There are relationships in our lives that are so asymmetrical, so imbalanced, that no matter how hard we try, we can never pay the other back, never set the scales aright. Nowhere is this more true than with our parents. So it is, that in return for years of comfort and caring, nudging and nurturing, all I have to offer up in return are these few paltry words …
A week ago this morning, that call I I had expected for some time finally came. And just as I had always imagined, it came in the middle of the night – 3:30 a.m. My sister called to say that my mom had passed away. Quietly. In her sleep.
This wasn’t unexpected; she had been fading for some time now. Fading is really the only word – not a euphemism – there really was just less and less of her, physically and spiritually, each time we went to visit. Fading memory, less conversation, fewer waking moments with each passing day. In the end, in the middle of the night, the last remnant drifted away, just over a month past her 95th birthday.
Mom was born Martha Linda Kober, August 5, 1920, on a small farm in what’s known as the Flowing Well District, about halfway between Hodgeville and Morse. She was the youngest of five girls, born into a family of German Russians, my grandfather having emigrated from Russia before the revolution.
Mom’s life had a certain unity and symmetry to it that few of us will find in our own lives these days. While her offspring might have travelled and landed all about Saskatchewan, Canada and even the world, her world always centred on that place of birth.
She was baptized in Flowing Well Lutheran Church, just a couple miles down the road from her birthplace. She was confirmed there, married there, and this morning we laid her to rest there. In between, for decades, she played the organ for countless church services, weddings, and funerals.
She went to school at nearby Meadow School, where all the students, with the exception of the Truitt family, were German-speaking Lutherans. Almost all of them arrived on the school doorsteps not knowing a word of English. The teachers, in self-defence, banned German and strapped students for any language transgressions. The Truitt family, in self-defence, quickly learned to speak German, proving the value of language immersion long before that term had any currency.
Like most one-room country schools, Meadow School went only to grade eight. Mom wanted to go beyond that, so she signed up for correspondence courses and worked through those until she had achieved her grade ten. Very few of her peers did the same. Most of them were out in the field immediately after eight years, if not sooner.
On November 30, 1941, when she was twenty one, Mom married Albert Deobald, my dad, and the fourth child in a family of eleven. Like my mom, he was of German-Russian descent. Like her, he had attended Meadow School.
After a brief stint living just down the road from Grandpa and Grandma Deobald, they settled on a farm nearer Kelstern, but still only seven miles or so from Flowing Well Church. My eldest sister, Doreen, appeared on the scene in March of ’43. Three years later, the twins, Iline and Irene joined the fold, and four years later they had their first son, Delmer. They waited another five years until they had me.
I only draw attention to the curious spacing (2, then 3, then 4, then 5 years) because my Dad once joked that as I grew nearer and nearer the age of 6, he got more and more nervous. He needn’t have worried, though, I was the icing on the cake.
When the twins arrived, Mom did not yet have a washing machine. Not only that, she didn’t exactly have extra clothes because she’d gone into the hospital expecting to bring only one little muffin home. This was just after the war, of course, so manufactured goods were still in short supply. There was a waiting list for washing machines. But Mom fashioned a plan. She sent off her order for a washing machine anyway, but slipped the twins’ birth certificates in with it. Shortly afterwards, she received her washing machine – with the birth certificates tucked inside.
Like many couples of their generation, Mom and Dad had a fairly clear division of duties. Dad took care of the yard, the field work and the large livestock. Mom managed the household, the garden and the small livestock.
And her garden was huge. As well as the usual staples: beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, potatoes, … it churned out washtubs full of muskmelons and ice cream pails of yogada or “wonderberries.” Those of you who don’t know what muskmelons are should probably know this: there are two kinds of people in the world – those who love muskmelons and those who hate them. Those who hate them don’t understand the transformative powers of cream and sugar or the joy of using your melon as an ice cream bowl. Wonderberries, since I’m sure some of you are wondering, are mushy berries produced by an annual bush that reseeds itself aggressively. For this reason, Mom always limited them to where they volunteered at the end of the rows at the bottom of the garden. As for taste, well, you may not be surprised to hear that there are two kinds of people in the world …
And always, in the middle of the garden, there was a row of glads which would make their way to the kitchen table as cut flowers.
Ours wasn’t a large farm, so the garden and the small livestock went a long way to making us self-sufficient as far as groceries were concerned. Every spring, Mom would order about 150 chicks, anywhere between 25 and 40 ducks and occasionally geese and turkeys. I don’t think she ordered turkeys after the year dad caught one parked on his brand new grain truck and swung a pitchfork at it, and we found ourselves butchering turkey long before we’d ever intended.
