I will continue with my poem about the Sacred tree,
but I've decided to waylay you with a short story.
My Mother, the Bear.
My mother paints in her eyebrows. Using a Maybelline brow pencil that
needs sharpening, she draws wide choppy strokes along her brow line.
“You should wear your glasses when draw your brows,” I tell her. “And
use a light stroke. You don’t need that heavy pencil.” Her blue eyes
widen, but she ignores me and continues her beauty ritual.
My mother prides herself on her appearance. When people tell her she
doesn’t look her age, she glows. Last month, she turned 78. That means
she has spent 56 years living in Canada. Yet, she still has a heavy
Finnish accent. Her voice cackles at times when she speaks Finnish, an
old dialect from Kauhajoki, the farming region we left behind.
English speakers often don’t understand my mother when she speaks
English. They would say she speaks “broken English.” Even my husband who
sees her regularly has a problem understanding what she’s saying. She
makes up her own words. She uses Finnish grammar when she speaks
English, so her sentences are all mixed up. She code switches, that is,
she throws in English words when she speaks Finnish, and she mixes in
Finnish phrases when she speaks English.
My mother, however, does not think she has any difficulties speaking
English, so she is puzzled when people don’t understand her. She will
repeat herself until her point is made clear.
Nothing stops her from speaking her mind. Nothing.
Her favorite place to shop is the Sally Ann. Every week, she finds a new
colourful used blouse, skirt, or dress. Last week she found a coat and a
purse. Accessories are her favourite. She loves wearing scarves, belts,
jewelry, hats, and gloves—all at the same time. My mother is a colourful
dresser; understatement is not a word in her vocabulary. Everything
matches in her fashion lexicon: stripes with flowers, green with red,
lace with denim, plaid with paisley.
My mother’s lustrous curly hair is her pride and joy. Everyone comments
on her hair, and my mother revels in their attention. “No,” she tells
anyone who asks her, “I don’t dye my hair. I don’t have to. I don’t
have any grey hair.”
My sisters and I shake our heads.
“Your hair is not red, Aiti,” I remind her. “Your hair is brown. And
there’s quite a bit of silver in it now. But you’ve been dying it for so
long, so you think you don’t have any gray hair.”
My mother comes from a family of storytellers. Her father was the
village storyteller of Hyyppa. People came from all around to sit in my
mother’s family’s kitchen and listen to Vesteri’s stories. My mother
grew up listening to her father talking about forest spirits, ghosts,
funerals, practical jokes, neighbours, and people’s misadventures.
Over the years, my sisters and I have noticed that our mother likes telling
stories, too. Like her sister, Irja, she creates new memories all the
time by changing what happened in the past. We tell her: that’s not how
it happened! She laughs at us and continues telling her story of what
happened. She retells family history to fit the truths that she wants to
My mother drives a car that looks like a small hearse. She wears shoes
that are too small for her feet. She climbs up long ladders to clean
leaves out of the gutter of her rooftop, she mows her own lawn, shovels
her own driveway, drives her 90 year old friends to the doctors and
translates for them, bakes cakes for her church’s bake sales, and writes
poems for everyone’s birthday.
Not that long ago, she heard my father, who died in 2000, talk to her in
a dream. He told her that there was a break in the water line and the
water was seeping into the weeping tiles of the basement wall. He said
the water would cause serious damage that would be expensive to fix. He
told her the leak had to be stopped; he said she had to call the city to
dig up the ground and fix the water pipe. When she woke up, she woke up
my sister, Katja, and told her she had to call the city to come and
check the water line. My sister thought she was crazy, but she called
the city, anyway. Sure enough, when the city workers came to check,
there was a break and water was leaking right where my mother said our
father had told her.
Although my mother’s mouth is small as a rosebud and her nose is small
as a button, that’s all that is small about her. Well, that’s not quite
true. In all honesty, I have shouted at her that she has a small mind.
We argue a lot, my mother and me. We argue about politics and religion.
My voice can get as loud as hers. I can be as adamant as her. Neither of
us ever convinces the other of her truth.
I call her Aiti. That’s the Finnish name for Mother.
If my mother was an animal, she would be a bear. She looks like a
bear—full-bodied, curly hair, brown toned pelt, small inquisitive nose.
Her eyes are like a bears’—intense. At times, when her feet hurt and her
ankles swell, she waddles like a bear does when it walks on two feet.
She is protective like a Mother Bear. She is most protective of her
turf: the Bible and Jesus. If anyone says anything against her Jesus,
her fangs come out and she turns into a grizzly bear. If you challenge
her story of Jesus, she will rise up on her two feet and come towards
you in all her fury. You don’t want to meet her on a path. She will swat
at you, violently. She will rip you to shreds like a salmon between her