I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you. – Ezekiel 36:26
It’s supposed to happen, isn’t it? Isn’t every stereotypical mom ever supposed to badger her kids to give her grandbabies? Mom didn’t do that.
At various times in my life, I’ve interpreted that different ways. Mostly, I believe she meant to signal a deep conviction, that her children would never feel pressured about such a fundamental decision in life, not from her at any rate.
The thing is, Mom was adamant about always saying how glad and proud she was to be a mother, how she, and Dad, chose each and every one of us. She was scathing about parents who would whine, in their children’s hearing, about how hard it is to be a parent. The greatest gift in life, parenthood, and they were sinfully ungrateful.
I should never have carried any doubts whatsoever, but I did. And in the face of her categorical statements, I couldn’t raise those doubts, couldn’t identify them in myself for many years. I always wanted children, but spent years afraid to claim that out loud. And that, my mother would not do for me.
All along, did she see the way our racist, classist society perpetrates so much judgment on women, especially indigenous women? Was that why she never spoke of wanting to see me beome a mother?
Maybe she meant to signal non-approval of the fellows I took up with – very few, despite what assorted folks have told me they imagined of my sexual ways. After all, I am a career arts professional, and known to have Indigenous blood, and aren’t we just wild by nature? “What’s the difference between an Indian Princess and an Indian Squaw? Two beers.” That was the ilk of ‘joke’ going around when I was young. I’d like to think my mom didn’t believe it applied to me, but in my darkest moments, I admit I wondered if she was silent because she was afraid to find out.
She was such a shy person, my mom, especially in matters of my life as a woman. I could fill a book with all the things my mom never said. I imagine the world teems with such books, fluttering their pages silently down generations, through war, famine, migration, peril, lies and compromises, accommodations and desperate bargains, along with the attendant joys never spoken aloud, the things our mothers never tell us.
So, imagine me, 38 years old, about to finally become a mother myself.
My mother will finally get to observe with me the rite of grandmotherhood, coming to stay and help with my new baby. My husband’s family, excited at this late addition to the clan, all want to come out, too. Brother-in-law jokes about video-taping our home birth. (Joke with a pregnant lady at your peril, pals).
Mom is swift to assure me that she does not want to be present at the birth. However spare with her words, she does speak up in the clutch. She will come once the baby arrives, not before, no thank you.
The thing is, my little sister is also pregnant, with her second, and due just after me. The prediction of due dates being a non-exact science (don’t believe those TV/movie dramas, gentle readers, life runs on its own schedule), of course, sis gives birth first.
Since it’s a two day drive to see that new baby, Mom will overnight here. Of course, I will go into labour. The midwives will come, and my mom will be stuck here, in the middle of an event that she wanted to be nowhere near.
Is she frightened? I am rather old for a first time mother. Is she remembering her six deliveries, all in hospitals? I don’t know. She’s never talked about her experiences. She is just there, downstairs, and I try not to even think about her being in the house. I have work to do, I must trust that she will keep herself out of it.
The midwives put towels in the oven, ready to warm them up when we hit the home stretch, and proceed up to where I’m making do with the bath tub until they can set up their little ‘birthing pool’ in our bedroom. Mom is in bed in the downstairs guest room when they arrive, and does not come out. All the action is upstairs, and sure enough, she wants nothing to do with it.
But she can’t sleep, it turns out. So, I imagine she prays. I know that she hustles out the door to attend the earliest mass on the schedule that Sunday morning, and my daughter will arrive just as the bells ring to start that mass. Her prayers answered? I’ll never be able to prove a link.
But before we get to transcendence and birth, somewhere in the darkest pit of the wee hours, prayers are not enough. So, like a good country woman, Mom finds something useful to do. She will turn her prayer into action. She will demonstrate her faith that this will all work out. She will govern fear via logic and practicality. She will do what she can, which begins and ends with making food.
It has been a good season for saskatoons, so she opens a bag, mixes them into a nice, thick batter, rich with eggs. She pours it into a pan. Maybe she makes a sign of the cross over it, like she does with her bread. She has set the oven to 350, of course, and with impeccable timing, so it should be ready when her batter is.
I am in labour’s trance when the fire alarm goes off. I am in a pool, I reason, so this has nothing in it to worry me. I bask, while my hubby and the chief midwife pelt down the stairs, where Mom is already in action, dousing smoking towels – why are there towels in the oven?! – in the kitchen sink. I hear distant laughter, like hysterical church bells. In the morning, there is saskatoon cake.
There will also be a new Mom revealed to me. Now, at last, she will begin to share with me (I’ll still have to ask) her own experiences of birth. Now, at last, she will talk of how anxious my father was, how his mother had to come to the hospital to calm him down when their first child was born. How she needed stitches. How when her fifth child was born, she nearly bled to death. How she had a sixth one anyway. How she doesn’t remember much because she was drugged, it was the way birth was done. It was radical enough that she insisted on breast feeding; radical enough that she declined the thalidomide, that new wonder drug for morning sickness.
As for my own birth? I almost dared not ask; as a middle child, you learn to expect that your details might be blurry. She surprises me, though. Laughing about how she’d almost burned down my house while I was in labour, she says, Oh well, I should’ve expected something like that. You see, just before you were born, your father was so nervous, he’d spend hours in the garage, working. And then, when I went into labour, he was so flustered, he burned it down!
I can’t prove nor disprove that story.
*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.