We weren’t exactly rich, but we certainly never went hungry. Like so many of her generation, in Mom’s world, as long as you had flour, eggs, milk, cream, butter and sugar, there was a meal hiding in there somewhere. And though she couldn’t fry an egg without turning the yolk to dust, that was, in my memory at least, her one and only failing as a cook.
My sisters pointed to Mom’s patience as one of her best qualities. For some reason, they look at me when they say this. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I was never a willful or belligerent child, but I suppose I was more than a bit scatterbrained. As such it would sometimes take me an inexplicable amount of time to complete the simplest of tasks – gathering the eggs, for example. After all, there were imaginary villains to kill on the way – and on the way back. Delmer seems to think I also broke more than my fair share of eggs before I got back to the house. This I also don’t remember.
I do remember one time when I tested that patience to its limit. After she’d warned me multiple times to get my chores done, she looked out the window to see my little wagon load of chicken feed sitting in the middle of the yard and me repeatedly throwing a baseball up onto the barn roof so that I could catch it. That time dad’s belt came out. Dad wasn’t a huge man, but he had a certain girth to him, so his belt was quite long. With length comes speed, with speed, sting. The chores got done shortly after that. I suppose the fact that I only remember that one instance is testament to her patience after all.
I would just like to add that I remember a few times when Delmer tested her patience, too, but no one else seems to remember that, so we’ll leave that alone.
Morse and Afterward
This was life until 1969, when we lost Dad to prostate cancer. If there was a testament to Mom’s strength of character it was how she dealt with and adapted to upheavals in her life. I remember a moment leaving the hospital room after viewing Dad’s body, when a well-meaning nurse asked if anyone had need of a sedative. I don’t remember the exact words of Mom’s response, but I do remember the tone. She was insulted that anyone would think that was necessary.
That pattern of stoicism and acceptance would repeat itself throughout her life. Less than a year after Dad’s death, she and I packed up and moved to Morse. Later, when she realized she could no longer maintain her house and yard by herself, she willingly sold it and many of her personal possessions and moved to a low rental. After breaking her hip, she recognized that living on her own wasn’t practical any more and acquiesced to settle in the Manor in Herbert. And when her mobility became too limited for that facility, she accepted the inevitable transfer to the Home with grace. Each time she adapted without complaint. To the very end, even after she’d been bed-ridden for months, if anyone asked her how she was doing, she would inevitably say, “Oh, I’m fine.”
In Morse, Mom made a new life for herself. She still kept a garden, but a smaller one, which allowed her more hours to lavish on her flower beds. To this day, I can never look at a petunia and not think of her. They were always a centre piece of her front beds.
And with more time on her hands, Mom took up crafts. Boy, did she take up crafts. There was the liquid embroidery phase. And the ceramics phase. Every single one of her children and grandchildren were the beneficiaries of this. Everyone has at least one gaudy, bedazzled, styrofoam Christmas ornament. Everyone got at least one pair of puffy, all-too-slippery Phentex slippers. And everyone hangs on dearly to one, treasured, crocheted afghan – or “af-a-ghan,” as Mom would say – as something to remember her by.
Mom kept herself busy within the community with visits to the Seniors’ Centre, where she often lavished others with her cooking and baking. She bowled. She served as a taxi service to numerous other seniors, taking them shopping, to appointments, or to pick up prescriptions in Herbert. She also served as counsellor and mentor to others who were widowed after her.
She continued to play the organ, but mostly for her own pleasure. If neighbours had their windows open in the summer, they might be lucky enough to catch her playing and singing an old hymn.
That brings me to Mom’s voice. She was not a quiet woman. She had a voice that, let’s just say, carried. And it had a distinctive tone that I cannot begin to describe, but those of you who knew her will be able to conjure up immediately. There was no mistaking Mom’s trademark voice for any other, whether it was echoing off the rafters of the church in song, or ringing across a crowded community hall in laughter.
Laughter, was another of Mom’s hallmarks. I remember a school chum of mine remarking once how much she liked Mom because, “She’s so funny.” At the time, I never considered Mom funny. She was just Mom. To my knowledge, she never told a joke in her life, or if she did, she botched it. But over time I began to recognize and appreciate her sense of humour more and more. It wasn’t the conspicuous kind.
Mom made friendships easily and without deliberate effort. First of all, she would talk to anyone. She may have criticized certain behaviours in people, but she never considered herself above or below anyone she met. And over time, I recognized just how much humour was a part of her arsenal in interacting with people. No matter whom she connected with, the relationship always settled into a kind of harmless teasing and kibitzing, and she had a way of getting others to reciprocate.
