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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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