A metal trunk full of memorabilia from my mother Elsie’s long life had been stored in my garage for several years. She was a remarkably strong woman until the age of 85, when a meningitis attack left her severely handicapped. After my sisters and I arranged a nursing home placement, we sorted through her possessions, divided up things we wanted and gave the rest to charity, and eventually sold her empty house — empty but for the beloved piano that still stood in one corner of the basement. Years before, a room had been built around it in which she practiced the music she played for countless church and community events. It was too costly now to have the instrument removed.
Our mother had been an avid diarist since at least the 1930s, and though she lived on in her nursing home for another eight years, the trunk remained in my garage until one day after her death I took it into my house and opened it. Of the hundreds — if not thousands — of handwritten diary pages, many held a passing interest for me, but they consisted mainly of entries that quickly became tedious. “I baked raisin bread and cloverleaf buns.” “Lydia Lazenby was here.” “We dug potatoes. A very poor crop. From 3 rows we got 2_ bags.” “I sewed on Eileen’s dresses.”
But some entries stood out from the rest, like this one about my father written a few years after his death. “I miss Albert — but between God and me, we can handle it. I am a happy person.” She had been widowed for only a short time when certain men began bidding for her favours — five of them in all, each one noted and dismissed with scorn. “I went to the shoe maker, and that old, fat ugly guy asked me to marry him” — the last two words written in red pen rather than the blue of surrounding lines.
Then, on July 1, 2003, just a few months before the disease put her in a nursing home, her final notebook contained the longest entry of any she’d written in nearly 70 years of diarizing, and it was recorded entirely in red ink. With only a few minor punctuational changes, this is what she wrote.
I had a very strange experience a week or so ago. I was heavily into music, at the home for the aged, nursing home, community picnic, about a good dozen songs for the baptismal candidates etc. I was just beat, so on Sun. after I came from church, I hit the bed and was out. Slept like a log.
All at once I woke up and it was light, it was 7:30 so I got up, I thought — “How could I have slept all thru the night without waking?” I thought it was 7:30 a.m. so I went outside and started transplanting plants which I had bought at Marvin’s Gardens on Sat. and gradually it got darker & darker, & I was wondering “How come.”
Finally I could hardly see anymore and I thought of Revelation where it says about the sun & moon & darkness and was wondering if the rapture was going to take place, and finally I had to go inside because I couldn’t see anything & when I got in, I realized it was 7:30 p.m. But when I thought about the rapture I asked myself “So have you asked many people whether they would be ready for the rapture?” I knew I was ready. So I had not slept as long as I thought I had.
But then a short while after this I dreamt Jesus had come & as I went up, I looked to see whether I could see all my loved ones go up with me. Quite an experience.
Exhausted or disoriented as my mother may have felt at the time, this incident was plainly one of the most powerful of her entire life. As far as I know, she never mentioned it to anyone, but wrote it privately, and devoted more time and space to it than to anything else in the dozens of journals and scribblers that filled her blue trunk.
Now I’m left to make of it what I will. The whole event, culminating in her dream and the “quite an experience” awakening, still holds a somewhat disconsolate feeling. She doesn’t say, for instance, that her loved ones were in the company of the saved. Nor does she vow to ask more people whether they’re ready for the rapture, though clearly she thinks she should. Above all, though Jesus has returned, still he fails to appear in the sky through which he comes, and through which she and unnamed others are rising.
I think these anxieties must have been assuaged by the time my mother died. For although the brain damage caused her great difficulties in speaking, often her mind was clear and she was able to get many of her meanings through to others. Sometimes, for example, she wanted to discuss her estate matters, yet never of her own accord did she mention religion, though she liked to hum along with old familiar hymns on her cassette tapes while she pointed at the birds coming to feed outside her window.
Ah, mother, it all feels so much like life now, and how I suppose dying may feel — still travelling, looking around, still waiting for eternal joy.
Still writing down words, and who’ll say why?
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.