I said goodbye to my mother on December 19. Every minute with her after that was “hello again.” Hello again and thank you for this gift of time and communion.
I had no idea, when I returned to Vancouver Island to be with Mom, how much time we had or what it might look like. But she and I both loved to read, so I tucked a couple of books into my suitcase.
Mom stopped being able to read after macular degeneration made her blind in one eye. Even before that, dementia tended to scramble the words somewhere between the page and her comprehension. A battered secondhand Catherine Cookson paperback sat on her coffee table for years, and the bookmark never advanced.
I hardly ever win anything, but last summer I won a copy of Shifting Currents (Embajadoras Press, 2016), Paula Dunning’s honest memoir of farming with her husband and young family in northern Ontario. I shot off an instant reply to Paula’s contest question on the Creative Nonfiction Collective Facebook page because I knew the answer was Our Bodies, Ourselves, the book that changed the game for my generation of women. Just recalling its title brought an avalanche of half-forgotten memories. If Shifting Currents would also do that, I wanted to read it.
I could not have chosen a more perfect book to read with Mom.
Paula Dunning’s memoir opens with her
standing on the edge of the Echo River, watching it flow upstream, seemingly determined to find its way back to its beginnings, to retrace its steps and revisit where it’s been.
Shifting Currents provided Mom and me with a vehicle to do the same.
The book follows the Dunning family “back to the land” in the 1970s and 80s. Through its carefully selected anecdotes, Mom and I came to know—and grew fond of—Paula and Jack Dunning, their three children and their animals. We commiserated with—or shook our heads about—some of their farming mistakes. We paused to give space for our emotions over their losses. When we encountered a word or phenomenon we knew nothing about, we asked “Auntie Google”—the AI who replies when you tap the mic in the Google app.
“That was informative,” Mom would grin after Auntie regaled us with the intricacies of shoo-fly pie, or hobbles.
Paula Dunning’s exploration of women’s changing role through the 60s, 70s and 80s gave us opportunities to talk about Mom’s life as compared to that of the author, who was only 13 years her junior yet belonged to a completely different generation. We talked about the contrasts between rural wives and mothers and their urban or even small-town counterparts. Mom and I were a tiny bit petty when we read about the members of the Women’s Institute opening their meetings by chanting “Keep us, O Lord, from pettiness; let us be large in thought, in word, in deed…”
More than anything, Shifting Currents gave Mom a window onto my life with Chris. Our farm is in northern BC, not Ontario; our river is the Skeena, not the Echo. But our landscape is as rugged, our winters as harsh, and our learning curve as steep. By the time LW and I embarked on our back-to-the-land adventure in 2003, the Dunnings had retired from farming, yet much of our experience mirrors theirs—and our equipment is about the same vintage.
Every chapter provided compost for me to convey to Mom my daily life: its challenges and joys. Through talking about those mundane events, I think Mom came to understand why I shifted course 12 years ago and moved so far away—not because I wanted to live apart from her and the rest of our family. Simply, I wanted this life. And I wanted to become the person this life, with its challenges and joys, would produce. As Paula Dunning writes, “Our lives create us as much as we create them.”
Reading Shifting Currents to my mother at the end of her life allowed us to share with each other the lives—and the women—each of us created.
Thank you, Paula Dunning, for this priceless gift.