Several people have written asking me to post what I said about my mother last Friday, at her memorial. Friends know that though she was wonderful, Mum was also difficult, and we had a wonderful, difficult relationship. But I loved her very much, and last Friday was not the time to dwell on anything negative.
We are not here to mourn but to celebrate. Because my mother had a fantastic life, well-lived. And also, she had so many health problems, it’s a miracle, and a testament to her strength and grit, that she lived so long. My father used to say that so many bits of her had been removed or replaced that he didn’t know this new wife and wanted his old wife back.
My mother was a woman of great joy and many loves. When I thought about this memorial event, I decided to share with you a few of the things she loved most, and so I made a list – because one of the things my mother loved most was lists.
Here are some – not all, by any means - of my mother’s great loves:
- MEN. My mother loved men. Young men old gay straight. Starting at 4 years old, walking around the Potterspury schoolyard holding hands with a boy called Teddy Leach, also 4. The sad story is that after years of separation, Teddy Leach came back during the war to visit his childhood sweetheart. He knocked on the door; she opened. Their faces fell. She was six feet tall. He was five foot two.
My mother was famous for what my grandmother Marion called “her come hither look.” Once when my parents were travelling, they had to sit separately on the plane. Mum sat down next to a stranger. A few hours later, after much conversation, he turned to her as the plane was landing and cried, “Leave him, Sylvia! Leave him and come with me.” My dad sitting a few rows back, and the man’s wife and children waiting at the airport! Amazing.
Just two months before Mum died, she was in a double room in hospital, where the woman in the next bed had a husband who was handsome, and, more importantly, British. I was sitting by Mum’s bed, watching her sleep, when the door opened and he entered. Like a submarine, her periscope came up; she surfaced and followed his every step, with her intense blue gaze, across the room.
But of all men, my mother loved one man - my father. Despite some years of discord early in the marriage, there was a huge and primal connection between the two. She entertained for him, travelled with him, and held him in her arms as he died. Theirs was a great love story.
- MUSIC. Music was one of my parents’ most powerful bonds. Mum was extremely musical. Her father Percy was the village organist and choirmaster, and Sylvia, Dorothy and Margaret sang in his choir. Mum played the piano and the recorder beautifully, and in her forties, she took cello lessons so she could play in my father’s string quartet. She didn’t just love classical music, she also loved the Beatles and Sting and many others. After her death I discovered this sheet of paper, on which, in barely legible wobbly writing, she’d taken notes while listening to one of our favourite radio shows, Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap. “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour,” she’d written, in a list of songs and singers. “Wilson Picket.” She never stopped learning, wanting to discover.
3. HOMES. Houses and gardens. My mother was a wonderful homemaker, in the proudest sense of that word – she made a home for her children, her husband, her friends. Her task was especially challenging because my father had absolutely no practical skills. Mum cooked and baked, she made jams and pies, she gardened, she sewed and knitted. She was the first person I knew to buy an old Victorian wreck of a house and renovate it, as she did on Stewart Street in 1966. She furnished our houses, she fixed things, she bought antiques and art. Right to the end – her condo here was both comfortable and elegant. And even in an apartment, without her own garden, she found one – Bob and Leona’s huge community garden on Poulin, where she made a big patch her own.
4. ANIMALS. Birds, beasts. A lifelong passion, from the cats and dogs of Potterspury, through our own pet cats and dogs, especially the dachshund Brunie and beagle Tippoes, and finally the bichon frise Farley, in Edmonton. Farley wasn’t even her dog, he was the next door neighbour’s, but he and my mother adored each other. Bev, his owner, told me that Farley had a sixth sense when Sylvia was returning after a trip, and even before the cab pulled into the driveway, he was barking like crazy to be let out. The minute they met, he’d hurl himself into her arms, she’d take him inside and give him “bikkies” and water in special china dishes, and they’d tell each other about their time apart.
5. ART. She was an artist herself, with a huge talent and a lifelong passion for watercolour, oils, pastels, sculpture – and the work of other artists. Last spring, Mum was determined to see the special Van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery here; we just couldn’t see how that was possible – she was so weak, barely able to walk. But when she found out that I, coming to visit her, had bought a ticket to see it, she insisted on going too. I said no, impossible, but Mike said, let’s make it happen. Even though we had no ticket for her.
And so began an excursion organized like a commando raid. By some miracle, Mike managed to get her to the gallery just as I, newly arrived from Montreal, got to the head of the pre-paid ticket line. I begged the woman to sell us a ticket for Mum. With my mother’s baby blues burning into her, she did, and I pushed my mother in her walker past the enormous line-up for tickets, right into Van Gogh. That was her last big outing, and she loved every minute.
6. FRIENDS AND FAMILY. All of us here, I’m sure, were the recipients of her kindness and generosity. After her death, we received many emails full of appreciation and love. Several donations have been made in Mum’s name to the Ottawa Heart Institute and to the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Mike and I are extremely lucky to have inherited a great appreciation of beauty, music and art, of home and friends and family, from our parents.
Before closing, I’d like, on behalf of my mother, to pay tribute. First, to the health care system of Canada, which served her so well for so long. Thank you, taxpayers of Canada. Thank you, Tommy Douglas.
To Nancy Bell, Mum’s caregiver, who kept her company this last year and brought her special treats.
To Mum’s grandchildren Anna and Sam, who visited, sent notes and photographs and called her faithfully and often, even knowing that sometimes, once Mum was on the phone, it was not easy to get her off, which can really make a dent in your cellphone plan.
To Mum’s newer grandson Jake, who brought her much delight, and to Mike’s partner, beautiful Emilie, who is so welcome in this family, and who has brought us the pleasure of the French language. And to great-grandson Eli, who was awaited with such impatience and greeted with such joy.
Most of all - to two people. To my brother Michael, who looked after Sylvia for years with incredible patience and love. This past year alone, day after day, nearly every day of the week, he came to visit her in hospital and made sure she was comfortably settled in her various residences. I salute him as a marvel of loving kindness, and also as the primary organizer of this event. We should all have someone as caring as Michael there at the end of our lives.
And, last, to sister Do, aka Chumeroo, who was there when my mother was born, when she met her husband, when that husband died, and all the last years of Mum’s life. It was Do Mum called at three o’clock in the morning – over and over and over again – when her heart was fibrillating and she was waiting for the ambulance. One time, Mum was actually inside the ambulance on a stretcher, and she made the medic guys wait, saying, “You can’t go yet, my sister isn’t here.” Do arrived, Mum beamed, and off they went, to spend six hours, 10, 12 hours in Emerg. Do was always there, by Mum’s side. The two of them called each other every morning to make sure they’d lived through the night. They laughed often, remembering their childhood eight decades ago. They played a vicious game of Scrabble. Do was Mum’s lifelong and most loyal companion. I cannot thank her enough.
Or you, for coming here tonight to remember and honour my mother. Many thanks.