When I was born, it was kind of a miracle in a way because my mother never actually expected to have children. And here I was, her second. She was a month and ten days shy of 43 years old. My dad was 31. My sister was two years and five days old, and the very first words my newborn ears heard were: Une belle petite fille!
My mom remembered those words from drifting in and out of the anesthetic that they used for the caesarean section. In Canada, where my sister was born, they tried to make her keep her weight down because they thought her hips were too small for a regular birth but they tried. It was a few months into that pregnancy when the doctor pronounced it impossible. So my sister was the first caesarean, miracles both of us. My mother was just so thrilled to be having babies at all, the how didn’t matter that much to her, just the ability to do so.
My mom was born in 1919. I loved hearing her stories growing up – what a different world she knew and, as infuriating as it was sometimes to have really antiquated rules for girls applied to tomboy me, I honestly loved the stories I heard about people long gone, like the great-grandfather who took umbrage with cars in crosswalks and who swung his cane at them when they turned too close in front of him. Of his mysteriously vanishing young wife. Of her many aunts and great-aunts and her step-grandmother and the cousins and second cousins and the way that families at any given time could have three generations living with you. People were born and died in their houses at the beginning of the 20th century.
I think that my mother’s generation was maybe the last one in our part of the world to truly feel how it is to have children who may not live past infancy and birth itself was very dangerous, and to truly understand death is a part of life. Think of the incredible cemeteries that they had in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s benches and trees and magnificent statues; reflecting pools, huge tombs with soldiers sitting astride horses on top, fountains, those grandiose gestures meant for people to enjoy and to show the world how very much they loved their special people. The dead were very much a part of their world, they were celebrated.
After the introduction of funeral homes, and the practice of encouraging mothers to have their babies in hospitals instead of at home the messiness of this birth and death business was removed from everyday life. For the better part of the twentieth century this is how it was; life made sanitized and the harder parts removed from the everyday world. We live longer too, so in a way death for people born from the fifties onward was a whole lot less normal. I know adults who have never known a person who died. I wonder how that’s even possible but it is.
The age difference with my mother meant that I grew up with people dying. Some were more abstract – a cousin of my mother or a great-aunt or uncle I never knew. My maternal grandparents died before I was born; I remember when my step-grandmother died but I don’t remember meeting her. I think she lived in Toronto. I was 9 months old when my paternal grandmother died. I’m older now than she was when she passed. My paternal grandfather got lost in some unknown to me disagreement or something because I only met him a couple of times in the last few weeks of his life – though I’m sure I did meet him as a baby I just don’t remember. So the idea of grandparents were kind of abstract to me which is sad, because grandparents add a whole dimension and yet, I kind of had that with my mother and her living siblings and cousins and those blessed couple of great-aunts that I remember.
Great-aunt Mary was a tiny doll of a lady who had a real sense of spunk and independence; I remember visiting her in her apartment where she still lived well into her 80s. I can still taste the wonderful shortbread cookies she baked. They were heavy but I haven’t tasted any better since. One thing I remember her doing was driving to where my grandfather had a cottage that he acquired in the 1920s I think. Her son sat in the passenger seat, just to be sure because she hadn’t driven on her own in a while, but she did fine. The cottage was on the Rideau river near Osgoode I think and he hand-built a lighthouse. I’m not sure if the cottage or the lighthouse are still there but they were when I was a child. I remember her coming over and driving herself. She’d bring a tin of those shortbread cookies and my mom would serve tea in proper teacups with saucers and have half-and-half cream in a creamer and a bowl of sugar cubes served with silver tongs to grip them with.
Great-aunt Mary told stories of driving in their model A back to Charlottetown in the summers and she was very fond of driving; this in a time when a woman behind the wheel was quite frankly frowned upon. She didn’t care. The wheels would come off and go flying into the field and the kids would run out and find it hoping not to get too close to a bull out to pasture. I forget whether it was she or my Great-aunt Eva Smith who really wasn’t a relative but my grandmother’s best friend I think – but one of them would whistle as they drove and it was quite something I’m told.
I remember them both and I remember when they died; I was a teenager and they were both very old, Mary was 90 I think and Eva about the same. Eva was tall and thin, Mary tiny and a mom so she had a womanly body. She was so small that she was buried in what looked like a child’s coffin to me and that one funeral over many stands out because of that. I dearly loved her and I was there on my own accord – I think I was 17 or so. Eva died before that and she had some amazing things that wound up in our basement. For a while I had a brownie camera of hers in my room. I forgot to take it when I moved out so it was sold I think but she also had items like a teapot from occupied Japan, and an ancient wrought iron stove that went to a museum in Ottawa. I feel fortunate indeed to have known that living history to a time now long gone.
My mother is 96 now, going on 97. I believe she’s the last of her generation left in our family and she leads a simple life with my sister. She is not spending her last years in a nursing home, she has been happy that the need hasn’t been there for her to do that. Her mind is still sharp, her health while typical for a geriatric person is not how she has seen so many of her contemporaries see their last days. She is happy that my sister has made sure she had a place to live in her home and she has been very comfortable there. It’s also nice to know that people are going back to keeping different generations of a family in a home and having babies at home if there’s no reason for concern. People are dying at home more often, in palliative care in a familiar place surrounded by people they love as it should be.
