My aunt called me yesterday. She knew it was the sixth anniversary of my mother’s death and she wanted to know how I was doing. I told her that while I still think of my mother every day, my grief over her death is gradually being replaced with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for her presence and influence in my life.
My aunt told me she was looking forward to attending her granddaughter’s university graduation this coming week. That reminded me of my own university graduation. After high school, I attended college for two years and then completed another year of studies to receive an education certificate so I could start teaching in 1974. But I still needed seven more courses to get my Bachelor of Arts degree.
I took all those classes by correspondence, or during summer school sessions or by enrolling in evening courses. While I did that I was teaching full time and also parenting my young son. I finally finished my last course in 1980 and was eligible to take part in commencement exercises at the University of Manitoba to receive my degree. I decided it would be too much trouble to attend.
But my mother insisted I go. “You’ve worked so hard for that degree MaryLou. You need to celebrate it. I’m going with you and you are going to walk across that stage and get your diploma.” And so that’s exactly what I did. I’ve kept this photo my Mom took of me that day. She was so proud of me. My Mom was my number one cheerleader. I am so grateful for her endless support, her pride in my accomplishments and her constant affirmation.
Crokinole and Ping Pong
International Day of the Girl
I was enthusiastically telling my sister about attending David Robertson’s workshop on the graphic novel. Turns out my sister had just been at a lecture on memoir writing given by Kathleen Venema. Kathleen had suggested they read a memoir in the graphic novel form called Tangles. So I bought it. What a powerful story! Sarah Leavitt uses simple pictures and words to describe her family’s journey after her mother is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. Some of it isn’t easy to read or view. Sarah’s family was close but now she and her sister and her Dad are forced into an intimate closeness and care for their wife and mother that crosses boundaries they never wanted to cross. Sarah tells us a great deal about growing up in a vibrant, protective, loving home filled with books. Her Mom was endlessly supportive of her and now she has to support her Mom. It’s tough.
Of course, there is conflict and drama and guilt but also beauty in Sarah’s story. There’s a marvelous page in Tangles where Sarah and her Mom Midge and her sister Hannah get caught in a thunderstorm and for just for a moment Alzheimer’s is a gift because their mother’s lack of inhibition and worry provides a freeing and joyful experience for the three of them.
Sarah’s book takes us all the way to her mother’s death. There are these incredibly moving scenes where Sarah wraps herself in a special shawl she gave her Mom. It is dark blue like the night sky and dotted with stars. With the shawl over her head, Sarah says the Kaddish for her mother every day. It is a special Jewish prayer that acknowledges a person had good parents who instilled in them a faith so strong they will be able to overcome their grief.
If you haven’t tried reading a graphic novel before I hope you won’t let that stop you from reading Tangles because Sarah uses the graphic novel form to good effect to tell a story that will resonate with many families.
The Things We Keep
Feeding My Mother
A Listening Love
I’ve been helping my Dad sort and downsize. We tackled his study first. As he and I went through books and photographs and cleaned out cupboards and drawers we came upon lots of treasures. It was interesting to hear Dad’s stories about them.
This cowbell is probably even older than my father. When he was a young boy it was his job to take the cows to the pasture in summer. About a dozen families in the village of Gnadenthal in southern Manitoba jointly owned a large tract of fenced-in pasture land at the west end of the village. Each family took turns in the mornings and evenings herding the cows to and from the pasture. My Dad did the job when it was his family’s turn.
A photocopied photo of Dad’s trusty horse General
After their own cows were milked Dad would get on his horse General, ride to the pasture and open the gate. Then he’d go to the east end of the village and start ringing his cowbell. This was a signal for the farmers along the village street to bring their cows out. At each house, that family’s cattle would join the caravan.
This photocopied picture of Rover was in a scrapbook my Aunt Mary made for my Dad.
Although the cows all knew their way to the pasture instinctively and usually walked in docile fashion down the length of the village and through the pasture gate, Dad had his dog Rover along to help round up any stray cows that might think it was a good idea to graze in the ditch a bit on the way. Once all the cows were through the pasture gate Dad closed it.
In the evening around four o’clock, he repeated the whole process in reverse, opening the pasture gate and riding behind the cows as they plodded home to their respective farmyards.
My dad has kept his family’s cowbell all these years. I didn’t even know he had it. I am looking forward to telling the story of the cowbell to my grandchildren.
Why Was This Special?
Grandpa and Me
A Photo That Brings Back Memories
Filed under Family, History
Reading the personal essays in Finding Father edited by Mary Ann Loewen was a bit like paging through a photograph album filled with intimate snapshots. Each of the thirteen Mennonite women who have written reflective memoirs for the book includes vivid and moving descriptions of small scenes from their relationship with their fathers that have left deep impressions.
Elsie Neufeld standing behind her father’s chair at dinner and playing with his hair, sliding the gray strands through her fingers and measuring their length.
Maggie Dyck’s father carefully going through each new issue of National Geographic and meticulously covering up any bare breasts in the photos with Band-Aids before his impressionable daughter looks at the magazine.
