Ella inspired

Posted by Sylvia Olsen on

My mother taught me that moderation in all things was the goal in life. Skirts not too long and not too short. Eat until you’re full but never too much. Don’t raise your voice. Stay calm. Keep your opinions to yourself. Don’t let your emotions trump your better judgment.

 My mother, Ella and me

Even as a little girl I thought her approach to life was boring. “If we all live like that,” I would say to her, “nothing new will ever happen.” Someone had to go screaming past moderation and bust into excess or I would die of suffocation.

I loved her steadiness and she loved the surge I could not contain, the passion that drove me to throw my hands in the air at the ludicrous, the beautiful, the annoying and the awe-inspiring. Although I knew she appreciated my enthusiasm she was always guarded in her praise of me. I’m sure she lived in fear that if she showed too much approval I might take it as license. It was as if she thought that she must hold some sort of lid on my bubbling and that it was her job to prevent an outright disaster on the stove.


My mother had encroaching dementia for years and by the end of her life many people thought the Phyllis Snobelen they had known had all but disappeared and been replaced by a body simply waiting to stop breathing. But I knew she was my mother right to the end and she knew I was her daughter. It wasn’t naiveté nor was it sentimental longing for the part of her I missed, it was the familiar expression of our deep love and connection.

It won’t surprise you when I say my mother always wore sensible shoes—black leather, low heel, slip ons with at least a thumb’s width of room at the toe. And she wore them sensibly for several years before getting a new pair (almost exactly the same) to make sure she got her money’s worth. I’ll bet you’ve already guessed that I have dozens of pairs of shoes and boots in as many colours and styles as I can find. My body is my canvass. My footwear is part of my palette. Dressing is my art form. But not one I learned from my mother.


When I visited in the last few years of her life I had to remind her that I was Sylvia, her youngest daughter. I would explain that she had two other daughters, Heather and Jean and two sons, Philip and Clyde. “Look at those shoes,” she would say when I sat down. Then she would say something like, “Why do you wear shoes like that? I would never wear such high heels, such bright colours, such big heavy boots, such silly running shoes.” I would reply with something like, “Look at your shoes. They’re the same boring old shoes you have worn everyday for the past few years. I would never wear such boring sensible shoes. They’re no fun.” And we laughed.

When I brought her the latest book I had written she would say, “What makes you think you have something to say that anyone would want to read?” And I would reply with something like, “I have never been very good at keeping my opinions to myself.” And we laughed. 

When I showed her my knitting designs or told her I would go back to university one day and become a doctor she said something like, “Who do you think you are?” Because those sorts of endeavours didn’t fit with my mother’s sense of moderation. And we would laugh. We would always laugh.

Looking back and reliving the time I had with my mother in her last few years I know she was the same mother she had always been. She knew exactly what she thought about my shoes, my ambitions, my contrary girl-child extravagances. But her responses were softer and her compliments were more forthcoming. Sometimes she would gaze into my face in wonder and ask, “Did you say you were my daughter?” And I would repeat the birth order and names of my siblings. “Well,” she would say. “I can’t imagine I have such a beautiful daughter, but if you say so then I must have done something right.” 

When I look at my granddaughter Ella I’m pretty sure she has the same look on her face that I had on mine when my mother worried about the boundaries I would cross, the immoderate things that I would do and the sky that would fall on me as I screamed passionately about the things I believed in. 

But I’m excited and relieved that I don’t have to be afraid of what she might do. I’m excited by the doors and windows Ella will open and the world of wonderful things she will experience. While I will guide her and caution her I don’t have a lid over her bubbling although sometimes I wonder what sort of mess she will make of the stove.

This is not a knitting blog but it’s one that was inspired by the look on my beautiful granddaughter’s face as she struggles at three to conquer the world of her grandmother. It might be vanity but I see myself in that little girl.



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  • What a great story! Thanks for sharing

    Deb on
  • Thanks for sharing your mother with me Sylvia. Would love to meet your granddaughter.

    Karen Muniz on

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