There is a small park along the shores of Lake Huron just outside my city – a park in between the city and its bedroom community. The park is a public park although there are many days one can visit and be completely alone.
When we were a young family, my sister and her children, my mother, my father and my aunt and uncle would convoy our long journey – twenty minutes in the car – to this park where we would set up a mini-kitchen on wheels, barbecue and briquets, lawn chairs, badminton net, coolers, and fold-away picnic tables. If we could find a shady treed area, we settled in. Back then the trees were not so tall and protective (many young saplings), so we would erect the large umbrellas that we had borrowed from our home’s backyard.
On other occasions in the summer and fall, we would set up our tents and trailer and camp for a few days or more. A short walk in our flip-flops and bathing suits, the blue waters beckoned. Long days on the beach; evenings spent around a bonfire. Idyllic.
These are true gifts that we pass on to our children.
My mother died one year ago and I find myself these last few days in an in-between state – between grief and contentment. Between letting go and holding close.
A year before she fell and was hospitalized, my mother gave me a scrapbook that she had made. The scrapbook reflected my life from childhood through the decades: baby, graduation, wedding, pregnancy, my children as babies, their childhood, their graduation, a son’s wedding; she had included newspaper clippings from when I had opened two stores. This simple, unadorned scrapbook reflects a life-time ago. A life before dementia.
In one of the old photographs, my father and my two sons are holding hammers, wearing hard hats when the three of them knocked down a doorway in our home. My boys are four, maybe five, years old – their hammers are yellow.
Today one of my sons (after university and working) is now a carpenter, too. He went back to learn the trade a year after my dad died. Papa would have been pleased.
My son framed a copy of this photo and hung it on the wall of his apartment; beside the photo, he hung his papa’s tweed cap on a large brass hook.
Many of the photos show our family celebrating holidays – paper streamers crisscrossing the ceiling; Christmas cards hung on simple white string; tables laden with Christmas crackers and noise-makers. And always present in my childhood photos sit an older couple who rented the upstairs apartment of my parents’ old house.
I remember that my mother always invited them for holiday gatherings and Sunday roast beef dinners. My mother was kind and thoughtful. Even as a young child I instinctively knew that my mother was compassionate – I believe the seeds were planted then, in me. I saw it in all of her actions.
When the couple grew older and older, and one by one disappeared from our family gatherings (and the photographs), I have keen memories that it was my mother who took meals to them on a tray with pink flowers. Sometimes I would trail after her up the stairs to see what mysteries lay in this apartment (that we were told was off-limits).
Once I followed her into the bedroom and found my mother consoling the wife. I was too surprised to see an adult crying in plain view to ask any questions. Later, the ambulance arrived and I did not see our tenant again.
Another snapshot captures my family dancing – chairs and furniture pulled back against the wall to make room for a dance floor. My mother and father, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin, my sister and me…all of us dancing with joy and abandonment. Arms flailing, bodies gyrating, Christmas red and green paper hats still on our heads.
We danced a lot in our house when we were growing up. We used to dance before the war, during the war and after, according to my mother. We danced our sorrows away, she would say. My aunt used to win dance competitions in their home town in England; years later, she and my mother would dress up in their fancy frocks (that spun when they twirled) most Saturday nights. We would be heart-broken because we were left behind.
One time when my mother lived in a long-term care residence, we picked her up and brought her to the cottage that we rented on Lake Huron. My sister and I (as my mother and her sister) love to dance and we often turn up the music and let loose while preparing our evening meal. While our mother stayed at the cottage with us, she required a lot of care and attention, but every afternoon at four, we cranked up the music and danced. One on each side of her, holding her upright, we sashayed, cha-cha’ed, line-danced with our mother. If we had let go, she would have crumpled to the floor.
The neighbour photographed the three of us attempting the Electric Slide – not even dementia could steal that piece of joy from my mother as she swayed in perfect tempo. She has her sunglasses on, and her head is thrown back with laughter. In the photo she looks younger than her age (90); she looks happy. I make a note to myself to include that photo in my scrapbook.
My mother insisted that she wasn’t very smart in school, that her brothers and sisters were the brains of her family. But when I find an old Bible of hers and I open it, I find an inscription in blue ink: To Gwen, for perfect attendance.
My daughter-in-law was standing beside me when I opened the book, and we looked at each other and our eyes welled up. I gave the Bible to her and my son as I know they will honour my gift. It is evident in their home and in the well-worn items that they still cherish that pieces of the past mean something to them: an old vintage chair that we gave them when they were in university many years ago; another old floral chair that was her grandmother’s – both chairs made the final cut when they moved from rentals into their first newly-bought home.
I sense and see traces of my parents in everything, in all, like wisps…
I text my sister, It’s time, and the two of us drive to the green park that is along the shores of Lake Huron, the same park where we have spent so many seasons of our lives, and where now my father’s and my mother’s ashes are strewn. Some under the pines; some flung out in the blue waters of Lake Huron.
We get out of the car and we are silent. We walk under the pines and stand still. We have each wrapped ourselves in our mother’s shawls (one pink, the other peach); it is a damp day but a mild one.
We stand still and breathe in the traces of fall and winter, and after a few minutes we return to the warmth of the car where we have decided to meditate.
Twenty minutes later my cell phone app chimes that our meditation time is up, so we decide to walk along the paved road that trails the lake’s shoreline. As we turn the bend of the road, we sight hundreds of Canadian Geese along the water’s edge.
Many steps later and we sight first, a solitary Snow Goose, then Canvasbacks wading alongside the Canadian Geese. The further we walk, there are more geese. It’s migratory time. (The Snow Goose is clearly lost.)
The geese are hard-wired to set off to far-away places in the spring and in the fall. These birds will follow their instincts, the sun, the moon and the stars; they will ride the air currents that flow above the winds and the waves.
There is a time and a season for all things. A time for balance. A time for harmony and Oneness.
Joy and laughter; sadness and sorrow. I am learning that the two states are not exclusive of each other. They are interconnected.
I look around at the geese perfectly aligned along the shore lines of Lake Huron’s blue waters – a blue that always takes my breath away.
Occasionally we stop and share my binoculars to study the birds, the sky and the water; we snap some photos.
And then we continue walking along the path that trails along the shoreline of Lake Huron.