Trying to see the forest for the trees – my Mom

mom 60thName: Mary Ann Hartley
Age: as young as she feels
Hometown: Maple Bay by way of Vancouver, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Montreal and Toronto
Occupation: Manager, Duncan Business Improvement Society
Hobbies: Running, biking, swimming, yoga, doggies, SHLF
Nickname: G-Ma

I learned quickly that the closest people are the hardest to write about. It is impossible to de-tangle yourself from them.  Never more true than for my Mom, who happens to be here on South Africa’s sweet soil (and a big reason for the hiatus).

Yes, this really happened.

Yes, this really happened.

Truth is, I have barely ever considered who my Mom is without us. We grew up in a cyclone. Four children in less than six years would be challenging under any circumstance but we were a particularly demanding lot. Between us we played ice hockey, soccer, football, baseball, basketball, wrestling, track and field, field hockey, swimming, skiing, diving, piano, violin, flute, drums and trombone. As early as primary school, days started with us piling into the wood-paneled station at 5am for swim practice, straight to school with breakfast in the car for track, soccer at lunch, walk to piano after school, bus to gymnastics, home for dinner, homework, pillow fight and bed.

At one point, Strachan changed our answering machine to thank people for calling the Hartley Zoo –  we would hit you back when we finished swinging on vines and wrestling crocodiles. It ended with us banging our chests like baboons.

Mom was chauffeur, chef, referee, coach and the glue that (just barely) held it all together. That’s all I needed to know.

My heart stays broken for what she lost when Strachan left. A Mother's love is just different.

My heart stays broken for what she lost when Strachan left. A Mother’s love is just different.

We grew up in an idyllic Canadian suburb under the unconditional love and tireless effort of two parents. They lost their tempers and made mistakes. We heard ‘no’ often. We drove terrible cars and wore second hand clothes. We fought many fights, threw parties when they left town and shoplifted candy. I let my crush cheat off me in French class.  Wyatt had a permanently runny nose and Blythe could not pronounce r’s or l’s until she was 10 (Bwyfe Hawtwey).  Strachan ignored me in the school hallways and made us play ‘dodgeball’  -– you stand still while I throw the ball as hard as I can.  My teeth are still crooked from one of the many times he punched me and I have registered the sound a math textbook makes when smashing a second storey window and the subsequent thud when landing on the patio below, after he got a B on a test.

I still consider it the purest form of perfection I have ever experienced.



I am a Mom now and trying to negotiate the ‘balance’ that us new age Mommies strive to achieve.  Children, husband, family, friends, career, health and an awesome annual vacation while still looking good in a bikini. It is hard. As one of my friends (pregnant with her 3rd in 4 years) recently said  – “screw balance, I’m just trying to survive.”

Only now has it begun to sink in that my ‘normal’ was in fact the very deliberate vision of a highly determined person that came at many, many opportunity costs. My one Mother had one car, a full-time job and an overabundance of people pulling at her with blatant disregard that she even had other options.

Stealing oranges from an orchard while biking across Portugal because 'they have Vitamin C'

Stealing oranges while biking across Portugal ‘but they have Vitamin C!’

My Mom is a remarkable woman by all accounts. Smart, industrious and brave. She steps up to every challenge, solves complex problems for fun and has never left anything unfinished. She takes genuine interest in people, loves to help and makes time for everyone. She has a will of steel –  she started running one week after I moved out, within a year she had qualified for the Boston marathon. She has since run 2 more, countless halves (in 1:29 at age 50+), a half Ironman , 2 fondos and biked across Canada and Portugal. She gives tirelessly, is a respected member of her community and simply makes people feel good.

In a parallel life, this blog could read very differently. I have no doubt that my Mom could write a book, run a company, steer a ship or tackle global warming. I take for granted daily that she chose me instead.

If I want my own kids to have similar chances, it means being there before, during and after school. Meals on the fly. ‘Vacations’ to small towns for hockey tournaments or swim meets. Quality time during carpool, no new clothes for 20 years and finding true joy in watching others shine.

MomWhile trying to find my own motherly ‘balance’, I wonder if we would have turned out any worse if we had trimmed down on activities. I can say, with certainty, that my 4 years of violin were a sunk cost. And I’m sure the Wizard of Oz would have received the same critical acclaim without my black cat performance (yes, there were black cats in the Wizard of Oz).

But where do you draw the line? Skiing was the most time and money intensive sport of all.  Blythe’s diving required her to cross town in rush hour 5 days a week for 6 years. Those sports in turn paved the path for everything that has followed. A very reasonable parent with a little less resolve would have had us walk to piano lessons instead.

2004 Olympic bronze with Blythe and Strachan

2004 Olympic bronze with Blythe and Strachan

In its very best form, Motherhood is selfless.  In case that makes us feel oppressed or relegated to the Dark Ages or Stepford Wives – choosing someone over yourself requires the most remarkable courage. Only some of us have the strength do it. Growing up with a Mom who chose us and considered it a privilege is the greatest gift I have ever received. If I never make a million dollars but can show my own children a fraction of the same, I will pat myself on the back.

MOm champagneA couple years ago, we participated in a group visioning exercise. The task involved mapping life goals and attaching them to ‘champagne’ moments: winning moments that could be caught in a picture. About half the long-term “I have arrived” snapshots involved sitting back, watching and grandchildren. We are currently rounding the bend on 4 weeks of deliriously happy tri-generation fun –  quality time, home cooking, family adventures and a house full of baby shrieks and belly laughs. As always, I have gained much from time spent with her. In return, I can only hope she has had some of those champagne moments – she has certainly earned them.

4 thoughts on “Trying to see the forest for the trees – my Mom

  1. Mary Ann is a remarkable woman. This could easily have been written by someone in the public at large and not her daughter. She has touched my life in ways that I continue to discover. A shining example of how to give to and care for others.

  2. Thanks Aimee…what a thoroughly enjoyable read…I love your way with words. It’s nice to have met your mum and to hear you give thanks to her for so much. Love it…am inspired. x

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