The Unthinkable: Doing Nothing?

Gabrielle Desjardins Nowell

I don’t remember my mother ever doing nothing. Even when she watched her soaps, she’d bake, iron, or sew. Idle hands, never. Summertime, she gardened. When dad was working, she’d tend to the farm animals. In the winter she’d can, bake bread and sew. Later years she hooked rugs. She was always doing something.

Bibianne Gauthier Desjardins


I imagine it was the same for her mother, who had 12 children before she was 50.

Gabrielle, 2nd from left, and her sisters

My mother never ridiculed me in public or private. She never questioned my values. She never criticized my religious or political views, though they might differ from hers. Okay, I remember one time she did raise her eyebrows and her jaw did drop at something I’d said. I was pretty mouthy as a teen. At 13, I was an enigma to her.

Gabrielle with her first child


I’ve been imagining her this week. Generally I think of her every day, but this week I’ve been seeing her busy doing her chores: cleaning, sewing, weeding. I wish I’d asked her what she thought about while her hands were busy. Did she stop thinking and just enjoy the tasks?

Every day I make a point to grab a book and read for 30 minutes. I do this a few times a day. Sometimes I meditate. During the summer I sit on the deck. Lately she’s there beside me, crocheting or doing needlework.

My hands are often idle. Sure I watch TV with my laptop open, but other times I sit and try very hard not to think. I notice the lake, the eagles, the loons, the ducks. In my mother’s world, that would have been the same as doing nothing.

I asked her spirit once if she was disappointment by my idleness. I heard a clear “No.”

She thought I was smarter, prettier, and more astute than she was, and said so often. “You’re so much brighter than I am, Joylene. I hope you realize that.”

I didn’t. She played the piano and the guitar, yet couldn’t read music. I can’t read a note; and forget trying to play an instrument.

She read the first 4 pages of Omatiwak: Woman Who Cries in its infancy the night before she passed away. In the  morning I found the pages on the dining room table with the spelling mistakes circled. She was an exceptionally good speller despite only reaching grade eight. She said it was because she read lots (lots being in bed at night).

Gabrielle, before the children.


My mother attended an English speaking school before she could speak English. She had to quit in grade eight because she was needed at home to help with her younger siblings. Her father died when she was eighteen, and she found a job at Swift Meats in Winnipeg so she could help with the financial burden on her mother. During the war, she rose to shift supervisor. On her days off she toured the province with the Glee club. She had a wonderful singing voice. She and two younger sisters performed regularly on the radio. Their official name was The Three Ds, but fans referred to them as the Winnipeg Lennon Sisters. On one of their tours she met Bob Hope.

Gabrielle, grandmother.


I do remember my mother saying “Oh shit,” once. Okay, maybe twice. When I told her I repeatedly mumbled “Bloody hell” during the birthing of the little man above, she nodded and said, “That’s understandable.”

On one of their trips to Manitoba from BC, my mother had to pee badly. Dad wasn’t always quick to pull over. When he finally did, the traffic was thick and he grabbed a blanket to give her some privacy. But the wind was blowing and when a big semi-truck sped past, the wind picked up the blanket and flapped it with such force that Mum peed all over dad’s moccasins. Ah, the look of horror on her face every time he repeated that story.

Pregnant with Joylene


My mother passed away in her sleep October 16, 1999. I wonder if she’s able to see me now, the daughter who wasn’t always as considerate or conscientious as I should have been. I hope so. Because in the end, I turned out very much like her. No, I don’t sing, sew, crochet, or play an instrument, but I’m a walking institution on the merits of keeping busy. The best part, I get to share stories about her in blogland.

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