This charming story was written by a dear friend Ruta Muhlberger, in memory of my daughter Siobhain, The lovely illustrations are watercolours painted by the talented Catherine Watts, also a friend. Please offer comments and feedback if you are so inclined. Thanks! Rosemary
In the summer of 1969 I danced barefoot on the grass at the Toronto Varsity Rock and Roll Revival, hugely pregnant, a crown of white daisies on my long red hair, excitedly cheering John Lennon, Little Richard, Alice Cooper, and Louis, my baby’s father, up on the stage. Thousands screamed, danced and sang; the air was fragrant with burning weed.
I spent six weeks in New York City that summer, while the band recorded an album. Alone, eyes wide, cradling my growing belly in my arms, I explored the streets, bookstores and cafes. Astronauts walked on the moon and I turned nineteen that last summer of my youth.
My family was thousands of miles away and had no idea where I had run off to. My new family was a band of rock musicians, drifters and hippies. They helped me decorate a sunroom in our house, as a nursery. Joan made butter yellow curtains, Dave found a crib at the curbside and scrubbed and painted it with rainbows and flowers. We washed and air-dried diapers, sleepers, and receiving blankets carefully sorted from the thrift shop. There was a brand new baby carriage, a gift from the record company. I crocheted a blanket of multi-coloured squares. A beaded macramé pot of frothy asparagus fern hung in the nursery window.
One dark October morning when the contractions were strong and regular, I crept out of bed and called a cab. I didn’t wake anyone. Louis loathed hospitals and grimaced whenever I tried to tell him about childbirth. We’d been together three years so I was used to his strange ways; I was dependent on him and loved him impossibly. I let him sleep. I could do this alone.
In my room at the hospital, I tried to breathe with the pain but it was too strong. The nurse gave me something and I slept. I woke in a wave of contractions. Gasping, I asked, “How long?”
“A few more hours” she said.
I phoned Louis. He was still asleep.
“The baby’s coming, I’m at the hospital.”
Siobhain was born and she was beautiful. A tiny pink mouth, wisps of dark hair and seashells of curled up fingers. She made soft mewing sounds as I snuggled her in my arms, then the nurses whisked her away. I wasrolled out of the birthing room on a stretcher into a circus of friends with Louis in the forefront, beaming. Wesley’s big bushy hair and purple headband loomed above the rest; he wore bells on his ankles and was dancing and singing; everyone cheered. They even announced her birth on CHUM radio. I felt like a movie star.
It was dark the next morning when a kindly Scottish nurse brought Siobhain for a feeding. My babycould not suck hard enough to draw milk. Soon I was sore, frustrated, and she was howling with hunger. The nurse produced a bottle and Siobhain took it greedily, but the milk came down her nose. The nurse took her away.
She returned a while laterand told me gently, “The baby has a wee cleft palate and won’t be able to breast feed.”
I panicked.“Why… what is that?”
They showed me how to hold her upright and allow the milk to bypass the hole in her palate. Still, milk poured down her nose; it made her squirm and gasp as though she were drowning, making me frantic. They explained the hole was at the back of her palate, small but enough to let the milk through her nose.
“It’s not uncommon,” the nurse said kindly.
I did not believe her. The eldest of five children I knew about babies but not this.
The next day the nurse brought the baby and showed me how to startle her if she should turn blue. “Just flick her feet a little, like this,” she said.
“Why would she turn blue?” I felt dread.
“The doctor will explain,” she said.
Later,three doctors stood around my bed to describe my baby’s problems: a heart murmur, an umbilical hernia, cleft palate, and a turned-in foot. All repairable, they assured me. They were taking her to the Hospital for Sick Children for further tests and observation. When they discharged me in a few days, I would be ablepick her up.
The nurse came in later to bind my painful breasts tightly and give me pills to stop the milk. I cried in her arms. “It’s my fault,” I sobbed.
“You’ll need to be strong for her,” said the nurse.
