Everyone has a story. Too often that story is told or shared only as an obituary. This story was written in 2000 and published in the Northern Miner. It was my gift to a very special lady when she could enjoy the reflection and tribute.
She sits on a stool by the window in the kitchen. She sits there when she is waiting, or in the early morning while the coffee brews. If she is waiting she watches the people and traffic go by. If it is the beginning of a new day she watches the sun rising, casting its rays through the single tree and over her small lawn. It has been the same for over 50 years.
Her eyes twinkle and she always has a smile to share with anyone who visits. Ma Mère is ninety-eight years old. She is a wee bit of a thing standing at four and a half feet tall. Age and her rounded shoulders caused by osteoporosis cost her almost a foot in height. Otherwise, except for a touch of angina, my mother-in-law is in good health. The only concession to age she has been willing to accept is a twice-a-week home care service.
Home is a small two-story clapboard house on a medium sized lot in small town Northern Ontario. The town is rooted in French culture but today both French & English are spoken. Ma Mère is most comfortable speaking French. When she realized she would need to know at least some English to communicate in a changing world, and specifically with her great-grandchildren, she began watching Sesame Street and learned enough to make herself understood – if not fluent. Early in life, during a three-month visit with her Grandparents, she learned the English alphabet.
With an abundance of spirit, a stubborn streak a mile wide and amazing stamina she has a mission in life. That mission is looking after her handicapped son. My brother-in-law suffers from myotonic dystrophy which has over the years reduced his muscle mass to virtual non-existence. While the disease is not progressing now, age is taking its toll. As he is less active he becomes weaker and as he becomes weaker he has less ability to do things. The two have shared and cared for each other since he moved home in the early seventies and together they have crossed many milestones. This summer was a major one. They sold their trailer and their car thus giving up their favorite hobby, camping, and the freedom of mobility. They both claimed it was time and they were ready. At the campsite there was a special dinner and these two best buddies received a standing ovation from their many friends.
Ma Mère’s parents moved to rural Ontario from upper New York State when she was very young. It was a difficult life with few privileges. They settled on undeveloped land as colonists. With no school in the area her education was limited to short periods in a neighboring township school, if her Dad could afford it. Teachers could not be found to stay in the remote locations. Married at eighteen, she spent a good part of her adult life moving from one lumber camp to another, all owned by her husband’s family. The young couple had six children. One girl died in her first year. With little money Ma Mère learned not only the skills for survival but how to provide both food and clothing for her family in spite of their circumstances. She became an accomplished gardener and seamstress. After her husband died in 1958 all that she learned enabled her to be self-sufficient, providing for herself and her home. There was no pension or estate and she wasn’t old enough for social security income. With all her children gone she took in boarders and sewed.
There has been only one true love in Ma Mère’s life and in her heart he is still alive. His picture sits beside her bed. It is of a handsome man in a suit his wife made for him and wearing his favorite straw hat. When significant events happen in her life she retires to her bedroom to share the news with her husband. Her pride and joy are her five remaining children. I am the only in-law still alive and very fortunate to receive my share of those feelings. She has 15 Grandchildren (2 deceased), 19 great Grandchildren and 3 great great Grandchildren and they are all equally important in her eyes. If they are within her family – whether born, adopted, inherited, black, white, healthy or handicapped – they get the same hugs, candy and special cooking she always has on hand to please them.
While her family tries to rein her in she refuses to be controlled. She’ll slip out of the house when no-one’s looking and set about whatever is her priority of the moment. Grocery shopping is frequently on the agenda. She walks the block and a half to the grocery store, gets her cart and proceeds to fill it to the brim. She unloads it for the clerk and pays in cash. Then she pushes through the closest door and heads for home. One of the boys will deliver it shortly. I followed her one day and overheard someone say “Did you see that, she went through the no exit door”.
The clerk immediately responded, “No-one here is going to tell that lady what to do.”
When we visit she is so happy she feels compelled to cook all my husband’s favorite foods; tourtiere, pork hocks, pork sticks, homemade soup every day and her special Queen Elizabeth cake. Every Thursday she prepares spaghetti. It is a ritual and nothing interferes with that menu. When they sold the trailer she was to get a new barbecue for the back deck at home and the sky was the limit. Ma Mère is very proud of her new toy and it has all the bells and whistles. She can cook a steak to perfection – well done, medium or rare and she doesn’t welcome coaching.
It is a challenge to buy a present for this woman because her needs are simple. Grandchildren have inundated her with pictures, crafts, scarves, gloves, and gadgets of every size and description. Perfumes, bath oils and creams are not a good choice because her skin is very sensitive. Choosing clothes that will fit and be comfortable is very difficult. This past year I decided to organize her pictures as a gift. I bought 7 albums and spent 3 full days sorting, writing and creating subject albums. She had pictures back to the late 1800’s. No matter which picture I showed her, she could identify the people, their relationship and the event or place. We did a chronological album, one of only weddings, one of her travels, one of major events and one summarizing the life of each member of her family. A highlight was her ninetieth birthday and the tributes she received from the Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Ontario, the Queen of England and most importantly, the Pope. Each time Ma Mère looks into the albums she has a story to tell and a memory to enjoy.
While she is still the eldest volunteer for a local hospital, knitting for their gift shop, she has had to give up other activities she enjoyed. When she hit ninety she gave up bowling – not because she couldn’t lift or throw the ball, but because it wouldn’t quite reach the pins. At ninety-five she gave up ballroom dancing classes she had been attending at the Church. She claimed the men were very weak in leading her and she saw no point in continuing. Even so her days are busy. The 50+ Club luncheon once a month is a must to see old friends and more often the children of her friends. She attends church every week, always dressed with matching hat and gloves. She harvests her raspberry bushes, tends her small vegetable garden, prunes her flowers and makes her preserves. At the end of each day she sits in her recliner chair, absently watching the action on TV as her fingers stay busy with her tatting. Old musicals are a favourite. With some loss of hearing and only a simple command of English, the sound is a blur. It doesn’t seem to matter because she enjoys the scenery and the dancing.
Ma Mère told me once that she couldn’t understand people who complained about being old. She knows the frustration caused by loss of physical strength and even pain, but she views each day as a gift from God and when he’s ready for her she’ll be delighted to go. In the meantime she has a smile on her face from dawn till dusk and is a willing participant in all that is possible.