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Joseph Boyden’s mother, Blanche.
Joseph Boyden’s mother, Blanche.

How novelist Joseph Boyden’s mother raised eight hellions Add to ...

My mother has never been one for navel gazing, whether about her mixed-blood heritage or much else. She has never had the time to luxuriate: Widowed in her early 40s and left to raise eight of us hellions, Blanche knows what it means to suffer.

Let me repeat that, in case you accidentally skimmed over it: Left widowed in her early 40s to raise eight of us hellions, Blanche knows what it means to suffer. And I don’t use that word casually. Her Catholic faith guided her through some very difficult times with her kids: run-ins with the law and late-night arrests, motorcycle crashes and unplanned pregnancies, all-night parties, petty thefts, suicide attempts, 10-foot-long Burmese pythons going missing in the house for three months – and that was just me.

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My mother infused in all of her children a strong thirst for new experience and especially the courage to walk to our own drumbeat. And so it was no real surprise for me to hear that my mother attended her first powwow and sweat lodge at the age of 80. She figured now was as good a time as any to explore that more traditional part of herself.

My oldest sister, Mary, and my niece, Rachel, brought her, and Mum loved the multigenerational affair. She later told me she was especially drawn to the style and energy of a dancer she found out was Ojibwa Métis – how this man, in his mid-60s, danced as if he was hunting birds, bent at the waist and stepping gracefully in his moccasins, stalking his game as he drew back his imaginary bow. Mum was especially struck by how he looked like her grandfather. I smiled while talking to her on the phone as she related the day’s adventure. She sounded young in her wonderment, a woman discovering something important about herself for the first time.

After the powwow, Mary brought our mother to participate in a sweat, and inside the small, claustrophobic lodge, Mum says she kept her calm by praying hard for one of her grandsons who had just suffered a traumatic head injury and wasn’t expected to survive. The boy, who is also my godson, made a full recovery. My mother has never doubted the power of prayer, nor has she questioned the many sources of spirituality.

Her name, Blanche, speaks to an older, more innocent time. In the late 1940s, Mum was just finishing teachers college and working in a bakery in North Toronto. One day, in walks the man who is to become my father, a distinguished war hero who immediately falls head over heels for the raven-haired – and much younger – beauty. Their whirlwind romance no doubt sets tongues wagging. After all, my father-to-be was a divorcé with three daughters of his own.

Mum rarely talks about herself, but one afternoon she told me the story of how my father would visit her each day on the pretense of needing baked goods. He eventually admitted to my mum that, dropping in so frequently, he couldn’t possibly eat all of what he bought, and so his dogs became the lucky beneficiaries of my parents’ first blush of love.

Fast-forward 20 years, and my mother’s two decades as a baby factory are finally winding down. All of my siblings remember our childhood as quite idyllic. We’d moved from our too-small house at Lawrence and Bayview north to the wilds of Willowdale where we kept a suburban menagerie of animals in our backyard: goats, ducks, geese, lambs, injured raccoons and skunks and all assortment of birds.

When we weren’t in school, my mother made sure we were out on the waters of Lake Simcoe, Georgian Bay and the Great Lakes on our wooden cabin cruiser. I can still picture my mum on our boat, her kerchief unable to contain her black hair’s unruly beauty.

Our old neighbours still talk about the chaotic sight of my family, all 10 of us (13 when my three much-older half-sisters were visiting) pouring out of our house and into our station wagon on our way to daily mass, bright and early each morning, dressed in clothes handmade by my mother. We boys often rocked plaid or subtly militaristic garb that spoke to my father, and my sisters often modelled gingham dresses and sometimes even stylish 1970s Cher headbands that spoke more to my mum.

I was 8 when my father died, and when that happened, when the world felt as though it had collapsed from beneath all of us, my mother was there to catch us in free fall. When pushed, Blanche will say much of her strength comes from her faith: the strength of returning to teaching at our grade school full-time even as she took university courses at night; the strength of making sure we kept up the routine of going to daily morning mass, at least until each of us entered high school and were allowed to make our own decisions about that particular schedule. Blanche also found the strength to feed all of our hungry mouths despite her almost daily harangue that we were heading quickly for the poorhouse.

Mum even found the money somehow to take us on our yearly car vacation to Myrtle Beach, heroically driving 24 hours straight through snowstorms and rain, until the sunshine and sombreros of Pedro’s South of the Border gift shop announced that we had made it to what my siblings and I considered to be the most tropical and romantic and mysterious place we had ever seen in our young lives, South Carolina.

For a glorious week, my mum and sisters lay out in the weak sun as my brothers and I ran through the frigid surf, my mother turning browner and browner each day even as my sisters turned different shades of pink.

As the storm clouds of our teenaged years enveloped each of her children in turn to varying degrees, my mother realized she had to allow us something very frightening for a single parent to allow: our freedom. I remember my teenage summers hitting the road for weeks at a time, living on the streets or crashing with punk-rock friends all across America.

I think back on it now and wonder how I survived it relatively unscathed. My mother no doubt worried for me, for all of us, but had to believe that she had given us a strong enough foundation to keep us from shattering.

And in my self-centred teenage years, I didn’t recognize the huge sacrifice my mother made for all of us. I think back to my mother when she was at the age I am right now, just hitting the peak of my life. I think of the single woman Blanche half-heartedly attempting some semblance of a romantic life, half-heartedly wondering if there might be someone out there to share a different kind of happiness with. And it’s only now that I realize she never found someone else in part because he couldn’t live up to my impossibly brilliant father, but also because she feared that a new partner would distract her from her children.

I know that Mum prays daily for our well-being, and it seems to be working. After all, every one of us kids emerged from our youths physically and mostly mentally intact. And if nothing else testifies to my mother’s amazing resilience, fortitude and ingenuity, it speaks volumes that she now has eight grown-up and relatively well-adjusted children, 21 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all of us what I consider pretty good citizens.

Blanche. Her name suggests purity; despite the slight irony of a mixed-blood woman being named this, it means what it says: My once raven-haired and still dark-skinned mother named Blanche, a woman of the land who moved back to the land she loves on an Ojibwa-named lake not far from our beloved Georgian Bay.

I deeply regret not being at my mother’s first powwow with her. But there will be more this summer, perhaps in Wikwemikong or maybe closer to home on Christian Island, that special place from my childhood where she allowed all of us children to run wild. But that’s another story

For now, let me say to you, Blanche, on behalf of all of your children, Happy Mother’s Day. Each one of us is in awe of you.

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