Sunday, 12 May 2013

Mother Love. Blog 14.

A Conversation.

Family album: Mom pregnant and my smiling baby self.

What was it like... that moment when I was born?

“You were a tiny and perfect thing. I don’t remember much of anything... the pains of labour, the delivery room, the fussing of nurses... anything except that long intense look we shared when they first put you at my breast. Your eyes were open and you were so calm, I could see every part of who you would become in that gaze. A circus could have tumbled through the room, a herd of purple elephants, and I wouldn’t have noticed, I was so locked in that intense, sweet stare.”

I didn’t cry?

“Oh, I suppose you did... a tiny mewling like a kitten. It was your open searching eyes I remember most. And your long fingers. Much later in the night, after everyone left... your father, your grandparents, your ‘big’ brother who wasn't even out of diapers... the nurses brought you to me, bathed and swaddled. Alone for the first time with you, I slowly unwrapped the swaddling blankets and checked out every part of your small perfection. Those long fingers! You were a ballerina, a piano player, a sculptor... I envisioned so many lives for you in those very first hours after you were born. You nursed easily, but always seemed more interested in searching my face than suckling. I felt that, with those small dark eyes, you could see my everything.”

“And what was it like... that moment when I died?”

It was late at night, that darkest and most quiet hour, and I was alone with you. All evening, I had been talking to you, singing to you, washing your face, combing your hair. I let your hair down, something you rarely did. Later, I realized that these were small rituals, preparations. Your breathing had changed and I asked the young nurse if you were in pain and she said, ‘no, just part of the process’. After some time it was as though I could hear you saying, perhaps a little exasperated: “Oh lie down, Tam, stop fussing and just lie down and let’s get some sleep”. Only you could call me Tam and get away with it. I lay beside you on the small fold out cot and listened to your breathing and the music I had put on. The music was Ukrainian lullabies, which included that particular lullaby you sang to us when we were babies, the one you requested us to play at your funeral. Your strange breathing soothed me, the music lulled me and I dozed. After a short time, maybe half an hour, the music and your breathing stopped and I woke quickly to a great silence. A stillness.

“I didn’t cry?”
No... there had been enough tears, crying, anger, despair in the days, the weeks, the few short months before. But in that still night when you allowed yourself to succumb to the terrible illness that is cancer, there was a dignity and quiet peace. Just after your breathing stopped, I crawled in the bed next to you, again a small child, and I laid my head on your breast. I held you and smoothed your hair and kissed the laughing creases around your eyes. You had been so unafraid of dying, and showed me, in one final lesson, how to be that brave. 

After some time, I went to the nurse and said simply, “My Mother is gone” and then I paused, remembering, and said “it’s Mother’s Day”. She gave me a shared sad smile. “My Mom knew how to make the most of any occasion” I said. And you did.

Happy Mother’s Day

Rare photo from the 70's: Mom with her hair down.

I would always call my Mother and say “Happy Hallmark Day”... that was our joke.
A special day created by card companies and florists to market and make money from all that human sentimentality... we poked fun of it in our own way. And how could I send her flowers? There was no florist on that small island where she lived. And, in her later years, she WAS the flower lady, the grower and maker of fine bouquets. The typical 2-3 hour long phone call that would be our celebration of each other, of mothering, and the labours of women. And so it goes, just a she laboured me into this world, I peacefully laboured her out... women’s work? Perhaps. Maybe losing her like that, on Mother’s Day, was her gift to me... I was honoured to be at her side.

Preparing to pin the quilt on the kitchen floor.


Nervously starting to machine quilt, squish and flatten!

I have, tentatively at first, begun to machine quilt my memory quilt. It started out as this unwieldy and enormous beast and I wasn’t sure how I would manage it, especially with my small machine. I did a lot of practicing on small bits of quilted fabric, met with the women at a local quilting store: The Workroom, and bugged my quilting friends for advice. My fingers bled as I pinned it together, one little pin every square five inches, 200 or so pins. Ouch!

