The gift of warrior stock

I come from a family of widows, granny-like women who wore print dresses on the outside, and Navy seal sensibilities on the inside.

Here’s how I like to remember them.

My grandmother, Ina,  lost her first husband in World War One, and was forced, for a time, to raise her mildly demented son, Vern, on her own. She later married my grandfather, Lloyal Crown, and had my mother and crazy Uncle Ivan.

Granny Crown was the toughest woman I ever met. She was mostly scary and humorless, and sported two crepey claws on the end of her arms; her gnarled falanges were once fingers that had become ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis. She was in constant pain.

Only my brother, Gary, could make her laugh, and only then by tickling her. Granny reacted sternly, trying to hit him over the head with a cane. The fight always ended the same way, with Gary planting sloppy kisses or employing his greatest move — the cow lick — while she pawed him away. She absolutely loved Gary.

She spent many of her days tottering around the kitchen, drinking cold Orange Pekoe tea, and chewing about something or other. About seven in the evening, she liked to sneak down to the basement and bring up a beer or two. On hot nights, with the mosquitos swarming, she sat in the kitchen savouring every drop.

To Ina, beer was like nectar to be rolled over the tongue slowly. She loved her little drink at night — called it her medicine.

“Doctor’s orders!” she’d say, with a twinkle, as she flipped the top.

It was on one of these sojourns to the belly of the house that Granny lost her footing and broke her hip.

An ambulance was dispatched and sped away with my Granny in tow. A day later we were visiting her in the St. Catharines hospital, where she set up camp for more than a year. I went to visit nearly every day for a summer, and she would save her cake for me and offer me drinks of ginger ale.

 When she returned home, I had the chore of bathing her in the brand new bathroom Gramps constructed in her absence. (I silently thanked Granny for never having to use the outhouse again.)

It was while bathing her that I discovered that Granny only had one breast. We never discussed it.  Cancer wasn’t a  polite topic for discussion around our house, so I kept my little secret to myself, and I was terrified for years that it would happen to me, too, and no one would discuss it.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned about cancer from Oprah or Donahue. I certainly didn’t learn about it — or anything else — from the widows ruling our roost.

But in that one encounter, my respect for Granny grew twelve sizes. She became a warrior, a hero to my pint-sized self.

My favorite remembrance of Granny was watching her hobble through the garden one day, unaware that she was about to be attacked by Pixie the miserable old Tom cat. Pixie hated Granny; I suspect he regarded her as prey. This one afternoon, Pixie pounced on Granny’s ankle, grabbed on and began to chomp. I was holding my sides watching Granny — no slouch herself — caning the miserable old cat until he reluctantly let go.

I’ve told that story for years.

My mother became a widow in her early 30s and was forced to move back into her mother’s house.

My mother didn’t get along with Granny, didn’t like “Mah” in the least. They didn’t fight exactly, just regarded each other from afar, like two female cats after the same mouse. Vera became Granny’s caretaker when she was in her early 40s, washing the floors, making piles of food for the family. It wasn’t a role my mother cherished, but it was a role she took on with dedication until Granny was gone, along with Gramps, Uncle Vern and my crazy Uncle Ivan.

My mother wasn’t lucky enough to find a great second husband like Gramps. She said she wanted nothing to do with men after my dad died in a boozy car accident in 1957.

Vera wasn’t a warrior mom, like Granny; she was a martyr mom, bitter and angry that my father lost his life so foolishly leaving her to raise three kids. To her credit, Vera did what she had to do when that happened, moving in with her parents, tending to their needs, and then turning to ours when the elders were no longer there. 

Vera became a better person when she stopped being a caregiver. She got her own apartment, a job that paid the bills and partied along with my high school friends. It was at this point, Vera actually began to like being a mom — even if Wayne did call her the town drunk.

Vera and I had tough times together. I think she thought I was her therapist and told me things she never should have. She once admitted that she’d tried to abort me by tossing herself down a flight of stairs. That’s not something a mother should tell her daughter. I wanted her to be a mom not a patient, but when mom was in her cups, a patient she became.

We got along terrifically after I became a mother. She was a great help with my little three, showing me the ropes, keeping me company for weeks over the long winters in Regina, where I then lived when the kids were small. By the end of her life, Vera had become the mom I’d always wanted — no longer a martyr, just a nice old woman who was there to share the joys of motherhood with her only daughter.

As in life, Vera had a tough time in death. She was sick for almost two years and spent most of that time in the hospital, in Toronto, far way from my family. For the most part, she made the best of it, befriending fellow travellers whom she met smoking outside, attached to an IV poll.

But she never complained. She accepted her fate and coped with the solitude and uncertainty of her destiny.

She was her mother’s daughter, after all.

I’ve often thought my mother was treated unfairly in this universe, that she was a tragic character in a drama not of her making. She was a caregiver who suffered alone at the end, until she was briefly cared for by my brothers.

Not a fair reward for all her years of service.

I get sentimental on Mother’s Day when I think about the two widow ladies who schooled me in the ways of the world.

My mind goes back to Granny in the bathtub and that one lonely breast. Granny fighting with the cat. Granny getting tickled by my brother. Then the page turns and I see Vera laying on the floor of our apartment and the scene is repeated. Gary has wrestled her to the floor and is hitting her with a stick.

“Dance, bear, dance.”

It was fucking hilarious.

I don’t like to think of my mother at the end of an IV pole, or oversharing some horrendous details of her life. I like to remember her laughing with my friends, getting pee in the eye while trying to bathe Nicholas in Regina so long ago. We had some bad times, but we had a lot of good times.

When asked, I just say our relationship was complicated.

On this Mother’s Day, I’ll have a drink of warm beer for the grannies who ruled my life all those years, long ago.

And to thank them for the gift of warrior stock.


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