My Mother’s Voice

Greta Tvys Balen circa 1975

I want to create a metaphor for influence.  

Rocks in water causing ripples, threads woven into a quilt of life, seeds planted, but none will do. 

They do not speak to the measure, the weight, or the colour of her influence. Of course, I have always said that my mom is the most influential person in my life. That she shared her understanding of the world and of relationships there is no doubt. That she refused to criticize, and judge people was always clear. That she guided and supported me through storytelling and listening is true. But, the profound nature of her thinking about life and her love for life surrounds me every day. She has been gone for 24 years, and still her voice is with me. 

My mother’s voice was strong and clear. Born to immigrant parents her stories resonated the past, but they were grounded in the present. Her father and mother came to Canada for disparate reasons and met as the dark days of the great depression settled upon the land. They forged out a life as many newcomers do, working where they could, moving with the boom and bust of the mining industry. Her father became a proficient carpenter and provided well for his family. He connected with the place, learning about the seasons and the soil, the waterways and the bush. He made dandelion wine and jarred wild mushrooms. He fished the lakes and brought home a moose each fall. But he was a man who had walked away from a more sophisticated life as a teacher, violinist and linguist. My mother would not fail him, here, in this new land. 

My mother’s voice was whimsical. Beyond the seriousness of life, of working and doing good work, she enjoyed the beauty that surrounded her. Pussy willows growing along the roadside, and her favourite, the lady slipper. To this day, I stumble upon wildflowers pressed in wax paper as I flip through her books. 

My mother’s voice calling down the corridor of the school, herding her charges into class. This is where she made a difference. Way ahead of her time, she helped her grade three students think about big issues like racism and freedom. I will never forget how she integrated the culture of First Nations people into the classroom through stories and artifacts, and how she connected the poppy and the poem, “In Flander’s Fields”, in a way that made me feel proud and sad at the same time. How many of her students still carry her voice with them is impossible to calculate. 

My mother’s voice. Always present with just the right words. She got it right because she listened. She built bridges for new family members to cross and so created great allegiances. Everyone had a role in this family. She reminded me that love is enough to raise a child, and that I was a good mother. 

My mother’s voice weak with disease rose over the pain and fear to tell me that we had a great 34 years together–that we will always have that time. 

And that time was filled with her creating all manner of things. She made castle birthday cakes, homemade pogos, costumes, candles in the middle of the night, and the silk bouquet for my wedding. 

My kids were two, four, and six when cancer got the better of my mother. They will never remember her. For the kids, she is a character, a legend, maybe even a myth. There is a picture on my wall of her listening to my then three-year-old daughter, a big orange flower tucked behind her right ear, and she is smiling at her granddaughter. There is another of her, a winter coat over her housedress, out in the snow feeding the chickadees. “Remember,” say the photographs. “Remember that I lived life fully, and in the moment.” 

My kids will remember hot days at the beach, building sandcastles, working the soil of new gardens, collecting leaves in the fall, and feeding chickadees in the snow. They will remember me listening intently, and then, telling stories that teach. They will remember my passion for learning and especially for books. They will remember my deep, deep love for them. But they will never know that I am me because of her. 

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Building a family

To the family of Frank Balen & Greta Tvys Balen

Where to begin? I could talk today about all the things my father taught me –how to clean a fish, paddle a canoe, find the best blueberry patch.

I could recount memories of my father’s kindness and generosity–the morning calls he made from work to me at university to check in with me, OR the countless hours walking the Sunsite estate deck with 6-week old Paul, then Mikaela, then Geordie on his shoulder. Or volunteering to be my driver for weeks of radiation treatment I needed in Sudbury.

But I’m not.

Instead, I want to talk about this event —this celebration of life as the celebration of family because when I think of Frank– I think of Greta. And when I think of Greta, I think of Frank. And what I think about is the work they did together to build a family.

Where I work I am constantly faced with questions about identity, belonging, truth, and reconciliation. My students’ struggle to find their place, to make sense of what it means to be Anishinabe in the 21st century—to simultaneously be able to cheer on the Raptors and to turn their backs on Canada 150. And their struggle is causing many of us to wonder about our own sense of identity.

Nation building is hard work. It’s hard work because our differences push at us, demanding our attention when what we need to do is respond to the pull of our shared values. And we need to trust that others will do the same.

I remember my mom telling me about a time when a colleague of hers threatened to make a play for Frank. Mom, pregnant at the time, told her “go ahead if you can get him, he was never mine. But you won’t get him.”

Along with their love and profound trust in each other, our parents shared a progressive perspective.

Remember mom working through pregnancies and staying in the workforce afterwards; changing careers mid-life. I recall the day she told us that she had received her real estate license…dad’s face beaming with happiness for her.

Remember mom and dad living and working apart in 1976 long before it became common practice: mom, David and I living in Hull and Dad in Mattagami.

Remember, dad embracing 21st-century communication in his 80s learning how to use a tablet and then connecting virtually with many of you at Mike’s funeral.

They were so modern.

