It’s the birthday of someone very special to me. She would be 110 years old today, if she were still with us, but it’s now been ten years.
She was seventy years old, with a withering body and a wrinkled face, but the sweet, wide smile of a delighted child.
She was eager to help others, but fiercely protected her own independence.
She gave people lavish Christmas and birthday presents: jewelry, tools, pretty ornaments and clothing; but bought her own clothes at sales and wore them to tatters.
When we shared a home, I was an adult in my twenties. I could come home late or stay out all night with no more response than a wry dig about “All this tomcatting around!” if she caught me yawning next day. If I went out wearing my boots, toque and parka, on an Edmonton winter day, she in her sleeveless blouse would stop shoveling the driveway to shake a finger and admonish, “You go back inside and get your mittens on!”
Not for others—younger, brawnier—to clear that snow-filled drive; this doughty farmwoman did her own chores. The woman next door owned a snow blower and loved hurrying to help her older neighbor. Once Mrs. Mac was not fast enough. Storm barely done, we heard with dismay the roar of the snow blower.
“There’s Esther, out doing me a good turn again!” complained the crackling voice. “Shit!”
I met my beloved “Mrs. Mac” when I was a music student at Grant MacEwan College and needed a place to stay. Her son was a musician and his bands often practised in her basement. We were introduced through a classmate singing in his band.
After we spoke on the phone, she drove to pick me up, and brought my luggage and me to her home. I asked what I should pay her for room and board.
“Would you think $75 a month too much?”
I answered that it didn’t seem enough, but she would take no more. Later, when I tried to pay her more, citing the increasing costs of living, she simply dated my receipts further ahead.
“Let’s see now, you must be paid up to…”
Although I wrote a cheque each month for my board, this sweet lady was no landlady. We adopted each other: mother and daughter, friend and companion. This was my home, and we hung out together because it was fun.
When I came home from classes, she ran to the back door.
“Is that the daughter?”
I was always welcome to invite a friend for dinner and she would serve a lavish feast, with cocktails, appetizers and wine.
Often she lent me her car to go out for the evening. She drove me on tours of the countryside: her farm by Clyde, the nearby town of Westlock, the city of Athabasca. After she lost the car in an accident, we traveled the city on the bus together.
At one bus stop, she introduced me to a friend: “This is my girl, Maureen.”
The friend responded, “And what grade are you in, Dear?”
I was twenty-eight. Mrs. Mac and I exchanged twinkling glances, but I answered politely that I was, in fact, a little older…a college student. The repetition of, “And what grade are you in, Dear?” lived on in our private store of jokes.
At any time, Mrs. Mac might have several students— university, nurses, lab technicians, musicians—in her west Edmonton bungalow home. They occupied the best beds in the bedrooms upstairs and down; she slept on a hide-a-bed couch that she pulled out each night in her own room. People came and went all day, to this house full of many lives interlacing with clatter and conversation and laughter. For years after, former boarders brought their children back to visit “Grandma.”
When my band was first working and in need of any job that came our way, I accepted a weekend gig at the Klondiker, a rustic and rough-hewn bar known as a popular biker hangout. The prospect of heckling from two-fisted drinking bikers made our bass player so nervous, she was almost sick before the first night’s performance. The Klondiker was in Jasper Place, near my home, so I hustled home on a break, picked up Mrs. Mac and brought her back to the bar. She sat serenely at her little round table, listening to our songs and sipping a beer, smiling and waving when I looked her way. I drove her home on our next break. With glee, she added the evening’s outing to her store of anecdotes and our shared reminiscences.
One winter night I sat at her kitchen table, working on a term paper while she washed dishes.
“When I was born,” she suddenly began, “on the family farm, I was premature and close to death. My father hitched up the sleigh and went for the doctor, who pulled me through the crisis and told my parents, ‘This child’s life must be intended for some great destiny.’ If only they had known this great purpose for which I have been saved, to stand at the sink night after night with my hands in the dishwater!”
I finished my classes at music college and went on the road with my band, but my belongings stayed at Mrs. Mac’s and it was home whenever I came off the road. The money I still gave her for monthly board began to stretch farther and farther into the future.
