On this day dedicated to women of influence, I am grateful for the love and guidance of my Mom (in the cool shades) who was always there for me, even when I thought she wasn’t.
She taught me everything I know about living on a shoestring, organizing gatherings, growing food, preparing meals, caring for animals, raising children, holding on and letting go.
Married just shy of her 18th birthday, the first of her 7 babies was born less than a year later. At 25, she was caring for a newborn girl, 1-year-old boy, 2-year-old girl (me), 4-year-old boy and 6-year old boy in a house with an outdoor toilet, wood stove, ringer washer, no hot running water and a bathtub that hung on a nail outside. When giving directions to the farm, she would tell visitors they would know they were in the right yard if they saw rows of diapers on the clothes line.
She trusted me from a young age with great responsibility. When I was 6, she relied on me to care for Gail and often left me charge of my 2 younger siblings as well. Cooking and cleaning and babysitting and entertaining and organizing and weeding the garden and feeding the chickens and collecting eggs and milking the cows and feeding the calves and hauling bales and driving tractor and learning to drive a stick shift at age 10 — I loved my grown-up childhood.
Still famous today for her huge and bountiful garden, she grew and preserved all our vegetables for the long winters. She raised chickens for eggs and for meat, along with turkeys. We milked 2 cows every morning and night and she sold cream and eggs for grocery money. The beef in our freezer came from the feedlot over the hill where we were all responsible for hauling chop, feeding hay and spreading straw bales.
Holidays were for city people. We were responsible for making our own fun.
To this day, I wonder how she managed to accept my decisions to climb to the very top of the tree or take the chainsaw to clear dead trees around the yard or hop on the motorbike wearing cutoffs, a halter top and thongs. Helmet? I’m not sure we owned one. I might have neglected to tell her about my love of speed – trusting my instincts at 50mph to stay on the single tire track on the gravel roads.
She drove the combine in fall, leaving me to the yard chores and feeding everyone in shifts during harvest. I would get off the school bus at age 13 and there would be a package of meat thawing on the kitchen counter — my only clue as to what was on the menu for supper — and all the veggies were in the garden.
There was no gender divide in the work, only the rights. Men have. Women do. Each of my brothers was given a heifer calf at age 10 to start their own herd and a quarter section of land to start their own farm. I was given permission to babysit in the community for $1/hour when I was 14.
At age 16, Dad told me the farm would be divided 3 ways. When I asked him about his 6 kids, he said: “if you girls can’t find someone to marry you and take care of you, then I don’t feel sorry for you.” I confirmed this with him when we spoke last October after I crashed their 60th wedding anniversary celebration.
Yes, Mom confirmed that I wasn’t invited to the big family gathering and she wanted to know that I understood why and that I was okay with it. I assured her that I understand how family works and I wouldn’t miss it. When my cousin sent me a message to ask if I was coming to the party, I asked, “what party?”. Then, I cleared out my bank account to buy the ticket and hop on the plane and gathered my courage to show up unannounced. It was the right, though incredibly difficult, move.
I was the first of our family to graduate high school and she slipped me bits of cash from her milk money after I rebelled, applied in secret and left home against Dad’s wishes to attend the University of Saskatchewan. She had graduated grade 8 and he had left school after grade 10.
Early on, I discovered the disdain of the rural population for the educated elite who were out to brainwash me. When I drove out to the farm every Saturday to give piano lessons, he would ask, “so, how’s Miss University?” It was not a compliment. Money is the root of all evil and I had learned that people with money are evil. I checked this with him later in life and he stands by his belief. Even though he raised me to be respectful and generous and community-minded, I would become evil if I made lots of money. What a relief it was to know I had not made it up. Hearing him say that out loud helped me make sense of my financial struggles over the years. It also made sense when Mom showed up alone with my sisters to attend my convocation, struggling to admit that he had decided to attend a heavy equipment auction in his role as Rural Municipality Councillor instead.
