More than a year has now passed since I felt my mother’s final heartbeat. It has been a year of grief, and yet it has also been a year of discovery, for this is the year in which I came to realize that my mother was a hero. My mother, a devout Catholic, would certainly never have claimed to have been semi-divine, but she certainly did practice magic - for there was no other way she could have accomplished all the things she did.
My mother grew up in the backwoods of maritime Canada and never had so much as a single day in high school. She was the child of two people who never spent a day in high school. Yet she studied at home and went to the “big city” and sat the tests and was awarded a high school diploma. No one is quite sure when she found the time to read and study since she spent the greater part of her day working on the farm, cooking and cleaning. The only indoor plumbing was a pump in the kitchen. Water for baths, water for washing clothes, water for cooking and water for cleaning the house had all to be pumped, boiled and carried in buckets.
My mother went off to teach in one-room schools for meager wages. She saved every penny she could in order to buy her mother a good coat. In the depths of the Depression she got on a bus and headed off to the really big city (New York, New York) in order to save every penny she could and send it back to help support her family. My mother waited tables and washed floors and looked after other people’s children because she wanted to send back money to her parents instead of going home and living off them.
My mother returned home and worked on the farm when her father lay near death in the hospital and her brothers were both deployed “overseas” in World War II. She didn’t feel well and would have to stop regularly to throw up as a result of waves of pain and nausea that would wash over her as she went about her chores but she and her mother were able to keep the farm going.
My mother joined the Canadian Army (where, finally having adequate health care, she had the surgery necessary to remove the tumors that can been causing her so much pain.) She worked hard, became an officer and sent money back to her parents on the farm. When the war ended and she was demobilized the government paid her tuition through post-military training. She scrimped and saved so that she could buy books and still send money back home. That meant that sometimes she ate little or nothing.
My mother and father married. They lived in one room. She learned to cook entire meals on a hot-plate and he volunteered for everything in the army that allowed him to earn “danger pay.” She gave birth and he was sent off to war again. My sister’s first memory of her father is the day he returned from the war.
I was born and diagnosed with what was then considered a rare food intolerance. My mother, with few resources, experimented with ways of cooking for me. My father was posted to Europe (which gave my parents the chance, rare for members of the working class of “seeing the world”) and my mother struggling with how to feed in me in a foreign land where she could not speak the language. My mother, unlike most women at the time, could drive and had a driver’s license. Word came down that if, as was feared, war broke out again, my mother would be one of women driving in the refugee convoy of the wives and children of the men who were sent to the front. For months, she kept stashes of canned goods and bottled water in the car, in the closets and under the beds and the suitcases were packed and ready.
My father was posted back to Canada and soon diagnosed with the same “rare” food intolerance as me. For the next forty years my mother made every piece of bread, soup, stew, cookie, cake, casserole and curry that appeared at the table.
As soon as her children were old enough to go to school my mother worked outside the home. By day she taught. In the evening she cooked and cleaned. She told us bedtime stories. She taught us both to read. She went over every piece of homework we ever brought home. When her father died her mother came to live with us. When my grandmother fell and broke her hip and was no longer able to walk upstairs to the bathroom she continued to live with us.
No hospital room was kept as clean as my grandmother’s. Her commode was cleaned (scoured) at least three times a day.
When my grandmother went into a chronic care hospital my mother continued to work, to cook (special food for restricted diets), to clean, to check our homework and serve us good meals three times a day. Yet she went to the hospital every single day and spent at least two hours with her mother. And on Sundays my grandmother came home and had a special meal with the family.
Through all of this my mother went to school herself. She took classes in the evening and on the weekend. Somehow, late at night after her daughters and her mother and her husband were in bed my mother sat up and read her books, wrote her essays and studied for her tests. She didn’t have a desk so she must have waited to the house was quiet and worked at the dining room table. There was never any sign of this is in the morning. The books were always back in their places and the table was set for breakfast.
My mother, a girl who had to steal moments in the day and night to study for high school, spent much of her adult life doing the same in order to get a university degree. She was in her sixties when she finally graduated.
My father says that my mother was the smartest person he ever met. I think she must also have had access to some special form of magic, for without a wand how could anyone, no matter how smart, have managed to do all those things? Through all those years she looked after children and parents and spouse her children never realized how hard she was working because she always had time for us when we needed her.
In the last years of my mother’s life she was crippled with arthritis and physically limited. She was so frail that she was knocked over by the wind one day as she was walking. She no longer had the mental or physical strength to perform her miracles in the kitchen. She would sometimes get confused about current events, although she never forgot the details of every Austen, Trollope, Thackery, George Elliot or Hugo. Every weekend my sister, my spouse or I would visit her. We would bring pre-cooked food to stash in the fridge and prepare a big meal. We would sit around that dining room table and ply her with her favourite foods. And sometimes I would sit and look at her and wonder that such a small person could have been such a tower of strength.
My mother decided not to have possibly life-extending surgery because “she didn’t want to be a trouble.” They predicted she would live five days but, as always, she did things her own way. We spent forty-two days by her bedside. Her last words to us were “I love you all.”
A friend of mine (a doctor) tells me that my mother is now being included in seminars/workshops as an example of an “exceptional” case. I could have told them that years ago.
Being a hero is not a zero-sum game. The fact that my mother was exceptional doesn't mean that your mother (or your father) was not. I welcome reading comments from readers about the heroes in their lives.
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