They brought Siobhain so I could say good-bye. Alone on the bed behind the curtain, I undid her blankets and touched her tiny toes. Her foot looked okay. I checked her tummy and the softly protruding bump of her belly button, a bit of drying umbilicus clinging. I put my fingers gently against her chest and felt the steady beat, bump thump. Reassured, I re-wrapped her gently, all her parts known to me now, and held her, kissed her nose, eyes, cheeks, the corners of her sweet mouth, her fingers. I breathed in the delicious scent of her and held her softly against my bound chest. She gazed up at me with the little face I would grow to love more than anything I had ever known.
That evening the night nurse found me shaking and fevered with a serious infection and for the next three weeks, they confined me to bed. A few friends came at first, and stood awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Louis came, but only stayed a few minutes. I was worried, sad, asking constantly for news of my baby, for reassurance. It made them uncomfortable.
One day the head nurse arrived to discharge me. Small, sharp, and impeccably starched, she gave me my orders. She scolded me for being so thin. “You must take care of yourself, your baby is going to need a strong healthy mother.”
I left the ward and the hospital alone, on wobbly legs, not quite one hundred pounds on my five foot nine inch frame.
I couldn’t wait to see her. Outside the air was crisp and cold but the maple trees glowed golden in the brilliant fall sunshine. A cab took me to Sick Kids.
Now three weeks old, Siobhain was wiggly, active, and heavier. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes blue and bright. “She’s a good eater,” said the nurse,smiling, “and she’s very alert.”
Proudly I dressed her in a pretty gown and jacket, and a soft pink bunting bag. They gave me formula, physio instructions for the little foot, some bottles of milk and an appointment to come back in two weeks’ time.
I would return to that hospital with Siobhain hundreds of times over the years; each time I would be more knowledgeable and more resilient, andeach time she would be healthier and stronger than the last.
But on that beautiful sunny autumn day,I held her in my arms and walked out into the world, where we would grow up together. Just the two of us.
As I sped northwest across Highway 16 just west of Minnedosa, my rear view mirrors were still reflecting clear blue skies behind me. I was riding my 750 Shadow from Toronto to Tofino, all the way to Vancouver Island’s west coast, and had just left Winnipeg a few hours ago. As I hummed along, my legs stretched out over the gleaming red cruiser’s highway bars, I felt quite proud of myself. I could write about this trip one day…a fifty-seven year old woman having a real adventure on a motorcycle…make a good story for my grandchildren when I had some.
The humid July air was sweet with the fragrance of prairie grass, and the sun was warm enough to have my jacket collar open, but on the horizon the sky had begun to darken.
White silos glowed as the sky darkened to indigo. A sea of fluorescent yellow canola flattened beneath the rising wind. I kept riding, hoping to find shelter. The distance between the ominous clouds and me, closed quickly though and just as I thought about stopping to at least put on my rain suit, I was out of time. A grey curtain the width of the Manitoba sky swept toward me and within a few minutes black clouds roiled overhead.
The churning clouds swirled with mustard, olive and black, as though a giant hand was stirring a pot of bilious gas. Headlights glowed on a huge white transport truck as it inched towards me out of the storm. Its hazard lights were flashing.
The wind and rain hit me hard and fast.
I stopped on the shoulder and tried to lower the bike’s kickstand. Boots planted firmly in the gravel, my arms and legs trembling, I struggled to hold up the three hundred kilogram machine as the careening wind forced my helmeted head painfully, helplessly from side to side. Stinging ice pellets beat against my bare throat and pinged off my visor and gas tank. A splintering flash of lightning split the sky and the thunder that followed shook me to my core. There was nowhere to hide, not even a ditch. I had to get off the bike and lie flat on the ground to avoid the lightning, but I could not move. The bike and I began to fall when someone grabbed me from behind, lowered the bike to the ground and shouted over the wind’s roar, “Leave it! Come on!”
It was the transport driver. He ran with me to his truck just as another bolt of lightning sheared the sky.
The storm passed as quickly as it had arrived and sitting in the cab of the truck I watched the skies clear to a pale blue. The trucker, also a motorcyclist, had understood the danger I was in and pulled his truck to the shoulder then run back to help me. He stood my bike up for me and wishing me a safe dry trip, resumed his journey east toward Winnipeg. I tightened my luggage, dried off the seat and continued west.
