While The Grandmothers Mary started out as a non-fiction short story submission, it grew into something else entirely. The more I wrote, the more I felt the importance of committing to paper memoirs of my grandmothers and mother, strong and important women my life. I wrote far over the word limit, I wrote to remind myself. I wrote lest, one day, I forget. It wasn’t about the contest anymore, it was about them. This is the second half of my snippet of memoir submittal. Maybe I’ll post the rest that didn’t make the final cut. See the beginning here.
In contrast, other Nanny Mary visited often. Mary was her real name and her father had emigrated from the Ukraine to Smith Falls where he owned a farm. She was one of five daughters from a second marriage. After their mother died, Mary and her sisters moved to Montreal, for some obscure reason. One version of this story is that their mother left their father, went to Montreal and never returned; her daughters eventually joining her. Variations tell of their mother going to Montreal for medical treatments and meeting a man for whom she’d leave her husband. Or, having somehow met said man, left for Montreal to be with him, no medical treatments involved.
Other Nanny was widowed very young, raising my mother and aunt alone. She would remarry and have three more children but her second husband was, as the saying went, ‘not suited for family life,’ and he drifted in and out of hers up until her death. So, I remember Other Nanny as being a solo gig. On her visits she’d bake dozens of cookies because, as she said, ‘I can’t be here every week, so at least you can take these out of the freezer and pretend like I was.’
I thought her independent and intrepid. She’d travel alone, from her apartment to our house, taking the metro, then a bus. Sometimes, during summer visits, she’d have a beer if my father offered. She spoke loudly and joked a lot. She’d tell me how she had argued with the parish priest because she had chosen not to name her daughters after Orthodox saints. She loved to laugh and she’d tease all of us, even my father. I was agog at her fearlessness. She and my mother were close. I was nine when she died suddenly and my mother was devastated.
The only Ukranian my mother knew was dobre and dobre dein and babushka, which she’d call me when I came out of the bath and she wrapped my hair up in a towel. My mother was raised in the Eastern Right but there were no Orthodox churches where we lived. When I asked her what the difference was between her church and ours, she answered, ‘Not much, except the Orthodox have their own Pope, and all their masses are longer. Our Easter is always later; the weather is warmer. I remember my sister and I got new white shoes to go to church Easter Sunday.’ The Great Schism of 1054, the culmination of centuries of theological and political differences between eastern and western Christianity, that divided the Catholic Church into two separate entities that still prevail today, my mother wrapped up in a few sentences.
When it came time for me to go to school, my parents chose to send me to the French school up the street. They broke with the status quo as all the other kids in our small Anglophone enclave were going to English school, either St-Pat’s or Shawinigan High School. But my parents dearly wanted me to learn French.
I didn’t knowing any French or know anyone outside our small community, for that matter. But somehow, in the way of children, we communicated easily and I learnt quickly. But in the mid-seventies, in a small Quebec town, speaking English was akin to being from Mars. Kids in my class would run to get older siblings and, pointing at me, would declare that I was going to—drum roll please—speak English. ‘Parle donc en anglais,’ they would order. Being an introvert, I would cringe and manage a few words. I could have breathed fire or sprouted wings and flown away, they would not have been more impressed.
My mother was the extrovert, which melded beautifully with her belief in community service. She volunteered with the United Church Women. The Anglican ladies belonged too, neither they nor the United ladies having enough members to form their own organization. The Indian ladies, whose husbands worked in the mill’s research and development department, also came to meetings as well as my mother’s friend and neighbor, a unilingual francophone lady from Ile d’Anticosti. No one thought much about these religious, ethnic or language differences. The ladies’ common thread was they all had spouses who worked at the paper mill, and most had never heard of Grand-Mère until their husband had been offered a job there.
The twenty years spent there was a distant memory when my mother became a grandmother. My parents had been living in Ontario for just as long. She was a grandmother once and my daughter barely remembers her, being only two when my mother passed away suddenly. And, as history repeated itself, I too was devastated.
There’s a deserved joy in being a grandmother, a grand-mère, a nonna, a nokomis, a babushka. Perhaps one day it’ll be my turn. I expect I’ll be fine; I’ve had great role models after all.