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A legacy of encouragement

By Alma Barkman


Even as a small, shy preschooler, I enjoyed visits to Aunt Ede’s big green house with the front porch shaded by Virginia creepers. She was not only my mother’s best friend; she made me feel about 10 feet tall by always saying something kind. “Oh haven’t you got the shiniest braids, my dear! And just look at that pretty dress!”

I enjoyed trying to live up to her high opinion of me. Even if I just sat quietly and watched the birds at her feeder while she and Mom visited, Aunt Ede noticed my good behaviour. “My, but you are such a quiet little girl. Would you like to look at my big bird book?”

After I started school, I discovered that telling her about my good marks was better than getting a big gold star. “I just knew you could do it!” she would say. She gave me hope that, one day, I might be a confident young woman instead of a timid farm girl.

I couldn’t help but reminisce as I prepared to go and visit her. By this time I was a middle-aged woman, and Aunt Ede had recently reached her 90th birthday, but her mind was as bright and lively as ever. She toddled across her kitchen to meet me, her frail little body bundled in the folds of a fuzzy blue sweater. “Oh, but don’t you look better than ever,” she exclaimed. “It does my old heart a world of good to see you!”

I was glad I had dressed up, just for her. She wiped away her tears of happiness and as we visited, I took photos of the birds flocking about her feeder, and yes, she still had that bird book I so enjoyed as a child. Her eyes twinkled when she quizzed me about my achievements that by then included several books and published articles. “I always knew you could do it. I just knew!”

A few weeks later I got word that Aunt Ede’s life was slowly ebbing to a close. Her final weeks in hospital were like that of an injured bird resigned to its cage — confined for the care she required but longing to be free, free to watch her many feathered friends returning to her bird feeder after the long hard winter. “Why it would just do my old heart good to see that first big black crow of spring flapping along overhead.”

But her dear old heart needed more than the encouraging signs of birds returning from the south, bringing with them the hopes and promises of another summer. And so as quietly as one of her feathered friends would do, at the end of her days she tucked her soul beneath the everlasting Wings and fell asleep.

Driving out to the country for Aunt Ede’s funeral, I saw a big black crow fly lazily through the morning mist, and the sight of it did me good, in a sorrowful kind of way.

The minister wove Aunt Ede’s love of bird watching into his eulogy. “Not even one sparrow can fall to the ground without God the Father knowing, and she was of infinitely more value than many sparrows.” I thought of her petite body and bright eyes, and how in death she so resembled the empty shell of a little bird that had suddenly lost its song.

With gentleness and care we tucked her away beneath the sod of the little rural cemetery, while the soft spring rain mingled with our tears and a returning meadowlark trilled resurrection hope.

Its song brought to mind all the many birds Aunt Ede and I had watched when I was young, and how in lieu of a bird feeder, I had resorted to observing our little flock of chickens on the farm. Aunt Ede had listened to me with as much delight as if I were a birder who had just caught sight of a rare species, especially when I told her of how the baby chicks scurried in under their mother’s wings when a hawk flew overhead. Safely sheltered there, the chicks found loving reassurance and acceptance, just like Aunt Ede offered me when I was so young and insecure.

Her encouragement was a haven when at times I wanted to run for shelter from the poverty that hovered over my childhood, or hide from the rude remarks of peer pressure that threatened to swoop down and destroy my teenage years. Not only did I make it through my problems, I managed to rise above my disadvantages. Aunt Ede would have been pleased. I could almost hear her saying, “I always knew you could do it. I just knew!”

And when the talons of gossip threatened to rip apart my reputation, making me feel small and vulnerable, I remembered how Aunt Ede always believed in me, and I was able to hold my head up high instead of cringing in fear.

“I just knew you could do it. I just knew.”

When I found myself cowering under the gaunt spectre of death as it loomed over my husband, Psalm 91:4 came to mind. “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” I always associated that verse with Aunt Ede, and she would have expected me to flee to God for courage and strength, and I found shelter in him.

Over the years I did my best to pass Aunt Ede’s legacy of encouragement on to our own children. I have now seen it thriving in the fourth generation of our family. The other day our toddler grandson managed to drink his milk without spilling any, and I heard our daughter exclaim, “Good job! I knew you could do it!”

Barkman is a freelance writer from Winnipeg (