Carrie Snyder watching the juice drip down her Dad’s arms while he eats peaches at the border because he is too stubborn to turn them over to the customs agent who won’t allow him to take Canadian fruit into the United States.
The moment Rebecca Plett finally pushes the words, “I’m gay” out of her mouth and her father who has always been reticent about physical contact rises from his chair and puts his arms around her.
Cari Penner watching her Dad get ready for work in the morning, patting his face with a bristle brush full of white shaving cream and then carefully scraping it clean with his razor.
Lynda Loewen crying as her often emotionally unavailable father lies on an ambulance stretcher after a fainting episode and then reaches up a thumb to gently wipe away her tears.
Magdelene Redekopp refers to these memorable scenes from her life with her Dad as beads on a string, each a different color. I found myself creating a necklace of sorts as well while I read the book recalling scenes from my own life with my now 90-year-old Dad.
I savored each story in Finding Father, especially since I know about half the women in the book in a variety of ways, and most of the writers are around my age. It was fascinating to learn more about their childhoods and family life. Finding Father made me think about how interesting it would be to read the stories of Mennonite women my children’s age or even younger, raised in urban settings. How would their reflections on their fathers’ lives be different?
I can highly recommend Finding Father. It affirmed something I’ve come to realize lately. The journey towards finding out who your father really is, or was, never ends.
Sons and Mothers
Filed under Books, Family
One of the Inuit sculptures that recently went on display in the Skylight area of the Winnipeg Art Gallery is this piece by an unidentified artist. It shows a woman combing her hair. The woman is wearing a traditional parka called an amautik or amauti especially designed for carrying children under the age of two. The amauti has a large comfortable pouch or amaut on the back just below the hood for babies.
Mother and Child by Sheokjuk-Oqutaq- Winnipeg Art Gallery collection
The amaut keeps the baby warm and safe from frostbite, the wind and the cold and also helps the mother and child to bond. The mother can even bring the baby from back to front for breastfeeding without exposing it to the elements. During the Our Land exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2016 and 2017, we had these beautiful amautiks on display. The one on the left is made of caribou and the one on the right of cotton decorated with beads. Can you even imagine how skilled a seamstress you would have to be to create one of these?
One of my favorite pieces in the Winnipeg Art Gallery collection is this lithograph called Four Generations by Pitaloosie Saila which shows a family of Inuit women in their parkas. Can you see the baby girl tucked into her mother’s amaut on the far right? She’s the fourth generation.
Mother and Child by Tivi Ilisituk- Winnipeg Art Gallery collection
The word amauti is borrowed from Inuktituk. The amauti has a long Inuit history going back centuries.
Woman with Amautik and Stroller in Cape Dorset by Ansgar Walk
It is still being used today.
Traditional Amauti- photograph by Jean Saint Martin- Clyde River Nunavut – 2004
Inuit Fashion Show
A Very Personal Story
Looking Cool the Inuit Way
Who carried us beside her heart
And gave our lives a tender start?
Whose music filled our childhood years
Who read us stories, soothed our fears?
Who convinced us we were good enough
And fostered hope when life was tough?
Whose love for us was plain to see
Who gave us roots but set us free?
Who left a lasting legacy
Of joy and positivity
Dorothy Marie Peters
God of Eve and God of Mary
I have this sepia colored photograph on my bedroom dresser. It was taken in Moscow during World War I. The beautiful brown-eyed young woman in it with her fashionable dress and hair piled high is my husband’s maternal grandmother Gertrude. She was married to Heinrich Enns who sits to her immediate right in his military uniform.
Heinrich’s family owned a large estate in Kowalicha, Ukraine and while the men of the family were away serving in the Russian army’s medical corps Gertrude was left alone to run the family’s massive land holdings and deal with her irascible mother-in-law who objected to her son’s marriage to Gertrude because Gertrude’s family wasn’t rich enough. Gertrude came from a small village where her family had a modest farm. Her wealthy husband had met her while on a visit to the village with a friend. I believe the man to the far right is Gertrude’s brother-in-law who ran the family’s land holdings in other parts of Ukraine.
Gertrude with her four sons.
Gertrude had four little boys and with her husband far away working on the trains transporting the wounded from the battlefront to Moscow, Gertrude was single parenting and making all the decisions about the education and upbringing of her children.
There were labor shortages as estate servants left their jobs to join the army. Weather had damaged some crops, and roving bandits had been seen on the estates’ far flung properties. Gertrude decided she needed to go to Moscow and meet with Heinrich and his brothers to get some advice about what to do. That’s when the photo of Gertrude at a family business meeting was taken.
I never met my husband’s grandmother Gertrude but whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by my responsibilities I look at Gertrude’s photo and think about how a girl from a small village farm ran a huge business all on her own while the men in her family were away at war and times were incredibly tough. Getrude inspires me!
Gertrude and Heinrich Enns
Luxury Car- A Family Story
Filed under Family, History