A few hours down the road, in a tiny motel diner, I devoured a huge plate of meat loaf and mashed potatoes and watched the news. A tornado had touched down only 45 km from where I’d been in the storm. Resolving to pay closer attention to weather reports, I pulled out my map and traced a line up the Yellowhead highway, north to Saskatoon, and marked it with an X. It was about 600 km. I hadn’t gone as far as I’d planned today but I was exhausted and needed sleep. I would make up some time tomorrow; the forecaster promised clear skies for the next few days.
I see wild raspberries near the woods surrounding our island cottage. I can’t wait to pick some and grabbing a small ice cream bucket, I head for where the red fruits grow. There are fewer than I thought, and they are tiny. Some are even shriveled. I duck my head and, happily, find more beneath yellowing leaves. They must like to hide. There are masses of them; dozens of little red jewels. Perhaps enough to have with our breakfast.
It is slow going, but I persevere because I notice the raspberries are larger where it’s shady, and there are even more of them inside the forest, especially where a dead tree has fallen. Now I’m envisioning jars of raspberry jam and trying to find as many berries as I can, reaching down among the thorny branches and scratching my arms. Though I am up to my chest in prickly raspberry canes, the fruit on stalks hanging just beyond my reach entices me further into the brambles. I feel that I should gather them all – that they are a gift from nature and so I should make use of them.
I become very committed to this idea and even when I accidently knock any berries from their branches, I reach, often with great difficulty, through gnarly vines to recover the lost ones, not wanting to waste any. I find myself talking aloud to the berries as I pick them from their stems or rescue them from their perilous fall to the earth. “Oops, sorry about that, I’ll get you, there you go.” I chastise myself for clumsiness – but then suddenly, I am suffused with the understanding that in my plundering of the bushes and their fruit, I am a metaphor for everything wrong in the world: greed, destruction of natural resources, and interference with ecology – the natural order of things. This is not my normal way of thinking, and I wonder if the forest is working some enchantment on me. I will make it right somehow, and by eating all I pick, nature will forgive me. I tread lightly and waste nothing. Strategically, I spit the seeds of the raspberries I have eaten back into the bush.
It takes a few hours, but I have a brimming pail – four cups, I’m sure. Just enough for jam. I fight my way out of the brambles to the house, being careful not to lose any of my raspberries.
I’ve never made jam but there is a recipe book on the cottage bookshelf. I will make bread too. Bread and jam. I am happy. I am a forager, a hunter-gatherer, feeding my family from the land. I don’t know how to make bread but I know I can do it if I want to.
My family is busy making their dinner and I wash the leaves and debris from my raspberries. My son points at the tiny caterpillars crawling amongst them, and reminds me that they won’t like being in jam and so I put my glasses on and carefully remove all the little creatures. I study the washed fruit wondering if I had eaten any caterpillars while I was out picking. I frown and decide it doesn’t matter. I did not know I was eating them so it didn’t count.
The recipe instructs me to boil the berries and sugar together until the mixture thickens, and then to pour the jam into sterilized jars. I stir the fruit and sugar until it becomes deep red lovely jam. It smells sweet and fruity. I can find only one jar in the cottage – a large glass mason jar with a lid. I boil the jar and lid for ten minutes and then pour the hot jam into it. I am careful, but some jam pours on the outside of the jar. I gingerly wipe the jar with my fingertips, alternately scalding them and licking them. It tastes so good and I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. I have made good jam from wild berries that I found and picked myself. I have burrs on my socks and scratches on my arms. Tomorrow I’ll pick some more. I will get more jars and make jam for everyone for Christmas. I will get little labels and write the date and a name on them; something like Rosemary’s Wild Raspberry Jam or Island Wild Raspberry Jam. In calligraphy! I’ll make round gingham tops cut with crimping shears for the jars, and tie ribbons around the lids.
