July is Mother’s birthday month. If she were still living, she would be 103 years old on the 23rd. Like most Mennonite women in the 1950s, Mother Ruth expended energy in keeping house, making meals, and preserving a garden harvest. She especially enjoyed motherhood and read to me from a Bible story book. From this I learned about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, David keeping sheep, Elijah being whisked to heaven in a chariot, and Jesus born in a manger. This is what the story book’s cover looked like:
Velma Willis’ mother also shared stories with her, at first telling her legends from their Athbascan Indian heritage in an Alaskan village close to the Arctic Circle. Ms. Willis has preserved one of these stories in the book titled Two Old Women.
Velma Willis, about her mother’s bedtime stories:
“Each day after cutting wood we would sit and talk in our small tent on the bank at the mouth of the Porcupine River, near where it flows into the Yukon. We would always end with Mom telling me a story. (There I was, long past my youth, and my mother still told me bedtime stories!) One night it was a story I heard for the first time—a story about two old women and their journey through hardship.
What brought the story to mind was a conversation we had earlier while working side by side collecting wood for the winter. Now we sat on our bedrolls and marveled at how Mom in her early fifties was still able to do this kind of hard work while most people of her generation long since had resigned themselves to old age and all of its limitations. I told her I wanted to be like her when I became an elder.” Intro. xi
Then Velma transcribed this oral legend into print.
Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River Valley in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine.
Though these women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die trying. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community, and forgiveness “speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness, and wisdom” (Ursula K. Le Guin).
Author Velma Wallis recounts an Alaskan legend in a story of betrayal, courage and survival. The peoples of the Athabascan culture were nomads, always on the move in search of food. At one particularly trying time, the tribe experienced a famine and decided two older women are expendable. These women, Chickadee, age 80, and Star, age 75, are slated to leave their people. In a dramatic illustration of “floating to death on an ice floe,” the women have either to adapt or die. They resolve to defy the odds, stating “We are going to prove them wrong.”
In eight chapters, the legend expands into lessons in survival, the women reviving old skills: fashioning snowshoes from birchwood, recalling the best places to fish, and warming themselves in caribou skins, all the while carrying live coals from post to post.
In a conclusion that echoes the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, the legend teaches mutual respect for all ages in a community, especially elderly wisdom. In preserving this story, author Willis reminds us that “stories are gifts given by an elder to a younger person.” (xii) Wallis tells a tale for all generations with simplicity and grace, a myth that will hold the reader in its thrall.
My Mother’s Gifts
- Appreciated the home arts: Preparing food from garden to table
- Illustrated the value of hard work: tomato field, garden, preserving food by canning and freezing, keeping a tidy house
- Taught me to sew on her Singer sewing machine.
- Demonstrated how to care for an infant
- Hosted twelve or more friends or family with a formal table set with china and crystal every few months
- Sang songs of joy in the kitchen, her happy place
Demonstrated simple faith, complete trust in God: “Whatever the Lord wants is best.”
Were bedtime stories part of your childhood?
What special stories has your mother passed on to you?
What stories or legends have been told and retold in your family? What legend or story will you transmit to the next generation?
I will be celebrating several family birthdays this month and also taking a short break from social media including blogging. See you back soon, Stay safe!