This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, and as has become typical on this day each year, I was struck by no small measure of guilt over the way I related to my mother when she was still alive. She has been gone over twenty-five years now, and sad to say, I have come to realize that she was a far better mother than I was a son. It is an old truism that most of us truly do not appreciate the value of most things until they are gone, and such is the case with mothers for most people.
I have observed that most people tend to take their mothers for granted. They are part of the unnoticed and underappreciated background in our lives. As we grow up from being helpless dependent infants to becoming presumably responsible and mature adults, our mothers provide most of the psychological, emotional, and physical support that enable us to become who we are and survive successfully in an increasingly capricious world. They play an indispensable role in our lives, and yet, very few of us, even as adults ever invest in the time and trouble to really get to know them as individuals with their own unique histories, feelings, ambitions, desires and personalities. To us, a mother is more of a role that someone plays rather than being a human being in her own right. As children, and even in adulthood, we tend to take their presence and the services they provide for granted.
In a way, it is more than a little tragic that now that I am of a grandfatherly age, I realize that I never really “knew” my mother, that is to say as an individual rather than as a mother figure. I knew the broad outlines of her personal history, which, like with most displaced Ukrainians was not an easy one. She was born and raised amidst the turmoil that engulfed Eastern Europe after the First World War. World War Two uprooted her from her family and home and drove her into forced labour as an “Osterbaiter” in Germany. The aftermath of that war found her in a refugee camp for “Displaced Persons” and subsequently she was able to immigrate to Canada on a work contract. Before she knew it, she was married and in short order, the mother of three children. There followed many decades of struggling to build a decent life, first in the remote mining wilderness of northern Quebec, then on a farm in southern Ontario. It was a life of toil, hardship and sacrifice, all of which she bore with patience and stoicism.
As a mother, she was a saint. As an individual person, I must admit that I don’t really know who she was. That is where the guilt comes in. I did not really know her as a person, primarily because I made no real effort to find out. When I was young, I was typically pretty self-centred and only concerned with myself and my own needs and interests. As I reached adulthood, I became preoccupied with my career, making my own way in this world, and starting my own family. Before I knew it, my mother had faded away into an Alzheimer’s induced fog and was gone. It was only really then that I realized how little I knew of her and about her.
As someone who has in recent decades become fascinated with history and genealogy, I reproach myself for not having made the effort when it was still possible to learn more of my mother’s personal history. She experienced a lot in her tumultuous life, and regrettably she took those invaluable memories with her to her grave. More than just her memories, I often wonder what she thought and felt about her circumstances. What were her hopes and ambitions when she was young? What unrealized talents and abilities did she have that were never given a chance to develop and flourish? What beliefs and opinions did she have that she kept largely to herself? What did she feel about being a mother, a wife, a woman, a Ukrainian? Was she happy?
It is with no small measure of regret that I must admit that I don’t know. I would like to think that in my old age I have managed to learn from life’s lessons and acquire some measure of practical wisdom. Yet, sometimes that wisdom can be painful, and such is the case when I think about my mother and all those missed opportunities that I never took advantage of to get to know my mother, not as my mother, but as a person. I have no doubt that she must have been as interesting and admirable as an individual as she had been a mother.