My mother says things I don’t always understand at first blush.
She once told me that when she was growing up in the “twenties and thirties,” funeral homes and furniture stores were always owned by the same people and usually run out of the same building.
I didn’t get it right away.
But she also comes at me with hard, indisputable, arthritically-knuckled truth.
The kind of truth that just has to be true, truth just born to be true.
Rural Iowa right and wrong is that sort of down at the very end of the lane, up at five in the morning, poor, very poor, and very rural kind of truth.
It is the same sort of truthfulness you might expect when asking a butterfly, “Why the wings?”
This is truth I can’t help but understand.
I flew home this week to help Mom celebrate her 89th birthday. No big splash, just she and I, a simple stroll around her apartment building, a glass of wine, tears, long stories, turn of the century Iowa history.
Yesterday Mom and I sat in low sun at a small round table. We turned our faces directly into the heat.
At one point she leans right into the table, chin nearly touching the top.
With the back of her hand she nudges the wine glass aside and whispers something like, “At the grocery store, when I get lost or tired or just need another pair of eyes, I look for a coloured woman, maybe Spanish. They always take me right to the shelf and sometimes they read me the label.”
I think to myself, Why just these people of colour?
I indirectly ask her the question.
She’s not completely sure. Her mind works for a minute or two in silence. I watch her carefully. I watch her blindness take over her face. I notice for the first time that her blindness has liberated her from making contact with anything on the outside. Now she has the pain-turned-gain luxury of thinking alone, talking right at me, turning her mind’s eye to the street or to the sky, all done without turning her head. What freedom.
“Poor people,” she finally says, “just have the time to help, I guess. We always did. With 10 brothers and sisters, you have to help others because it’s just a matter of time before you’re gonna’ need help.”
Being raised poor in out-of-town Iowa during the Great Depression is certain to give one a head full of common-sense memories, and not all good.
Black people, poor people, the deeply rural-poor white family farmers of central Iowa, they all spoke the same economic language: low wages, little hope.
They all sang the same hymns too: glory be to God. All colours and conditions of the human face, singing the high and low notes in God’s everlasting songbook.
Reap what you sow; You made your bed now lie in it; Many hands make light labour; Many voices a mountain moved.
Mom understood the strength-of-spirit in spare-farm families. Even today, around this small round table, she stills smiles at a photograph of her 10 brothers and sisters, all barefoot, sitting, tilting into one another on a horseless wagon. For every kid your parents managed to keep alive and healthy you could work another 40 acres. Mom’s mother used to tell her that there was a magic number of brothers and sisters a farm family could have, and if the weather was right for a few consecutive years, a family could even save money. Mom’s family never found the number, never got a break in the weather.
But even without the magic, mom still learned about God and weather, and how one props up the other. And she learned that even when God fails, when all else fails, “probably your brother or sister will come through for you.”
For her there is still great value in prayerbook and songbook.
To pray together, to sing together — such different hands holding the same book, such similar voices holding different notes — all stained with the same dark, rich Iowa soil.
For her, even in this age of technological specialization there is great value in working collectively.
To toil for the commons — such different skills and such different attitudes — all forged and detailed by the same hard river-bottom life.
Somehow, and for some reason, Mom weathered.
She endured. There in cold gray country, all squeezed together in long days under short light, too little rain, too much snow and no money, a family makes it.
It’s late. I can tell Mom is tired. I prod just a bit more.
“Mom, why were funeral homes and furniture stores always together back then?”
In this late light my Mom looks so young, so full of colour. She smiles.
“You know,” she says, “I have no business drinking wine.”
Gregory Heming is a writer and optimist living in Nelson, British Columbia.