Monday, September 24, 2012

Birthday thoughts at age 88

Last week was my 88th birthday—yes, 88.  I find it hard to believe myself.  I am a September child.  What does the old rhyme say? “September’s child has far to go” or is that Thursday’s child has far to go?

I have wondered why people my age like to celebrate birthdays. Maybe because the alternative is so obvious.  

Yet, this birthday, once again, I have thought about childhood birthdays, and my anguish at never having a birthday party.  During the Depression September was no time for birthday parties. 
My birth took place in a little shack next to the railway line – two rooms and a path—and I was the third child, too soon after the other two, and too soon after having suffered through the famine in the Ukraine before I was conceived in 1921-22.
Mother had a difficult birth and got up too soon to can plums, yes, prune plums, for winter was coming. 

She began hemorrhaging so her sister-in-law called the midwife who was more disturbed that she might lose her reputation if her patient died than that a young woman in the prime of life might lose her life and three young daughters lose their mother and their father his wife.

What  she was trying to do that day  was something she and Dad worked hard at every fall for decades in this new country – get ready for winter.  This would be their second winter in this new land  where they were unfamiliar with the climate, language and customs.

Every year there was canning, bringing in the garden,  getting children ready for school,   buying winter clothing, banking the house with dirt, making sure the woodpile outside and the coal pile inside were big enough to last until spring and ... the list was endless.  A party with a cake for a September child was out of the question.  

Someone told me that on our birth date instead of receiving gifts we should give gifts to the one who gave birth to us. Although Mother is no longer with us today, once again,  I give her thanks for her many gifts to me: 

Her love of reading and expanding her knowledge of the world.  For someone who had a meager education in the Ukraine and learned English as a second language, she enjoyed reading newspapers, religious literature, and novels.  I can remember her saying  in her 90s: “These are my friends,” pointing to the newspapers and books lying around her recliner. 

Her skills in homemaking.  She ran a well-organized home. Every task had a purpose. Every meal had a specified time.   Every meal had an organized plan.  Very little food was thrown together haphazardly. Meals were her gifts of love to us – her family. She loved to cook and bake.  

Her assertiveness.  For a Mennonite woman she was remarkable for  her forthrightness about ideas and actions.  I recall a time when in order to hold the family together she ran a boarding house temporarily  She fed the boarders too well to make much money, and  when she didn’t think they did their laundry  to suit her standards, she even did that service for them.  But the family survived until Dad had re-established himself by owning and operating a store.

Her love of family.  Family came before all else in her thinking.  This included her loyalty to my father to his dying day, even when he had lost his zest for life.  He loved her, not with the  words and flowers popular today,  but the unspoken attitude  of his life.  
Her interest in theological questions and faith in God.  In recent years I have wondered where I got my unending interest in theological issues.  From her and from my father. Both of them switched loyalties in the Ukraine from the Kirkliche Mennonite Church to the Mennonite Brethren and the Allianz, and then while living in Blaine Lake, Saskatchewan, learned  to live with Russian Baptists, United Church of Canada people, as well as Doukhobors, Catholics and others.  I can not remember Mother or Father ever making disparaging remarks about these people of different faiths among whom they lived closely.

Her love of good conversation.  We could spend a whole afternoon talking together.  I can still hear her saying, “Weisst du, Katie .....” 

My gift list is much longer, but I stop here.   We are all standing on the shoulders of those who went before us.  Thanks, Mother and Dad. I wish I had said thanks more often when you were alive.

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