I started writing this on April 9th on the 21st anniversary of my dad’s passing, and one day after one of my mother-in-law’s passing. She went in her sleep after gradually failing the past few months, at home in her bed, her two living daughters close by. Gramma Dot everyone called her and she was a lovely lady, very caring. At 92 she was a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Like most women she had difficulties and happy times and I think in all honesty how long people live often relates to their view on life. She took things as they happened and dealt with them as best she could. I don’t think she dwelled too much on the past and it’s in enjoying what’s around you and accepting people for who they are that I think is the way to live to be a nonagenarian.
Though she lived far away I did have the pleasure of visits and visiting and always every phone call ended with an I Love You that was guaranteed to make me blush and giggle because in my upbringing we just never said that. I’m so happy she did that though and it was a bit of joke between her and her son how I react to words of affection. That’s okay though; it means a lot to me that anyone wants to say that to me at all.
A sensitive person told me once that I had quite a crowd with me of people who have passed. I do. All of my life I’ve been going to funerals and many times it was for people I barely knew. It was just expected that when someone you knew died, you go, and my mom preferred someone go with her so if there was no one else I would.
As a young child I would look at these people in their coffins all waxy and powdered and somewhat strange. Sometimes they wore these lovely dresses or suits and had flowers in their hands. One I remember had the most amazing brooch on her neck that was blue and cream and one of the ones with a relief face and I wondered why someone would be buried with something so nice – didn’t she want her family to have that? Sometimes I was bored and snuck out and looked at strangers lying out in a coffin but not often though.
I got involved in genealogy about ten years ago because there’s just too many mysteries unsolved and my mom was interested in what I dug up. I liked telling her stuff and showing her things like her parents’ marriage certificate. We discussed family members long gone and there were times she let slip a tear and said to me, “These were people I knew, Cathi. I miss them.” That was my cue to stop with talking about the discoveries.
It’s hard. It is. And the older you get the more you know who are gone until if you have really good genes on your side, you’re one of the last. And do you know who those who were born in this early 20th century were? They are the babies of WWI soldiers or had family members in the war. When they were born, the Spanish flu took even more people so soon after the Great War where our country lost 61,000 out of a population of 8,000,000. 630,000 people served. That’s the equivalent of 4.5 million of our current population. There was no family that wasn’t touched in some way.
This is the generation that were children in the roaring 20s, were pre-teens when the stock market crash happened, and teenagers during the Depression.
My mom remembers the symbols that the men who rode the rails left on picket fences to show what house was good for a meal. Her mother kept a pot of soup on the stove to feed people to came to the door. It was a time of milk in glass bottles delivered to your door by a milkman with a horse and carriage. It was a time of iceboxes where blocks of ice were delivered wrapped in sawdust from squares cut out of the Ottawa River in the depth of winter. Coal was delivered down a chute in your wall. At night if the fire went out you would awake with your water frozen in your glass. People took baths once a week, only floosies wore makeup except for a touch of lipstick, swearing was grounds for being expelled from school. A telephone – if you had one – was a horn on a hook that you flicked and then you cranked the handle and got an operator if somebody wasn’t already on the line. You knew someone was calling by the number of rings (your neighbour could be two short, you could be one long). There was no penicillin, no insulin shots, Polio killed as did Tuberculosis. When someone had cancer they died. One aunt of my mother’s died in her early forties from ovarian cancer that spread to her pancreas and she died in my mother’s home as they were looking after her. My mom made sure we knew about this incredible woman whose life was taken far too soon.
When we went to the cemetary sometimes my mom would stop by the resting place of a dear little friend who passed following an infection; she was ten or so. It touched me that after all those years she still stopped to place a hand on the tombstone and say a quiet prayer. Life was much more fragile back then. And just when the Depression was easing its grip World War II started. My mother’s generation either fought in it or was a sibling of or married to someone in it. My aunt’s boyfriend and his best friend were killed when their tank was hit. They were in Italy. They saw so many of their contemporaries – their friends and family – wounded and killed and in all of this they carried on.
They saw more equality for women, they saw the introduction of such things as vaccinations and birth control; they saw the world move away from church being an expected thing to voluntary, to the easing of separation and divorce rules, to women having access to abortion and to society allowing single mothers to exist without explicit shame. To women married or not working. To spaceships and men on the moon. To an incredible number of technological advances that many just don’t know how to use. Think VCRs, DVD players, cell phones, computers, microwave ovens. The world is so very very different from the 1920s.
But, a printed book will always be book, and a pen and paper a way to communicate. As long as there are grandchildren to set up the Skype or to send the emails if grandma can’t, there’s the bridge that unites. A photo is still a photo, whether on a screen or in hand but in the hand is better for my mom, she likes to be able to just pick them up and look at them without having to turn an appliance on.
You know what? Nearly one hundred years of progress later the wheel is moving back towards the way things used to be. People are planting gardens and putting in wood stoves. They’re trying to live more simply; more people are choosing to have their babies at home and fewer elderly are living in nursing homes when families have some support available. We’re getting away from disposable everythings and fossil fuels and food that is more chemical than food, and it’s good. I hope we haven’t lost too much now that the Greatest Generation has so few left to tell us how to do things.
My heaven is full these days and I don’t even want to think how many more will be there when I am my mother’s age, should I be so lucky to still be around.
Heaven just got a little more crowded yesterday, and this is my testimony for the Greatest Generation.
Farewell to Grandma Dot, and dad, I will always miss you.
(c) Catherine M. Harris, April 9, 2016