I have to thank Jo for the appearance of this piece writing today. I wasn’t “perfectly certain” that it was ready for publication. Thank you Jo for believing in me and my writing. I love you.
I have to thank Jo for the appearance of this piece writing today. I wasn’t “perfectly certain” that it was ready for publication. Thank you Jo for believing in me and my writing. I love you.
In the late summer of 1955 our family moved into my first fully remembered house. The exterior featured a variety of autumn-hued bricks augmented by vivid coral and lime- green mouldings. Sited atop a steep hill, it beamed its kaleidoscopic newness over the subdivision. The living room showcased two plush, citrus-toned swivel chairs, and a sofa upholstered in a complementary prismatic teal. With much deliberation, and a little compromise, for the kitchen, Mom and Dad chose a green tile floor, orange laminate counter-tops, and knotty pine cabinets complete with black wrought iron hardware. Weird and riotous colour combinations, even to a somewhat chaotic eight-year-old.
The one feature I got to choose was the ceiling light for my very own bedroom. Until then I had had to share sleep-quarters with my older sister. I believe she deplored the co-habitation far more than I did. When you are fifteen, private space is as necessary as a lockable bathroom door.
I perused the weighty lighting catalogue with the same fervency as I devoted to the Sears Christmas Wish Book. In the end, I settled on a magical fixture with a round glass canopy where tiny ballerinas pirouetted on an opaline stage.
Move-in day arrived. I scurried to my room. Looked up. And froze. Above me was a piece of square glass adorned with little girls swinging in a pink sky. Disappointment burst into tears. Father tried, without success, to assuage my heartbreak. How could I possibly love girls on swings? I could practise my ballet in the large and open living room or even in the basement recreation area. But, despite there being four children, there would never be a swing in our yard. Father rigorously controlled his domain. The grass, lush and emerald, was mowed to the ideal height and the shrubs, each chosen for its particular texture and hue, were shorn to regal perfection.
With the sleeve of my yellow sweater, I erased my tears. Then, I lowered my eyes to survey the rest of the room. Whoever designed this house harboured no love of little children. The high, horizontal window allowed me to see only a cloudy sky. To take in the scene across the street, I had to stand on the bed. Cats and dogs choose to lie in places with a view to the outdoors. If no low window sill presents itself, they leap unto chairs, the backs of sofas or even tall bookcases to peer beyond. People are the same. They need to know there is an outside as well as an inside. A place of freedom and adventure where minds and hearts can roam.
As an adult, I spent a few months filling in for an art teacher away on medical leave. Her classroom was located in the centre of a vast building. Its two doors opened into two hallways. Several strips of fluorescent lights provided the only illumination. What manner of principal would assign a room devoid of natural light for visual arts classes?
Even though not of my choosing, one thing I did love about my new bedroom was the hand-made quilt that decorated the single bed. Mother told me that Grandma had given it to me when I was too small to remember. She had saved it until I was old enough to take proper care of it. A wide blue border with crossed strips inside it divided the counterpane into sixteen boxes. Within these frames posed sixteen identical girls. Each wore a simple calico dress and a bright, over-sized bonnet—each outfit a different combination of happy hues.
For many years, every night, after I had knelt in prayer beside my bed, I nestled under the covers and whispered to the silent, faceless quilt children. I shared with them my brave deeds, my joyful adventures, my academic accomplishments, my heartaches, my fears and my deepest longings.
When, at eighteen, I left home for university, Grandmother’s quilt travelled with me. As I unfurled the coverlet over my narrow bed, I never feared my dorm-mate’s censure. The bonnet-girls—keepers of my secrets—wholly belonged there, with me.
September 22, 1917 – September 4, 2015
In the fourth year of World War I, my Ukrainian-born grandmother birthed my mom. Her seventh child. At regular intervals another seven arrived. Seven sons. Seven daughters.
