I stood in the full shade of the towering maple next to the pig-run fence husking corn and pitching the hairy green husks into the mass of snuffling pigs. As we had done together all my teenage years, Mom and I were bagging corn for the freezer. Usually my younger brothers had helped but this year just Mom and I had the job. School had started for the others but not for me.
One by one I peeled the cobs and piled them into the big green dishpan while over and over, with the back of my hand, I swiped at the tears streaming down my face. With only the filthy pigs to hear, I spit out words. How could she wait to tell me? Till today of all days?
The next day I was leaving for my first day at university. My excitement had steadily built all this long summer of scrubbing and paste-waxing our farmhouse floor every week, doing ten loads of laundry in our old Easy Spin-Rinse washer three times a week, and peeling pounds and pounds of potatoes every night for our big family. My new adventure couldn’t come soon enough. I was ready for the courses, for sure, but even more ready for dates with my sweetheart, for parties, for football games, for fun.
And now she told me I had to come home every weekend. Why? Because she was having a baby and needed my help. Another baby! This would make thirteen. Wasn’t it time to stop? I whipped another clean cob at the dishpan and watched the squishy spurt of yellow juice. I didn’t care. About the corn or the new baby or my mother.
I kept husking. As the dishpan filled I tried to stop sobbing before going back into the house where she was waiting to blanch, cut, and bag the corn. Every other year I had enjoyed this comfortable but quiet time with my mother.
But today she’d told me she was pregnant. Oh, she didn’t use the adult word. Just said she was having a baby. Nineteen I was, and she could not speak the word pregnant to me. Left it until today, the day before my great adventure, to tell me. And why? She wanted me home every weekend to work.
I stifled my tears and carried the corn into the house. I was sure my mother could see I had been crying but she said nothing and I said nothing. In fact, I didn’t speak to her all the rest of that day or the next morning or during the half hour car trip to my student residence. For the first time, she had on maternity clothes, a dark brown jumper thing over a paisley patterned blouse, both saved from the last baby. She parked the car at the front door and I unloaded my stuff to the curb. She helped me carry it into the lobby and up to my room where we set it all down. I noticed a navy case with wide white edges on the other bed. We walked out in silence to my last suitcase.
She stopped by the car door and looked at me. I couldn’t say more than “bye.” I don’t remember either of us smiling; certainly there were no hugs or kisses. I picked up the bag with my pillow in it and turned away as the car started. I didn’t look back.
Weeks passed before I went home. I didn’t call my parents and they didn’t call me. Perhaps she thought better of it, her plan to get me home to work every weekend, I don’t know. But the distance between us narrowed as, bit by bit, I swallowed my anger and began missing my family. When I did go back, showing off my new course books, all seemed normal. Mom was bigger, of course, but she hugged me and held me a moment before stepping back and smiling.
In November I was leaving the rec hall after the evening meal with my friends when I saw my father standing by the door, felt hat in hand, dressed in his suit and overcoat. We hugged and he told me he had something to tell me. I took him into a large empty room with a ping pong table and some couches along the side. We sat and my Dad stared at the felt hat in his big, rough hands.
“Your mother is in the hospital. She…she had a heart attack!” His voice broke.
“Oh, no.” My fingernails dug into my thighs. Suddenly I remembered her wanting me home weekends. “I should have been there! She needed me and I didn’t go home, Dad!” I thought of that day in September and began to cry.
For a few moments we both sat sobbing on a lumpy brown couch in an abandoned hall on a bitter cold night in nasty November.
My dad touched my shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault, Susan. They gave her too much blood at the hospital.”
“But why was she there?”
“She had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop, and I drove her to the hospital in town. They rushed her by ambulance to the prenatal ward up here. Between the two hospitals they lost count of the blood they gave her.” His voice rose. “They gave her too much!”
Someone else made a mistake. Not me. The stiffness left my muscles and my clenched teeth relaxed. I was not to blame. With a profound relief I turned to my dad. His face was red and his yellow-green eyes, the exact shade of Mom’s, were brimming with tears.
I had only ever seen him cry once before – when his best friend hanged himself in his own barn – and my arms slid around him as he told me what I already knew: she was his life and he couldn’t live without her.
After my classes the next day, I took the bus to the hospital and found the room in the prenatal ward where my mother lay in a narrow bed with tubes in her arms and up her nose. She looked ghastly but I tried to smile. Her voice creaked as she asked me to brush her cracked lips with the glycerin on the table. Breathing through her mouth made talking difficult but she managed to smile with both her mouth and her eyes. To reassure me. We chatted about school until it was time to leave and I kissed her cheek giving her all the comfort I could give.
At the bus stop the tears started. I fought them back as I slipped my coin into the slot, avoiding the driver’s eyes, found a seat near the back, and let the haunting picture of my sick mother take over my mind. I cried. Silently, I think, but I really didn’t care. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my quiet but sure strength.
My mother recovered and gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby girl, named for Sister Donna Marie at the hospital, and Mom and I went on to forge a new and wonderful bond of adult friendship which lasted for the rest of her life. Today as I look at her picture I see kind eyes, a happy smile, soft cheeks and a beautiful, powerful spirit.
And I am angry no more.
Elaine Cougler was born and raised in the heart of Southwestern Ontario’s dairy country. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario, she taught French, English and Computer Studies at various high schools across the province. Writing is Elaine’s pleasure and her obsession. She has written two books of family memories, a cookbook, a children’s book, and The Loyalist’s Wife, her historical novel, which she hopes to publish next year. Currently she is working on the sequel. On Becoming a Wordsmith is Elaine’s writing blog where she blogs about the journey to publication and beyond.
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