My social media feed and inbox is besieged with businesses promoting their Mother’s Day specials. Flowers, brunch, gifts…all sorts of ways to say “Thanks, Mom!”
I’ve been told that I look like my mother. I’ll take it. My sisters do, too, as does my daughter.
About 10 years ago, I stumbled across the celebration of Togo’s 100th birthday. It is a blip of a town near the Saskatchewan Manitoba border where my grandparents lived after moving off their farm, and where my mom was born. A woman came up to me and said, “You must be Remona’s daughter.” I had no idea who this person—apparently a relative of mine—was but she knew me, by how I looked.
My mom was like a bulldozer in the kitchen, or as my sister once said, a Tasmanian Devil. It was true. If Mom visited, we just relinquished whatever control we had and gave over. It wasn’t that she bullied her way in; it was more that she was just so capable and such a good cook, it was easier to step aside and let her do her thing.
Mom was born in the Dirty Thirties to poor German farmers in Saskatchewan. She was raised by a tyrant drunk of a father and a subservient, stoic mother. She quit school around grade eight to help at home and raise her younger brother, Larry, 13 years her junior. She married Dad when she was 21 and they took over his parents’ farm. Together, they raised me and my four siblings, along with cattle, pigs, chickens and crops.
The only time I ever remember her not working was on Sundays after lunch when she and dad would have a nap in the afternoon. The rest of her waking hours were spent doing chores or cooking or helping dad in the field. She was the first one up in the morning and the last one to bed at night.
I don’t remember her as a cuddly type of mom, and her humour seemed to dwindle the harder she worked, but every now and then, she’d relax enough to have fun with cousins and aunts and uncles who came over on Sundays or during holidays. There would be hours of stories, non-stop laughing, and platters and tables laden with food. Work, family, church, and more work was her life for as long as I knew her.
When I picture my mom, I see her bent over harvesting potatoes in the garden, in a barn milking cows, or in a kitchen baking bread or preserving fruits and vegetables, and the aromas that go with those things: earth, manure, yeast, peaches…I smell them all. It’s comforting.
I learned how to cook by watching and helping her. I can cobble together a meal out of nothing. I can make hearty soup from odds and ends, and I rarely use measuring cups or spoons in the process. From her, I learned to not waste food. She even saved leftover toast to make the most amazing dumplings (called butterglace) to be added to chicken noodle soup—a Volga German’s version of matzo ball soup.
She was hard on us as teenagers, adopting her father’s hellfire and brimstone approach to child-rearing. Though shalt not party or drink or have premarital sex—or risk eternal damnation. At that point, we didn’t know anything about her upbringing. We were self-absorbed teenagers who complained to our friends about our horrible mother as we snuck off to smoke cigarettes and figure out where the party was.
She came to stay with me when my first child was due. My delivery date was planned for December 29th and she arrived early to make sure everything was ready. She cooked and prepared freezer dinners for me and my husband so we’d have food after she left, and for two days before I was induced, we played Canasta. It was during these card game marathons that she finally opened up about her childhood. I was 30.
Only then did I begin to understand that her harsh words to us as teenagers stemmed from fear, not loathing. It was her way of trying to protect us but her “scare them straight” approach didn’t work on us like it had on her. It only made us resent her and wish she was softer and kinder like our friends’ mothers.
I never knew the ugly side of my grandpa. To me and my siblings, he seemed a kind man who made great sausage and fed us peppermints. I do remember someone telling a story of how mom had to drive him home from a bar once, but the story was told with a chuckle and belied the horror of the reality. The vehicle was an old farm truck and she would’ve been driving down gravel roads. The cops, seeing a little head barely over the steering wheel, pulled her over and saw drunk Fred in the passenger seat. They “tsked tsked” and told her to get him home safe. She would’ve been about 10.
She and her brother were once punished for not correctly stacking the firewood. Grandpa forced them outside and made them stand in the snow until they realized their errors. It didn’t take them long—they weren’t wearing any coats or boots.
And yet, she loved him. She spent hours at his bedside when he was in the hospital dying. She brought us to visit him so he could see his grandkids one last time. She was a loyal, God-fearing daughter to the end.
She didn’t support my moving away from home when I was 18. I had one box of belongings, $65 in my pocket and a train ticket to Banff. She wanted me to stay in Saskatchewan, find a farmer, and settle down. I foresaw a life of babies and chores and dirt in my ears. I said, ‘no thank you’ and I left. We didn’t write or talk on the phone. I would come home a couple of times a year but those days weren’t spent catching up with mom; I went out with friends, instead. In the morning, I’d get the cold shoulder or hear her clicking her tongue against her teeth, a sound that indicated she was pissed off with something—me, in this case.
She was fond of saying, “Someday when you have kids, you’ll understand” in reply to my exasperated, “Oh my GOD, MOTHHHHERRR!”
Everything changed when I got married. I was finally “a woman”, I suppose. I had a husband, a house, a job. She could relax.
In 2005, she and Dad moved from the Okanagan to Alberta to be closer to their grandkids. She wasn’t feeling well on that day they arrived and for months tried to cure this reoccurring “flu” with Chinese herbal concoctions until it became so severe that she finally consulted a doctor.
She began to have a hard time swallowing and lost weight. She was ravenous and we were desperate to find foods she could eat. The smoothies we brought went largely untouched. I made for her one of her favourite soups, a creamy dill potato, using her recipe. She wanted to eat it but she couldn’t get it past her throat. At the end of June, she was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. She died three weeks later.
Those three weeks were brutal. We took turns taking care of dad at the house and sleeping in the hospice room just feet from mom’s bed. For someone who was such a force of nature in everyone’s life, the disease took no time at all to reduce her to a frail, helpless invalid. It was tough to witness. I wanted to pull the tubes out of her and scream life back into her body. I wanted my brusque, bulldozer mother back.
When she died, the reality of being “motherless” hit me like a Mack truck. I didn’t know how to process that I had no mother.
What a bastard cancer was to take someone with whom I’d finally connected. Someone I could laugh with and call anytime. Someone who loved me and made time for me, no matter what. Finally.
With the realization that I was mother-less, I felt like my umbilical cord to life had just been severed. I had no emotional shelter, no grounding, no foundation.
I would never pick up the phone again and say, “Hi mom, what’s new?” She would never take over my kitchen again, and she would never again utter another “ach” or click her tongue in disapproval. I’d even miss that.
I would never buy another Mother’s Day card, and as much as I’ve forever grumbled about the ridiculous prices of greeting cards, I would gladly fork over the $7.95 today to find the perfect one for her.
So, on this day, May 11th, what would’ve been her 84th birthday, I honour her memory with this note, and I’ll cry for her as I did on that July day 13 years ago when I last held her hand.
I have two kids now, so yes, Mom, I do understand what its like to be a mother. I know what it’s like to love a child so much it defies description. I know how it feels to be terrified that they’ll make a wrong decision and that someone might hurt them.
I wish with all my heart I could go back and change some things—like being more patient, being less of an ass; listening more, and not waiting to say “I love you” until you were dying in a hospital bed. I wish I could go back and hug you a thousand times.
But, I can’t. I can only urge others to be less dismissive with the value of time.
So to them, I say: please…cherish your mother while you have her to cherish. Forgive her— and yourself—of careless words and deeds past, and know that no matter what, her first instinct always is (and was) to protect you…even if you don’t realize it at the time.
“Time is precious”—what an understatement.
Call your mom, hug her. You don’t have to wait until Mother’s Day to do it. Now is a good time, too.