Joy comes in the morning. – Psalm 30:5
Morning was always Mom’s time.
In the winter on the farm, morning would begin with the sound of her rattling the kitchen stove, stoking up the fire. We heated the house via a mixed-fuel furnace in the basement, whom, for reasons that live in family legend, we called by the name of Shush. The bedroom I shared with my sisters was right above the kitchen, and our floor grate – a far more direct system than vents and ducts – directly above the stove, so I could always clearly hear her. Mom’s preparations always gave me a chance to prepare, too, for her wake up call, the stark light of the one bulb, the shock of the still-cold linoleum. A new day.
In the summer, morning would find her in the garden, working the soil before the heat of the day came on. When she lived with me in her late years, summer mornings were when she went to war with the slugs, making her patient way round the raised beds to check the cat food cans. When they were full of bloated corpses, she’d empty them and refill them with the bait we made from a mix of various alcohols brought to our home for our yearly Robbie Burns dinner – wines gone sour, flat beer, some kind of rum mixture and someone else’s homebrew.
In her very last years, she moved back to her home town, into the seniors’ apartment complex at which she’d aimed for years. Despite our protestations that we’d love to keep her with us, she wanted to be independent, and in the land she loved. So, when she was walking well and solidly in remission, with protocols in place for receiving any further treatment in the nearest small city, she moved home.
I wondered what she’d do, without a stove to stoke, without chores, without a garden. The last was first solved, with the help of my brothers; for two more years, she planted and tended a garden.
As for what to do in the mornings, that was swiftly settled as well. Her first visitors included neighbours from her wing of the complex, happy to see her back in town, eager to invite her into their morning routine. Here were people she’d known from childhood, whose family connections went back to her own parents’ day. Here, she was known and respected, welcomed with a depth of assurance that threw into even stronger relief the courage with which she’d endured her long sojourn in my home, in a city too big for her to ever simply relax. Here, she was free.
In that freedom, her mornings began at first light, strolling out with cookies or some other snack from a cache she kept for the purpose, to enjoy a coffeeklatch with Johnny and Sid and Sid’s wife, and a few other stalwarts. I remember Johnny because Mom spoke of how she admired him; he’d suffered a terrible accident early in life, and made the most of the life he had left. Sid, I remember because he spoke to me of how he admired my father, and I saw in his and his wife’s treatment of Mom how deeply he valued her, too.
When she passed away, it was evening. My brother called me in the morning, and I caught a noon plane. As the end came nearer, we asked, did she want the priest. No, she said the first time, he’s probably too busy. When we asked again, a few hours later, she agreed. Sure enough, my nephew reported, the priest couldn’t get there.
So, we put her rosary in her hand. I began to recite the prayers.
These are the things that mark chapter changes in family history. I was sent to catechism. My younger brother was not; by his time, our father’s disillusionment with the church had ended family attendance. So, I suggested brother and his wife go eat dinner; I’d had something earlier. And I sat and said her prayers for her, until she fell fully asleep.
A nurse had brought the big recliner they keep for family sleeping over, and I’d settled in with my book, when something signalled me to turn, then go to her, to see it was true. Asleep, she’d slipped out through the Western Door, out of this life.
I called my brother. We called the rest of the family. The beloved family friend who’d scheduled herself as nurse on Mom’s wing for that day she spent in hospital came back when she heard, and arranged a pot of coffee. In the country way, it was expected that we’d want time to take this in.
I stayed a while in the room with her body and my brother, his wife, their son; when a few of their friends began to arrive, to ease the wait for the funeral director with chat of things they shared in common, I took my leave, walked across the field, around the corner, back to her apartment.
That night, alone in her last home, I looked around. She’d moved into this larger, south-facing suite in late winter, the time to set seedlings. Then she didn’t.
Well, she’d explained, your brother and his son, they don’t really like vegetables, and your other brother, well, he’s on the go all summer… none of her reasons were news, none had ever before caused her to forego setting seedlings. The could be only one reason Mom would not bother to set seeds.
I looked at the things she’d unpacked, and the many things she’d left boxed in the move from her first suite. I curled up on her sofa, where I’d have slept had she been there.
In the morning, at first light, I got a box of cookies from her cache, and strolled out to the seating lounge, to share the news. I had no way to make that joyful for them. I stayed for a coffee, then left them to their ritual, their deeper memories of her, their reconfigured circle.
This, they knew how to do, the way Mom knew how best to fire up the woodstove, what light and water tomato seeds require, the wily ways of slugs; and how to let us know, the end of her last winter, that she was expecting a different morning, preparing to awaken into the mystery that lives beyond life here. A new day.
*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.