Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother's Day

Mom and Dad circa 1941

A torn black and white photo captures the moment.  A young couple, in their Sunday best, standing in a garden.  They look impossibly young.  Was this the day they announced their engagement?  Mom was only 22 in the photo.  She lived to be just 85.  Between the taking of this photo and her death, she crowded 63 years of intense devotion to children, grandchildren and family. 

Born into hardy Irish immigrant stock, she became a mother of nine.  She was pregnant 12 times...but lost three to a condition called RH negative. Now this condition has been medically resolved and no longer causes fetal deaths.  Mother raised her children on a meagre miner's salary.  She had to pinch pennies, stretch the food budget, sew clothing for the children on an old Singer's Sewing machine.  She was fastidious about good health.  None of her children ever suffered from diseases of neglect such as pneumonia.  The only health crisis I can remember growing up is my younger brother breaking his arm after falling out of the back yard crab-apple tree she had ordered him to climb to collect crab apples for pies, jams and jellies.

Her youngest child, a son, was born with Down's Syndrome.  Doctors told my parents he would never grow to adulthood and advised placing him in a care home.  On the contrary, my mother and father brought him home and thereafter she devoted her entire life to caring for him.  She even started up the first play group for developmentally disabled toddlers in our community.  Around that time, the city honoured her as "Mother of the Year" for this and for many other services to the community.  The publicity didn't go to her head.  She was a quiet, self effacing woman, deeply religious. But she did have a good sense of humour and was always ready with a quick quip, an old maxim or a "famous quote" sometimes in Latin.  She got most of these pearls of wisdom from her father and grandfather, both of whom were judges.  My mother was famous for her knowledge of old Irish songs and nursery rhymes.  She sang them to us at bedtime, reciting the lyrics word for word.  Today, their melodies still run through my head.

When she was 70, my mother and my youngest brother moved across the continent to be with four of us adult children who had settled on the West Coast.  After the superhuman task of getting my brother settled into a wonderful residential group home...the internationally renowned "L'Arche" community of group homes, my mother lived nearby on her own in a bachelor suite.  Mother became very involved in the Church, running the special program the church offered for parishioners with developmental disabilities.  She spent hours with her grandchildren, playing cards or scrabble with them around the dining room their parents a break.  My mother helped me with a project I started while my children were pre-school, setting up a non profit "Family Place" drop-in in our neighbourhood.  She was my "assistant" and together we successfully ran the non-profit for several years.  She and I sat in "circle time" cross-legged on the floor with the other parents and sang nursery songs with the children.  She was my best friend.

My mother also volunteered in the down-town east side of Vancouver.  She worked in a soup kitchen for vagrant, homeless women and prostitutes.  This was a somewhat dangerous job in a very sketchy side of Vancouver.  One time, when I was working on my social work degree, I had an assignment of following a "front line" social activist for a day.  I chose my own mother and followed her down the back alleys to the soup kitchen.  I watched as she interacted with the clients on a first name basis.  She told me she often had to taxi the women to hospital and stay with them if they came to the centre in extreme ill health.  She also pointed out a poster on the wall which had more than thirty photos of women who were missing from the neighbourhood.  This was at the same time that a serial killer was stalking the women of the downtown east side.  She pointed at the faces of the missing women that she had known personally.  That day I found myself being afraid and intimidated by walking with my mother down dark back alleys...into places where she strolled confidently unafraid.  I gained a new admiration for her.  My mother volunteered ceaselessly until, when she was 84, she was struck with cancer.  Even while she was dying, she continued to quietly teach her values of giving, of quiet devotion and patience.  I never heard her complain.  Her funeral was one of the largest of such gatherings I have attended. The church was packed.  People who knew her came up to me afterwards and spoke of her as if she were a "Rock Star".  Indeed, in her own world, she was.

Today, my youngest brother is still doing very well. living in a L'Arche group home in my community.  He has asked his staff to take him to her graveside today, Mother's Day.  I will be meeting him there after a Mother's Day brunch.  Happy Mother's Day to all mothers out there and to all who have ever nurtured another.  Nurturing is the essence of mothering and we can all share in this most fundamental human capacity.

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