The quilt is like a large sail. It has weight and enfolds me as I work with it. Sailing... I am sailing away with it now... taking my time and enjoying it. Tips from the internet, there’s so much advice, I loved this video especially. Squish, squish, flatten! After much experimentation, I decided to start with a straight stitch along the striped rows between the t-shirt blocks... well, almost straight... just the little curve of the wind in this newbie quilter's sail.

I have also managed to sew and then carefully tear out great lengths of stitching. I guess a part of me doesn’t want the quilting to end. It is so good to be enveloped by this fabric of our lives.

The Return


It has been a hard, rotten kind of year. Death and broken bones and the push of time.

Pushy time, healing time, time to really stop and smell the flowers. I have come back to my Mother’s garden on this anniversary of her death... my first motherless Mother's Day. The purple tulips that we laid on her casket have returned. The peonies and the poppies are lush. Spring, renewal, regrowth, and a whisper of the flower lady’s eternal spirit through the cedars.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

April Fools

Spring... finally

It has been a month since my last blog entry. A busy cold month of a return to work: the crazy madness of the film and television industry with everything rush, rush, rush, and the putting aside of all things personal. But now, on this too brief weekend, there is the smell of a certain spring: that brief and determined spring of Central Canada. Too brief. Like everything good in life. And that gardener’s ‘bend’ pulls me into a near trance of anticipation... that smell of the good earth, that growth, that green. Did I inherit this from my Mother? A pre-programmed genetic trait that insists on short, broken, and dirt laden nails? This soil that gives to us, that takes us, becomes us... that we become... I am transfixed by it.

And in the face of spring and with the time punch of work, somewhere in all that I make a moment for the sewing of this memory quilt. Like a wind filled sail, it enthralls and encompasses me now. So much fabric and so many moments, memories and stitches. As I ironed the seams of the last strip of blocks that I sewed together yesterday, I admit that I wept and felt enormously alone. A sad completion of a large part of my quilting task that has provided me with so much solace. Then, as I took this fabric sail and wrapped myself in it, embroidering on the last of the appliquéd pieces... a mother’s posthumous embrace comforted me.

So.... all those blocks are finally sewed together and that, I fear, was the easy part.

All the blocks sewed together as held by my son, David, and myself... (when did he get so tall?)

Quilting... Hmmm?

And as the trees and bushes and flowers and everything bursts and my life goes crazy with work and everything else... I will make my first efforts at machine quilting. Each block it’s own moment in time, each block it’s own pattern.I have some ideas and I have some quilted bits to try out before I try to stuff this vast pieced-together beast through my small and almost ancient home sewing machine (invigorated by a new feeder foot and regular oiling). A friend suggested that I get a quilting bee together for this next adventure... nice thought... but, like mourning and giving birth and dying, I feel it is something you basically have to do solo. Solo but not alone. And, with that, wish me luck! Send me advice and encouraging words as I try not to sew my index finger onto the fabric of this: my mother’s warm embrace. 

Searching the web for quilt stitch inspiration.

And just because she made us all smile...

I looked for a photo of our Mother to add to this April Foolish blog and came up with many of her in her garden... so predictable, I thought...  as this blog is all about Spring. I leave you, instead, with Tekla the headstrong harlot, the drama queen, and the devilish mistress of a long ago Halloween night. 

And in my mind's eye, I can see her smiling, I can hear her laughing.

Tekla and friend Carl pimp it up for Halloween

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

A Birthday Blog. Blog 13.

A Wrinkle in Time

Laughing lines.

Today, she would have been seventy-six... my mother. Her hair a little thinner, wispier, her skin creased by more laugh lines, more frown lines: a point of pride for her. She knew she had earned those lines and she generously shared them with all of us, portioned out vigorously with her usual zest.

Our mother, our grandmother, our sister, our friend,  our Tekla... yes, she would have been seventy-six years old... (and, here, I sigh)... would, could, should have been. And, then, who is to say? Death by childbirth, death by plague, death by hardship, death by torture at any given moment in our short and brutal human history- that was not her story, her time. Hard work and persistence earned her a rich life. I reflect on the preciousness of this fragile life and how it is, most definitely, worth a wrinkle or two.

