Remembering Grandma

Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton behind the wheel of the new family McLaughlin Buick, 1917, when she was nine years old.

Eulogy for Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton (November 12, 1908-March 30, 2017), delivered at First Baptist Church, Halifax, on April 27, 2017.

Before my grandmother celebrated her 100th birthday at Victoria Hall, she claimed the frailty of great age would not allow her to say much. When the day came, of course, she delivered a pithy speech, brandishing the white gloves she wore when she met the King and Queen in 1939.

She summed up the lessons of that first century by noting the importance of the “three F’s – Faith, Family and Friends.” She would be pleased to see everyone here today, family and friends, in this church that meant so much to her.

I will follow Grandma’s lead this afternoon and reflect on her life in terms of the “four R’s – Resilience, Relationship, Roles, and Humour.”

Resilience is obvious. At 108 years, 4 months and 18 days, she set a family record, something she was very pleased to do. Living through the complications of a badly-broken arm at age eight, surviving the Spanish flu at age ten, and then recovering from tuberculosis (in an age without antibiotics) in her early twenties, she epitomized resilience.

Diagnosed when she was 80 with an inoperable brain aneurysm that could burst anytime, she likely out-lived the doctor who gave her the news. When she signed her letters “Old Never Die,” it was hard not to agree. After all, she was born the year Henry Ford launched his Model T and “Iron Nellie” died 90 years after the “Tin Lizzie” stopped being built.

To anyone who spent time with grandma, Relationship is just as obvious. She would never tire of telling stories about her family, often with interesting new variations. The details were not as important as the relationships that those stories identified and cherished.

As her Western family, we did not see her as often as we would have liked, but the quavering hello with which the telephone conversation started quickly became animated and strong, whether talking to her children, grand-children or great-grand-children.

As for the third “R,” Grandma liked playing roles. She relished the role of “frail old lady,” long before she was. It was not just the English teacher in her, with a fondness for drama. Anyone who has lived in the home of a preacher understands public performance. She played the role of pastor’s wife and mother until Harvey’s death in 1965, and then stepped into new roles as teacher and matriarch as the grandchildren appeared.

We would regularly hear, at a distance, how she was all by herself, blind and unaware of what was going on in the world. Of course, drilling down to the details, we would discover all sorts of visitors, continuing relationships started years before, and get a variety of opinions, often pungent, on current politics and world affairs. As for her eyesight, Grandma still saw what she wanted to see.

She was our family historian, cheerfully writing thousands of words based on her research in cemeteries and archives all over the Maritimes, without a single footnote to record where anything was found. As for being frail, when she was interviewed for her 100th birthday, she asked if the reporter had brought a suitcase, because she intended to talk for a week!

The last “R,” for humour, comes with a rolling Maritime “r” at the end. We would miss something important if we did not celebrate Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton for the unique character lurking behind the various roles she played so well and for so long.

Yes, her middle name was always Nellie. In her teens, she decided that was a cow’s name and Natalie sounded more high class, so she changed it herself and then outlived everyone who knew different. She finally ‘fessed up in time for her 100th birthday.

Past 100, she was relieved of her meal-time duties operating the elevator in Victoria Hall for upsetting the other old ladies by continually announcing the second floor stop as “Death Row.”

Asked to say grace at a short-staffed holiday meal, the hostess emerged from the kitchen, aghast to hear a prayer manifesto imploring divine protection for the helpless residents left to fend for themselves by a chiseling administration.

Angered by the local public health decision not to vaccinate residents during the flu epidemic a few years ago, having had a flu shot every year since she started teaching, she somehow got through to the provincial minister of health on the phone to complain – and was first in line when the vaccination team arrived.

Her own sharp humour could be delivered with devastating timing. I remember one Thanksgiving family dinner at our home, Twin Oaks, when a guest remarked on all the family portraits hanging around the room, especially the one of Rev. I. D. Harvey. That one also had a small inset picture of him seated, with his wife, Belle Bagley, my aboriginal great-great grandmother, standing behind him, in the traditional pose.

Grandma announced she knew why that portrait pose was so common.

