There’s an image I have of my Kokum. She’s seated at a kitchen table, the chair pulled back. She’s hunched over, her elbows rested on her knees. Her head is bowed. One hand covers her eyes. She’s lost in memory. 

It’s an image seared into my mind. One I’ve seen time and again during that period of her life. We may have been in different houses, but she was always at a kitchen table. She never says much.

Kokum was our matriarch. The foundation our family was built around. Quiet. Firm. Humorous. Gentle. Strong. She was those things and much more. 

When she developed Alzheimer’s, and later, Dementia, we rallied around her. Becoming stronger as a family than we had ever been. 

Her passing left a gaping hole. 

Since her death, that image I can’t escape. She was fragile and seemingly alone. Her thoughts drifted to a time of her life that clearly haunted her. She would tell, whoever may be in earshot, that she had gone to residential school and it was the loneliest time of her life. If you had seen her at these times, you knew she was troubled. That she was deeply impacted by her experience. The only words she could muster: “I was so lonely.” 

I’ll never know what may or may not have happened to Kokum during her time at McIntosh and St. Anne’s residential schools. Only that she could not escape that past. When Alzheimer’s took hold, those distant memories resurfaced. Haunting her. 

But being the resilient and strong person she was, like so many other survivors like her, she did her best to raise her children. Sixteen of them. As well as several foster children. She cared deeply for her kids, her love never wavering. She faced life’s struggles with humour. Something she passed on to many of us. 

It’s what I remember most about her. Her ability to make us laugh (sometimes unintentionally). Her enduring faith. Her quiet love for her children (and many, many grandchildren). Her smile. 

My Kokum, Emelda Wesley (nee Spence), with my grandfather, Samuel Wesley (left) and great grandfather, James Spence (seated).

Yet, that image of her. The weight on her shoulders. The hunch in her back. The lowered head. Lost in the thoughts of the past. Haunted and frail. I can’t forget, nor will I forget. I look to the past, not to dwell. But to understand. What it did to my Kokum. To my family. What it does to this day. 

I recently visited the site of McIntosh Indian Residential School, where not only Kokum went, but her three brothers as well. One of those brothers never made it home. Later, her eldest son attended the school. 

It was a deeply emotional visit. It threw me into depression. But yet, I walk away from that experience with a determination to move on from the past. Determined to make a future that is better for my son. For myself. 

My son, Dolor, and I at the 2017 Eagle Lake powwow.


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