Happy Birthday Mom. To a life well-lived.

Of Spanish Wine and Roses


Some of my photos from Spain, with an eye to my mother's love of detail.

El Greco

Wandering the streets of Seville and Granada and Madrid, not quite hot but warm enough, we made our escape from Canada’s endless winter. We walked and walked, my husband and I, and I did feel my aching, healing, fractal foot with a slight limp on the cobbled streets by the end of each day.  Spain was a ‘yum’ of history, art, music, wine cheaper than water, and olive laden tapas.

Around every corner, I could feel my mother’s Spanish soul.“¡Qué lindo!” are my mother’s words that spring to mind, I can hear her voice: “¡Qué lindo!”, How beautiful! She spoke Spanish simply and clearly, having learned it when my parent’s bought land in Costa Rica more than 30 years ago, mostly to communicate with the worker’s as they built Villa Tekla and then to the small children she taught and the friends that she made. She loved the Spanish language, the Latin flair, the fragrances of the Mediterranean, the clicks of a Flamenco dancer’s heel. She loved to travel and gave me that curious and insatiable travel bug.

I felt her presence in the galleries while standing in front of El Bosco and Rubens and, especially, the dark paintings of El Greco... and in my mind we discussed the colours, composition, and the studied faces. Art: my religion, gave comfort to my loss.

In the heavy Moorish and medieval Islamic palaces of the Alhambra and Alcazar, I echoed her words: “¡Qué lindo!” as I took in the intricate carved tiles and endless archways. The gardens, with their early spring flowers, thrilled my gardener’s soul... that heavily soiled gardener’s soul being one of my mother’s greatest gifts to me. 

Thank you for all the flowers, the soil, and the soul, Mom.

A Tekla travel collage (photos, for the most part, courtesy of her partner in crime, Bill Deverell, my father).

Back to the Grind

Sewing like a mad fiend now, my days are numbered as my return to the working world work looms and I still have this vast fabric thing... that which now seems gigantic as I begin to put it all together. I made 42 little joining-green-squares and 35 horizontal-joining-reddish-rectangles and 36 horizontal-joining-reddish-rectangles and, whew, after all that, I began to feel like a factory of one. I am dutifully pinning and measuring, desperately trying to line things up... do I work from the centre out or the edges in? I often imagine my mother standing in the doorway laughing at me, and with me, as I try to match the rows of the quilt blocks together. They sort of fit... and ‘sort of’ will simply have to do. Not looking for perfection here, folks, just the simple poetry of human accomplishment.

The busy-ness of sewing the quilt together well accompanied by the laziness of an old dog.

Another thread

Blogging about my quilt was a way to ensure that I would complete the task, putting it out there so publicly and openly, a guarantee to succeed under the watchful eyes of many. What I didn’t expect was how I could move others to examine their own grief, accept, heal, and honour their loved ones. I am touched that I have been an inspiration to many but in particular to my cousin, Barb Lubda, daughter of my mother’s closet and dearest sister Sophie. Barb lost her son tragically when he was 18, her grief must have been almost insurmountable, I cannot imagine. Now, some four years after his death, she is making a healing quilt with friends and family using Lucas’ clothing. And so begins another thread... I am with you in this endearing endeavor, Barb.

I leave you with these... Tekla's unique and beautiful Spring peonies.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Cowgirl Song. Blog 12.

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.


Sisterhood: Tekla in the cowgirl tee with my Aunt Sophie.
The last t-shirt, my favorite one. The vintage hand-painted cowgirl photo re-purposed by the zany Texan artist, Bob Wade, was too large to put on one block so I split the image into two. My last two blocks, done! Whew!