The upper floor of the old Manitoba farmhouse boasted two large bedrooms. One for the parents and the two most recent babies. One for the rest of the flock. The newest arrival slept on the foot of the marriage bed. The second youngest in a cradle nearby. When Mom was still a child, Grandma Koshelanyk told her that she was a sickly infant who cried without end. She said there were times when she wanted to kick her off the end of the bed. Mother never forgot that. Maybe that’s why she seldom spoke up to defend herself. Maybe she thought she would be killed.
The fourteen children grew strong and resourceful. Fall, winter and spring they trudged five miles to and from the schoolhouse. They played with each other and with the barn cats. They sculpted toys from the ever-plentiful potatoes. When I was eight years old, I whined that I had nothing to do. Mother tossed me a potato and a paring knife and said, “There, make yourself a doll.” While Mother continued paring vegetables, I happily chipped away at the tuber. In time, a small, crude dolly emerged. I loved her. Until her flesh turned to grey mush.
The remembrance made me wonder about the wisdom of bestowing a sharp knife, albeit a small one, on an eight-year-old. Mother said it was hard to cut yourself with a finely-honed blade. It was the dull ones you had to be careful of.
Mom graduated from grade ten. The first of her family to be so highly educated. Two years later she received her registered nursing assistant diploma. Until I saw her graduation photo, I never knew how beautiful my mother was. The white starched cap perched proudly on her lovely dark head.
At twenty, Mom left her prairie home to travel to Quebec and then Ontario. Once, when my teen-aged brother decided to practise his foreign language skills on her, she surprised us all by answering in perfect French. She had waitressed at a restaurant on Sherbrooke Street in Montreal. Tips were higher if you spoke the diners’ native tongue.
Mom had an uncanny talent for disassembling broken appliances then rebuilding them in perfect working order. Toasters. Vacuum cleaners. Wringer washing machines. Mix-masters. All these fell under her realm of expertise. She kept a junk drawer in the kitchen. From its depths she retrieved the exact item needed for a repair. A screw, a washer, a piece of wire, a nut or bolt, a tiny screwdriver. If she didn’t find the right tool, she improvised one.
Every Saturday morning Mother baked. Pies mostly. Apple pies usually. I asked her to teach me. One box of Crisco. That was the only precise measure. About four cups of flour and a little salt. About? A little? Well, the amount of flour depended on the humidity. On the temperature. On the softness of the shortening. The salt? Oh, you just pour a little into your palm and toss it in. Add about half a cup of flour at a time and blend it into the shortening. Keep this up until the mixture resembles small peas. Then add a tablespoon or two of cold water. Just enough to make everything stick together.
I never mastered the little-peas-look or the just-right-water bit. I avoided making pies. My pastry could never be as good as Mom’s. Then, a male colleague who loved to bake passed me a recipe—Fool-proof Flaky Pie Crust. Six ingredients. Exact measurements. Fabulous results.
The apples were another matter. Mother preferred Northern Spies. She bit into one then decided how much sugar and lemon juice to use. But, how do you know? By the sweetness or the tartness of the apples. I never mastered the bite-test either. I just followed instructions I found for baking with tart apples and hoped that my apples were tart.
As soon as the baked pies cooled, it was my job to deliver a small one to our nearest neighbours. The Winnets were an elderly couple who refused none of Mom’s offerings.
Until she gave it up at the grand age of ninety-seven, Mother’s joy and refuge was her vegetable garden. Potatoes of course. But also asparagus, tomatoes, romaine, bib lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini, bush beans, pole beans, peas and carrots. Rhubarb too.
Autumn meant canning. Brined beets, mustard relish, stewed tomatoes, peaches, jams and jellies, dills and bread-and-butter pickles. Just like her baked goods, Mom shared the bounty of her garden—fresh and preserved—with family, friends and neighbours.
A visit to Mom’s house was a free shopping excursion. She loaded us up with articles on natural healing clipped from newspapers and magazines, ‘useful’ items retrieved from recycle bins, pastries or cookies, canned goods and produce.
Mom was an early earth guardian. She composted, reclaimed, re-purposed, and renewed before those verbs were fashionable. She had weathered the Great Depression—nothing was thrown away. One time she offered me a nickel for every plastic milk bag I saved for her.
