Presence

The spirit of Christmas is peace; the heart of Christmas is love. – Ada V. Hendricks

Christmas presence, not presents. That was the motto of my childhood home. You could say it was down to economics, that with a large and humble family like ours, building up expectations of material wealth would be unrealistic. You could say it is against Anishinabe culture to be materialistic, and my father definitely spoke as if this were the case, that what matters is grace, is hospitality, is generosity.

You could say my mother upheld that. He might invite many to our table, but she would be the one to cook the feast, however humble. You could say that she held that as a personal value, too, rooted in her Polish Catholicism, or in her own desire for a loving home, however humble. She would say that she just wasn’t interested in competing with friends and relatives to give the best presents. Presents are for kids, she’d say.

Perhaps the earliest Christmas present I remember was the kittens. Certain relatives criticised my parents for giving their kids such a ‘cheap’ gift as free kittens, and I know my parents felt the sting of that criticism. As for us, we would never have known that kittens were not a ‘worthy’ Christmas present. Their presence changed our home in meaningful ways. They were the foundation of a dynasty of barn cats, without which no farm is really a home.

How many ways there are to offer presence. For Mom, her animals were part of that, and  another strong part of it centred on food. Even in her final home, a tiny apartment in a seniors’ lodge, she was adamant in making sure she had the means to cook for us. She made it easy to show respect for her gift of presence, to savour the evidence of her ceaseless love, to crowd around her tiny table and eat,  honouring the gift.

It was an honour, however unasked for, to be able to host her for the best part of two years, while she underwent cancer treatment and convalescence from an emergency hip replacement. She was incredibly patient in that difficult time, making the best of having to live in the centre of a big city, no place she’d ever desired to live.

At first, she spent a lot of time in her room, resting. Then, it became where she did her exercises, and said her rosaries. We got her a phone with amplification, so she could sit in her armchair and visit with distant family and friends. Sometimes, I’m sure she went in to her room to hide her distress.

Toward the end of her time with us, she was doing something else in there. She said nothing about it. We found out when she was packing to move to her own apartment, back in her hometown, in the land she loved, with the community she knew best.

One day, without ceremony, she picked a moment when all my little family were around the house. She trundled her walker to her room, and came back out, bearing the result of her labours. She’d spent long hours on it, and it revealed her silent attention. It was a crocheted afghan, a simple pattern of broad bands of three colours – our favourite colours. Well, she said, I figured you could use something for when you sit and watch movies together.

She was like that, kind of offhanded, kind of plain spoken. My husband once worried that maybe she didn’t like our kid, since she wasn’t effusive, they didn’t chat together, they seemed almost to ignore each other, except when playing cribbage.

The first thing Mom did on arrival was to teach the kid to play, as she’d taught all her own kids. Sitting playing together, I watched the way she built up my kid’s skills without seeming to be leading, revealed tricks and tips without words, showed in her presence respect for my daughter’s sharp eye and quick mind. I realised how much I’d taken for granted my own skills, imagining them inborn, because my best teacher led by presence, rather than discussion.

So, she quietly made us a plain, elegant, carefully chosen gift, a physical embrace without the embarrassment of having to mention that’s what it was. She didn’t say, think of me when you’re all curled up together. What we thought would be our own business.

That afghan is not there, now, though, not in our living room on the sofa. My daughter, saying nothing, took it up to her room this spring when Mom passed.

*This year, I am honouring my mom’s passing by writing throughout the Advent season, following as prompts the daily quotations cited in the free online calendar put out by the Catholic Medical Mission Board Mom was a lifelong Roman Catholic, and I was raised with the Church as a contentious part of our family life, given that my Ojibwe dad’s family was so affected by the church. Nonetheless, her faith was important to Mom, so this is a tribute to her. It’s also a reflection on how religions influence in many ways. 

If you like these posts, please also consider donating, in the memory of Albina Sewell, to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton; her chosen charity for memorials is not religiously affiliated, but serves all children.

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