But... wait, we had a moment there, my Mom and I, working through these old t-shirts as if we were together. That emptiness, that ache, that loss... there is no home to go home to where I can rest my head on my mother’s shoulder. I am the wandering cowgirl, doing the rodeo circuit in my dusty blue jeans, singing those lonesome cowgirl blues.

Yeah... I wanted to be a cowgirl. A ballerina. A symphony conductor. A famous painter. A biologist. A yoga guru. A philosopher. A chef. A poet. “You can be anything you want”, she promised and she fed me art, science, nature, music, beauty with a firm and open hand.

The two cowgirl blocks. My last two blocks stitched with a heavy and satisfied sigh.


Some Women Remembered.


The gals on the cowgirl t-shirt always embodied for me the not-so-secret society of women in which I grew up, so lovingly enfolded. With my Mother’s death, I am brought back to remembering two other amazing women in my life who are no longer with us but whose stamp on my heart and psyche remain as fresh and alive as when I was a young toddler crawling on their laps. 
My Mother Tekla, a young me, and Grandma Grace.

My Grandmother Grace: nurse, healer, mother, friend. She was the essence of loving and giving and generosity and, well, grace. Very much a part of my upbringing... from the moment I was born (in the early sixties when breast feeding was, unbelievably, still frowned upon and she staunchly supported my mother in this age old endeavor)... to my troubled teenage years in which she was the solid mast to my youthful tempest. 

And my Aunt Judy who, like so many women, had her life unfairly shortened by breast cancer. She was as much an older sister as an aunt, being born much later than my father and uncle. Judy was smart, funny, solid, a staunch feminist, and an occasional romantic. When my daughter was born prematurely, I was terrified to touch her, so tiny in her incubator. Judy came to the hospital, scrubbed up, and reached in and cradled her with incredible tenderness, showing me how to mother this small, delicate baby. My baby never got to know Judy, she passed away on my daughter’s second birthday, to the day. 

A triumvirate of women leaders. Tekla, Grace, Judy.

My Aunt Judy, lovingly remembered.

All the Cowgirls.


But Aunt Judy introduced me to other cowgirls: Shelley, her life partner, and their most remarkable daughter Amy, my wonderful young cousin, and then Karen, the rock (and the roll). And there is my own little cowgirl, Rachel, the preemie baby who grew up to be taller, smarter, and more beautiful than I would have ever thought possible, she is my most precious buckaroo. There are the girlfriends from one end of this country to the other, and my mother's many friends, my sweet niece Sophie, all the other Aunts and Cousins, my Baba and my dear old friend Diane (RIP).... yessirree, to all the Cowgirls in my life and in honour of my mother: I tip my stetson, hop on my trusty steed, and make a swirl of dust as I sew. Yippeee Ka-yay!

Trotting along.


Some fabrics Mom had kept, my weird batik on the right.
A busy weekend in New York celebrating my birthday (what! another one?) now finds me back in my sewing/ writing nook. Sewing machine oiled: check! All blocks done: check! Fabric, thread for stitching them all together: check! Back of quilt fabric: hmmm... check!... found some pieces of batik-ed fabric, including some that I had done way way back in high school, in my mother’s cupboards. These will form my backing. She kept them for a previously unknown reason. Now we know why.

30 worn t-shirts made into quilt blocks.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Brief B.C. Blog. Blog 11.

A Visiting Thread


I looked for her in the bottom of kitchen cupboards underneath stained cheesecloth, between the pages of cracked books, under the house in the layer of the fine dust that had formed over the pickling jars, in a cigar box of faded embroidery thread... I looked for her but I could not find her. What are these useless things?

I found her in the sleeping garden as the raven’s wing cut the wind overhead. She revealed herself in the tips of peonies already emerging in the January cold. I found her in the sighs and comfort of her friends, the wringing of hands, the pained embraces. As I moved through the space she once brought to life, I found her in the sadness of my father’s eyes, watching me.

I found her and I lost her and I found her again. Repeat.