One household chore that bypassed Mom’s talents was cleaning. She always began by “tidying up”. Before she had filed her first magazine, she was perched on the edge of the ottoman perusing its table of contents. She soon sat cocooned in a comfy chair savouring a recipe, an article on natural supplements or an ad for a hand-held rototiller. The dust stayed put.
Mom also worked outside the home. For a catering service. In the X-ray department at a hospital. In accounts at a ladies’ clothing store. And finally as a realtor. She even attained her broker’s licence. She had more energy than most of my friends’ younger mothers. Television-watching and novel-reading were Father’s domain. Those activities put Mom to sleep.
Most of all Mother was colour. Vibrant, bold, discordant, flamboyant Ukrainian colour. Orange and pink and red were favourites. But, purple and blue and green and shimmering gold also found homes in her wardrobe. She sometimes resembled one of her intricately painted Easter eggs. I still envision her in periwinkle jeans emblazoned with countless red roses, a garish flannelette shirt and a floppy magenta sunhat. A prismatic nod to the dirndl skirt, embroidered blouse and babushka of her ancestors.
My mother was a survivor. She seldom saw a doctor and protested when in her early 90’s, one prescribed high blood pressure pills. She acquiesced only because she feared a stroke more than death. At sixteen I had my ears pierced and fainted at the sight of a few droplets of blood. When Mother gashed her palm with a carving knife—it must have been a dull one—she staunched the bleeding, bandaged the wound and continued preparing dinner. In her ninety-eighth year Mom paid a rare visit to her physician. “Doctor,” she said, “I have a disease.”
“Yes, I know,” the young man said gently. “It’s called old age.”
Mom passed away a few weeks before her ninety-eighth birthday. Someone said my grief would be less because I’d had her so long. Precisely because “I’d had her so long,” my grief was bottomless. Now, more than four years later, I can remember her without tears—most of the time.
In the fall of 2013 my husband and I relocated to a far-away province. I made it a habit of phoning Mom every Sunday. In her last few months, Mom could no longer talk. I began writing her weekly letters. I was grateful to my sister for reading them to her. In researching this piece, I came across a copy of my final missive. It never reached Mom in this life. I trust she knew how much I loved her.
Here is that letter.
August 31, 2015
Hello dear Mom,
Recently when Pitou and I were out for a walk, our neighbour, Gordon, called us over to his garden. He gifted us with tomatoes (mine aren’t ripe yet), ears of corn, sprigs of basil and a green pepper. His garden is huge…even bigger than yours at Maple Leaf Acres. [Gilles] roasted a rack of lamb for dinner and I used most of what Gordon gave us as “trimmings.” First was a mozzarella, tomato and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The cobs of corn were cooked for just three minutes. How sweet and juicy and fresh they tasted. Aren’t we lucky to have such friendly and generous neighbours? I know how you loved to share the bounty of your garden. You have made so many people happy over the years. Thank you for teaching me about generosity. When my little garden ripens, I’ll certainly be sharing more than just zucchinis and lettuce.
As always Mom,
I miss you.
And I love you.
Littleton was a magnet for alternative healers. Someone told me that the town sat on intersecting ley lines. There was a lot of energy available. Maybe that was why I was drawn there. Maybe that was one of the reasons that I stayed sixteen years.
A woman I met in the town invited me to enrol in a course on self-hypnosis. She claimed that to heal old wounds we needed to remove old programming. To “empty the cup.” I thought that in the three sessions of holotropic breathwork I had “emptied the cup.” Perhaps some dregs remained. I had recited affirmations for years. “I am good; I am worthy; I am loved.” Did I genuinely believe those words?
I remember asking Doctor Anne what love felt like. I said, “I know I love my children.” When they were small, I would sneak into their rooms while they slept and watch them breathe. Bellies softly rose and fell. Peaceful pink faces attested to untroubled dreams. I was filled with awe and a feeling that could only be love. I also knew that I loved my mother, even when I was frustrated with her. Now, much later, I knew I loved Gilles. I decided that love was more of a knowing than a feeling. A certainty that you cherished the person before you. But did I love myself? I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know.
