Dedicated to everyone who has helped me along the way — with great thanks. Some of you have known me for years, some only through my books and blog. You’ve encouraged me, prayed for my family and me in tough times, and helped keep me upright!
One garden here at the old farmhouse is extra-special.
Partly shaded by a large red maple, it has two dogwood trees, two purple lilacs, a Japanese maple and a forsythia shrub. The Japanese maple was stuck there “temporarily” but was somehow forgotten and has outgrown its spot.
“One of these days, I’ll have to move it,” my husband says. But that tree is so big now that I suspect it’s not going anywhere.
Hydrangea shrubs and tree peonies also flourish here.
In front of them are smaller plants: Solomon’s seal; ferns; the intriguingly shaped “Jack-in the Pulpit”; the occasional trillium (Ontario’s official flower); may apples and another woodland plant whose name I never learned.
Pink tulips come up every spring, as do daffodils, astilbe, and hosta. It’s the only garden bed that’s home to such a variety of characters: woodland, shade, and sun-loving plants.
No wonder it’s called “Mama’s Garden”. The children she mothered are a variety of characters too.
Throughout the spring, pink lamium borders one side of Mama’s Garden, while blue forget-me-nots border the other. Recently, though, they’ve both strayed into the path.
“Your garden would look better if I could weed the path regularly”, I apologize to Mama.
And I can hear her voice saying: “Ah, m’dear.It’ll get done.Right now, there are more important things on your plate.”
My husband named the garden in tribute to Mama’s great love of gardening.
My mother died several years ago.
On every Mother’s Day since, I head out to Mama’s Garden, no matter what the weather, no matter what condition I’m in. I bring a sturdy mug of coffee, walk through the entrance arbour and down the short pathway, looking at the growing things around me.
I sit on the stone bench at the back of the garden.
“Thank you, Mama,” I say.
There are so many things to thank her for.
So I thank her and I thank God for her, and sometimes the talk with Mama gets mixed in with the prayer and it feels like the beings I am talking to are one and the same, but I don’t think either Mama or God would mind.
I give thanks.
For a mother who loved and tended her family. For a mother who taught us the importance of growing things. And for a mother whose love and faith live on in our hearts.
Garden photos by Hamlin Grange. Photos of Cynthia by Dale Ratcliffe.
This post is dedicated to my mother and mother-in-law, who mothered not just their own children, but all our cousins and friends when they needed mothering too.
Happy Mother’s day, and happy belated Mothering Sunday, to all women who tend and care for children.
“Dah-ling?” she said in that lovely lilt that always reminds me of the women in that generation of our family. It’s as if they adopted an accent and made it their own.
“Hello, my dear Aunt Rose,” I replied.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine, Aunt Rose. Especially now that I’m talking to you. How are you?”
“I’m fine too, Dah-ling.”
Her voice took on a slightly aggrieved tone. “But why don’t you call? I can’t hear from you at all.”
Before I could defend myself, she continued: “At my age, I shouldn’t have to be the one calling all you young people all the time. You should be calling me.” Aunt Rose lives with her daughter and son-in-law in the U.S., but her relatives are all over the place: England, Jamaica, the US, Canada, and so on. We were obviously not keeping up with the person, who – by dint of both personality and seniority – has become the family matriarch.
“That’s so true, Aunt Rose”, I said. “You’re absolutely right.”
“If I’m so right, why don’t you call more often?”
“Aunt Rose, I do call. I left a message on your phone just last week. Did you not get it?’
She was not backing down. “No,” she said firmly. “I didn’t get any message.”
I tried a different tack.
“So how are you, my darling Aunt?”
Her voice softened. She recited a short litany of ailments. Followed, as usual, by: “But I’m still here, giving God thanks.”
Gratitude. It’s one of the many things I like about her. To Aunt Rose, every day is a gift.
Aunt Rose, centre, with nieces
She asked about my siblings, uncles, cousins. And my children. And, of course, her favorite person who lives in this house.
“How’s my boyfriend?” she asked, suddenly giggling like a schoolgirl.
“He’s fine,” I replied. “Always sends his love for you.”
“Well, you tell him I send my love for him too!”
My great-aunt has a crush on my husband, and she never lets me forget it.
She called one day while my husband, the real chef in our family, was cooking dinner. Aunt Rose had insisted that I relay her love to him while she was right there on the phone.
“Your favorite girlfriend sends you her love,” I yelled across the kitchen.
“Tell her I wish she were here,” he called back, laughing affectionately, a twinkle in his eyes.
Aunt Rose giggled happily. “You tell my boyfriend that if I was just a little bit younger, I’d give you a run for your money!”
I pretended to be completely shocked.
“Oh yeah?” my husband replied when I relayed this remark. “Ask her what’s ‘a little bit younger’ ”.
Aunt Rose’s laugh was louder now. “Well, maybe just 20 years or so. Not much.”
This time, I was speechless.
Aunt Rose, you see, is 107 years of age, and that conversation took place about a year ago. She was still feminine, still funny, still eloquent. Still vivacious. You should have seen her at her birthday party just a few years before. She danced all the younger women off the floor.
“I’m glad you’re twice my husband’s age and living in another country,” I always tease her. “I couldn’t stand the competition!”
I love Aunt Rose. Both my mother and grandmother have passed, and Aunt Rose has tried to fill a small part of the gap by telephoning me often from her home in the U.S. Over these years, we’ve talked about many different things, almost all of them related to our family’s history.
She remembers minute details. From decades, even a hundred years before.
