Making Medicine Pouches

I love my aunt. She’s always been like a second mother to me. Especially these last years, when my own mother failed, my aunt, as so often, was forced to be the safe harbour in which our family finds shelter.

My aunt is surprising. She stays up late and at 88 years old, still likes to travel. If there are potatoes to dig, she just might go dig them. She’s tough – and still, in the ways that count, old fashioned.

But not old fashioned in many other ways. We did something together tonight that I never thought we would do. We made and tied medicine pouches, with elk leather and sweetgrass from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. The pouches are destined to be used as gifts here in Saskatchewan.

A big part of pilgrimage is learning how to receive the kindness of others. We haven’t even really begun our local Camino – this North West Mounted Police Patrol Trail pilgrimage – and so far there have already been meals, a donated vehicle, and beds to keep us sheltered until we put up our tents.

But part of pilgrimage is also recognizing what gifts we strangers bring with us to these lands we cross, and bringing physical evidence of such gifts with us. That is why I have the sweetgrass and the red string from the Mohawk, for some of the First Nations and Metis people we will meet here. I read recently that even though the Mohawk almost never came this far west, there was a group of them that overwintered, in the 19th century, in the Cypress Hills, where so many other First Nations gathered in the final, collapsing days of the bison hunting economy.

I wonder what those Mohawk saw, and thought. My aunt and I cut the leather and together wrapped up the sweetgrass. It felt like something blessed to be doing this with her, my aunt with whom so often I’ve gone to church and sung hymns as well. Someone with whom I hold this land, this prairie, in common. I held the pouch up to her nose: that smells so good, I said. Doesn’t it. That smell of leather.

She smiled. Or maybe what smells so good, she answered, is the sweetgrass.

Isabelle and the pouches

Memory Files

Pre-K in Swift Current

Memory Files

Early in the New Year, for almost 25 years running, I’ve created what I call “memory files” for my family. Setting them up long ago became one of those January traditions, along with packing up Christmas decorations, transferring appointments to the new agenda, and throwing out the December eggnog that seemed like such a good idea to buy at the time. Memory files are hardly a new idea. Maybe you do the same thing. They’re nothing special – just those plain, cream-coloured manila file folders we all use. But with these particular folders, I sit down every January and carefully print someone’s name and the year. Then, throughout the twelve months, if there’s a concert my daughter performs in, a card from a special aunt or uncle, some doodling, a to-do list that really says what’s happening in our lives (pay violin lessons, call re: job offer) or maybe even a little hand-written note – “gone to the store; I’ll be back in twenty minutes”, I might keep it and, at some point, toss it in the file.
I keep one for myself, too. Looking back, it’s interesting how the width of the folders changes, depending on the year. Which means, I guess, depending on where I and my kids are in our lives. From the halcyon years when the kids were young, the file folders are like horns of plenty: spilling with colourful bits and pieces. In those years, scrapbook pages and school drawings and construction paper in bright oranges and blues and reds and greens bulge out of the files, all fighting for attention.
These days, not so much. The files are neater, more organized, and much, much slimmer. There might be a strip photograph of teenagers taken in one of those photo booths at the mall, or a ticket stub from a “One Direction” concert, or a ribbon from a sports event, and not much else. Actually, these days my file is looking thicker than my kids, which doesn’t mean that less is happening in their lives, only that I’m less a part of it. With my grown sons I’ve gone through, already, that awkward stage of not quite knowing why I’m even keeping a file, and then, finally, realising that our daily lives just don’t overlap enough for me to “file” much.
The word “keep-sake” is interesting for what it doesn’t say. Keep for the sake of what? Or whom? For a couple of decades I have been keeping, I suspect, for my own sake more than anyone else’s. At some point soon, I will have to divest myself of at least some of these memories, and it will be up to my children to claim which memories they want to treasure, and which are ready to be let go.
Only a few years ago I found a little box in the storage unit where my father keeps his things. In it were dumped all kinds of detritrus having to do with my young life: the ribbon that I won at a Science Fair in grade six, a photo of a clean-cut little blond boy with a bow-tie that I struggle to see myself in, and more school graduation bulletins than a person can ever reasonably expect a parent to suffer through. But suffer they did, and they kept the papers to prove it.
It was such a pleasure to open that box and sift through its treasures. Some of the memories were painful, but many brought a smile to my eyes. And some of the items brought tears. Our memories of our families are so short. For all the stuff that we accumulate, precious little of it has meaning beyond a generation or two.
But, at least for now, I will keep collecting. It may be that, years from now, some little item that I scrounged from recycling will be picked up by hands younger than mine, turned over once or twice, and with a “well, will you look at this?”, will be shared. And then the circle will be complete, and the memories not just filed, but fulfilled.

The Cowichan Sweater

The Cowichan Sweater

Over a quarter-century ago, before they came back into fashion, my father was throwing out some of his clothes. One of the items was a Siwash sweater he’d worn in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If you’re unfamiliar with the term Siwash, they are also called “Cowichan” sweaters, after a style developed by the indigenous peoples of south-east Vancouver island (see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cowichan_knitting).

Truth be told, back then I wasn’t sure what I thought about the sweater. I’d only ever seen “old people” wear them – and most of those old folks were curlers at that. But the sweater was hand-made, and hand-made for my father with images of his 1950s construction vehicles on it, which to me made all the difference. So I saved the piece, and had it resized for my smaller frame by a kind elderly neighbour. Then I put it in a box for almost thirty years, only taking it out occasionally.

This last week I put the sweater on. My father has been wheelchair-bound for a long time. He’s lost weight – a lot of weight, and the sweater that I had made smaller would now be much too big for him in turn. I wear it, not in Saskatchewan where it came from, but in Montreal, where, for at least the moment, and for certain groups of students such sweaters are all the rage (not being the pinnacle of style, I may have missed ‘the moment’ even as I report it!).

But this was more an act of memory and legacy. When I put on the Cowichan this last week, I felt connected across the decades to the man my father was. Don’t ask me exactly how this works. But to feel the wool across my shoulders makes me realize how he and I are connected. We are very different men, in very different times and places. But as he passes 80, and suffers so badly from crippling Parkinson’s, I wear the sweater and wonder: “what was he thinking when he wore this?” “How did he look at the world?” “Did he have any idea what lay ahead?” He would have been a younger man than I am now. But the wearing connects me to him, and to that wild, open country from which both he and I come.

We can talk all we want about memory being a mental process, but in families as in religion there’s something important about the totem, the symbol, the revered object. There’s something special in taking an object into our hands and letting the memories enter us through our skin.

This last week my daughter, who has been eying one of my own sweaters, came out of her room one morning before school. “I’ve got nothing to wear,” said the young woman who has drawer after drawer of clothing spilling over. “Could I wear that sweater of yours?” She had a sparkle in her eye.

It’s all about connection. I just might ask my grown sons if they have anything I can borrow.