We never knew exactly when she would arrive. As she used to say, “When the spirit moves me I get in my car, fill up the tank and start driv’n.”
By herself, she would drive from Saskatchewan to wherever we were living at the time. It was like the moment her car pulled up, a spell was cast over our family. A spell of wonderment, excitement and joy. Sometimes it felt like I lived for Grandma Tilly’s visits.
Each morning I would awake full of anticipation, as I knew a day of adventure awaited me. She taught me how to hook a worm on my fishing rod, how to snare a rabbit, how to hold a baseball bat, how to load a pipe with tobacco so that it would be easy to smoke but not burn the tobacco too fast, and how to stitch the hem on my pants. When I think back, though, perhaps it wasn’t the things I learned to do from Grandma Tilly that have impacted my life the most. Instead it was what I learned from how she lived her life. I learned the importance of keeping our word to people, about telling the truth and always, treating people with dignity and respect—whether they deserved it or not.
Every night after dinner, we’d sit outside and she would pull out her pipe bag and load her pipe for her evening smoke. I can still smell the scent of her tobacco, different from what people smoke today. Grandma Tilly grew her own tobacco. Each winter she would start with 8 seeds; she grew 4 plants for her personal tobacco and 4 plants for use in ceremony, and to make offerings with. She started the plants in the house and would then transfer them to her garden at full moon in May. They were often the most beautiful plants in the garden, especially when they flowered. Thanksgiving Weekend was always tobacco harvesting time for Grandma Tilly and she was known to miss many a turkey dinner because she was in the barn so tenderly and methodically harvesting her tobacco plants.
“Come ‘ere little Tilly, gather under my wing and let’s talk about the day,” she’d say. I’d skootch a bit closer and she would tuck me close to her and wrap her arm around me. Although she had a gift of making everyone feel important and unique, it was these moments that I felt like the most special person in the world. Grandma Tilly and I would go over the escapades of our day and she’d ask me, “Wha’d you learn today?” and “What was the best part of your day?”
In so many ways, Grandma Tilly was ahead of her time. She was feisty, charismatic, funny, had wicked aim with a sling shot and was known to match any man shot to shot with whiskey. She was well-read and a University graduate; which for her age and especially as an Indian woman at that time, is remarkable unto itself. After she gave birth to her fourth of thirteen children, she gave up her dream of becoming a Doctor and focused on raising her family and running the family farm. She wasn’t simply full of love, kindness and joy…she was love, kindness and joy.
One night Grandma Tilly and I were sitting outside and she was having her evening pipe. “You know lil’ Tilly, I was about as old as you are now when I first started learn’n about books.”
“Really?” I asked, “Didn’t you have to go to school?”