It was late August, and I was still too young to attend school. I remember walking with my mother on the hillside path near our home at Dark Byte, along the rugged Labrador coastline. We were on our way for tea with her oldest sister, my dear Aunt Minnie. Mother wore a gingham kerchief wrapped snugly over her curls, tied in a small knot under her chin. The pointed scarf edges fluttered and flapped in the brisk North Atlantic breeze. A gust of wind swept up the sides of her cotton skirt, and she looked down at me with her sparkling, green eyes, tossing me a playful smirk and warning me not to peek at her knickers.
“They’re by no means my Sunday best. And, Miss Ramona, that’s between you and me,” she said, winking and wagging her finger playfully at me.
Always cheerful, always making light and sparking laughter for those around her, and always making herself “useful.” When she put me to bed at night, and told me bedtime stories, I felt like the luckiest child in Labrador. She captured my imagination with her stories of two little boys my age who could hold their breath, swim to the bottom of the ocean, and about their skirmishes with mythical sea creatures who lived beneath the ocean’s floor. She kept me yearning for more.
“Just another one?” I would beg, even as she kissed me goodnight.
“We must be patient and wait another day to hear what our two young trouts encounter next.” She picked up the kerosene lantern, a finger to her lips, and tiptoed from my room, her shadow following her through the doorway.
Her mother had died during childbirth. I feared that our time together might, too, be short-lived. Being the early 1900s, year-round medical help was not available in our remote northern communities and the women nursed as best they could with herbal remedies, tonics, and poultices. In late spring and early fall, a hospital ship, staffed with two nurses and two doctors, would call upon our villages, which could only be reached by boat. It wasn’t uncommon for mothers to die during childbirth, and for children to fade away without explanation, after suffering through high fevers for days and nights. Meningitis, the women called it. “Thank God, the poor little lamb won’t suffer anymore,” they would murmur. Mother knew that many deaths could have been prevented with access to prompt medical help. The doctor had told my parents this when he extracted Father’s painfully, infected tooth last spring.
It was a cool evening, just after supper. Mother was helping Father untangle and mend his nets, as she often would. She had strong, agile hands and she enjoyed the challenge of detangling a stubborn knot. The two of them bantered, Father’s jovial laughter echoed above the waves of the roiling ocean. With the nets mended, they would often return from the shoreline to our house, hand-in-hand. Every man and wife in our village envied my parents’ love for each other. This evening, however, when Mother grabbed a wet, tangled ball of rough rope, a large, filthy fish hook unexpectedly pierced through the flesh of her palm. Blood trickled over her apron and down the numbers printed on the bow of the dory. She gasped in surprise and sank to her knees. Father rushed to her side. Her hand still attached to the tangled ball.
“Ramona!” Father yelled. “Get the heavy cutters in the shed! Hurry!”
I brought them as fast as I could. I could see Mother lying limply beside the dory, trying to sit upright so as not to strain her arm. Father removed his coat and wrapped it around her, then crouched beside her and cradled her in his arms.
“Hold on, Bess!” he repeated. All her usual robust colour seemed to be draining away. Along her hairline, her red auburn curls were becoming damp and matted. Father untied her kerchief and gently wiped the sweat from her cheeks and forehead, rocking her in his arms.
“Ramona, help me pull the net from the hull. I’ll lay her down so I can cut the hook loose.”
I pulled with all my might to lift enough net out of the boat so Father could lay her down. Mother tried in vain to sit up again but fell back immediately. Her long, featherlike lashes flickered as her eyes flashed back and forth in confusion; her sculpted jawline clenched in agony. Such a sad beautiful face, I thought. Grimacing in pain, she pressed out a smile for me.
Knowing what Father must do to remove the rusty barbed hook, I turned away and squeezed my eyes shut until the ordeal was over.
With the help of Aunt Minnie and the village women, we kept Mother’s wound as clean as we could. Despite our efforts, the lesion became swollen and infected. Father and I slept by her side each night. I tried to lift her spirits by telling my own stories about the two young boys.
We all hoped Mother could hold on until the next hospital ship, but she slipped away from us on the seventeenth night. As I watched beads of sweat trickle down her forehead, her hand limpened in mine, and she faded from my grasp.
Father blamed himself for her death. No one could convince him otherwise.
I am older now, looking out over the Byte from the kitchen. I open a jar of blueberry jam and the joyous sound of my mother’s spirited laughter fills the air. I feel her presence. She wears a white apron, deftly shucking a large bowl of peas, making herself useful. Slowly, she rises from the table. A gust of wind swings the back door wide open and sweeps up her skirt. She turns to me as she passes through the doorway, wagging her finger and throwing me a wink. This time, she is wearing her Sunday best knickers.
Marion J. May lives in Ottawa, Canada. She is an online reading and writing tutor for children with dyslexia and creator of the Barrhaven Writers’ Circle. Her favourite novel is Anna Karenina.