Montreal·Indelible Ink

Caring between the lines

She rejects government directives about COVID-19, while I turn to science for guidance on how we can protect each other. All I can read is what’s between the lines.

When the pandemic pulled us apart, pictures helped bridge the gap

Magdalena Olszanowski and her son are seen masked outside a public market in Montreal. (Submitted by Magdalena Olszanowski)

This article is part of the CBC/QWF featured columnist program.

I send the photo to my mother to provoke her.

It's a selfie with my son from Jean-Talon Market in Montreal. We're masked and holding each other steady with fresh flowers in hand. Cloth bags of rhubarb stalks hang over our shoulders.

We are not like you, it says.

It's summer 2020, early in the pandemic. Masks aren't common on children yet. Many still believe a redacted study claiming that masks cut off a child's oxygen supply, a belief my mother repeats in emails she sends me from across the country. I eventually archive them unread. 

Scarred by the authoritarianism of her upbringing east of the Berlin Wall, she rejects government directives about COVID-19, while I turn to science for guidance on how we can protect each other.

"You are being unreasonable," I relentlessly push back. "Listen to me."

My brusque tone is not that of a dutiful daughter. Sometimes the 'How are you?' I want to write, but can't, echoes in my head. Even such a simple phrase seems like too much. 

Her emails, at least the subject lines which I read, become dire. I'm outraged about the municipal government; remember, even if you chose not to speak to me, I still love you; found a CDC pub with details of ingredients in vaccines; important read about masks; stop stressing, my angel. 

All I can read is what's between the lines.

How does a child contend with a history she cannot fully understand? We write our own narratives of survival.

Unrelenting in my attempt to reason with her perspective, I stop communicating. I'm not yet adult enough to admit that I'm also responsible for the chasm between us.

In summer 2021, I break the silence with news of my pregnancy. I send my mother a selfie standing outside the Christophe-Colomb vaccination centre with my second trimester belly, an N95 mask and a Band-Aid on my forearm. There is no caption or subject line. It's a passive-aggressive olive branch.

She doesn't take the bait, instead replies with heartfelt exclamatory words. Her approval is like the afternoon sun in my kitchen — its warm glow gently urges me to keep its path uncluttered. 

Disarmed, I send another photo, and then another. They're no longer weapons, but invitations.

Magdalena defrosts rhubarb saved from a trip to the market a year earlier. (Submitted by Magdalena Olszanowski)

My mom follows and fills my inbox with snapshots of day-to-day life: the bees on her balcony
garden, a bushel of cabbage she is fermenting, a book I lent her years ago which she is now reading. I send her a photo of me thawing rhubarb cubes from last year. She replies with a photo of a traditional Polish rhubarb and strawberry soup. 

Behind the bowl, I notice she has framed a collection of pictures of me and my son that she must have printed from my emails.

Our back and forth becomes a welcomed habit. A slide back into old ways — confrontation and
defence over opposing pandemic views — is inevitable, but a new photo of each other's everyday life always reorients us back on course. Like any parent, she is trying her best to protect us both, in the ways she understands to be true.

Before the pandemic, I couldn't have understood the tenderness between the lines. It's the
tenderness loved ones share: a love that is known but unspoken. We are careful, but sincere.

It's okay that we don't see the same thing in the same picture. Acceptance isn't control.
We don't need to bridge the chasm between us. 

For now, being seen is protection enough. 

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Magdalena Olszanowski is a Polish-born writer, artist and educator in Montreal. She received her PhD in communication studies from Concordia University. Her work can be found in journals such as Feminist Media Studies, Visual Communication Quarterly, n+1 and nomorepotlucks. She is currently working on a novel set in 1980s communist Poland. You can find her on Twitter @raisecain.


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