Nokom—my grandmother—came down for a rare visit recently. The occasion was my sister’s wedding reception. I have probably seen Nokom less than a dozen times in the nine years since my own wedding reception.

I have lived in Ottawa during those nine years, attending university and now training to become a lawyer. Before moving to Ottawa, I spent most of my life in California. Nokom has always lived in Chisasibi.

However, it is not the geographic distance which separates us; it is a linguistic one. For I do not speak Cree. At least not well enough to carry on a conversation with anyone over the age of two.

My mother is fluent in Cree, but she did not speak it at home during my childhood. I do not blame her for this. Residential school had taught her that her Cree heritage, including her language, was something to be ashamed of, a handicap to be overcome. Isolated from her culture and homeland, she tried to blend in to urban society and raise up her children in the manner she had been taught was best.

I do not blame her. But I do regret it. And I most keenly feel that regret in relation to Nokom.

Nokom can speak English, quite well in fact. As a young child, I do not recall any difficulties communicating with her. We engaged in the usual grandmother/granddaughter activities: She taught me to bead necklaces. We went berry-picking together—at least she picked, while I ate. I helped her lay fragrant spruce boughs on the floor of our miijwaap in the bush. I harassed her for money to buy a can of soda while she tried to concentrate on her bingo game. I sat behind her in church, listening proudly as she played the organ. She patiently combed my hair for lice. I admired the ease with which she gathered fish from her nets, plucked geese and mixed her bannock.

Perhaps we didn’t speak much then. Perhaps words were not necessary.

But as I grew older, we became almost like strangers. The year-long stretches which separated my visits North seemed to grow in significance. With the awkward self-consciousness of adolescence I became acutely aware of, and embarassed by, my un-Creeness. I did not want to draw attention to it by speaking English. So I rarely spoke at all.

I have come to regret these missed opportunities more deeply in the past few years since I have become a mother. I would have so liked to teach my children Cree.

I have tried to pass on what I know, and, in fact, some words are in regular usage in our home. (Although I’m not sure that words like “booboosh” and “doodoosh” are going to get them very far in Cree society.)

Motherhood has made me aware of the way we are related—my grandmother, my mother, my daughters and I. We are like links in a chain. We are circles within circles. There is so much that I would like to know about her. To know her better would be to better know myself,

I think.

So it was with these feelings in my heart that I greeted her on her last visit. There was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to hear her tell. But it is hard when we are both naturally shy. I tried. I bought her dinner. She visited my home for the first time. We went for a walk. We laughed together over my children.

Perhaps we didn’t speak much. Perhaps words were not necessary.

Nevertheless, as we hugged each other goodbye, I mustered the courage to say to Nokom, in my white-man’s tongue, I think for the first time: “I loved you.” She kissed my cheek and replied in kind, “I love you too.”

It was just as if the words had always been spoken between us.