On March 13, 1929 Adina Hazel, my mother, was born into the wrong generation. She was a girl child and later, a woman who simply couldn’t accept the social limitations of the time. She didn’t like her first name, so she changed it. She wanted an education at a time when most women didn’t go beyond elementary school, so she got one. In fact, she attended both high school and Business College. At sixteen, she got a bookkeeping job at a car dealership in the nearby town, left her parents’ home, rented a room with board, and went to work. She told me once that she had needed to leave home because she and her father didn’t get along very well: he found her stubborn and headstrong.
She married at eighteen and I believe, chafed in the role of wife and mother. She was a farmer, and alongside her husband, did back breaking work every day on the farm they loved. After Dad got a full time job at a local factory, Mom managed, and worked on, the farm for more than a decade helped only by her unwilling children. Throughout their marriage, Mom frequently embarrassed my Dad by speaking her mind at Church and public school meetings. She was a woman who refused to be silenced. Over my father’s protests that they shared everything, she insisted on having “my own money” and opened her own bank account. She worked for other farmers when her own farm wasn’t busy, to earn the money that she alone would control.
She and Dad raised five kids together but Mom, the better educated of the two, was the one who helped us with our homework. “There’s no such word as can’t” she drilled into our heads when we said we couldn’t complete the math problem, or complained that the science homework was too hard. She demanded that we apply ourselves to all challenges and to never give up when life got hard. What she didn’t tell us, and probably didn’t want us to learn while living under her roof, was her own credo: “And don’t ever tell me I can’t.” We absorbed that lesson by watching her live her life.
After Dad’s death she spent the next thirty years living independently on the family farm. She rarely asked for help, even from her own children, insisting she could do it herself. She refused our entreaties to move to an apartment in town. “This is my home and my land; I’m staying right here.” She always knew her own mind and had no trouble telling people exactly what she thought. Her voice and her determination only seemed to get stronger as she aged.
Around the time she turned seventy, and some years after her own mother had passed away, she and I were having lunch together at her kitchen table. She was in the mood to reminisce about her childhood, so began talking about some of the customs and traditions her parents, immigrants to Canada in 1925, had brought along with them from the Old Country. One of those customs decreed that a widowed mother moved into, and lived with, her oldest son’s family. So my great grandmother lived with my mother’s family for twenty years while Mom and her siblings were growing up. Mom said it had been difficult for the whole family, but most especially for her mother. “Gramma lorded it over my mother.”
From there, she transitioned to telling me about her mother’s later years. As children, we had always found Gramma stern and cold. Listening to Mom explain what Gramma’s life had been like gave me a better understanding of why she seemed so cheerless and distant. Thinking of those Old Country traditions also helped me understand why my Mom felt so much guilt about having placed her mother in a nursing home after she’d fallen and broken her hip. It was a decision she and her siblings had made together but my mother, the only widowed child, took responsibility for being her mother’s primary family support. For many years, my Mom tearfully confessed to me, her mother had phoned her at all hours of the day and night begging Mom to come get her and take her home. Mom cried as she shared her grief with me. She had always refused her mother’s requests.
While sitting at her kitchen table, where all serious discussions took place, my mother told me she did not want that experience for me. “Don’t ever feel that you have to take me into your home when I can’t look after myself anymore. You have your own life to live and I want you to live it.” I couldn’t even imagine a scenario in which my strong and fearless mother would one day be physically dependent on others.
Now at the age of 90 and no longer physically independent, my mother lives in the same nursing home as her mother did. It was not something I’d ever imagined her future would hold. To see my Mom suddenly frail and wheelchair bound breaks my heart, and moving her into a nursing home was terribly painful for both of us. She recognized the irony of the situation but made no complaints. In spite of that, I felt no guilt.
Today is my mother’s birthday. The gift she gave me years ago far outshines any presents I could give her today. I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.
Happy Birthday, Mom.