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.