Eventually I left the road life and settled in a small town. However, a trip to the city was not complete without a visit and a newsy chat with Mrs. Mac, who always exclaimed her wonder and appreciation of my rendering a visit to “an old lady.”
Sometimes I phoned her just to chat. On my birthday each March, the mail brought a gift and a letter banged out on her old typewriter. It often included a warning to “Beware the Ides of March!”
I went back to Edmonton for a year to get my teaching certificate; again I asked, how much for room and board. She wouldn’t have it.
“The other girls pay for their board, but—you’re my daughter.”
“I feel that way, too,” I said, “but can’t a daughter help with the groceries?”
She would have none of it, so I settled on a way she would accept help. I now had a car, and she hadn’t. I drove her to the shopping centre and we bought the groceries together.
On a muddy spring day, we were driving in my car and I stopped at a station near home for gas. The elderly attendant filled the tank and began washing the windows. Mrs. Mac smiled her sweet child’s smile at him through the passenger windshield. Enchanted, he continued round and round the car, smiling back at her and letting his cleaning wand go awry.
I scolded her, “Would you quit smiling at him or we’ll never get out of here!” She smiled on at the besotted old fellow, who beamed back as he cleaned the mirrors, the headlights and the taillights until everything glittered. It was the best service a car ever got.
Mrs. Mac refused to give up her own home until well into her nineties. Then, her always-fierce independence brought her a blow. She took the Greyhound bus alone as usual, out to her old farm, during a heavy winter storm. Falling in a deep drift, she was unable to get up and some time later, the boarders in the other farmhouse discovered her unconscious in the snow. One leg had frozen and never fully recovered. Shortly after, she suffered a mild stroke that left her visibly unimpaired but less and less able to move about without a wheelchair. Soon the move to a full care home was inevitable.
One Thanksgiving weekend, I dropped in at the Westlock care home to see her and found her eager to be whisked into my car and away. The two of us were AWOL for a while, roaring around together as before. To the little village of Clyde, where she told me more stories of the old days. To the old farmhouse where we were discovered by her son, on the hunt for his mother for turkey dinner with her children. I hugged her and handed her over.
She grew weaker until she could not keep up her end of a long-distance phone conversation.
Whenever I was near Westlock, I stopped at the home to see her.
A special occasion came: I drove from my hometown to the seniors’ hall in Clyde in May 2006 for her hundredth birthday party. All afternoon the hall teemed with friends, family, farm and town neighbours: all the people who loved her and came to wish her well. She was unable to speak to a crowd by this time, but clearly she was pleased.
It was the last time I saw her. She grew increasingly frail and tired, unable to walk without help. Her active spirit fretted at its bodily bonds, until one morning at Christmastime she was granted release. She simply went to sleep.
I don’t see her in that wheelchair now. I see her always busy in the kitchen, cooking and baking for her family of boarders; standing at the kitchen counter eating her lunchtime apples and cheese. I picture her waving at me from behind my truck where she was trying to push it out of ice and snow. I hear her sardonic, crackling voice making affectionate fun of the human foibles she saw around her. I hear the veiled pride in her voice as she talked of her family: her nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren.
She was ready to go…but we weren’t ready to lose her.
I think of her often. A second mother, a friend and companion for thirty years, she is a part of me, like my own family and old friends. I ask myself, what creates people like her? She had children of her own; she didn’t need to adopt me. She wasn’t so poor that she needed boarders. What gives us these people who throw wide a net of apparently limitless generosity? The crowds at her party, the boarders bringing their children back to know her, all the people who miss her now, are a tribute to the way she lived.
I always thought I saw a trace of vulnerability in that sweet, childlike smile. I like you, it seemed to say; I hope you like me. Perhaps we all live with that bit of self-doubt, but out of that need, some offer such love and benefit to others. They become the people we cannot help loving.
The world is full of Mrs. Macs. Some are better known; some are famous. Most are the little people the larger world will never know. They are quiet heroes in their own world, and in ours.