quadruple.  The operation was difficult and fraught with complications, including a suspected stroke that stole much of her short term memory, but it very likely saved her life.

At first, the loss of memory was a grave concern.  Speaking to me on the telephone she sounded fine and I could almost forget that anything had changed, but when she hung up and my Dad asked her how I was, she would say: “I have no idea.”

In time she found ways to adapt.  On the phone I could hear her furiously scribbling
notes to capture what I said.  Nearby she had her calendar full of plans past and present, with the days neatly crossed off to help her keep track of the passage of time.  For Christmas dinner she laid out the serving dishes well in advance and labelled them with Post It notes to remind herself what went where.  As her kitchen helper, I didn’t have to ask questions, I just dumped the mashed potatoes into the glass bowl labelled ‘potatoes.’

Other things didn’t change at all.   She continued to call out the answers to Wheel of Fortune puzzles, beat my Dad in games of golf and manage her garden to spectacular results.  And she continued to refuse to exercise.  In her mind, the only reason she wasn’t already dead from a heart attack was because she had avoided strenuous exercise in the years before her bypass operation.  NOT exercising had saved her
life and she wasn’t about to start taking chances now.

Fast forward almost twenty years and, like the aerodynamically challenged bumblebee that somehow continues to fly, my Mother was soldiering on in spite of mounting evidence that something was seriously amiss.  By the time doctors finally convinced her to undergo tests to assess the extent of blockage in the carotid arteries that supplied blood to her brain, they couldn’t believe what they found.

“Who cooks for you?”

“I do the cooking,” she said.

“Aren’t you dizzy?”

The doctor let slip an audible gasp when my Mom told him she drove the car around town nearly every day.

The operation to clear one of her carotid arteries was successful, but brutally difficult.  The surgeon described my Mother as a ‘house of cards’ and said that he would not be doing any more surgery on her.  I recall exactly what he said as: “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten foot pole.”   While in hospital, she suffered a number of mild heart attacks but each time, she bounced back.

Then came the stroke.

‘Paralysis on the left side’ was the phrase that stuck with me when I picked up the voicemail message at work, and I drove to Hamilton General hospital in a haze, intermittently sobbing and gasping for breath.  When I finally reached the cardiac unit, I prepared myself to face a scenario that I had dreaded for as long as I could remember.  But rounding the corner to her bedside, I was dumbstruck.  There she was sitting upright, talking to the nurses and moving quite normally.   Yes, the staff had injected a clot busting drug into her IV as soon as they realized she was having a stroke, but even the doctors agreed that the extent and speed of her recovery was astonishing.

A craggy old nurse, who had surely seen it all, pulled me aside in the hall and said: “I’ve never seen that happen.”

Over the next several weeks, doctors-in-training regularly dropped by her room for a glimpse of the amazing woman who continued to breathe, in spite of the sorry state of her cardiovascular system.  One by one, they shook their heads as they examined her chart.

It was clear that my Mom was a cat with more than nine lives.

Over the next year, her world became steadily smaller.  The basement steps got to be too much and so my Dad brought her computer upstairs.  Her beloved garden still called to her, but she sat on an overturned ten gallon pail as she huffed and puffed through short bursts of weeding.  That April I quit my job, and in May I brought the Mother’s Day brunch I had prepared to her house; she had found herself too tired to travel with my Dad in the car that day.  She pretended that it was just a difficult day and said she was sure that she would feel better soon… and she did.  But the trend line of good versus bad days was heading downhill.  No one said it out loud but we all knew it was true.

Throughout her life, my Mother had fiercely resisted anyone’s attempt to push her from her chosen path, including the doctors who told her she needed to start exercising and change her diet.  My Mom loved rye and coke, full fat foods and sitting down, and no one was going to take away the things she loved.   She lived her life exactly how she wanted to and had a hell of a good time doing it.

Until, of course, that very last day one year ago.  Lying in her hospital bed she struggled for each breath; but even in this dire state, she wished for one more day.  She told us she wanted to see her beloved garden again.  She said she worried what would become of my Dad, my brothers and I without her watchful eye and loving arms.  She clung to the edge of life as she always had, even as she felt it giving way beneath her fingertips.

Having had a year now to reflect on my Mom’s life, and to grow used to the gaping hole left behind when she died, I know one thing for sure.  While she may not have regretted
the choices she made for herself, she would want me to live my life so that I have that ‘one more day.’

The first time I went to the gym after she died, I cried my eyes out.  But it’s getting better.  I went today and I won’t ever stop going.  That’s a promise.

Now For Something Completely Different

This is the third of four pieces in a series I’m posting this week.  It’s dedicated to my Mom, Pamela Jane (Mulligan) Misener, who passed away a year ago on October 2nd 2010.

No one would describe my Mother as a risk taker.  She never travelled further than the
Caribbean, never gambled more than $100 and always remembered to bring an umbrella.  However, from time to time she surprised us all by pushing outside of her comfort zone and embarking on something new.

I think she was almost thirty when she decided that she wanted to learn to paint.  Although she had never excelled at art in school, she had dabbled in various creative
outlets over the years and was open to instruction.  So she signed up for an art class.

For the next two decades she painted continuously.  Her easel was a regular fixture in our dining room and her work steadily improved to the point where she was winning ribbons at the Fall Fair in Paris, Ontario and even selling the occasional piece at a local
art show.  As a very little girl, I remember thinking of my Mom as an artist and knowing that this set her apart (… and in my mind, above) other girls’ mothers.

Reading, gardening and painting; these were the three things my Mom loved to do.  Until one Mother’s Day.

I was about ten years old and my Mom and I were standing in the kitchen.  We heard my Dad rattle through the garage door and onto the back patio.

“Pam!  Come on out here,” he said.  “I’ve got something for you.”

My Mother peeked out the adjacent dining room window to see what he was talking about.

“Oh… my…. God,” she said.

There on the patio, sat a brand new set of ladies golf clubs.

Now you have to understand that beyond swimming in our backyard pool, athletics were something that my Mother simply didn’t do.  In my entire life, I never witnessed her throw or catch a ball of any kind.  Once when I was quite small I heard her screaming my name outside and saw her running down the farm driveway.  I had mistakenly left my bike by the pond and, not knowing that I was inside the house reading the Saturday comics, she saw it there and feared that I had drowned.  That was the only time I saw her run and even then is was more of a fast shuffle.

Now she stood before a gift of golf clubs, lessons and a seasonal membership to the local golf club.  Dad told her he was planning to spend a lot of time on the course that
summer and she could either choose to join him, or to stay at home and keep quiet about it.  My Mother chose to try golf.

She was quite sure that she would hate it.

But the golf course brought my Mother a whole new set of lady friends and after a few lessons, her studied approach to learning paid dividends and she began to play quite well.   It wasn’t long before she was playing almost every day and regularly beating my Dad.  To this day, my husband Craig shakes his head when he recalls my Mother’s wicked short game.

On one particular day she was teamed up with a couple of men she didn’t know.   As men do, they cringed a bit when they saw her, fearing that this woman’s poor play would hold up their game.  She scored a hole in one on that round.

Like my Mother, I’m not a natural risk taker.  I have lived in the same house for twelve
years, would never dream of bungee jumping, and usually remember to bring an umbrella.  However, my Mother showed me that there are unknown treasures to be found beyond one’s comfort zone.

Before my Mom died I made the single biggest decision of my life, choosing to leave my almost twenty year career in consumer packaged goods marketing to try my hand at something new, and I know that she was proud of me for taking the leap.  I have yet to score a hole in one in the world of writing, but I’m having a pile of fun playing the game.