When I was a little girl, which was long before the era of helicopter parenting, my blue-collar, single-income parents practiced what is now known as free-range parenting. We’d walk to school and roam our neighbourhood until Mom called us in. And when she had errands to run in our small hometown, she’d load whichever of her five kids were around into the car—no seatbelts, no child seats. Once downtown, she’d park the car, admonish us to behave ourselves, and off she’d go to the various stores.
I would watch Mom like a hawk, never taking my eyes off whichever store she went into for fear that she’d slip by me when she left to go to another store. After all, if I had to pack up my three younger sisters and go find her, I needed to know where to start.
I thought my mom hung the moon when I was little, and I wanted nothing more than to be like her. We went through the usual parent-teen traumas, but emerged as good friends. I was in my forties by the time I came out, and I worried about telling Mom because she was a very religiously conservative woman. But when I finally summoned up the nerve, she just said, “I know,” and life continued on.
Books were a lifelong passion for Mom, and one of the chief things that sustained her in her final years. The dining room table in her senior’s bungalow was never used to eat at, but it served her well as a site for stacking piles and piles of books. Mom passed along her love of stories as she’d read to us every night, even when, as happened often, she was so utterly exhausted from her daily non-stop labours that she’d fall asleep mid-story. I’d brought my stories home to her since kindergarten, and I still sent her my novels as I wrote them, chapter by chapter. When I wrote my first book, Coming Home, I hesitated over sharing it with Mom because I didn’t know if she’d be comfortable with lesbian fiction, but she stepped outside her comfort zone and became one of my most devoted readers.
After a life filled with hard work, great joys, and common sorrows, 2011 was a year of upheaval, trauma, and change for Mom. Under the stress of caring for my stepdad whose Alzheimer’s was worsening, she had a heart attack. Later in the year, her husband ended up in a care facility and he died by year’s end. At the end of the summer, Mom had to move from the home she’d lived in for sixty years. But it was also a year of small miracles. Because of Mom’s heart attack, my sister and I planted her vegetable garden that May. We planted the usual things—beans, carrots, potatoes—in long rows in her garden. We didn’t plant any flowers. Mom had other gardens in her double corner yard filled with perennials. Yet, come summer, the garden we planted produced the most wondrous array of flowers you’ve ever seen. Not a single vegetable grew, but the plot looked like an English country garden. I was stunned, but in the light of what happened later in the year, it seemed perfect to me. Mom had worked her gardens for sixty years. She’d fed her children and grandchildren from the fruits of her labours, and she’d fed her soul with the beauty of her flowers. This then, her last summer in her beloved home, was the perfect time for her gardens to say thank you, and return to her the gift of beauty she’d cultivated in the earth and in our hearts.
Time is inexorable. As a child, I hurried along the streets of our hometown, trying to keep up with my tall mother’s long stride. She always had so much to do and she didn’t waste time when it came to running errands, but I didn’t inherit her long legs. I would be double-timing it, trying not to fall behind, when she’d notice, and slow down. Then, as she aged, her gait faltered, and in later years, I would offer an arm to help her negotiate stairs or uneven paths. This is the way of the world. Our parents age, and it becomes our turn to care for them.
Mom was home, and home was Mom, long after I’d flown the nest and established my own home and family. Through the years I lived far away, I always knew that her hearth was the one place I could come to, and be unconditionally loved and cherished.
Mom passed away on April 10th at the age of 86. As I mourn, I remember that a good book, an unexpected visitor, a strong cup of coffee, a box of chocolates, or a new chapter of my latest story were all it took to make her happy. So as she goes to even greater gardens than the one of 2011, she leaves her loving family one more lesson—that sometimes it’s the simplest things that supply life’s riches. She was uncommon and ordinary; she was patient, but had a redhead’s temper; she was the little girl’s mother I idolized and the elder who occasionally exasperated her children as old age took its toll. She was deeply, delightfully human, with all her graces and flaws, and I shall miss her forever.