Far from the city northward toward the mud flats of James Bay the geese will be migrating. Returning from Elizabeth’s school in Montreal, I heard their honking early one morning as they flew overhead. It was the month of March and it seemed almost too early for them to be returning but who knows better than the birds how soon spring will arrive. The spring gives me a sense of being born again as I see the newness of life appear in that which laid dormant during the winter. It springs upward and reaches out to the sunlight to colour the world around us as a painter with a scene to create. The painter is nature itself.
Let me bring back just once more a touch of winter before we close the chapter on it entirely and commence my story from there.
The icy cold wind blew furiously outside the domeshaped shelters. The dwellers moved about occupied with various tasks, relaxed and waiting for the weather to change. Time was measured by seasons and somewhere in the horizon spring would come.
The year was 1942 and the dwellers of the dome-shaped shelters had removed the coverings off the frames. They had stored that which was to be left behind and prepared for their journey southward.
They have been traveling steadily for a month. The long endurance of winter hardships was left behind and forgotten for the moment but at the end of the summer, they would return to the tranquillity that only the wilderness could fulfill.
It was the continued practice of the generations of those who came before them.
As they paddled, gusts of refreshing southerly winds caressed their bronze tanned faces and they heaved a sigh of contentment. It was as if in answer to their well-being the forest around them confirmed by stirring the branches of the trees as the breeze gently passed through them. The laughter carried through the forest and across the open waters. The drops of water glistened from the paddles as they were lifted from the water and sparkled as many diamonds caught by the sunrays. The ripples of water flowed gleaming and forming patterns towards the rocks and sand beaches as the canoes sliced their way close to the shore.
A young woman sat amongst the belongings of one of the canoes. She was almost wedged in by overlain bundles. Many concerned looks passed between the young woman and her mother. She was heavy with child and it was almost certain she would give birth before the journey ended. As every living thing in the wilderness began to replenish, she would become part of it. The dainty exotic small flowers that one could find sheltered close to the earth and the various small birds, which warbled their songs of beauty. They all came from the birth of spring springing forth to greet the season as would her first child.
The young woman pressed her hand upon her round stomach and felt the first pains of labour. The group hastily made its way to the nearest portage and pulled their canoes into the shoreline. They moved about in different directions preparing camp.
The young woman sat and watched as the tents were erected over poles so recently placed firmly into the ground. The women returned from the depths of the forest laden with boughs to be placed upon the bare ground inside the tents.
They were a people of few words as their nature did not permit the luxury of idle talk for their very survival depended on the silence of its members. The familiar sounds of someone chopping wood echoed through the serene density of the forest Children raced around the camp, happy to be able to stretch and move about after the confinement of the canoes. Their laughter was silenced by a mother who cast a look of seriousness in their direction.
Soon the young woman was ushered into the tent and made comfortable among the coverings and cushions that were spread on the bough covered floor. The long awaited moment had arrived and she felt the baby move within her as if to say it was also preparing to enter and make its presence known to its mother. Both were to venture in unknown areas and it would be a time the mother would remember for the both of them. The mother of the young woman set a kettle of water on the newly kindled fire. The evening came with its shadows and coolness of the night air. The children pressed close together for warmth and companionship under the faded patchwork blankets and were soon fast asleep.
In the array of tents was a shaman who had hung a drum dangling from the centre of the tent frame. Now he sat on the ground with the drum in line with the centre of his body. His hands were poised on the edge of the drum awaiting a proper time to commence his ceremony.
The other men sat before an open fire and the women gathered at the tent where the young women laid in labour. A moan escaped from the lips of the young woman as she felt the increase in the tempo of her labouring. The women looked anxiously towards her and almost instantaneously they heard the beginning of the chanting and the beating of the drum. The young woman relaxed to the soothing sounds which penetrated her being. Each time she felt the beginning of a pain, the drumming and chanting came forth comforting and healing the hurt.
The camp had grown silent and seemed to concentrate on the rhythm of the woman’s moans accompanied by the shaman’s interlude. Each soul fell under its mystical spell and was calmed of unforeseen fears. As the night clothed its darkness around the camp and forest, the drumming, chanting and travailing continued increasing as the time of birth drew nearer.
Soon the first streaks of light brushed across the trees silhouetting their spike-like tips and the sun rose to peak at the edge of the earth casting shadows on the shores. The cry of the newborn child challenged the breaking of the dawn and the shaman laid his drumstick to rest on the side of the hide.
My mother was 14 or 15 years old when I was born. It was time when many babies died from the malnutrition and sickness that afflicted the northern Crees, who were experiencing a depression of their own. Throughout my childhood and adult life, many of the people who were at the camp during the time of my birth and the first year of my young life filled in the details to make this story as real as possible. Louise (Gunner) Trapper’s mother was the midwife who delivered me and her husband Robbie Gunner gave me my first brushing. Because my mother was so young, Lizzie Edwards and Mary Petawabano nursed me. Mary always greets me by saying, I used to nurse you and look at how big you are now. Three days later my young mother and I were back in the canoe. The shaman was David Paddy.
Mother’s Day is on the 14th of May. A time when we honour and show our love to the mothers who gave us birth. I felt such a closeness to my mother when she shared my birth with me.
I saw the picture before, as I have tried to describe to you. My mother was sick this year with cancer and our family drew together as we realized how close we had come to losing her. But by God’s grace she is with us this year.
Let’s keep our stories alive. It is something we can share with our children and our grandchildren. When I was small, there was an understanding that all Elders were our grandparents and I like to feel that is still true. Everyone was responsible for everyone else and it drew us closer together.
It is time for goose break and many families will share some traditional time together in the depth of the wilderness. The excitement of this time of the year reaches my family and we look forward with anticipation to coming together as a family again. Part of me leaves for the bush and longs for the tranquillity of nature and peacefulness that surrounds the camp.