For the past six years, in this blog, I have written quite frequently about my mother. Her perogies, her love for ice cream, her dignity in the face of illness. My mother is my muse.
My mother Vera died last Friday January 11.
Mama has appeared in all of my 5 books. When visiting, I habitually read drafts to mom, her feet in fuzzy slippers up on the coffee table, a bowl of chocolate ice cream on her lap. She alternately sighed with pleasure or caustically corrected me various details. She knew the drill: she’d come to the book launch and she’d sit in the front row and listen to these sweet slightly embarrassing stories. Sometimes she’d tell me when to stop reading via the international windup sign, and then she’d pass around her baking. In a deep, proud way, I think she felt she owned my stories too.
I asked my friend Chrystia, Why did I write about her so much? She said, she was your nemesis and your inspiration.
Mama was rather formidable and often quite maddening in her stubbornness as we grew up. She always pushed for the best– in us, in herself. She came here as an immigrant from a hard-scrabble village in Ukraine in 1932. The frame of her life was conventional: married, raised six children, was active in the church. But she was always of her time, never one to languish in the past.
In the early 1970s, at age 40, mama enrolled at Carleton university to study French literature. She told me she did it because my father didn’t think she was smart. She proved him wrong, read dozens of books (I’ve seen them and their heavily annotated margins). She read all the classics but decided to major in Quebecois literature – an unusual direction at a time when Canadian , let alone Quebecois studies, were barely recognized.
In the late 70s , thousands of Vietnamese of Chinese descent were fleeing Viet Nam because of persecution. The people of Ottawa responded with offers of shelter in extraordinary numbers. Before we knew it mama was dashing off to buy mattresses and bureaus for newly arrived families – I think some of our furniture went missing too. She volunteered, then was employed by Ottawa Immigrant Services for many years. A Chinese woman – Suey Hing – became one of her closest friends and they cooked together while their young daughters played. Chinese stir fry became a regular item in our kitchen, alongside the perogies and cabbage rolls.
Mama was a mix of traditional and modern. She rarely sat still. She was all story.
The Ukrainian community also got the benefit of her energy and vision. There’s a big, relatively new church in Ottawa, the St John’s Ukrainian Catholic Shrine. I always called The Church My Mother Built. She was a major fundraiser. In her years of service in (and as past president) of the Ukrainian Catholic Women’s League, she helped keep several churches running – in Edmonton and Victoria, too.
She was, after all, as I said in one of my stories, ‘one of the last of the ladies, with manners and dress sense to kill.’
Through it all, right to the end, mama exercised great creativity and artistry. In the kitchen, that is. You should see her recipe journal, her files of clippings. She loved to pleasure us with flavours and aromas from all corners of the world. And, the flavours of home.
In a deeply feminine, way my mother created an oral history of food, updating and hybridizing it, preserving our family’s and our culture’s history This was her gift to the world.
In the last decade of her life, her food sent a very important message. It said: “I’m so not giving up.”
Mama was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in the 1990’s. It was hard to see something overpower her like that, at least physically. You can either close down or open up in the face of tragedy, it can go either way. She took the open road. Buddhist thinker Pema Chodron says, “When we don’t close off…we discover our kinship with all beings.” My mother set about making three generations of her family, her kin, feel individually loved. And made meaningful connections with doctors, nurses, homecare workers, pharmacists and even taxi drivers.
We began the long process of caring for her – how hard it must have been for her to allow this! My brother and sister in Edmonton bore the heaviest burden. They made soups, took her to medical appointments, managed her finances, sat vigil during various hospital stays. Visiting from away, I felt guilty, scared. I talked to homecare workers, did laundry, washed dishes, rented DVD’s, took her to the farmer’s market, made mushroom sauce, picked up kleenexes off the floor. “Here comes boot camp” mama would mutter with dry humour, as I strode in with bags full of organic veggies and nutritional supplements. Still, I savoured those fragile, final few years with my mother after so many years of being estranged.
We said goodbye to my mother this week,through prayer, song, food, and just being with one another. We celebrated her life.
But it is a hard long process, for a daughter to let go of her mother, her muse. I am distraught. I feed hungrily off her energy, her grace.
A friend who is dying wrote recently: “I believe, and am surrounded by others who believe, that this moving towards death is full of meaning and keeps providing us with extraordinary exchanges with each other — from deep in our hearts, one of the places we believe God to be.”
In fact, our final rituals for my mom were full of beauty and lovely connection. This week, she was a muse for us all.
Vichnaya Pam’iat / Eternal Memory
This posting is adapted from a eulogy I gave on January 17th in Edmonton.