Sometimes the memories come complete with dialogue, or tiny details such as the style of a dress or shoes that someone wore. Or the time her older sister (my grandmother) became famous as a small girl, for spotting a mistake in the textbook used to teach the subject in Britain and its colonies.
“Did I ever tell you about the time when…”
The moment I hear this, I grab pen and paper or whatever’s handy – journals, notebooks, the backs of envelopes, the sides of calendars, and, just once, a paper towel.
Aunt Rose nonchalantly admits that the past is easy to remember – it’s the present she has trouble with.
Some recent events, however, remain in her mind, even as her health has diminished and her voice weakened.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told me one day recently. “I just finished reading your book.”
Aunt Rose is mentioned twice in the book. Among other things, she helped perform the role of fact-checker for some of the family stories in it. But I know that her daughter True and other relatives had to read it to her once published. Aunt Rose was now weak and bedridden.
But something else was on her mind that day, as her life edged closer to its end. She was focused on the future of a great-niece whom she’d helped enlighten, comfort, and encourage in countless telephone calls over the last several years.
“It’s a very good book, you know, Dah-ling. But I want you to promise me something.”
“Yes, Aunt Rose?”
“Promise me you’ll write another one. You have to write a second book.”
I hesitated. Her voice was weak again, but I could hear her waiting on the other end of the line. The trouble is that I’ve never lied to Aunt Rose and I didn’t plan to start now. What if I never write another book? I’d have broken what’s likely my last promise to Aunt Rose.
“I’ll try, Aunt Rose.”
“No! That’s not good enough, Dah-ling.” Her voice suddenly got stronger. “You have a God-given talent. Trying is not good enough.” There it was, that firmness in her voice that I know so well.
“Okay, Aunt Rose,” I said. “I’ll do my best.” This sounded like a promise without technically being a promise.
Aunt Rose wasn’t fooled. But she laughed gently and said, “I know you will. My Dah-ling.”
Today Aunt Rose lies in bed, no longer eating, no longer speaking. We’ve been told she’s in her final days. We will miss her greatly , but we also know it’s time to say goodbye to this beloved woman.
Bon voyage, my Dah-ling Aunt Rose. Fare thee well. Thank you for so much. For your faith, grace and astonishingly clear memories that kept us connected to ‘home’. And — above all — for your remarkable love and patience with us younger ones. You occupy a special place in our hearts.
A few weeks ago, I thanked all of you who’ve read my book, A Good Home, so far. (Many of you also take the time to send me letters and cards, which I love.)
But did I ever tell you about the authors who have also graced my journey? What a gift that’s been!
First, Louise Penny. This Canadian author is known for her Inspector Gamache/Three Pines mysteries. Her lyrical, emotional, insightful writing has won several big awards and put her books on the New York Times bestseller list.
The day I discovered my first Louise Penny book was shortly after I’d turned in my latest feature story toArabella Magazine. That feature story – written several years before – was titled Possession. It was about the deeply rooted hunger to possess precious things. Louise’s book, The Brutal Telling, was about a deeply-rooted hunger to possess precious things. I was amazed by the serendipity.
Louise bravely explores that borderland place where the unexplained and the divine intersect with the here and now, the temporal. It’s something I try to do in some of my own writing.
But it was Louise’s own back story – and the similarities between her life and mine — that most surprised me.
We are, I discovered, both Ryerson graduates, both former CBC journalists. But that’s just the stuff that goes into resumes. As I read about her, I realized that we’d both also known what it was like to hit rock-bottom. I was still going through a harrowing fight against painful injuries from a car accident and the very painkillers that were meant to help me cope. Louise had fought a lengthy battle against alcoholism.
I took all these similarities as a sign from above – one of those borderland moments where the divine intersects with the temporal. It was time, I decided, to get serious about the book I’d started writing a long time ago. But first, I wrote to Louise herself.
“The publisher sent me the story layout for my final sign-off just one day before I started your book”, I wrote, referring to the Arabella story, “and as I read your novel, I thought – with a shiver – ‘this is another of my life’s unexplained coincidences’.”
She wrote me back right away: “We seem like sisters,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve discovered my books – and suspect you are a gifted, fabulous writer.”
Such kind encouragement. Louise’s next email contained advice for me as a would-be author. Before you send your manuscript to a publisher or agent, she urged, polish, polish, polish. It’s your one chance, so make it the best it can be.
As I neared the completion of the manuscript, other authors helped.
Yvonne Blackwood, author of Into Africa: The Return, repeatedly helped me polish. She suggested small improvements throughout the text.
Lee Gowan, creative writing professor at the University of Toronto and author ofConfession, paid me a precious compliment: he read the manuscript to his mother.
“It was a very moving experience, I can tell you,” Lee wrote. “Often had a tear or two in my eyes and a hitch in my voice as I was trying to read through.” Lee also stopped me from editing out a whole section of the book that, it turns out, readers love.
When the book was completed, and in the hands of the publisher, I wanted to find out from an author what this next period would be like. Given my need to pace myself, and still attend therapy for long-term injuries, I wanted to make the best of limited resources. Enter Ann Preston, author of The No-Grainer Baker cookbook.
She was introduced to me by a friend. Ann became a guardian angel, telling me what to expect, and, with her own book on its way to becoming a bestseller, sharing tips by the week.
Jan Wong (who self-published her most recent book, Out of the Blue) had experienced both traditional and self publishing. She openly shared her experience with promoting and distributing her books, while I made notes of everything from postage rates for books to dealing with invitations for book readings.