You have filled my heart with greater joy. – Psalms 4:7
This simple statement has squirrelled round in my head all day, while I wondered what to write. Finally, I saw a photo of David Letterman, now old and bearded, like some unexpected hermit, and I’ve taken that as my way in. Dave, if you recall, was famous for his Top Ten lists of topical things.
Picturing Dave the Hermit, the first thing that springs to mind is that any seeker who fetched up at Dave’s mountaintop cave would surely be disappointed if the Hermit Dave didn’t produce a Top Ten of Enlightenment… as for me, I’m just going to leap.
If I were to make a list, a Top 10 Moments When I’ve Felt Joy in Being My Mother’s Daughter, what would that look like?
I don’t know. It is too soon after her going to know how to rank a lifetime’s moments. So let’s call it a non-ranked list, a sampler pack instead. Ten times I loved having Mom as my mom, in no particular order.
One. When she made me a dress for Grandma and Grandpa’s 60th anniversary. It was the most perfect material, ivory white with a floral pattern in the exact shade of golden yellow I’ve always liked best in the world. It looked amazing, and best of all, she’d made it herself.
Two. When she taught me to milk cows. She’d given me benchmarks: could I cover the bottom on the pail? Could I raise a foam on the milk? Could I get an inch of milk? Could I get to the dent, about 4 inches up the side of the pail, where another cow had once kicked it? Every time I made a goal before she finished her cow and took over for me, I felt myself glow with pride, with a sense of the dignity of competence.
Three. When she traced a sign of the cross on my back, to let me know she was truly concerned about the freaky-looking theatre crowd I was running with at university. She never spoke badly of them, and she fed any and all of them who turned up at my place when she was in town. (Which gave rise to the arcane game, “Jar O Bear,” but that’s another story).
As an older woman, I can consider that she knew just which one of the group was the danger, the bad boy with the heart of gold whom I might be foolish enough to love… and if I were to go there, the signs all over him told her that the danger was nothing more mysterious than the usual demons of booze, confusion and self-hatred turned into the roller coaster of addictive behaviours. I laughed when she made the sign on me, and assured her that she had nothing to worry about, I didn’t need protecting.
There’s no proving nor disproving that that’s why we never dated, that bad boy and I. But most importantly, now, I appreciate so very much that she did that, reached past my veneer of independence, and blessed me like a was a tiny girl again.
Four. When she offered cabbage rolls to the King of the Edmonton Strip Club Scene. My then-beau had put together a little potluck celebration for my university graduation. A couple of his housemates were in a huff about something, so decided to crash the party, and take it over with one of their own. One of their set was a child of this demi-monde bossman, who swaggered in at one point, amping the tension among those who knew…
and my mom, bland as a woman who’d grown up picking berries among wild bears, ambled over to this strange old man and deadpanned, ‘Have a cabbage roll.’ Non-plussed as a bear, he took the little plate, sat down, ate it, thanked her, and left.
Five. When she took me with her to the Nass Valley, the year after my elder sister died, to camp and pick pine mushrooms in the land she’d come to love. Seeing how the Nisga’a folks up there treated her made me walk just a little taller. She took me to see a special little waterfall where the ghost fish run. I fell in. Oh, said her buddy at the snowcrab shack, that’s just the spirits’ way of saying Welcome.
Mom out in the bush was her most serene self. We camped by a thermal lake, and she explained about the mist rising off it – oh, they call it Dragon Lake because it’s bottomless, and that’s volanic steam… and she climbed into the back of the little van to bed down, calm as you please. Me, I lay rigidly still, aware that we were not quite on level ground (where was there level ground out there?), terrified that there could be an little earthquake, and we could roll, so easily, into the lake, the bottomless lake…
I got out, found some firewood and chocked the wheels, then finally drifted off to sleep. In the morning, she said nothing, appeared not to notice, as, with as much stealth as possible, I moved the wood, which in my late night panic, i’d apparently used to chock the uphill side of the wheels.
Six. When, four days after my daughter was born, our then-neighbours threw a party. Drunks at that party attacked my husband on his way back from driving a somewhat frail visiting friend home. I ran downstairs, on the phone with police, as his assailant broke the car door window and then flailed away at my astonished and half-blinded hubby.
I opened the door to find him on the porch now, outrage getting the upper hand over shock. He’d thrown the man down, and was kneeling on him, smacking his head against the porch floor, saying “Do. You. Understand. Me? I. Don’t. Want. To. Fight. You. You win. I give up. I live here. I am Not. Fighting. YOU. WIN.”
That would’ve worked, but to my dismay, the drunk’s date was now mounting the porch stairs, readying to jump on my hub from behind. I dropped the phone, grabbed the porch mop, and broke it across her back. If she’d jumped on hub, she’d have crushed her date beneath them all, but I just couldn’t have her attacking my fella from behind…So, she turned on me.
