Snapshots of my mother

by Laurel Joan McKirdy

Mother holding a baby in her arms
I remember her saying that she first started wanting a baby when she was 7 years old and her youngest brother was born. She birthed 6 of us and then for a period she was quite sick and spent a whole summer in hospital. It took some years to recover from thyroid surgery. But when the oldest of us started leaving home she was feeling better and wanted more children. That is when Germaine came along. At first it was to help out because her mother was in hospital, but then her mother died and by then, she was the baby that Mom had longed for. Then followed siblings Claudette, Fitz and Simon. The older two were managing with their father.

She had wanted a dozen, so continued to take in Florence J. and Marilyn and many more, some for short periods and some longer. As far as I know only 2 were officially foster children. The last one was Nicola. It began as respite care for her foster mother, and she was so frail that the social worker was not sure she would live long. Mom used her nursing intuition and changed her diet and a few other things, and she improved. When the foster mother said she could not take her back, Mom had already taken her in to her heart, so chose to keep her. Nicola was blind and had cerebral palsy and never did learn to speak. She needed total care and meeting her needs meant using intuition and observation. When you got it right she responded with happiness and laughter. Mom finally retired when Nicola turned 19. Mom was 75.

As long as I can remember mom had a big garden with long rows of vegetables. Summer was planting, weeding, harvesting, and canning. And we children were expected to do our part. The number of rows to weed varied with age and perceived ability. And summer was berry picking. First gooseberries for jam. These always grew with stinging nettles and were in the best areas for mosquitoes. The jam was good though and the season short. In the garden, we had strawberries, and I remember a big bowl of them on the table 3 times a day in season. Strawberries did not can well and we did not have a freezer yet. Then followed wild raspberries. That would entail a picnic lunch and a trip to one of the old logging patches. Again we were expected to participate, with smaller pails for smaller children and bigger ones for bigger children. And sometimes just one pail after lunch and then you could play. Blueberries followed. And some years huckleberries, though these outings usually had to include Dad to get to the patch. Often she would make a pie crust and have it ready so that when we arrived home we could have pie for supper. Summer was devoted to gathering food for the year.

Mom was 5th in a family of 7 that often included 3 cousins, growing up in the depression years. Times were hard. Her mom was very resourceful, and she said there was always some food for the family, but often not as much as Mom needed. She remembered how much better off they were when they could have a garden. She was also health conscious, and we had homemade brown bread when others were buying McGavin’s white sliced. I remember being absolutely thrilled with McGavin’s once. Bread making was an all day process, starting with 22 cups of whole wheat flour in the big bread pan. Dough kneaded and let to rise, then kneaded again and formed into 3 long loaves that just fit in her wood stove oven. The wood stove was a part of the food and comfort of our kitchen. When she finally got a new kitchen that included an electric stove, she kept the wood stove for the comfort heat.

I remember big pots of soup or stew. Big pots of vegetables. A big salad bowl. And I remember that there was always room to put another place on the table for unexpected guests, and amazingly, there was always enough food. We also had milk cows, so had lots of milk and cream, and we churned butter. And she made yogurt before you could buy it in the store, and later made cheese. Our fridge in those early years was a box with shelves set in the creek with cold water running through.

Though mom only took 6 months of nurses training, she seemed to have an intuitive nursing sense. She gave very good care to us when we were sick. I remember getting real Welches grape juice!!! But only when we were sick. And soft cooked custards and soups that were easy to digest. And back rubs. She diagnosed my youngest brother’s celiac condition when it was very uncommon and remembered the diet. When he followed the diet he thrived, and if he did not, he got very sick. She was very involved with a celiac group in Kamloops and worked with mentoring and creating some gluten-free recipes. She had experience when others were wondering how to manage the diet.

I remember a neighbour coming with a finger cut off. Mom bandaged it and sent him and his finger to Jasper because she thought the doctor there might be able to save it. As I remember, he did. She had a sense that child birth should be a very natural process, though I don’t know if it ever went as she hoped. With her first (me), she wanted to nurse, but doctor and nurses at the hospital were insisting on formula. She persisted and breastfed all her kids, even though it was not encouraged in those years. She had her second and third babies at home, but with the third, there was a problem with the cord wrapped around the baby. Mrs. Kushnir, the local midwife, knew it was more than she could handle but there was nothing she could do because there were slides across the road and railroad, so no travel in or out of town. It was a miracle that both she and my sister Catherine survived. After that she went out for each birth. And had to deal with the hospital’s rigid 4 hour feeding schedule, no exceptions, that did not fit a baby that needed feeding about every 3 hours. It was her intuitive nursing skills that guided her in making the changes that helped Nicola survive.

As a kid, I remember mom often singing as she did her house work, happy sounds, though she had no confidence because she was told in school that she was not a good singer. I remember her doing a little soft sole dance around the kitchen, and occasionally doing the highland fling at family gatherings. Mom was a dancer, and did not play any musical instrument, but she was most instrumental in encouraging her children’s music. I do not ever remember it not being a good time to practice the piano. And she heard one after another of us learning the same pieces. In a household with a strong work ethic, it said volumes that she would send one of us to start the music after a big celebrational meal – letting us play music and skip dishes. She reaped the dividends in her last years when memory loss made communication difficult, and what helped us connect was music. She could remember the words and sing along when she could not remember our names. When she did not know what to do, and there was nothing to DO, then playing music and singing gave pleasure and sometimes brought memory and felt like connection even if it did not bring memory.

From as early as I can remember, I believed that there was a God that created us and cared for us, and that there was heaven. Church was a part of our family life, and there were many theological discussions around our supper table with visiting ministers. In early years, I learned from my parents, but my mother in particular, that if you did what was right, the Lord provides. Faith and church encouraged us to do good and seek to be helpful to others. I do not remember much talk of sin or fear of hell in those early days.

Of course, it was actually a mixed bag, some of our greatest joys and some of our greatest disagreements. My beliefs changed over the years, and while mine seemed to get broader, hers seemed narrower. In the end, I treasure some things I learned, and let the rest go.

I think the greatest gift was in those last three days, when beliefs and religious practices no longer mattered, and words no longer mattered. For those of us fortunate enough to be there, she just WAS. She was peaceful, words were not needed. It was just about BEING. We had the privilege of being with her, and seeing that she seemed to connect beyond, to some other realm. And after a night when I checked several times to see if she was still with us, I saw her face radiant and smooth , without a wrinkle. I pinched myself, I am sure it was wrinkled for a long time, but in those moments it was smooth and beautiful. Of course, my memory is selective. There is much I have forgotten. There is some that I have let go of, because in the end it does not seem to matter. What I treasure is the clear sense of life beyond, the treasure of just BEING there with her.