I was 23 when I met my spirit mother.
I’d buried my father and my older brother, gone to university, gotten put on probation, answered an ad that seemed the answer to my prayer for something meaningful to do with that year, some path that mattered. The path led to Mexico, to a teaching job where, living alone for the first time in my life, working in a job that mattered, I learned some fundamental things about who I am. But in some ways, I was still just a kid when I came home.
Elke scared me.
I had come home to find her son living in the space I’d vacated in a shared rental house. My sister had chosen him, she and my brother (temporarily living there, too) immediately recognising that he belonged. My brother didn’t belong to city life, went back home to the bush where we grew up. There was space for me, in time for me to return; and there was this long-haired artiste type, blasting musical theatre in the living room, a ball python draped round his shoulders. Still, I could sense what they meant. He was probably okay, on some fundamental level an earthling like us.
Even before I’d really re-aclimated to north, he invited me to go visit Elke, in the woods. I did not understand that she was his mother, who’d followed German tradition and instructed her adult children to call her by her name, now. All I knew was that this friendly new housemate had invited me on an adventure, something to do with redigging a culvert. Countryside, physical work, a drive with new friends, why not?
It was the skull I noticed first.
We must have left the car near the gate, walked the long, winding driveway that first time. And then, there was the house. And on the cedar plank wall, a skull. A tiny woman rounded the corner of the deck at our approach, greeted him with a hug. ‘Hello there,’ she chimed. I just stood still, counting skulls – horse, deer, what was that one? – my senses alive to the cherished smells of Alberta woods in summer, a sour over-note of clay, organic undertones that resonated with deep memories of my Polish grandma’s old home.
Here was a woman like the women I’d left behind: women who drove the Mexican highways with a weather-eye out for loose horses, past the limed and rotting bodies of those who didn’t make it, and ate skull candy and pan de los muertos; before them, the farm women who could reach into the labouring wombs of bovine sistren and set the calves in order, my mother who revived runt piglets in the woodstove oven, the Cree and Beaver women who cut faster and cleaner than surgeons, carving moose on our kitchen table. I grew up with women who knew that these things are just life.
But none of them hung skulls on their walls.
We stayed overnight, her son, his friend, and I. Her woods house, like my childhood home equipped with woodstove and outhouse, was already familiar.
Over morning coffee, Elke and I traded glances. I would never have to tell her where I walked in my dreams that night. Nor that I was frightened, at first.
She brought me into her family, and over the years, gave me gifts I’ll never lose. Among them, the courage she built in me, on foundations my own parents laid; an extended family to rival any sprawling blood-relative clan; and the way to open a door in my spirit that is also fundamental to who I am. She was an artist who was able to live by and realise her art, and I needed a realised artist to mentor that part of my being.
It is the nature of humans, that we need spirit mothering. No parent can open all the doors in their children’s being; no one human teacher, if they are any good, would dare to presume to do so. A lucky teacher recognises the students born for them. When students are lucky, those good teachers come our way.
I am lucky.
For most of thirty years, Elke remained my spirit mother, never rescinding the welcome she gave me so long ago, though the circumstances of our connection changed much. “Hello there,” she’d chime, in her elegant accent, the lilt undiminished; her hug of greeting perpetually warm and strong, even as walking became a toil. Her body succumbed to age, yet her spirit remained clear.
Over time, I became accustomed to the skulls, learned to accept their beauty; the intricate, turbinate spirals inside the swiftest of us – horses, deer – revealing both finite and infinite harmonies, the infinite resonance in the patterns by which life appears, and the finite nature of life’s tenure in any one form. The testimony left behind. This too, is just life.
There is still so much to learn.
Photo courtesy Scott Johnson, also part of Elke’s family.