When I eloped at age 22, she sneaked into the house and left a bottle of bubbles with a single red rose to let me know she was okay with it. They had already welcomed Kelly into the family and he was familiar, coming from a family of 6 as well. Though he was not a farm kid, he did his best and bonded with my brothers doing all the stupid shit they loved to do. Neither of us wanted a big wedding and we were both from big families with married siblings whose idea of wedding was a minimum of 200 guests at the church basement or community hall. We had decided that the only way to manage it was to not tell anyone until it was over and that the only way to manage that was to marry within 48 hours of making the decision.
When we said goodbye to Gail in 1987, she left me in charge — once again relying on the strength she had instilled in me. Nothing could prepare anyone for the tragedy that was a head-on car collision between Gail and her boyfriend heading to the city to spend a bit of time with his Mom at the end of a full Christmas Day.
They had just finished fixing up that old pick-up truck and finally got plates for it. He was driving the truck and she was going to drop off her girlfriend’s car just down the road on their way. The roads were icy. She spun around and went into the ditch. When she went to pull on the road, she was facing oncoming traffic. Having had the same accident, I recognize the urge to get back on the highway. She waited for a set of headlights to pass. I imagine she thought that must be Mark — he was right behind her. She didn’t realize that Mark had to wait for a car before pulling on to the highway off. She pulled on the highway, he came over the hill and they were both on black ice. In the third car was a doctor, who had stopped when he saw her in the ditch. Her chest hit the steering wheel and broke a rib that pierced her heart. My uncle had left the farm just behind them and was first on the scene. He went to her window and she looked up at him with glass in her eyes, then she closed those beautiful blue eyes for the last time. I will always be grateful for that. Uncle Ed left us a few years ago and I feel them both here with me as I write …
Mom stepped in to take over the care and feeding Gail’s flock of sheep and when she won Grand Champion Market Lamb at the Western Canadian Agribition (one of North America’s largest livestock shows) the following year, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Everyone knew and loved Gail and recognized the courage it took for a mother to honor her daughter’s memory in this way. She went on to win many awards and many were with her grandchildren.
When I told her I was divorcing in 1991, she wondered out loud if perhaps marriage was not my thing and we had long conversations about her own relationship with an old-school conservative male from the last century and how she had made peace with her choice.
When I left for Hong Kong in 1992, she said, “nothing you do surprises me any more” and handed me a card at the airport with instructions not to open it until I was half way across the Pacific Ocean. The tears came when I said goodbye to Kim, and she said, “don’t you two start or you’ll get me started and I won’t stop.”
This became an even more poignant memory when when I said goodbye to Kim on 5 October 2016 for the last time. In Kim’s honor, I arranged to surprise Mom with a lunch date (I had help from her sneaky best friend) when I flew home for 5 days to attend the funeral and realized I would be home for her birthday. We had not spoken in five years and Kim had struggled with the distance between Mom and me after we had been so close for so long, even though she understood the reason why.
We applied for her passport and she came for a visit in early 2000 but she cut the trip short because city life really didn’t suit her. While I was working to start my own business, she didn’t have the confidence to go out on her own and navigate around Sai Ying Pun where everything looked the same, she could recognize no landmarks and was uncertain of her ability to get directions in a world where everyone spoke Chinese. Still, after meeting my friends and seeing the sights, she said, “now I see why you like it here.”
Neither of us spoke of the truth of what had driven me to the other side of the planet. The unwritten agreement to keep the unspoken secret was still intact after all those years. She never again asked when I would be moving home.
Over the past 25 years, my single greatest expense (aside from crazy HK rent) has been the many long-haul fights from Hong Kong to Saskatoon where I did my best to stay connected with a family that was my entire social life growing up and building relationships with 9 nieces and nephews, most of them born after I moved away. Now, there are grand-nieces and grand-nephews and most of my 46 first cousins have kids and grandchildren of their own.
The lessons have not all been easy and, when I take a moment to step out of my own shit and look back on her life, I am truly inspired.
Everything I know about responsibility and resilience and resourcefulness and community service, I most certainly learned from her.
I welcome the day she is ready to welcome me back into her life and our family.
Until then, in respect for her wishes, I continue my healing journey on my own.
We’ve come a long, long way.
I miss my mom.
If you can, kiss, hug or call your mom today.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” C.S. Lewis