When my mother decided to end her suffering from Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) with a medically assisted death, she knew exactly where it had to happen; in the window of the condo she shared with my dad, overlooking Saskatchewan Drive. She wanted to see the city behind the faces of her children.
My parents moved to Edmonton from Newfoundland in 1977. Dad was working 80-hour weeks as a resident at the University of Alberta Hospital, and Mom knew no one here. They planned to stay a year. I never asked her if there was a moment when they changed their minds, or if it was like sitting in the early summer sunshine and realizing it’s 10 p.m. They’d been here a few years when she first took up painting. Many works were scenes from home – the colourful row houses in St. John’s, a lonely dory. Yet while her brush drew her back on the canvas, it was here in Edmonton that she found herself immersed in a thriving arts community. She joined the Edmonton Art Club. She started acting at the Walterdale Theatre, and became a long-time volunteer. She wrote, produced, and often starred in plays for the second largest Fringe theatre festival in the world. When she wasn’t a participant, she was a patron.
A year before she died, Mom remounted a play she had written about the shipwreck her grandmother survived in 1906, as a fundraiser for MSA research. It’s a play about finding strength and resilience in the stories of our past, which took her back, once again, to the place where she was born. But it was this city that helped her tell that story, that sold out the shows, that filled the donation box. When she no longer had the ability to stand, this city returned the energy she had put into it for 40 years.
Mom knew there was something about Edmonton, this place that claims to have the most theatres per capita in North America, that celebrates music and dance and literature without pomposity, where art is grassroots but not underground. This is what I learned from my mother about home – that home is not the subject of your art, but the place that nurtures its creation.
This summer we took half of her ashes back to Newfoundland. The rest she wanted scattered here in Edmonton, but I will not tell you where. Think of her when the snow melts and the city is stippled with sand from winter-weary roads. Think of her when the silty river chases through the valley. Think of her during the Fringe, when thousands of feet have worn the grass around the gazebo to dust.
Jennifer Bowering Delisle is the author of The Bosun Chair, a hybrid of poetry and family memoir (NeWest Press 2017). Her poetry, nonfiction and fiction have appeared in magazines and anthologies across North America. She has a PhD in Canadian Literature, and teaches creative writing in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension. Find her at www.jenniferdelisle.ca.