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November 27, 2007

In Remembrance

The Eulogy I gave at my mother’s memorial service
November 27, 2007

When I think of my mother I think of her hands. The veins on her hands have always been raised and crooked, blue and strong, like roots at the base of an old tree.

I remember as a child I used to trace those veins with my fingers always curious about why her hands looked the way they did. They seemed old. Like they`d been here before perhaps.

In hindsight it was as if her hands were our hands; I hate to say it but her hands, at the time, seemed to exist mainly to serve us – her family. Her hands were never idle.

It was as if my parents raised two families. They had my sisters when they were in their 20s/early 30s and then they had my brother and I when they were in their late 30s/early 40s.

My mother used to say, “Women of my generation don’t get to retire!”

When I think of her hands and I asked others what stood out for them about our mother it was unanimous: She was always in the kitchen. Baking cookies, preparing roast beef for special Sunday dinners, getting out the good china, instructing us how to set the table. White linen tablecloths. Good silver. Grandparents were always invited. Heather`s boyfriends. Relatives. If it was Sunday then company WAS indeed coming!

As if it wasn’t enough to cook for us, she volunteered with Mrs. Oikawa to be the camp cooks on a special week-long field trip to Saturna Island with our Grade 7 class. After cooking spaghetti one lunch-time for about 50 people they discovered that strainers were nowhere to be found. What else could they do but use their hands. So they did.

Hers hands made thousands of lunches over the years for my father as she packed his lunch kit for another day at the mill.

She did a lot of packing as well of camping equipment for camping trips to Gallagher Lake in Oliver and Westbank with Heather, June and Joy and to Osoyoos with Gordon and I.

In the summer she’d pick blueberries and strawberries and sometimes I’d go with her. I’d be hot and tired and bored in about 10 minutes. Afterwards, her fingers would be stained red and blue as she prepared the berries and canned them so we could have fresh jam for our toast and fruit for dessert on top of ice cream in the winter.

I can recall once when we were camping in Osoyoos, my parents left my brother and I alone when we were old enough and they went off to pick cherries or apples or something. They were gone for hours. Apparently they were in different locations but my father had climbed up one of those tall ladders. When my mother returned, she saw him from a distance lying on the ground. Now most wives might be alarmed but not mom. Her first thought was: Look at him. I’ve been slaving away all morning and he’s been taking a nap!!!

In fact, Dad had fallen out of the tree and was unconscious. They had to go to the hospital to see whether he had a concussion!

My mother taught me how to drive. She was a good driver but because she wasn’t the most patient person in the world, she was fast. As a result, after a mere one time behind the wheel, she thought I was ready for the actual route they take you on in New Westminster when you do the driving test.

This belief was definitely more about her impatience than my readiness.

I remember coming up 4th street in New West and taking that left turn onto Royal at what felt like 60 mph. I ended up driving onto the median all the while I could hear a voice, her voice, somewhere beside me in the car yelling, “hit the brakes”. Of course, I continued to hit the gas, because I’d only been in a car once. I swerved over 3 lanes to the curb in front of City Hall where we came to a screeching stop a little out of breath, a little amazed that we had managed to avoid crashing into anything. I think the only thing she said before we headed home was, “Oh my god. Maybe you should take driving lessons!”

She sewed a lot. My sisters tell me she was incredibly stylish as a young woman taking after her own mother. She made matching clothes for my twin sisters which we`d make fun of when we saw them in the family movies that dad shot. She made wool winter coats for my brother and I when we were toddlers and there are home movies where we look as if we were getting ready for a fashion shoot as we ran around Moody Park. She made a graduation dress for Heather. She sewed the dress I wore when Lord Kelvin Elementary won May Queen that year and my good friend Phyllis and I were flower girls in Grade 1 or 2. She made her own square dance dresses.

She even sewed clothes for my dolls, the dolls I had kept from childhood, refitting them with new outfits even though I was in my 30s at the time and they had been sitting, neglected, in the spare bedroom for years. My mother and I were very different. But, when I saw that, and I noticed that one of the dolls had on these new white cotton polka dotted shoes, I was taken aback. I realized that in that one act she had expressed her love for me in a way that she could never verbalize. That one act – her making new clothes for them and getting those new shoes – helped me see her in a different light and inspired me to write a poem for her which you have.

