“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” — Oscar Wilde
May means Mother’s Day for most of us. And if you weren’t raised by a harridan wielding a strap to strafe your back with, chances are you probably have a pretty warm feeling when you think of your Mum.
Or not. For some, the word Mother can bring up conflicting emotions, ambivalence, the need for the analyst’s couch. Or worse: the need to enroll in a creative writing programme with an injured eye to churning out yet another personal memoir.
Well, dear reader, I’m not going there today. We’ll leave the malevolent moms, the mascara-maimed harpies, to the self-help industry and the broken lives of the children of Hollywood celebrities. They get all the attention of the rest of your screen-occupied time anyhow.
So let’s leave the baddies behind and extol the virtues of one of the great ones: my Mum!
My Mum is probably the cutest woman you’ll meet. At eighty-two years of age, she’s a little shorter than the towering 5’4” I recall from my childhood; but she is still the same driven dervish that she has ever been. Her energy seems nearly limitless still.
Just this past Monday evening, she announced, “I made 100 gloms varenicki this morning!” Mum was at that moment, ladling out bowls of Soma Borscht, it’s sorrel-spiked bitter tang making the kitchen fragrant with a Russian Mennonite delicacy. It too was (how does she do it?) prepared from scratch the same morning as the varenicki -- and a sampling of those impossibly light perogies, plump with quark curds, lay enrobed in melting butter, moistly simmering on a serving platter. And the pièce de résistance, the browned-butter sauce for the varenicki, the unpronounceable but irresistible shmauntfat a mere arm-length away, would soon be poured steaming out of a gravy dish in preparation for the serious business of the gluttony to come.
My memories of food are, of course, overshadowed by the presence of Mum intervening in my culinary affairs since the day I was born. My Mum’s unmistakable cooking is a larder of influences Old Country and the new: Russian, Ukrainian, Mennonite, Polish, German and prairie Canadian. And it traces a peculiar history that has been drummed into each of the three boys that she bore. Best of all, the cuisine comes with a vocabulary and a poetry that others don’t know. A secret culinary code, a lexicon of tastes that few people possess. It’s our food, our code, our sustenance, and it all derives from our Mum.
From earliest memory, there was Mum and the kitchen. And there was little me with a blue Tupperware dish, heavy with peanut butter and a large dollop of Mum’s raspberry jam to swirl into it with a pint-sized spoon. Sitting on top of the counter I would watch as Mum’s tiny fists would pound into the huge balls of dough as she kneaded the Zweiback into shape. Her hands made a squishy sound as they penetrated the rising dough, and when she began to detach expertly-sized balls to place onto the baking sheet, one large ball beneath, another smaller ball seated atop to make up their double-decker distinction, my mouth would water. When her back was turned, I would snag a raw dough-bun and scuttle out of the kitchen to savour it. “Na ja, Jeffrey. Are you a teef?” she would call after me.
Mum was born in 1931 in a German-speaking, predominantly Mennonite, village in the Ukraine. She too had a mum, my Oma Penner; and her mother had to raise the many children on her own, after Opa got schlepped off to the gulag when my Mum was four. In the Forties the family would escape Stalin’s Soviet Union. First for Poland, where my twelve year old Mum worked from dawn to dusk as the cook for a German estate owner in the Wartegau. And later to Germany and eventually the Canadian prairies where she worked the back-braking beet fields outside of Coaldale, Alberta during the summer’s break from Bible School.
Through the privations of the past, the horrors of a world war, and the displacement into a foreign land whose language and culture was not her own, my Mum managed to remain of good cheer the entire way through. And she married a good man, a serious-minded scholar of literature and history and produced three boys with him; and in the process revealed herself to be that most blessed of women, a good mother.
It was Mum who read to me as a whelp: The Children’s Illustrated Bible, Winnie-The- Pooh, Dr. Seuss, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aesop’s Fables, Roman and Greek mythology. Even now I can recall watching her sharp lips shape and caress the letters of the words as they sounded in the air above the page. Mothers are the origin of language. Mothers pronounce the World and call it forth like no one else. Without mothers the World simply fades into obscure mist. Without mothers we are mute. And in my case, my Mum imbued me with a love of language and the inexplicable yet in-born necessity to try to describe the World as I see it.
I could write lengthily about my Mum’s virtues beyond her cooking and mentoring. Mum has long served others through her twenty year tenure with the hospital’s Crafters. She knits literally hundreds of scarves each year for missions organized by the Mennonite Central Committee, is an active member of her church quilters circle, visits my Dad her best friend daily as he recuperates from living with cancer in a nearby care home, and still manages to feed the neighborhood birds and tend to her flowers and gardening. It’s all in a day’s blessed work that she does all of this and more.
I suspect she is one of the few that gets it: that Life isn’t something to be squandered, that we might only get this one time to love the World and all that’s in it, that the World needs articulation, story-telling, and the ability to serve others if the World is going to be a good place to be.
I am the luckiest of men, in other words; because I am the spawn of one who got it! And if I can brush against the grain of wise Oscar Wilde’s observation, I hope that I can be a figure less tragic for having tried to adopt even a modicum of my Mum’s example. Because, like it or not, she’s there always. Always the words from my youth as I head out into the World from the lips of my dear mother, “Na ja, Jeffrey. You’re off again… Remember who you are…”
Happy Mother’s Day, Mum.