The Red Sweater

The Red Sweater

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Red Sweater

In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.

Alice Walker

Time didn’t ease the pain of losing my mother. Each day brought new sorrow since her death over a year ago; often I found myself fighting back unexpected tears.

Mom died just before the Christmas season the year before, after a short battle with cancer. At the age of seventy-two, she had been well prepared for her death, but I was not.

All her life, Mom was there for me; although now a grown woman, I still needed my senior parent for advice and comfort. We were the best of friends, and over the years, we shared, laughed and cried together.

I often found myself wearing her red sweater, holding it to my cheeks, drinking in its aroma. It had been Mom’s favourite, and it was faded and worn from years of use. I claimed the sweater after her death. It held so many memories, and now I drew comfort from them.

Mom came from West Arichat, a tiny Acadian fishing village on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Of both French and Indian background, she had a gentle, soft touch. To cope with my grief, I began imagining my aged parent reaching out to comfort me. Her tanned hands, worn and shrivelled from age and work, had cradled babies, cared for a large family, and brought life to plants and flowers. I would imagine her wearing the red sweater, her hand reaching out and covering mine, and then she would whisper a memory in my ear.

I’d smile, remembering.

Mom lost both her cultures when she married my father, a white man, and moved from her island to live on his. When she arrived in isolated and rural Cardigan on Prince Edward Island at the age of eighteen, she began to learn English. Sadly, her knowledge of both French and her native Chinook began to fade away.

One of my favourite memories are the native powwows we attended on Panmure Island. Part of Prince Edward Island, Panmure Island is an old Mi’kmaq gathering place. First Nations people from all over North America travelled there to participate in the powwows. It was an opportunity for Mom to mingle with the First Nations people, wear her native shirt, dance in the sacred circle and socialize. She loved going to those powwows and proudly identified with her ancient roots, which had been silenced for so many years. I remember her telling an elder once, “I’m Indian, too.” Although she had moved into the white man’s world when she married, she never lost her Chinook heritage of strong native spirituality, deep respect for the land, and love for the outdoors—all of which she passed on to me and my eight brothers and sisters.

During the last powwow we attended, a few months before she became ill, I heard the Great Spirit whisper in my ear that it would be the last time we would travel to the powwows together. It was.

Now, her image travels with me in the car or visits when I feel grief and pain. She always wears the red sweater and for an instant, our hands join. Death has not separated us.

Sometimes the momentary images are so strong I find myself reaching out my hand to her imaginary one. It is as if she is always there, always with me, watching over me.

One day I sat waiting for my turn to have my hair done in the beauty parlour. I was exhausted from working, and I became frustrated with the wait. Then I noticed a small child watching me. She and her mom were holding hands while they stood at the counter. They moved to the area where I was sitting, so I moved over one chair to give them room to sit down.

The little girl looked around, then said to me, “Where did the woman go that was sitting beside you?” Surprised at her question, because no one had been sitting next to me, I asked her who she was asking about. “The woman wearing the red sweater,” she quipped. “She was holding your hand, just like my mommy and me.”

My fatigue and frustration were suddenly gone as a warm glow washed over me. Smiling, I realized my mom never left me. She really is only a shadow away.

Stella Shepard
Morell, Prince Edward Island

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