January 19, 2020
We are strongly influenced by those who raised us. Whether we take on different beliefs or not, what we learned in our early years set the foundation for our lives. As unique entities, each of my parents’ children has taken a different perspective. It just means the influence they had on their offspring has been incredibly varied.
My mother, Maria, was born on January 19, 1922 into a middle class family in Hamburg, Germany. As the youngest child, she lived a life of privilege even though post war Germany was reeling from economic and social upheaval. The family had a business in the city close to their home in Hamburg and owned a summer home and small farm in a village on the outskirts of the city.
Towards the end of World War 11, the horrors of war hit home as allied forces bombed the cities. The family home in Hamburg was destroyed and numerous members of her family died. Starvation and homelessness of civilians was widespread. But, the family’s summer home and gardens on the outskirts of Hamburg were intact. Surviving family members had to share the accommodation with other homeless people, but there was food in the garden that helped sustain them.
When my parents moved to Canada in 1952, they immediately started looking for a farm to settle the family. They bought a farm with considerable natural beauty, but was difficult to work. My mother never hesitated to take on challenges.
We were taught from an early age to eat what was on our plates and to not waste a crumb. I don’t remember being told about children starving in other countries but rather first hand memories of abundance of food quickly turning into scarcity. Food should not be taken for granted.
Our move to the farm near Frankford, Ontario helped to ground us. We spent our days outside, did our chores, swam and bathed in the creek, and spent our free time exploring the meadows, streams and woodlands on the farm. As is the case will all children, the outdoors helped us gain a sense of place within the natural world.
My mother’s resourcefulness was perhaps one of her greatest attributes. She would get grains ground into flour at the local gristmill in Stockdale so she could make her own bread. When there was no money available for shopping, she would prepare a feast from what we had available on the farm. There was butter, whipping cream, cottage cheese, eggs, meat, vegetables, fruits and herbs to turn into delicious entrees and desserts. We would eat like royalty and momentarily forget financial hardship. She was a master at turning a seemingly bad situation into a good one.
Never waste a step, she would say. Efficiency at work was critical in her eyes. If you needed to go from A to B, think about what you could accomplish along the way. Never go empty handed. Never go into town for just one thing. Organize your trip to get everything done at once.
She saw food as medicine and showed us the power of herbs and spices to fend off illness and infections. She would grow many medicinal herbs and collect plants on her walks through the meadows and woodlands. From these, she made teas, ointments and tinctures. This was not because she had an aversion to professional medical care. She viewed her natural remedies as preventive and supplements to the excellent medical services available.
My mother saw beauty in Nature and taught us simple creativity with natural materials. She would bring a little bit of the living forest into the house by placing a small piece of moss on a plate, soaking it with water and arranging tiny plants or natural items into it. This beautiful centerpiece would keep indefinitely with regular watering and could be placed back outside to continue growing in its natural habitat. Bouquets of wildflowers were another cheerful touch. We didn’t need to purchase anything to create something beautiful. The material to inspire creativity was all around us.
She always took the positive approach even when that was clearly a challenge for her. She will always be remembered for her singing and laughter. She would treat the family as her personal choir and would lead us in singing folk songs while we worked, in the evenings and on special occasions. Her positive approach made it impossible for her to stay angry or hold grudges. She believed in gratitude and forgiveness.
Whenever my mother decided something was wrong, she would get right on it. Rather than just talk about issues, she wrote letters, joined interest groups, got involved in conservation initiatives with my father, advocated for farmers through the Federation of Agriculture, and often took on leadership roles. She didn’t keep her mouth shut when she perceived a wrong. There was no timidity. She was an instigator of change and would challenge others to do the same. It was important to her to contribute to the local community and beyond.
The house was always open to family and friends. Even, strangers were invited in for coffee and food. From very young to very old, they were welcome. She hosted youth from across Canada through programs like Katimavik and from other countries through Canada World Youth.
Her motto of “waste not, want not” made it possible for her to achieve a lot and leave a very small environmental footprint.
My mother passed away two years ago at the age of 96. She left knowing that the many thousands of trees we planted since 1954 had become forests and that my parents’ favourite local natural heritage site had been transferred into public hands for all to enjoy. She had the satisfaction of seeing the farm being carried on by her children.
Maria Heissler lived an exemplary life and continues to guide us. Her influence on us is evident through the basic values we all share. This is how we honour her memory.