Asked to say more, before calmly continuing to eat her meal amid the uproar that followed, she said: “They always took that picture on the morning after the wedding. The man was too tired to stand up and the woman was too sore to sit down.”

As we say goodbye to Evelyn Nellie Powell Denton today, we all have our own roles to play, here in this magnificent church, under the stained glass window dedicated to my grandfather.

But the picture in my mind of my grandmother right now is from another Baptist church, a small one in Maccan, Nova Scotia, where her father was a deacon, on the Sunday she returned from her first term at Acadia University.

Hand on one hip, in true flapper fashion, she swayed back and forth as she marched down the aisle to the deacon’s family pew, her stylishly unlaced, open galoshes, clanking as she went.

After a long and fruitful life, that’s how I will see her leading us out of this place today, waving off our tears, as with her own eyes bright once again, she triumphantly swaggers home.

Budget a Titanic undertaking

(April 24, 2017)

It is a measure of how bad things have gotten elsewhere that the Pallister government’s recent budget was received by many with relief.

In comparison to Twitter tirades and missile launches, it was measured and thoughtful.

Yet, in comparison to what the province needs at a pivotal point in its economic and environmental history, it accomplished little that was positive and confused inefficiency with problems in systems design.

To use a well-worn Titanic analogy, it sorted out the dinner menu in first-class, reorganized the schedule for shoveling coal, ensured the people in steerage had access to some fresh air and polished the brass. It did nothing to deal with icebergs ahead or ongoing misjudgments about speed, course and design.

Trimming expenditures is a poor way of increasing efficiency. Expectations are never reduced, just the resources for accomplishing them, according to the mantra of “doing more with less.” Reducing program budgets leaves staff nothing to do, which then justifies eliminating staff for not doing anything — undermining the morale that might inspire people to find creative new ways of doing things.

Of course, these cuts also tend to be made by people who are measuring only bottom lines, following through on mandates to cut expenditures or staff such as “by 15 per cent.”

Is there inefficiency in government? Absolutely. Could we get more done by spending less? Certainly. Can it be done by just cutting things? Not a chance — inefficiency is the consequence of poor system design.

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Vimy Ridge a reminder of war’s futility

Main-a-Dieu, Cape Breton, looking out to sea. “D” Company (85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, Capt. Percy Anderson) was from Cape Breton. “C” Company (Capt. Harvey Crowell) was from the Halifax area.

(April 7, 2017)

As the sun rises on Vimy Ridge on Sunday, thousands of Canadians will be there to commemorate the centenary of the assault that some say forged a nation. The soaring marble statuary that dominates the skyline, just as the ridge dominated the battlefield, has come to mean more than its creators intended.

Or so the story goes. Debates rage among historians about the actual importance of the battle, or about how the memorial (and its significance) have grown over time to serve less noble purposes in the propaganda wars of another era.

For me, the battle for Vimy Ridge is personal. The unit that — without the promised artillery barrage — climbed out of their trenches and took the summit of the ridge on Hill 145 was the 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders). Its second-in-command was my grandmother’s cousin, Major James Layton Ralston, a lawyer and politician from Amherst, Nova Scotia. The officer commanding “C” Company, who made the decision to go forward, according to Pierre Berton’s book Vimy, was Captain Harvey Crowell, a friend of my grandparents whom I met once, when I was 12. A small man, he was an accountant.

For me, the mythology of Vimy Ridge is thus not about its importance as a battle or the magnificent monument to the sacrifice of a nation. It is about a small group of ordinary Canadians — miners, loggers, fishermen — understrength because of illness, inexperienced in battle and used to fetch, carry and dig, led by lawyers and bookkeepers — and sneered at as “the Highlanders without kilts” — who simply got the job done when the professional soldiers could not.

No doubt my Nova Scotian roots are showing, but it is the same attitude that the young nation demonstrated throughout the Great War of 1914-1918, during the Depression and in the darkest days of the Second World War, too. Scattered across the Canadian countryside are small churches with large memorial plaques, showing how many men went to war. The stars next to the names of those who did not come back are silent memorials to the sacrifices made by those who sent them, too.

The futility of such a sacrifice was not something that people realized only afterward. Everyone who was there knew exactly how little it all meant. They fought to end the war, not to win it.

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