Tender Pender


The flower lady holding court at the Pender Farmer's Market.
One block this blog. Maybe one of my favorite Mom t-shirts ever, art by local Frank Ducote once again, this time I kept the t-shirt image pretty much intact. The Pender Island Farmer’s market is where my mother sold her incredible flowers, fruits, and vegetables for many years. I remember visiting and working along side her, cutting and clipping and arranging flowers for rock bottom prices that you would never find elsewhere. Line-ups would form for her arrangements and she had no use for impatient city folk who could not take the time to wait for her personalized bouquets. It was the act of putting them together that was worth waiting for.... the choosing of colours and sizes and smells. My mother the flower-lady-superstar, performance art at it’s most pungent.


Pender Island Farmer's Market t-shirt block.
I have sat in the comfort of my mother’s home and embroidered some of my quilting fabrics (pinned in the photo) onto this block. Sewing by the wood stove, I can hear her questions, criticisms, and glorious praise for my not-so-fine and not-so-even stitches. And who would have thought that this big city girl with her busy career and fancy Toronto house would sit by the fire in the sleepy Gulf Islands to sew, by hand, one small story at a time?


Quilting.... Eek!


Two more blocks and then sewing the this whole mess together and then the job of actually quilting. Almost forgot about that!
Photo of Barb's quilts as notes for the next steps.
Quilt guru Barb with a bouquet from Mom.

My trip to the West included a couple of too short days with my favorite quilting guru on Denman Island. In the comfort of the little round house, I tried to absorb as much as I could about the styles, will, and wherefores of the quilting process. Wool versus cotton batting, hand versus machine. The quilts were pulled down by ladder from the loft and flipped and examined and photographed and slept with as though, like learning a language, I could absorb some quilting know-how in my sleep. 

I limp along, literally and figuratively, trying to catch up.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

A New Year. Blog 10.

The Time of the Dinosaur

Before photos of the thin t-shirts.
Paper thin... even thinner, so thin they have runs in the fabric like cheap nylons, the dinosaur t-shirts date back almost 30 years. My girlfriend, Barb Mortell, and I hand-painted the t-shirts used in these blocks. In the years leading up to movies like “Jurassic Park”, Dinosaurs were IN and, as we were fresh out of art school, we thought we’d cash in big time at our own ‘hand-painted t-shirt cottage industry’...  or maybe we were just doing them for fun.... money didn’t matter so much then, fun did. There was the dinosaur t-shirt series, a bird series, and a floral series. The colours haven’t faded much and I imagine it is because the fabric paints that we used were fairly toxic. Looking at them now, I am even not entirely sure which one of us painted these particular dinosaurs... feeling like a bit of a dinosaur myself. I think it was Barb, a phenomenal quilt and fabric artist who now lives in (and on) her own piece (and peace) of Denman Island in B.C. We have continued our friendship, Barb and I, despite distances and time with a colourful and painterly quality.

One of the dino t-shirts was pulled from my mother’s drawer, the famous pile of sentimentality in the form of worn and stained and faded t-shirts that I came upon in the summer... that same famous pile which is down to only three t-shirts now. The other dino t-shirt was brought back this past November from Costa Rica by my father. Really, one of the dinosaur t-shirts was his and one was hers but as their lives were so intricately entwined, it does justice to the over fifty years of togetherness to have my father’s dinosaur t-shirt become part of the Tekla quilt. It was time for the old boy to retire... no, not my father, but the dino t-shirt. My father, alive and invigorated, continues to evolve, not a dinosaur at all. And with this evolution, I dedicate the dinosaur blocks to him and to the great love and care he gave to our mother, especially through her devastatingly brief and aggressive illness.

The four dinosaur blocks, two from each shirt.
Some words stick with you... for me, my mother was, well... my mother, nurturing, nutty, occasional girlfriend, occasional fiend, but mostly just Ma, Mama, Mom. When my father referred to her as a “Lady” in the palliative care ward (as we ushered out some visitors to allow the nurses to attend to her), I saw for a brief moment my mother through my father’s eyes. A Lady is noble, honourable and honoured, elegant, holds her head up and is respected... those were qualities that my father saw in my mother. Qualities that, even as she lay there in her last days, I had only begun to know. That almost archaic word my father used, a word that makes one think of a 40's musical... “Lady”... it struck a note with me. A Lady wears her hair up. A Lady receives guests politely.  A Lady smiles through pain. A Lady dies with her dignity intact.

