I thought of her this morning when I piled cheese high on two lasagnas–my wise, strong mother who made good food out of next to nothing.
I thought of her when I didn’t know what meat to get out of our over-full freezer for supper last week. Would it be chicken or roast beef or burger or salmon? I could even go with pork chops or dig out the ham. And there’s that liver that’s languishing in the bottom. But oh dear. What SHOULD I cook??
I thought of her when I scrubbed my stained bathtub and felt angry again about brown dugout water and a treatment system gone wrong and that we can’t ever decide what we should do to remedy things.
She told us stories of filling rosehips with peanut butter and trying to pickle lettuce. (Neither went over well, she said.) She told us stories of oatmeal every morning and puffed wheat on Sundays for something special.
She told us stories of seeing air through cracks in the logs above her babies’ beds and of goats who kept her grass trimmed. We knew well the story about the cougar she and dad heard screaming when they were out late one night on foot. And the one about Dad flagging down a freight train using the red lining of his coat. Mom was in labor with my brother David and Dad and Mom lived 30 miles back a railroad track with no road to the nearest town with a hospital, a little burg in the mountains called McBride. They actually made it to the hospital in time, even though the train got stopped in a tunnel for a while and had to be pulled by another train or something. We were always a little disappointed that it didn’t climax with David’s birth in the caboose.
All these exciting things happened before I was born. The eighth of ten children, I came in easier times. The only hardships I remember were having to wear what I thought were ugly hand me downs and going easy on things like raisins and cheese and chocolate chips. Well. There was also driving old vehicles and having breakdowns and forever giving up our beds for company. But my little hardships were only character building.
When I was a teenager, we even ate at restaurants occasionally when we traveled. And there came a day when cheese was always in the fridge.
When Mom and Dad married as two young things in Pennsylvania, they discovered that they both had a dream of moving west and having a family of ten children. So they set out to realize those dreams in an old car and trailer with an 8 month old baby and another on the way. Their first home was a two room shack in the mountains of British Columbia in a little settlement that couldn’t be reached by road. The rent was $10/month. They arrived by train and started to eke out a living, with Dad working all week in camp with a crew that was surveying for a road. Mom cleaned and painted the shack and made it home. She fought with generator-powered wringer washers that wouldn’t start, carried water and wood, and learned to bake in a wood stove, where her cakes ended up done on top and gooey on the bottom. Later someone told her how to clean out the bottom of the oven and her baking improved. She told me today on the phone that Dad would get her a water supply before he left for the week, but when she ran out, she would carry her baby on her hip, largely pregnant with the second child, and go get water a quarter of a mile down the road at the train shed, where there was a well with the old-fashioned rope for lowering the bucket. She got water there until it came up with a mouse in it one time. After that Dad had to get her water from farther away and fill the rain barrel for her.
She had brought canned cherries and vegetables and some jars of canned chicken from the east. Dad shot a moose and it was also canned up for the winter. During their first year in the west, Mom saved her last precious jar of chicken for Christmas day. She dipped the pieces in flour and fried them and she and Dad ate them for Christmas dinner.
With a few brave souls making the West their home, their family and friends in Pennsylvania wanted to see the place for themselves. Mom tells about getting postcards from people back east saying they were coming to visit. She’d calculate the days it probably took for the letter to reach them and the time it took for them to travel the miles and she’d bake fresh bread and make a chocolate cake and some oatmeal cookies. And then they wouldn’t come and the family would eat the bread and the cake and the cookies and the company would show up when the pantry was empty. There wasn’t a phone for miles around and who was to know?
One aunt that came to visit sat around and wiped tears all the time. Mom didn’t know whether she was crying for herself and the hardships of the trip, or crying for Mom and her hard life. With no fridge or freezer, their guests were offered canned milk, powdered milk, or goat’s milk from a neighbor down the road to go with their cereal in the morning. This particular aunt didn’t take any cereal.
When Mom would worry over the mud and the puffed wheat and the outdoor bathroom for guests, Dad would tell her not to mind, it was more fun for the company if they had a bigger story to tell when they got home.
Mom and Dad often gave up their bed and slept on the hard kitchen floor when they had company. They probably did it for the lady whose travel journal Mom picked up when her guest was gone for a bit. In it she read. “Got to Jess Peachey’s. Many miles back in the sticks. Yard full of dandelions. Outhouse in need of shaping up.”
Through the lonely days and lots of babies and cold weather and canned moose meat, Mom’s spirit was indomitable. She sang when she did her laundry, scrubbed her diapers hard to make them white, and starched up her little boys’ shirts for church on Sunday. She had her third baby six days after her oldest turned two and potty trained them all at eighteen months. She took time to stimulate them by sitting them near her on the counter while she worked and singing them funny songs from her childhood. She mended tired socks and made the old houses cozy with pretty curtains and re-upholstered chairs. She tells me that in that first year she was okay with being so far from all she knew through the week, but on Sundays after the four families of the Mennonite community gathered for church, she would have given anything to hear her own mom say “Stop in for lunch.” But there were 3000 miles between her and those words. She and Dad would go back to their little house and eat a quiet lunch.
She got grumpy and tired and worried and bossed her husband around too. She struggled with assurance of salvation and had a sharp tongue. But today she tells me that she never really fought depression in a big way, even though she was sometimes lonely. I think there was just too much to do and she didn’t have time to get down.
Today my children have six kinds of cereal to choose from. I run to town when the milk supply is low. My water might be brown-but it’s right there and it’s hot. I call my sisters when I’m lonely. I communicate with the world on Facebook. I hate it that we’ve had so many power outages lately. And what a pain it is when the internet is down for a few hours.
I don’t really long for the good old days. I’m not here to romanticize the hardship.
But some days I wonder how it all stacks up and how we will learn the hard lessons of life. Do difficulties make stronger people? Are my children destined for wimp-dom?
I guess that’s why I make them eat liver sometimes. It’s why when they talk about having a huge house and a perfectly matched table someday that I remind them that God might call them to serve in a remote village in India with no plates at all. (I hope He does.)
I guess it’s why I also want to cultivate gratefulness. And world awareness.
Surely there is still inner strength to be found in a life with lots of food choices and more clothes than we know what to do with.