I loved the yellow stool my grandmother kept in her laundry room. It was about as tall as my five-year old self but had steps that folded into it; when they were flipped out then it gave me a way to scramble up and do the important job of assisting my grandmother with baking. My grandmother would wrap a tea towel around me, tucked into my collar to protect me from the inevitable flying flour as my clumsy hands stirred our creations. I loved everything about baking: the way the butter and sugar creamed together into a smooth paste, how the mixture glistened after eggs were beat in, the rich aroma of vanilla. I loved watching as grandma carefully measured some things and added other things “until there’s enough”. She would let me lick the spoon and bowl after our masterpiece went into the oven, after scraping the bowl to leave extra behind for me.
Grandma, or memere as everyone called her, was the closest thing I had to a mother. She would care for us when dad was out in the fields or working for another farmer. even though she had raised 12 children of her own, she never made us feel like we were a burden. Rather, whenever we came over she would welcome us with big hugs and kisses and drop whatever she was doing to spend time with us. My favorite activity to do with her was by far baking. After lunch, I would always ask her to make something with me, and she never once said no to me. It amazed me how she would just tell me what we were baking, and then with no recipe whatsoever we would do so. She was the one who instilled in me the deep love of cooking that continues to this day. She taught me the art of separating egg whites from the yolks using the two halves of the shells, how to roll out perfect pie crust, how to boil raisins to make soft chewy cookies. She taught me that no matter what is in your pantry, with some creativity you can use it to make something special.
But memere had her somber times too. She often told me the story of how her mother had to raise her and her four siblings alone. Her father had been killed in a logging accident- a tree had fallen in the wrong direction and her had been killed instantly when it struck him. Silent tears would roll down her cheeks when she recounted how she had run out to meet the horse drawn wagon to greet her father, only to see his still body laid on top of the load of logs. Her mother washed laundry and cleaned homes in order to survive, and memere had been sent to a convent to go to school. She did not speak much of that time, except how the nuns had been strict and her mischevious self had earned frequent beatings.
One time I asked memere what had happened to her feet- her toes were all garishly bent inwards and she walked with a bit of a pigeon toed gait. She told me that when she was 12, the neighbour’s child had developed a terrible illness and she had volunteered to walk to town to get the medicine that was needed. But the worn shoes she had were a pitiful match to the icy winter, and after a while she lost feeling in her feet. When she returned her toes were all black, and it was only through the tender nursing of her mother that they had not been lost. It had taken a long time to recover, however, and here toes remained misshapen and often were painful.
Many people in the community would regard memere with awe and admiration for having raised 12 children. Her stories of how she did so were often harrowing- for instance my father, the oldest, had been born at home with no midwife as a winter storm had prevented any travelling. She loved her children deeply, but her years of giving so much of herself had also taken a heavy toll. When I was a teenager we would often have long talks about the realities of life, and she would tell me how caring for babies one after the other had drawn so much life out of her. She would have liked to have less, but the expectaions of French catholocism at that time required the opposite. Sometimes I would see her out in the yard staring at certain lilac tree, one that I later found out had been planted over where a set of twin girls that had been miscarried were laid to rest.
Memere lived through the great depression and was thrifty to a fault. She taught me the benefits of buying second hand clothing and the art of reusing things as much as possible. In her later years this trait turned into full on hoarding as she could not bear to throw out anything that could possibly be of some use. After my grandpa died of lung cancer when I was in my 20s, she became increasingly withdrawn and started to show signs of dementia. She was a shadow of her former self, yet she refused to leave the farm. One of my greatest regrets is not having spent more time with her during this period. She had taught me the art of loving fiercely, yet I allowed the distractions, the busyness and the selfishness of youth to cause me to neglect the one who had given me so much. The last time I saw memere alive, she kept mistaking me for my aunt, and I was heartbroken that I had not been there for her in her time of need.
After her death, I went to her home and dug up a piece of a peony bush she had loved. I put it in my own flower garden because I wanted something that would remind myself of her. Now when it is blooming in the spring, it is like I can feel the aroma of her presence around me as I get on my knees in the soil and remember all the happy summer days we spent that way.
As a nurse, I have cared for many on their deathbeds. Time and again, I have witnessed how love and connection are all that matter in our fragile lives. I can only hope that after my memere gave so much of her soul to me, that I can do her justice and learn to love the way that she did. She deserves at least that much from me.