We can wonder why they were so progressive. It could be because of the times, their upbringing and education. But I think it might have more to do with their desire to belong in this new country. Frank and Greta never turned their backs on their past—traditions like colouring easter eggs and hosting lamb barbecues and in particular serving foods like palacinke, pierogi, cabbage rolls, kapusta, and kugelis lived on in their home. But, there were no trips back to the old country, no tamburica lessons and dad refused to teach me how to speak Croatian.

We were Canadian. We had a camp. We fished and hunted. We went to Expo….Ca-na-da 1 little, 2 little, 3 Canadians. We love thee. Now we are twenty million. 

And mom and dad did love Canada–from the rocky Cambrian shield to the red bluffs of PEI. I suppose there were times when we rocketed to our destinations, but what I remember most is mom calling out, “Antique shop just ahead, the sign says 10 miles”. We’d groan. Or dad announcing, “Ice cream in 5 miles! Anyone interested?”

Mom loved antiques—Canadiana in particular. Pine tables, press back chairs, hurricane lamps. When you’re not from the place you’re in, you have to construct your past. Surrounding themselves with antiques is one way to say we belong.

But there were others. Everywhere they lived, mom and dad purchased art by local artists. Paintings and quill boxes. Dad continued this custom most recently purchasing two Norval Morriseau prints. I remember how proud and excited he was to add them to his collection.

Image of “Sermon to the birds” from bearclaw gallery

I believe that mom and dad worked intentionally to build a narrative for us: a past, present, and future. To ground that story in this place—you belong here.

This land is my land. This land is your land.

There is no family home to pass on; no legacy other than the story they created together. And what a story it is.

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Dignity

I’ve done lots of work with students on the topic of dignity over the years. In 2013, my classes participated in Global Dignity Day for the first time. We learned about dignity and created products like collaborative poems on the topic.

In 2014, I built on our prior learning to personalize the idea of dignity. A post I penned four years ago called “Reclaiming Storytelling” describes the work done to address both the overarching question “Do teens really have to care about dignity and tolerance? and the idea that digital storytelling may be a way for Anishnabek students to reconnect and learn about their cultural worldview and perspective.

With the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Report in 2015, I embarked on a collaborative inquiry project with Jaclyn Calder called #craftreconciliation. Woven throughout this exploration of the report are the ideas of dignity: identity, tolerance, equity, racism, gratitude, self-worth, respect, and diversity. To answer the question, “What does reconciliation look like?”, students needed to unpack not only what it meant for others to reconcile, but what it meant for them to receive reconciliation. In other words, how could they think about reconciliation as an act of reciprocity? Is this an appropriate question? What other approaches might be meaningful?

These broad themes also shaped the work in my grade 9 class.

Reinventing Room 121 blog post from February 2015

So why “dignity” this year?

I have had a beleaguered year and in an effort to right the ship, my work with students shifted from an explicit discussion of dignity to that of gratitude. Upon finishing Alan Gratz’s Refugee, I launched my classes into a #12DaysofGratitude event. Each day students considered a pre-set prompt on an aspect of gratitude. I opened each conversation with references to the novel and then wrote my own gratitude tweet in front of them. The last prompt asked students to consider, “What do you wish for in 2019?”

So as I headed into the winter break, I had a number of obvious choices for #onewordont: gratitude, notice, note, attentive, observe. And yet, I hesitated. As each day passed, I remained noncommittal.

I ran different ideas past my husband. Then my daughter.

I talked to my 4 month-old puppies.

Eliot (named after George Eliot) and Socrates (named after..Socrates)

What about perseverance? Or persist? Or health? Or conversation?

I really wasn’t getting anywhere. In frustration, I put the whole endeavour aside and dove into the festive season. A diffuse learning approach is what I needed. Do a bit of baking and cooking. Play some cards. Tell some stories. Catch up on favourite podcasts.

On the morning of December 29, I listened to Seth.

And discovered, or rediscovered dignity, that it encompasses acceptance, gratitude, equity, respect, trust, forgiveness, and the idea of noticing or to see.

In Refugee, my students and I were repeatedly confronted with the power of being seen or not seen. In the end, being seen saved the day. The realization and recognition of our shared humanity make the world a better place.

Ultimately, I am compelled by Seth’s notion that

when we see each other, when we grant each other dignity, instead of stripping it away, we become more human.

This is what we need today, the opportunity to see and be seen so that we create a real opportunity for reciprocity in our personal and our public lives.

The alternative is soul-crushing.

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A New Way of Reading

This book- Reader Come Home – will be the next professional book I read. I went looking for a review after reading a series of tweets by Heidi Siwak and Matthew Oldridge about Wolf’s book and found this one by Jo Facer who provides a compelling review.

Reading all the Books

I knew I had to read this book when I heard Doug Lemov endorsing it. Reader, Come Homesells itself as a portrayal of the reading state of the nation. It is really about the state of humanity.

The author points out that the Ancient Greeks were concerned that rising literacy would fundamentally change people’s ability to remember, and that they weren’t wrong: the rise of reading did change the way our brains worked, making memory weaker, and remarkably rapidly. So today, with the rise in digital devices, both the way we read and the way our minds work has shifted. But are we worried about the right things this time? Our fears seem centred around the fact that more children (and adults, truth be told) are not reading… But they are.

In fact, we are reading more than ever before: the author quotes studies that reveal we are reading…

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