Am I helpless?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

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Am I Helpless?
I can milk a cow, castrate a pig, stack hay in a barn and shovel manure into the back of a truck all afternoon. I can change a tire in the rain, brew elderberry wine and create chocolate candies using my granny's old recipes and black walnuts I've picked up along the road. Early in life, I decided to be a person who could do anything, and when I wanted to travel and had no money, I hitchhiked across the continent. Once, I bicycled over the highest pass in the Swiss Alps, carrying my sleeping bag, luggage, bike tools and food.

At age 40, in order to be able to defend myself, I took up martial arts and earned a second-degree black belt in Kobudo, an Okinawan weapons art. Nowadays I also run several times a week, to stay in shape, for sure, but also so I'll be able to outrun an attacker or chase down a runaway child before she wanders into the road. I've taught my nieces how to pee in the woods (instead of trying to balance with your panties down, lean your back against a tree as though sitting in a chair). You might say I've made it my business not to be helpless, whether that means learning how to patch the roof, snake out the drain, or install ceramic tile to save money and the trouble of hiring someone. Refusing to be helpless has made me a better wife and companion to my husband of 26 years. He knows he can rely on me to do my share and shoulder whatever burdens our lives present.

My spirit of self-sufficiency has come largely from my mother, Susanna, who raised five children alone and learned to butcher her own animals in order to feed us, despite having an arm that was damaged at birth, leaving her partially disabled. She has always loved men, but she never wanted to depend on one.

Now that my mother is aging, I see her needing more help, and it frightens me. She's just had her second spinal surgery and is recovering in a determined way, but she's very restricted in her movements. Every day she makes a list of the tasks that are beyond her; a recent list included "clean up the cat's vomit" and "take the lid off the cranberry juice." This is the woman who canned 200 quarts of tomatoes every autumn and saddle-broke wild horses in her spare time. She didn't tolerate slacking in her kids, and was maybe even more demanding of my sister and me than of my three brothers, since she knew the pitfalls that await women who can't take care of themselves. We heard about the dangers of alcohol, men and pregnancy years before we needed to.

Though Susanna has had her share of difficult and sorrowful circumstances, she has rarely asked for sympathy. Yet she has always been quick to offer it. When she had money beyond what the bills required, she often loaned it out with little hope of repayment. She allowed other kids to move into our house to avoid abusive or difficult homes, and after her own kids left home, she rented the rooms cheaply to folks in need. In other words, all the while she was being tough, my mother was cultivating a life rich with friends and family who are now eager to help her when she can't do everything herself. Her new challenge is learning how to let them.
Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of the novel Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton)