When my twin daughters came into this world, my grandma had just left it.
On the day of her funeral, I lay sequestered in a hospital room in metro Vancouver, on bedrest as treatment for preterm labour. Three mountain ranges and thousands of miles divided me from my family, who gathered at a church in the rural farmlands of central Alberta to say goodbye to our matriarch. While my body was forming me into a mother, her body relinquished itself to the gentle inevitability of earth and time.
Whenever I think of my grandma I see her at my grandparents’ farm. I see her beloved sweet-pea bed, the ruffled cups of the delicate flowers loosely waving from their trellis, bright and soft in the sunshine streaming through the trees that ringed the farmyard. I hear the peas pinging into a large metal bowl as my grandmother and my mother shell them, her laughter at a funny story filling the kitchen. I smell the musky barn and feel straw crunch beneath my feet on an evening check-in on a newborn calf, when I marvel at my grandma’s ease and camaraderie with the huffy, protective mother cow. I remember the joy she found in her daily life and the vibrancy in her eyes and cheeks when she laughed.
A few weeks after my grandmother’s funeral, on a warm evening in spring, my twins were born. My mom, having just buried her own mother, came to help care for her new granddaughters as my husband and I transitioned into parenthood.
A great rotation in my matrilineal heritage had occurred: one generation had passed away as a new generation began. It was as ordinary as the grass growing every spring and the leaves dying and falling to the ground each autumn. Yet, in that exchange, we found ourselves in roles that were new to us: the daughter became the mother; the mother became the grandmother. Our seasons had changed.
While my body was forming me into a mother, her body relinquished itself to the gentle inevitability of earth and time.
In those early days, among the long rocking sessions, the endless piles of laundry, the rounds of feedings, we remembered my grandma. We held my tiny daughters in our arms and held the absence of her presence between us in the memories we shared. And slowly, gently, her loss unfolded itself like a blooming sweet pea, turning and giving itself to the light of my daughters’ new lives.
I often found myself gazing into their faces, full of wonder and curiosity. The question foremost on my mind was: Who are you? But also, hanging back in the shadows cast by the immensity of the parental responsibility I now carried, there were other questions: How should we raise you? What kind of home can we give you? Will we do right by you?
And perhaps the act of memory itself was the answer to those questions: in remembering the one who was gone, I carried her with me like a gift into my daughter’s lives. Like the fallen leaves of autumn that build the soil to feed new growth in the spring, who she was and how I remembered her nourished my daughters’ own becoming.
My mom stayed with us through the spring, summer, and into the autumn of that year. Our acts of memory those first months followed the undulation of the seasons as we fell into the rhythms of home life that have sustained the women of our line for generations: preparing the ground and planting seeds; weeding, pruning, and fertilizing; and harvesting. We gathered with friends to “put up” the fruits of the seasons, canning and freezing jams, jellies, sauces, and salsas so we could enjoy the garden’s bounty in the dark dormant time of winter. We joined our creativity to that of the earth, doing the very things my grandma would have been doing at my age, and at my mother’s age.
Thus far in my journey of motherhood, the best advice I have received was from my own mom. It is twofold: “Decide that you are going to enjoy them” and “Let your children teach you.” The first admonition is simple: delight arises from discipline, proceeding from a perspective that is consciously chosen.
The second is less straightforward, but it’s necessary for delight to deepen into a rooted joy. When my mother told me this, she was referring to the things she was learning from her adult children at the time—an appreciation for types of music, art, and literature she had never encountered, or perspectives of faith that she had not previously considered.
What my own children have taught me in their infant and toddler years is less apparent but deeply valuable. They are teaching me that if I am to delight in them, I must receive their delight in me as when, on a particularly despairing day while I was battling postpartum depression, my daughter paused in her play, came to my chair, and rested her hand gently on my knee and said, “Mama, you are so beautiful.” I have learned that to include them, I must be willing to renovate much of the prized architecture of my personality—the controlling, particular, plan-oriented parts. They are showing me how to slow down and see the world as it is, that delight and simplicity are inseparable. They remind me that to truly live, I need my creativity, my intuition, and my imagination: I need to play.
I see now that my mom’s advice—this inner stance toward the next generation—is something she received from her mother. I am not sure how I know it. Perhaps it is the way she talks about her mother as though she is returning to a younger version of herself while retaining the wisdom of her many years. Perhaps it is the way a light is kindled in her eyes at her mother’s memory. Or perhaps it is because her character bears an integrity and continuity with my grandma’s. Whatever it is, I have observed that the values and qualities that run in families are so often instilled unconsciously in the next generation. My mom renewed and remade this ethic as she lived it in her own time and place, but it was part of a legacy: we lighten the load of our responsibility for the lives of others with our delight in them.
My mom’s wise and freeing advice is joined in my mind with my last memory of my grandma. We were visiting her at a nursing home in Edmonton, and I was newly and unknowingly pregnant with my twins. My grandma’s dementia had reached a stage of severity that caused emotional volatility and extensive memory loss. I was unsure whether she remembered me, and on the particular day of our visit, she could not remember my mom’s name or age.
During our visit she told broken and muddled bits of stories about our family whose photographs hung on her wall—the last of her things brought from the farm. As she talked with my mom, she was lost in the span of their relationship across time: my mom was a young child, then an adult, sometimes a teenager, and a few times someone else entirely. My grandma seemed to be shuffling through the memories, seeking a point of clarity from which to place her daughter and herself in the right time and place.
When my mom stepped out of the room to speak with a nurse, my grandma laid her hand on my forearm and leaned in as though to tell me a secret. She pointed off in the direction of my mom and smiled—I recognized the old vibrancy that lit her eyes and cheeks in that moment—and she said, “When I see her face, I know it is my best day.”
Even in her profound confusion, she had retained her capacity as a mother to delight in her child. Her point of clarity was delight.
I am still processing the impact of this secret—more a revelation or epiphany. I am still trying to sort out the grief and joy involved in hearing my grandma say such a thing about her daughter, whose name she had forgotten. Yet it revealed that even in her profound confusion, she had retained her capacity as a mother to delight in her child. Her point of clarity was delight.
As I parent my children, I am learning to carry these women with me and to allow their legacy to bear fruit. I am learning to live into the rhythms of seasonality. I am learning to let my delight in my daughters bear the weight of my parental responsibility.
Last spring, my daughters had just turned three. And for the first time their little hands were the ones that placed the delicate and leggy sweet-pea seedlings in the holes I dug in the damp dirt. Their hands scooped the cool soil over the tangled mass of white roots. It was a burial of sorts, and another discreet breaking forth of life into this world.
Every spring I plant sweet peas in my garden, and as they grow, I remember my grandma and my mom. And then I look at my daughters’ faces, and I know that today is my best day.