The jar is still sticky but its contents are beautiful, glowing red with little seeds floating inside. I think of how it will look on the bread I will make tomorrow. I want to put the jar in the window to cool and see the evening sun shine through the red, like stained glass. I pick it up carefully with the potholders and carry it to the sink to rinse the sticky jam off. The water hits the glass and the jar explodes. Shattered glass and raspberry jam cover the sink.
There were two ways home but of course, I chose the route that had a traffic jam. My battered grey Volkswagen Rabbit, top down, rumbled while I breathed the fumes from a long lineup of fine cars idling outside a private girls school. Warm June sunshine filtered down through a canopy of leaves onto a scene from another time. Young girls in long white gowns cradled lush bouquets of summer flowers while cameras clicked and flashed. Laughter drifted across the lawns. I edged around the traffic and moved out onto the main road. The image of the girls, their beautiful flowers and lovely dresses played in my mind and I wished my own daughter could experience such a wonderful party. She too had graduated, just a few days ago from high school…a special school for girls with learning challenges. Located downtown in a gritty neighbourhood, her school’s convocation ceremonies scheduled for November would be quite unlike the luxurious event these privileged young girls enjoyed. I shifted gears, they caught, grinding harshly, and the car roared up the street.
Close to home I abruptly stopped outside our local flower shop, emerging a short time later with a lavish bouquet of summer flowers wreathed in pink and silver ribbons and crinkly cellophane. I stood the tall bouquet behind the passenger bucket seat and leaned it against the back seat of the car. Shifting gears gently so it would not fall over, I rounded the corner, parked and ran into the house with the flowers cradled in my arms.
Laughing with excitement, I thrust the bouquet at my daughter standing in the hall, then hugged and congratulated her. She stared, her arms full of flowers, shaking her head and smiling at her crazy mom who clearly did not remember that graduation was not until November. Together, we put the flowers in water.
Convocation was in November but my sweet girl did not attend. She had died suddenly a few weeks before. I sat in the chilly school auditorium and numbly watched the girls go up one at a time to get their diplomas. I thought of the flowers. My heart ached.
A humid wind blew across Halifax harbour beneath heavy grey September skies. King’s and Dalhousie’s weathered brick university buildings and stone arches rose above a neighbourhood of turquoise, pink and yellow frame houses. As we approached the student card office in the late afternoon it looked as if the entire undergrad population of Kings University had just gotten out of bed and rumpled and noisy, jammed the path outside the building barely an hour before closing.
The student gathering in ball caps, jeans, flowing skirts, and vivid hair scarves, stood laughing, hugging and looking sideways at the new faces. I eased our van to a stop on Queen Street and my passengers, three second-years, began to gather their packs and papers. I wanted to reach out and hold my son’s arm.
Just stay another minute.
Driving into Halifax when we arrived, he’d pointed through the van windows at cafes, pubs, shops, and meeting places for friends – people and places I did not know.
I could hear it in his voice: This is my town, I know this place, it is mine and it is separate from you.
He’d only been away a year.
I drove downtownafter dropping them off, and sighed to release the weight, the sadness of saying goodbye for seventeen weeks until Christmas, feeling the loss as deeply again, this year.
I parked the van on Water Street and sat in the dim coziness of the Paper Chase with a mixed crew of patrons and my Earl Grey tea – laptops on every table, the aroma of toast and cinnamon, soft jazz, sticky floor, cheap food and free internet.
This whole town is for students – they work the coffee houses, walk the streets, shop and play here and everyone is young.
I would love to be in my boy’s shoes right now with the world opening wide, two caring parents behind him – even if they aren’t together. I knew too I wanted to be part of the excitement of going back to university. Friends, bars, clubs, music, books, independence, plans. I had never had that. At his age I had already been a mother for a year.
It was damp, my hair frizzed, I needed to find the airport and return the huge van I’d rented to get him here from Toronto with barely half of what he needed.
The sadness began to lift as I tapped thoughts into my laptop and sipped the warm, fragrant tea.
That morning, in the cheap diner he liked, I watched him eat his huge breakfast.
“You’re looking at me.” He smiled over his toast.
“No, I’m not.”
“You used to say that when you were little? Remember? You didn’t understand why I would enjoy watching you fill your face.”
