The Story Pool by Madonna Hamel
It’s a Sunday evening at Harvest Moon Café. When I arrive for my shift Millie is already there, sipping her saskatoon berry tea out of her big cup. She’s got a window seat, a perfect spot to watch the evening unravel. Normally I could tell you exactly how the night would go: George and Annette would arrive and take Table Three under the bulletin board. If it’s bonspiel season, we’d hear about the latest match and I’d try and look like I knew what they were talking about. Eugene would arrive, shortly thereafter, and sit at Table Four, his seat turned at a forty-five degree angle so he could carry on a comfortable conversation with George and Annette. If Pat and Maurice come on the heels of Eugene, they’d sit at his table. We might see Cal, and he might have his new puppy sitting inside the car drooling against the window at the smell of cooked bison and steak wafting out the building. And that would be it for the night.
But tonight it’s Mother’s Day. And that means all hands on deck and you better have polished your cutlery and glasses ahead of time because it’s going to be a ‘fitbit’ record breaking night! (Caitlin and I are big walkers. Once she decided she convinced a group of us to do a 50,000-step day so she could get a badge on her fancy temperture gauging-calories-burned-number-of-adverbs-used-in-a-day type gizmo. I have an app on my phone that counts my steps. And, if I don’t remember to put it on pause, I can get in a couple thousand just sitting in my car driving to Swift.)
Sure enough, before I tie on my apron and switch the radio channel from coffeehouse to roadhouse, the first load of relations arrives. It’s a bit of blur from there. I recall Joanna wanting a caesar salad with ranch dressing on the side, and seating Theresa, the church sacristan and hymn leader, with the village’s new couple and their baby, with a “Theresa, meet the new couple and baby, what can I get you to drink?”
At one point Maurice offered to hold the baby so mom, Amanda, could finish her cheesecake. And, once precedent was set, a line long enough to have the baby in babysitters until its first birthday had formed. “How’s Tuesday look for you?” I reckon it was a pretty memorable first Mother’s Day for Mom Amanda.
At one point the song, “For Every Girl I’ve Loved Before”, came on, and I remembered why Caitlin preferred coffeehouse. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Willy’s intention was good. But, “I’m glad you came along?” What, like, the city bus when you’re tired of walking? That cold glass of beer when you’re so thirsty? That new truck when yours was on its last wheels? It makes it sound as if the numbers were legion, which they probably were. Which is why a little ditty that makes millions while stuffing all the loved girls into one dedication does nicely. Like a hasty thank you speech for everyone who helped me win this award, too numerous to mention, you know who you are, at least I hope you do because I can’t remember your names, but, like I say, I’m glad you sashayed through my life, dropped by, got that backstage pass. Suffice it to say: I quickly changed the channel back to coffeehouse where Ray Charles was singing “Here we go again.” Ah, much better.
But, as I manoeuvered tables from here to there and back again to accommodate the next family of four, six, seven, I couldn’t get the song out of my head. Only, instead I was singing “For all the moms I’ve loved before.” And here they were, my present surrogate mothers and motherly examples: Vi in her vintage jewelry and smart suits and dresses, reminding me that every outing is an opportunity to dress creatively, with personal style and grace. And Amy with her juggling skills, showing me how a sense of humour and a little faith can get you through a crisis of enormous “what do you mean there’s no carbonera left?” proportions. And there’s the “horse whisperer” Twyla, daughter-in-law to George and Annette, whose mere physical presence radiates a knowledge of the subtle energies that emanate from living creatures, whether they be ponies or children on the school bus. And Kathy, who still flirts with her husband after decades of marriage and plays bass guitar in a band she formed to give her more time with her kids. And then, of course, there’s Caitlin, almost thirty years younger than me, owning and running her own café, who put me at ease by advising me, on my first panicky stint as cook while she headed off to, oh I can’t remember, save the coral reef or shoot another elk: “Just cook what you’d like to eat!” Now that’s trust.
Of course, the deepest gratitude I feel, is for my own mom, gone these seven years. I feel such a huge ache for her, daily. And I feel it at the strangest of times, like when I lay out a tablecloth and realize this was one of her favourites. How she’d pause and appreciate it’s simple beauty, then say, “Don’t you love this!” My mother taught me how to sing. As children we were a family choir. Once at the age of 14 she flew with me to Calgary to sing together at a family friend’s wedding. After the rehearsal party the young folks were sent downstairs to entertain themselves while the adults hung around upstairs drinking wine. I was supremely uncomfortable around teenage boys and slowly crept away to sit at my mom’s feet, on the living room rug. Unusual behaviour for a teenage girl, but I was incapable of socializing and she understood.
Later, when I was in UVic, and she was in her late forties; she would travel once a month to study music at the Victoria Conservatory. When she held recitals I held the reception. My friends were an instant full house at both events. Her artistic talent and skill were exceptional, but what made her songs so poignant, so heart-breaking, often leaving us in tears, was all the life living in behind her voice: Growing up on a Val Marie farm during a long drought. Becoming a school teacher in a remote part of British Columbia. Getting married. Having six children. Watching them suffer and struggle and then move away. Becoming a choir leader and voice teacher to young prodigees. Feeling the loss of the death of her own siblings, one in a violent way. Straining against the “fatalistic French-Canadian Catholic” tendencies, while trying to nurture a deeper connection with its mother, Mary.
When my mother passed away all my family shifted quickly and unceremoniously into competency mode – each taping into their strengths: Cecile began writing the eulogy, using her gift for language and opportunity to be the big sister. Celeste, the mystic-psychic, kept calm, and somehow, a line of “communication” to Mom alive, spotting the messages and assurances. I wrote the obituary for the newspaper and chose the music for the service. Joanne, the school teacher, designed and printed the program and individual holy cards. Michele arranged the dining room into a buffet, making food, setting out drinks, keeping the coffeepot full. And my brother ventured out of the house, arranging funeral matters, choosing the director according to his criteria: must have a sense of humour and compassion. My father sat, stunned and staring off into space, through the whole first week.
While I know we are all our own entities; I’d like to think that Mom had something to do with how we turned out, how we knew to play to our own strengths, pull together as a family in a time of mourning. Moms strike me as people who see the latent talents in us and point them out, even draw them out. But they would have had to have been shown their own talents as kids. I know my mom had a sister who bought chickens so she could sell the eggs and eventually purchase a piano for her to practice on. I know I have sisters who are pushing me to get “that mysterious book” written and out into the world, who ask me to read them bits of it every time they visit.
As I scan the cafe I see the moms of every age and phase of their mothering career – dabbing wee chins, picking up dropped napkins, wiping spills, making sure hubby’s full. And I see husbands, fathers-in-law and sons jumping to jostle over who’s got the bill. And as I find myself wondering why Millie is eating alone tonight, her son phones to say he’s buying her supper and Pat and Maurice’s as well. And give yourself a big tip! Thank God for Mothers!
Madonna was a CBC writer-broadcaster for a couple decades and won awards for music documentaries. She lives in Val Marie, working on a book and continues singing and songwriting. For comments you can reach Madonna at madonna firstname.lastname@example.org