Memorial for Mom

Freda B. Harris 13-May-1919 to 5-Apr-2019. Mom.

Mom, what a long and wonderful life she lived.  99 years, nearly 100.  Can you imagine?  She was a fair bit older than her contemporaries when she got married and had children and while it was challenging she did the best she could and I am so grateful for that.  We were unconventional but I wouldn’t trade that for anything because what I learned from this was priceless.  I had the great good fortune to be raised with two very strong and accomplished women in my life:  my mother and my aunt Lorna.  Both of them challenged what society’s determination of what a woman should be and did so with grace. 

My mother was born in 1919, just after World War I ended and during the time of the Great Flu pandemic – she was one of the few people alive who probably had immunity to that.  She told me stories of the time when telephones were party lines, the milk came by horse wagon in glass bottles with cream on the top, of ice boxes cooled by blocks of ice cut from the Ottawa River, of the Great Depression and the weird symbols that vagrants carved on their fence posts letting others know they had a pot of soup on the stove to share.  Listening to her gave me a fondness of the past and of learning about genealogy I carry to this day.  Life was precarious growing up in the time before penicillin and vaccinations and she came of age sandwiched between two world wars.  To grow up in that time was an era of loss and life and death was much more a reality for them than it is today.  She remembered family members lying in state in the living room of their house. 

When WWII started my uncle went to war and my aunt joined the WRENS while my mom stayed home and worked for the Bank of Canada while getting her BA.  She later got a Master’s in Library Science from the University of Toronto. 

When the war ended this was my mom’s time to see the world so she joined External Affairs and was posted to Dublin.  One of mom’s memories was watching Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on t.v. which was one of the first big events that was televised.  She was posted to Rome where she met my dad. 

My mom was a career woman.  She was the main breadwinner and she had a solid career which was remarkable for that time – I honestly can say she must have faced huge hurdles – it’s still a difficult slog for a woman in the civil service and I can’t imagine how it would have been for her when discrimination was allowed to be blatant as it was in the 60s and 70s.  Add to that that most women weren’t career women with families and she had the challenge of child care in a much less friendly environment. 

When she was the Chief Librarian for the Department of the Solicitor General I would do my homework in the library; because she travelled a lot she would often take one of us with her.  She went to many conferences which is when we usually went but she also inspected libraries in the Federal Penitentiaries across Canada.  One of her favorite stories (and mine) was the time she got snowed in at Dorchester Penitentiary – a men’s maximum security prison. 

For me, growing up with these trips and with all my parents’ friends visiting who were still in External Affairs made me think for the longest time that what you did when you grew up was get a job where you travel and live in exotic places.  I haven’t had the pleasure of that but I am lucky enough to have had a couple of jobs where I got to see Canada.  I think this travel bug is genetic; my daughter so far is busy visiting amazing places with her husband, and who knows what my son decides to come up with.

So you see, my mom essentially packed two lives into one; a full career as a single woman then the married career mother.  She was inclusive and she would do things with my sister and I that suited each of us and for me that meant swimming and being in the choir which was the only way she could get me to go to church – we both loved music and singing so there we had it.

One of the reasons my mom was so determined to make us a part of what she did was because her own mother had died at age 60 and our other grandmother at age 50.  That she was 42 when she had me, she wasn’t sure that she would live to see us grow up.  This weighed on her mind.  Every day beyond that accomplishment was icing on the cake for her and she was thrilled to become a grandmother – not just once but 6 times and to live long enough to see them grow up. 

My mom was a sweet, kind, considerate and thoughtful person who loved people unconditionally and who always tried to see people in their best light.  On the surface she portrayed herself as a gentle soul but inside she did have a band of steel to be able to live her life according to her truth which in many senses was very contrary to the way of life in her time.  She didn’t kowtow to convention, she did what was right for her. She was understanding that people need to follow their own hearts even if it isn’t what is expected of them.  I really appreciated that consideration. 

When I moved out on my own we would visit each other; she loved going to lunch with me when were both working downtown; we would spend evenings chatting and later when I moved to Mississauga we would spend hours on the phone chatting, something that we continued to do right up until 4 years ago.  I loved our long conversations – it was our safe space to talk about life.  When I learned that I could no longer call her, to me that was the first of the long heartbreaking goodbye. 

I will never forget the relationship we had and I am very grateful that I had a mother I knew loved me whether or not she agreed with my decisions.  She was the truest example of unconditional love and I am a stronger person because of that.

I learned a lot from my parents.  They were both good at relating to people and not being overly judgmental.  My mom was a wonderful force with the most beautiful light and I am so blessed to be able to say I am her daughter.  I couldn’t have asked for a better mom.

Cathi.

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