I, like my beloved, was somewhat in a state of shock. We’d been having a quiet evening, he and pal playing chess, myself playing cribbage with Mom, who was still visiting after the birth. I’d taken baby up to bed. Mom had retired, too. Now, this lunatic woman I didn’t even know was pushing me into the entrance hall, yelling did i wanna go? No, I said. But you’d better. She kept repeating, you wanna go, bitch? and I couldn’t decide if it was pathetic, funny, or what…
I grabbed her wrists to stop her from hurting herself. My folks taught me that there are two rules only: 1. don’t start a fight; and 2. if you must fight, do whatever it takes to win. This drunken idiot had no idea what I might do. But I was not the worst of her troubles, for, over her shoulder, I saw Mom coming.
She’d heard (and she was already half-deaf then) the commotion now, and she’d slipped quietly out from her room. She’d crossed the kitchen and selected one of my cast iron pans, and she was coming now, still silent, not rushing, sizing up this intruder. If I didn’t act fast, she would.
And she would go for the head shot. And she would not miss.
And she was small, but she had decades of farm living and a mother’s rage inside her.
Afterward, she told me she had also thought I still had the babe in my arms, so no, I was not imagining the murderous gleam in her eyes. As she rounded the table, almost in range, my hubby and the drunken man appeared in the door. The man, now slumped in submission, tapped his woman on the shoulder and said, Hey, stop, we’ve made a mistake. They live here. We’d better go.
Like that, she deflated, too. I released her wrists, Mom stopped where she stood, and they wobbled out the door, too slow to escape the squad car. I saw one police man slam that woman just a little up against the car, and I grinned, actually. She was getting off lightly, did she but know it.
Seven. When, fresh out of hip replacement surgery that had confirmed her bone cancer, Mom was flown out to Edmonton to live with my little family. Within three days, she’d taught my daughter to play cribbage, and watching her build my girl’s skills, I came to understand how, in my own childhood, she’d laid that same foundation for me. I’m a pretty good player, as a result; but I’ve never seen one to match Mom.
Eight. When she finally went to the hospital for that surgery, it was because my sister, with whom she then lived, forced her to go, simply overwhelmed her protestations that it was nothing, really. It was something. Her hip was broken. Moving around the hospital for x-rays, biopsies, and just general living, however careful the staff were, each move worsened the break, raised her pain and raised the risk that the bone could shift enough to sever her femoral artery, threatening her life. Her good doctor, who turned out to be senior among the teaching staff there, did all he could to set her up with the best surgeon there, who did all he could to arrange a replacement as fast as possible.
But in a big hospital, lines of communication can fail. And schedules can obviously be wrecked by any emergency. They took Mom off painkillers and made her NPO (nothing per oral, no food, no water, nothing) preparatory to surgery. And then the schedule slipped. As the hours passed, her pain and thirst must have been excruciating, along with the lack of information about how much longer she might have to wait.
It grew late. I stayed with her. And Mom played cribbage.
She played like I’ve never seen anyone play before or since. She played with the focus of a diamond drill, game after game, on into the night, without a single complaint. We’d ask, get told to wait. I’d ask if she wanted me to intervene, she’d say she was fine, just wait, carry on.
Finally, as the night shift changed, I left her there in her growing pallor. She’d had enough, and so I did what she’d have done, raised the hell needed to find somebody who would override the clearly now irrelevant NPO order, and get the woman some water and some pain medication, after 16 hours with nothing but cribbage and grit to go on. She had her surgery, successfully, the next afternoon.
Nine. When Spring came, as she worked to recover mobility with her new hip, and endured the chemo and urban life unlooked for, as soon as feasible, Mom planted tomato seedlings, with my daughter, and showed her how to tend them, day by day, as they came daintily to life on our livingroom window sill.
Ten. When my Dad’s younger cousin, who’d lived with Mom and Dad while going to high school (no residential school for her), grew ill with diabetes, went into kidney failure, and was sent home from the hospital with less than a week to live, Mom made sure to stay in close touch.
Those cousins live in Ontario, so Mom phoned, and listened, and prayed with cousin if she wanted that. Mom, who’d buried her husband, her oldest son, and most recently her eldest daughter, pitched in with her usual matter of fact persistence. And then she’d relay the updates to me by phone, too.
Cousin didn’t die. She fasted for a while. And then she started eating. And her doctors were astonished. Mom would chuckle about how cousin would giggle about the doctors asking, was she using some secret Indian medicine, or what? I dunno, Mom reported her saying, I’m just listening to my body. Just praying. Just living.
I was there a couple of times when cousin would call, and then I’d overhear Mom, the wonderment and joy welling up in her matter-of-fact voice, softening it: ‘You’re my miracle,’ she’d say to cousin, and needed say no more, for in that simple phrase I imagine cousin understood all that was plain to me, too.
Mom was filled with a greater joy at those moments, and was giving reverent thanks for being asked to be part of this miracle, this evidence that God does move in mysterious ways, and that she was thankful for the gift of being found trustworthy.
Cousin knew who to call. She’d made her own life far away, raised her own family, stayed only loosely in touch. But when the game was most important, she knew she could count on the woman who, as a young bride married into her clan, had made room for her teenaged self, following the great law of hospitality.
I could go on. But even old grizzled hermit Dave couldn’t come up with 10 better reasons to take great joy in having been given the gift of being daughter to such a woman.
*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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