“I know…I know….until I got the puppy and I watched him eat all the time.” We laughed.
I can see the man he is becoming but the boy is still so evident in his deep blue eyes, his smile – and oh, those freckles. He’s compassionate, affectionate. And so bright.
Earlier at the student card office, his friends got out of the van but he stayed back.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done you helped so much you did so much for me.” He pushed all the words together and we hugged awkwardly over the steering wheel as he leaned into me with one long leg already out the door. I kissed his cheek and saw him glance toward the group that had just left the car.
“They aren’t looking.”
I hugged him again and breathed in the scent of his hair.
“Work hard, call me if you need anything – and have fun.”
He got out.
“I love you,” I mouthed, through the window, the closed door between us now.
He walked across the road to his friends without a backwards glance.
Years ago a creative young teacher introduced the school age children in my program to a touching story, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. The children made origami cranes like the ones in Sadako’s story and talked about how Sadako Sasaki had become ill with leukemia as a result of radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako believed that if she could make one thousand paper cranes, she would be cured. Senbazuru is a strand of one thousand paper cranes held together by a string. The crane, legend tells, lives for one thousand years, and will grant the gift of healing to anyone who makes a Senbazuru.
In 1995 when I travelled in Japan with a rail pass and a small backpack, I planned to visit major historical cities including Kyoto and Kobe. A week before I arrived Kobe suffered a massive earthquake and was closed to tourists. I decided instead, to visit Hiroshima. Most of the architecture and therefore history of Hiroshima had been destroyed by the bomb, so it was not on my original itinerary. I had done very little research into the place, other than to find a hostel.
The damp misty morning after my arrival I left the hostel, tourist map in hand and boarded a bus to the city center. Compared to other cities I’d been to the views were bland, modern buildings, cement, grey, fairly flat. The cherry blossoms were blooming however and lent a bit of colour and freshness to the gloom.
I got off the bus and walked across a bridge toward the skeletal dome of a ruined structure. The Atomic Bomb Dome, my book said. This was the epicentre of where the bomb was dropped. In the distance I could see the low flat cement roof of the Peace Museum.
A gaggle of school children in blazers and caps appeared smiling and giggling, flashing me “v” signs and shouting “Herro!” a refrain I was becoming used to hearing. Tall red headed women traveling alone stood out in the crowd. They gestured to have their picture taken with me and I happily obliged, crouching down among the glossy black hair and sparkly-eyed faces.
A small shrine near the dome was hung with streamers that proved to be strings of paper cranes as I drew closer. Red, turquoise, yellow, pink, blue, orange-there were thousands of cranes on thousands of strings. Some were faded and tattered but many were new, testaments to the theme of peace in the park.
Up ahead in the centre of a wide square a flame burned and two young Japanese men were handing out leaflets. They urged me to visit the museum for a special display commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. What I saw next has been unforgettable.
The walls of long well lit carpeted corridors were hung with over one hundred framed drawings and paintings. There were few visitors, and no sound. It was absolutely silent. My first impression was that all the artists had used red or black for their pictures. I looked closer.
Blood, fire and charcoal.
Survivors of the blast had drawn and painted their experiences. Bodies on fire, bodies floating in the rivers and canals, melting skulls, fire and ash rained from the skies, buildings flamed, limbs torn, children everywhere, dying, helplessness, agony. Further down there were photographs. I could not take it all in. Overwhelmed by emotion, I found a bench and with no one to talk to I began to write.
In the central hall of the museum an immense wide “before and after” tableau of Hiroshima is displayed. The city before the bomb, vibrant with houses, markets, buildings and parks lining the many canals. Bridges and trees, and near the centre the domed building, once called the Trade Promotion Hall. The after tableau is a waste of rubble and ash, the remaining bridges like bones on a corpse, the ravaged Dome blackened and stark.
Scenes of the air raid over Hiroshima, the sounds of the bombers, the pilots voices, the propellers beating, the engines roaring, static radio commands, the atom bomb falling, play again, and again against the back drop of the shattered city.
Stunned, I wandered out into the sunlight to see the city and the paper cranes with new eyes.