She was very musical.
Her hands guided my father during the years they square danced and when I took classical piano lessons she took popular piano lessons at night school. They bought an organ, and we used to have to listen to her practicing at night. Long before we came along, before she met my father she played the Hawaiian guitar in a group with her sister Gloria and entertained in Winnipeg. She sang in the church choir at the Presbyterian Church here in New West.

I spent some of the last week looking at some old photo albums. One picture of her in particular stood out for me. She was wearing men’s trousers and had on suspenders and loafers at clear lake in Manitoba. When I looked at that photo I saw her as an adventurous spirit, athletic, someone with the spirit of an entertainer.

I think she had dreams that we never knew about and had it been a different time, perhaps she would have been more than our mother or someone’s wife but I think in the end those roles - wife and mother - would still have been the most important to her.

While her hands weren`t very good at shuffling cards, I do recall the banter and joking that took place during the many Saturday evenings my father and her spent with Uncle Gordon and Aunt Jean, Pat and Vi. The friendship she shared with her brother and his wife was unusually close for siblings, it was lifelong and cherished.

I can visualize her hands and the strong strokes she took as she swam lengths at the Canada Games pool and even lifted weights; a place where she spent so many happy hours with her friend Sheila and others up until she was about 81 years old. It seemed to me that one day she was independent, driving and swimming and the next, she became ill. That’s how it seemed although I’m sure there had been warning signs.

Maybe because she thought she`d finally done enough for everyone else her whole life and because unfortunately she really was ill, she had a tendency to be a little bossy. (Actually to be honest, she was bossy long before she became ill). As a result, especially after she was ill, Dad became what I would call her manservant. I can hear her now. I can see them sitting in their chairs. He’d settled in with the paper. She’d be sitting there, looking around and she’d say, “Jay could you get me a drink of water? He’d dutifully get up and faithfully deliver the glass of water. 15 minutes would pass. Then she’d say, Jay, What`s that on the floor? And she’d point to some piece of lint or paper. He’d get up and get it out of her sight. Another 15 minutes and she’d say, Jay, why is that light on in the kitchen? Could you turn that out? And dad would faithfully do as she asked.

As an observer of this, I used to think, Wow. It’s definitely payback time!

Our mother was a very friendly person and people always remembered her or thought they`d met her somewhere even when they hadn’t. This seemed to happen to her a lot, especially when she worked at Woodwards during the 70s.

I think her friendliness was one of her best traits that she passed down to all of us. She enjoyed a good laugh. She was quick, she was blunt, she was stoic, she kept her feelings and her emotions to herself so as her children we sometimes felt like we didn’t really know what she was feeling. Those traits persisted to the end.

Overall, she was very lucky. She had good friends. She had a devoted and loving husband and we know that she truly understood the value of that these last couple of years of her life. As someone who has never been married, it has been clear to me these past few years, as I looked at what they were to each other that their relationship was based on a strong love right from the beginning and I could truly see the value of a 62 year commitment to another person especially as he was truly there for her these last few years.

In short, I have to believe she completed exactly what she was meant to here on earth --to learn whatever she was meant to learn.

In the end she had the courage to make a difficult decision and let go – for herself – and I believe, out of love for my father. She had been too active a person her whole life to continue existing the way she had been as a result of dialysis. She also knew, I think, that her health care needs would begin to impact his own health and so out of love, she chose to make the decision she made.

As a result, I view this day (and I’m sure she’d want us to view this day) as a celebration of a life well-lived – one that was worthwhile.

As her children, I believe every one of us is thankful for all the positive traits that she helped cultivate in us.

She was the matriarch of our family in the purest definition of that word and we will miss the energetic spirit we knew before her illness.

I’d like to finish by reading part of a poem from Kahlil Gibran. He was a Lebanese-American poet. He’s probably not someone my mother would have been aware of but I believe the sentiments in this poem express something that she would have understood prior to making her choice to end dialysis.

Kahlil Gibran – excerpt “On Death”
...what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then you shall truly dance!

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