I decided I had nothing to lose, and possibly something to gain. I took the Seventh Path course. First, Carol described hypnosis and the subconscious. Next, she explained how to induce self- hypnosis. However, before I experienced that state, I needed a Delta word.
The Seventh Path system was influenced by A Course In Miracles and therefore worked best if I believed in a higher power. Indeed, I did.
I had to choose a name for that power. Goodness, Goddess, Universal Love, Christ, Buddha, Allah, God. I had wrestled with the God-word for years. I was a spiritual person, but no longer a religious one. The image of “God-the-white-robed-bearded-patriach-ensconced-on-a-golden-throne-in-heaven” had evaporated. That mental picture had been replaced with a God-experience. God was the ecstasy of a thousand rainbows. The velveteen stillness of an eternal embrace. The solace of huge pink towel. I had no problem using God as my Delta word.
While I was hypnotized, Carol recited recognitions, positive statements that bypassed my conscious mind and challenged long-held limiting convictions. The first phrases weakened or removed the faulty assumptions.
The five short suggestions slid effortlessly into my unconscious mind. I remember two.
“God knows there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“God made me always lovable.”
After the first session, as instructed, I practised self-hypnosis and the recognitions three or more times every day. When I returned for the second class a week or two later, I was well-prepared for the experience. But not for the outcome.
After we entered the self-hypnotic state, Carol quietly repeated longer versions of the recognitions. The second part replaced the faulty assumptions with positive truths.
“God knows there’s nothing wrong with me—there never was.” Astonishing! How many times had I heard, “What’s the matter with you?” “Are you stupid?” “What’s wrong with you?” The utter belief that there was never anything wrong with me uprooted a former sense of self. It freed me to begin loving this person that was me.
The next one had the same potent effect.
“God made me always lovable—just as I am.”
Unchecked, tears coursed down my cheeks. I was lovable. Just as I was—imperfect, impulsive, passionate, insecure, and brave. At last, I knew that I loved myself, in my beauty and my brokenness. Now, I could forgive myself. Now, I could better love and forgive others.
“You cannot change another person. The only person you can change is yourself.”
I cannot remember who told me that. I cannot remember how many boyfriends I thought I could change. “Once we’re in a relationship, he will give up smoking. He will stop his negative thinking. He will eat better. He will drink less. He will play fewer video games. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.” By the time I met Gilles, I had changed enough to know that I could not change Gilles.
Nonetheless, as long as I never tried to alter Gilles’ essential character, I thought it permissible to tamper a little with his appearance. When I first met him, a ragged bush of dark hair pruned by an incompetent barber, and antiquated black-rimmed spectacles with saucer-sized lenses, masked his handsome countenance. He resembled a tall dishevelled owl.
When I made the impromptu suggestion that he give my hair stylist a try, he readily acquiesced. Upon his return, rather than being gob-smacked by the quadruple price, he beamed at me, “He spent an entire hour cutting my hair!” Subsequent appointments were shorter.
The alteration in bifocals came about just as fuss-free. Without glasses Gilles inhabits a opaque universe. Choosing frames was a challenge. When the time came for new lenses, he asked me to accompany him to the optometrist.
As for Gilles’ makeover of me, that never happened. Gilles was better than me at the “you cannot change another person” dictum. He sometimes alludes to my abbreviated stature; however, I believe he enjoys being necessary when he retrieves “high-up” items from the cupboards. Besides, one’s height cannot be remedied by tamed and contoured hair or up-to-date eye glasses.
Over the years with Gilles, I have come to understand another important truth about change. Everyone changes. No one stays the same. Initially, we may notice the physical transformations—the first grey hair, then more grey hairs, then not so much hair; the wrinkles around the eyes, then the mouth, then the elbows and knees and bellies and bums. Next come the mental modifications—the memory lapses; the seniors’ moments; the effort to find a word that sometimes arrives the next hour or the next day or not at all; a former pastime—swimming or chess—replaced by woods-wandering or puzzle-solving. Old love demands courage.