It takes a gentle man to see all that.
Some of the famous painted t-shirts: parrot, dinosaur, and flower.

A Ukrainian Thread

Details of my embroidery attempts.

Winter holidays meant leaving my quilt behind. It was too much to bring the sewing machine, fabric and cutting board with us as we traveled to Montreal and Vermont. I brought some knitting, a book that’s taking me months to read, the banjo I keep trying to play, and my computer. At the last minute, I threw in some of the blocks onto which I intended to hand appliqué pieces. Like quilting, I have never really embroidered. I quickly emailed myself a few embroidery instructions, knowing we’d be without internet at the old farmhouse we had rented in Vermont. As I started to chain stitch with the colourful thread, I thought about embroidery as such an important part of Ukrainian identity. 

Growing up in the prairie farmland of Saskatchewan, my mother’s first language was Ukrainian. My Baba, her mother, was a farmer and quilter and maker of some of the tastiest Ukrainian perogies known to the prairies. The simple and colourful threads and my attempt at fine, even stitches paid homage to both my Mother’s, my Baba’s, and the rest of the family’s Ukrainian culture and background. My embroidered stuffed garlic, although puckered and not entirely successful, reeks of Ukrainian prairie farm goodness.

Hard working Baba and Geido with their children: late '50's and early '80's. Tekla in centre behind her mother.


Limping, Walking, Downward Dog, and the Napoleonic Wars


How does it feel to walk again?.... a little sore, a little wobbly, scary on ice, and absolutely amazing. After almost four months of crutches and knee walkers and rolling chairs and whatever else I could do to keep off my fractured left foot, I walk with very little grace and agility but I walk... and each day is an improvement. Slowly moving my foot in ways that I will never take for granted again... that complete bend of the toes in downward facing dog is a yogic impossibility right now... soon, though, soon.

Napoleon's infamous surgeon, Jacques Lisfranc, and his battlefield.
And for my functioning left foot, I would like to thank science, technology and modern medicine. Named after the pompous and bellicose (yes, I had to look that word up) surgeon, Jacques Lisfranc de St. Martin, the self-dubbed Lisfranc injury became a regular occurrence during the Napoleonic Wars. In Battle, soldiers would fall off their horses, feet caught in stirrups while the horses kept running through the war torn fields... you can almost hear the twisting and crunching of tiny foot bones, metatarsals, and ligaments. The medical treatment by Napoleon's famed surgeon at that time: amputation of the foot. Need I say more? I would take my not-so-pompous and hard working surgeon, Dr. Johnny Lau, over the celebrated Docteur Jacques Lisfranc de St. Martin anytime, with no apologies to Napoleon Bonaparte whatsoever. 
And, yes, born in the right era, for sure.

Dr. Johnny Lau, Superstar of Foot and Ankle, and his battlefield.

Happy for a New Year

2012 will be a year to never forget. Losing my mother, breaking my foot, middle age hard upon me. Still, in the creases that have formed around my eyes, there are no truly sad stories. I am one of the lucky ones. 2012 saw children shot dead, women savagely raped, homes destroyed, fires burned, poverty, war, hatred, bigotry, violence. I know none of this. The cherished life of ease and entitlement that I have... living in this place, at this moment, is something I entirely take for granted. For it is in this luxury of time and space, as I sew and write, that I realize that I have not entirely lost my mother in so much as I have found her in myself. A rich life lived by her, has been gifted to me in my pampered and peaceful existence. Although my sadness is real, I know no unbearable pain. 

Still... high hopes for 2013 to be a better year, if not for me, for the rest of this beautiful and pitiful human race.

Three more blocks to go.