Thursday, 28 February 2013

Day of Love

On Valentine's Day, my mother passed away. Her departure was swift and sudden, but not unexpected. She had suffered for many years from COPD (quit smoking, folks) and arthritis. She led a sedentary life, but living in her home town for the last 18 years gave her a lot of joy.

My siblings and I didn't have enough time to reach her before the end, but she was surrounded by a large and loving family. Almost every day, either her sister or a cousin or a cousin's child dropped by to spend time with her. She was not alone in the hospital.

During the past week, the vast outpouring of love and generosity from a family I rarely saw filled me with comfort. I held my emotions in check, mostly for the sake of my brother and sister, who took Mom's passing hard.

But this isn't about me. It's about Mom.

Born in 1936, Frances Bernard Cormier was the oldest daughter of Louis Bernard, a Mi'kmaw from Nova Scotia, and Catherine Connell of County Cork, Ireland. She had three older brothers: Jackie, Tommy and Herbie. She married Roger Cormier, a dashing Acadian from Minto, New Brunswick, in 1956. Or was it '55? Dad will correct me.

Uncle Jackie is still with us. He recently received The Diamond Jubilee Medal for his military service to Canada and for being an elder in the Native Community. When I saw Jackie, he had recently received stitches on his nose after falling face first into the deep freeze. Don't ask.

Donna, Mom's little sister, lives in the apartment across the hall, on the first floor of a Victorian mansion on Douglas Avenue. They shared the phones, Internet, and the cat. Donna had the food at her apartment, and Mom had the litter box in hers. She always complained that she got the shitty end of the cat. The landlord lives upstairs. They both took great care of Mom and I'm forever grateful for their love and support.

My sister was enroute from a remote community in Northern Ontario when we got the news. She spent twelve hours and five planes to get to Saint John, with spotty phone service. She didn't know about Mom's passing until the third leg of her journey.

My brother and I followed on Saturday, sitting together on the same twin-prop plane for the two-hour trip from Toronto. When we arrived, we got right to work, during the impromptu party of course. As rotating shifts of cousins milled around us, we spent Saturday evening going through old pictures and new, putting together a slide show with a selection of music for the service. We also made a cheerful display of Mom's paintings, decorated with Valentine hearts and St. Patrick's Day trinkets.

As we went through Mom's things, every photograph, greeting card and piece of paper prompted a Frannie story. We found pictures of my parents' honeymoon, and several of Mom wearing a slip and holding a pot or a dish. I think that was Dad's secret joke, catching Mom unawares for a Paparazzi-type photo opportunity. Her eyes always looked wide and slightly annoyed in those pictures.

We found CDs of her favourite music, and handwritten lyrics and stories. We found lots and lots of hair curlers, half-used lipsticks and partial packages of AA batteries in every drawer.

Mom was a Shopping Channel addict. Multiple packages of small appliances, still sealed, were stuffed in closets and cupboards. Perhaps she meant to give them as gifts, or forgot she had already ordered that Hurricane Mop twice already.

We found letters she never sent, and cards she'd received from us, nieces, friends, grand-nephews and great-grand-nieces. Drawings from the little ones covered the fridge.

The freezer was stuffed with unopened bags of mixed vegetables. She had always promised to improve her diet, and bought the things she meant to eat, but they were either stale or suffering from freezer burn. Inside a canister, I found a whole bunch of candy. The cupboards groaned with packages of cake and pancake mix.

Scattered throughout the apartment were her paintings. We displayed them at the service, then divided them up, giving some to her sister and brother. I chose the one of a girl looking out to sea.

We found little notes from Dad, who currently lies in bed on the other side of the continent, having just undergone hip surgery. Dad was sorry not to be there for us, but it couldn't be helped. We are all wishing him a speedy recovery, so he can golf for another twenty years. Thumbs up, Dad.

My sister wanted to have a private family "smudge" before the rest of the clan showed up for the service on Tuesday. A smudge is a traditional Native method of using smoke from tobacco, sage and sweetgrass to purify an area, usually accompanied by a prayer. It turned out most of the clan showed up an hour early, so we all participated in the smudge.  After we did it, my sister invited the rest of the congregation to participate, and many did, including the minister.

At one point during the eulogy, the little smudge pot started to smoke more than it should have. A cousin darted up front to smother it. It wouldn't do for Frannie's spirit to try to burn the place down. After all, this funeral home had put to rest at least three generations of Bernards.

My brother had to return home on Wednesday, and my sister on Thursday. I stayed behind to help organize the apartment. I returned Sunday night, and promptly contracted the flu my aunt had been recovering from.

I'm sitting here in bed, thinking about Frannie, and the fact that I didn't have a proper chance to say goodbye. You may be mortal, Mom, but your words are not. I give you back your favourite saying, "I love your guts."