After that first remarkable kiss, Gilles and I chose to be partners in an exclusive, monogamous relationship. Twenty months later, Gilles relocated to my house.
Even though I had attracted into my life a man who loved me unconditionally, prepared succulent dinners for me almost every night of the week, and planted twelve hundred periwinkle shoots in my front yard because I didn’t like grass, did not mean that all my problems vanished. What it did mean was that a devoted and supportive companion would travel with me on the next leg of my becoming-Prairie journey.
Over the previous few years, tumultuous changes had taken place in the field of education: burgeoning class sizes, a substantial increase in independent learning plans, slashed preparation times, teacher re-evaluations, and complex computer-generated report cards. My penchant for perfection did not pair well with these innovations. In spite of having diligent and helpful co-op assistants, the workload remained onerous. Early in 2002, mononucleosis infected me. The only person I kissed was Gilles. He was healthy. Perhaps a stressed immune system and daily exposure to scores of wheezing, coughing teenagers were responsible for my disease. In spite of the fatigue, I made it to the end of the first semester but was too ill to begin the second one.
Father died on Thursday, February 8th. The previous Sunday he phoned to remind me, “You are the disgrace of the family. You are the only one to get divorced and you are living in sin.” Whether my illness made me too weak to challenge his assessment or I had grown in compassion, I simply said, “I’m sorry you feel that way because I have never been happier.”
Before I could return to the classroom, viral bronchitis decided to befriend me. I slept separately from Gilles. Sat up in bed to keep the air passages open. I arose several times at night, turned the shower dial to its hottest setting, then crouched in the corner of the stall so steam could restore my breathing. My doctor could not help me. I sought out a German-trained physician in another city. He prescribed a number of homeopathic cures, none of which cured me. As the illness dragged on I decided that a massage might make me feel less miserable.
Audrey was an experienced massage therapist who also practised manual lymphatic drainage. Further, she was a doctor of osteopathic medicine. A friend drove me to her office. When Audrey came to manipulate my legs she noticed the swollen lymph glands behind my knees. I never knew I had glands there. She checked the rest of my body. All my nodes were tumid. She asked if I had had mono. With adequate rest, the debilitating symptoms of that disease usually disappear on their own. However, months and even years, later lymph glands can remain enlarged. Audrey suggested that I return for three manual lymphatic drainage appointments. After the first session, I felt better than I had in two and a half months. After the second one I drove myself home. After the third, I returned to teaching. A miracle.
The other miracle was that, in spite of my illnesses, Gilles chose to marry me.
Let there be space in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love;
let it be rather a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Gilles and I resided at 27 Pine Street. We met on the 27th of August. We shared our first dinner on the 27th of November. A few years later, on the 27th day of June a retired nun officiated our union.
I am a list maker. When I complete an item I obliterate it with heavy scratches or mark it off with an exuberant tick. The physical action magnifies my sense of accomplishment. I had never entered marriage on any list. Nevertheless, even an extravagant ink flourish could not sufficiently express my joy.
Each Valentine’s Day, the day that my name became official, I enumerate fourteen reasons why I love Gilles. Each one is accompanied by a vibrant red check mark. Over the years, some things have never changed: a weird but lovable sense of humour, an impish smile, a brilliant and unusual mind, emotional calm and an overabundance of tolerance, loyalty and generosity.
Missing from the February lists but perhaps the thing I love most about Gilles is the way he says my name—like Line’s melodic French pronunciation of Geraldine, with a softly rolled ‘r’. Yet so much better—Gilles has never known me as anyone but Prairie. Besides, Prairie has two r’s.
When I give my name to a clerk or am introduced for the first time, a frequent response is, “What a lovely name.” I meet the speaker’s eyes and reply with genuine warmth, “Thank you. I have always liked my name.”