Fierce-Compassionate-Determined-Loving-Stubborn: My mother was a unique and formidable force. Allow me to introduce Alma Calderoni.

My mother loved fiercely. She did everything fiercely. It may have been her fierceness that drove me from my home at the ripe old age of 17, independent and ready to take on the world.

Driven, determined, and with significant obstacles thwarting her throughout her life, Alma was still a mighty force to be reckoned with. If she set her mind on a goal, everyone might as well just sit down and stay out of her way because come hell or high water, she would claw her way to success.

Born at home in 1942 to hard-working, vision-impaired parents, my one-of-a-kind mom was the third of four daughters. Her parents were both resourceful and generous, and they passed these traits on to all of their girls. With a fairly sickly childhood, Mom claimed to have caught everything that came to town. Twice. Once when it first arrived she’d say, and then again after the illness had made its rounds.

She only got polio once, but as a survivor, she experienced weakness in her legs throughout the rest of her life causing them to randomly and without warning just collapse. The most famous of these occasional episodes was one day when she was leaving the post office in her small hometown of Nelson. The customer window was located on the second story. Upon leaving to return to work, she suddenly found herself sprawled at the bottom of the stairwell. More concerned with what people would think than if she was ok, she pulled herself up, dusted off her stylish suit, straightened her newly coiffed hair and managed to get back to work mostly unrumpled.

Bright but bored with school and with a desire to help her parents out at home, Alma quit school after the 8th grade. A voracious reader with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, she simply picked up where her teachers had left off, but without the constraints of the curriculum or graduation requirements. Amazingly, though lacking both a college degree and a high school diploma, she went on to become the first woman in a management role for BC-Tel, the phone company for the province of British Columbia, Canada.

I grew up knowing my mom was just one of those people you didn’t say “no” to. At least not for long. And those who tried generally came to regret it. She was persistent and always found a way to insist on what she wanted. I grew up hearing her myriad stories, and I experienced her fierce determination both as a benefactor and target. As a consumer, she had a policy that “the customer is always right.” (She had a lot of policies that she lived and insisted upon.) 

If she was not getting the service she demanded, she would tout this phrase and stand there until the poor employee either caved, burst into tears, or ran for their boss. I remember so many times slinking away embarrassed while mom made a fuss over something or other, and standing back watching in mixed horror and pride as she inevitably got exactly what she wanted.

I will note the time we were visiting a huge sports and toy store that had a firm policy of “No customer bathrooms.” Well, we had been shopping for a while and my newly potty-trained brother had to go. The employee politely refused at least 3 times before mom demanded to speak with the manager, who was equally adamant. 

My mom stared him straight in the eyes and in her fiercely calm voice said, “You have two choices right now young man. Either you take us to your employee bathroom, or you bring me a mop because we are running out of time here,”  jerking her head towards the little guy doing a nice rendition of the potty dance beside her. Realizing his defeat, as most service people were wont to do when in Mom’s intimidating presence, he meekly guided Mom and my little brother back through the storeroom to the supposedly non-existent bathroom.

I don’t mean to imply that she was unkind or even rude, (at least most of the time this was true). She was insistent, and determined although usually in a very pleasantly commanding way. My dad often said, “She’s the only person I know that can tell someone to go to hell so nicely that they are looking forward to the trip.” And he would shake his head in wonder and admiration while slipping quietly to another part of the establishment so as not to be recognized as an accomplice.

Her confidence was extraordinary, and I don’t recall ever seeing her shrink from a challenge. To her children, she appeared utterly fearless, and I suspect that was how most people viewed her. 

lamb in lions clothing a homeschool pioneer

As one simple example, no one could convince her to stop picking up hitchhikers, even with her car full of us kids. Not even after one of them hopped in the backseat next to us and said, “What would you do if I told you I had a gun?” In that infamous example, she simply donned her expression of irritation, and without missing a beat, she thrust her hand firmly over the backseat and ordered, “You’ll have to give it to me then.” Either he didn’t have one or he didn’t give it to her, but she drove him home anyway, and eventually, this hitchhiker ended up living with us. But that is another story for another day.

As a mother, my mom gave us her all and then some. And I mean her fully determined stubborn ALL. The more modern concept of “Self-care” would have been utterly foreign to her and something she would have viewed with disdain. As the years caught up to her, we all paid a high price for this sacrifice as she became debilitatingly ill and eventually unable to care for herself. Her personality remained firmly intact, however, requiring compassion and finesse to provide her with the help she needed.

Despite her high-level position with the phone company and her other important roles, she viewed raising her 3 children as her highest life purpose. Arriving after 8 prior miscarriages, she was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be our mother. Before we were even born, she began reading to us and about how to be the best possible mother. These were the days of Dr. Spock and Maria Montessori among others, and Mom took many of their words deeply to heart.

A habitual overachiever, she wanted to ensure her kids were well-prepared for both school and life. This backfired when I was in fourth grade and my brother in first. My parents were called into the superintendent’s office for a meeting and told that the school was not prepared to handle her kids. He suggested they find an alternative, more challenging school, which did not exist in our small town at the time. That appointment left her stunned for a few weeks but resulted in her deciding to homeschool; something none of us had ever heard of before.

As a youngster, I adored my mom and admired her many amazing traits. As a teen, I emulated her in many ways but also began to question and temper her over-the-top “policies” and personality. One of her most important policies prompted me to travel 3,000 miles away at age 17 to go to college. She held the firm belief that everyone needed to agree with her.

When asked to summarize my dear mother in one sentence it was easy:
“She’s always right.”

Coupled with this belief was the policy that if you didn’t tell her you disagreed (therefore giving her the opportunity and permission to badger you and convince you for the rest of your ever-living days that you were, in fact, wrong) then you obviously agreed implicitly with her. This gave her teens two choices, constant arguing and unrest or implied agreement and silence.

By choosing the latter, I was always “the perfect child” but in reality, our relationship grew more distant until at age 17, I bailed. Don’t get me wrong here either, I continued to have a deep love and respect for this powerful woman. I just had no interest in arguing and splitting hairs over everything for which I wished to develop my own opinion.

A pioneer many times over, my mom managed to break trails for others, leading them to experience things they may not have otherwise encountered. She opened the door for women to move into management positions in one of the largest companies in the province. She learned how to navigate homeschooling in the 1970s and ’80s and was forever guiding other families into a similar journey. 

She discovered a faith and relationship with God that became her beacon and led hundreds, if not thousands into the same experience and belief. As one who struggled her whole life with health issues, she was always seeking alternative health solutions. After her death, upon reading through her vast piles of notebooks and papers, I came upon proposals for all sorts of things, including cures for AIDS and cancer. She touted cabbage as a solution to cancer before cruciferous vegetables were popular with the health community. She wrote and self-published a short booklet about the value of zinc for staving off the common cold. If only she had put as much effort into learning about the devastating effects of diabetes.

Innovative, industrious, and truly compassionate, Alma Caroline Calderoni was a prodigious, forward-thinking yet formidable and stubborn woman. There were many days her family might have labeled her “crazy” but truly I remain proud to be her daughter and consider myself fortunate for the life lessons, the unusual childhood, and, whether she intended it or not, the ability to grow into an independent critical thinker.

An incredible combination of the fierce mama lion and the gentle kind lamb my mother was a force to be reckoned with until the day she died. Always a champion for the underdog and a lioness towards those she viewed as villains, she left an indelible mark on not only her family but all the communities she resided in and visited, as well as anywhere her telephone could reach.

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