I’ll give you one example of how she built connections this way, but first I have to explain that Mom was never much of a drinker. She’d a have a drink, maybe two if it was a special occasion, but that was her limit as far as I know. Having a beer at Mom’s house was a risky venture, because you never knew how many years they’d been sitting in the cold room. So when one of the local ministers with whom Mom had made a connection left the parish, he made arrangements, as a practical joke, to have a bottle of whiskey delivered to her anonymously every Christmas. To my knowledge, Mom went to her grave never knowing who was responsible for that prank, although she always blamed another of her sparring partners, George Coates. In fairness, George was a pretty solid guess; it just didn’t happen to be right in this case.
And as much as Mom faded in the end, her sense of humour never left her. On our second-last visit, one of the workers in the home was making a valiant attempt to feed Mom her puréed meal, but Mom was being a bit passive-aggressive and would open her mouth just wide enough so that the spoon wouldn’t go in.
The worker tried to cajole Mom by saying, “Martha, the girls in the kitchen have been working all day to prepare this lovely meal for you.”
Mom just looked at her and spoke her first words since we’d arrived over an hour earlier.
“Is that a fact?” she said.
Knowing the worker had lots of other things she could be doing, I offered to continue with Mom’s feeding, but after several tries I was having no more success, so I turned to a different strategy.
“Well how about some pudding, then, Mom. Do you want to try some pudding?”
“I don’t want to eat pudding alone,” she said. Not sure what that meant exactly, I decided to roll with the punches:
“Well, you don’t have to eat alone. I could eat some pudding with you. Should I have some pudding?”
“You go right ahead,” was her response. OK, so no pudding then.
I never kissed Mom goodbye that she didn’t complain about my beard tickling her. Just in case you don’t know, I’ve had this beard since 1978, but she always made it sound like I had just grown it out last week and only to torment her. Actually I lied, on one visit this summer I kissed her goodbye and she said nothing. I thought that was peculiar, until Steven kissed her, and she immediately set about complaining about his beard. All was still right with the world, after all.
As matriarch of the family, Mom long served as the glue that bound us all together. And the two primary tools she used to accomplish this were the telephone and food.
In all but the last few years, she kept in touch with everyone by phone, and passed on news from one branch of the family to the next. This was a mixed blessing, since Mom was an early riser and never assumed anyone else’s sleep patterns differed from hers. Phone calls at 6:00 in the morning were not unheard of. But for all her love of phoning, Mom never seemed to really trust the technology to transfer her message; she always gave it an extra boost of volume to make sure it would get to its destination. No need for speakerphone in a conversation with Mom. Anyone in the same room, or even the next, could hear her just fine.
With food, Mom made sure that all the grandkids grew up with a full appreciation of the finer points of German cooking. For example, they learned that kartoffel und klösse (potatoes and dumplings) wasn’t a side dish; it was a meal.
Moving off the farm had forced her to cut back to just one measly giant deep freeze, but if she knew the kids were coming, she made sure it was stuffed with all their favourites. Derrick never had to worry that there wouldn’t be kreble, and Richard and Scott never arrived to a shortage of cherry perogies. And now, if Carla or someone else brings out a batch of kreble or perogies to our annual family camp, it’s a way of bringing a bit of Grandma with them and honouring the things she stuffed them full of as little kids and later taught them how to cook themselves.
So today we celebrate this woman who graced the earth for 95 years, who raised 5 children, who, in turn, raised 14 grandchildren, who have raised or are raising 28 great-grandchildren. A large portion of that group attended this year’s annual family camp, and I have to say, as I once again spent time with them, I was struck by what a wonderful, decent, incredibly funny herd of humans they are. There could be many reasons for that, of course, but everything starts somewhere. I’d like to think that Mom had some part in that, that it’s her legacy. As legacies go, one could do far worse.
At this time, I’d like to shift gears a bit and, on behalf of the family, thank all those in attendance for coming, and all those who have sent condolences over the past week for their kindness.
I’d also like to acknowledge the care extended to Mom by those in the health care system, particularly Dr. Kassett, who not only took such excellent care of Mom’s physical needs, but was also one of those people with whom she enjoyed joking and interacting so much. The same is true for the staff at The Manor and at the Integrated Facility. Not only did you care for her physical needs and comfort, but you all recognized her need for social interaction and took time out of your busy schedules to ensure that there was conversation, and care, and laughter in each of her days. We are so thankful that she had people like you in her life. Bless you.