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.

Goose Has Gone to Fly

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Birds do, it, bees do it – not too sure about the educated fleas, but there comes a time to leave the nest and strike out on your own.

I’ve done my share of nest leaving over the years, but it is harder to watch your child leave than to do it yourself.

When I teach ethics and sustainability, I build a values map of my classes by asking the students, individually and in groups, one simple question:

“What do children need to know when they leave home?”

Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, what do we need to teach the children?

The answers range from the profound to the absurd, from the unteachable to the mundanely practical, but the final list of ten things reveals a lot about the group.

This morning, as my first-born left the nest, the question became far less academic.

The most evident lessons are obvious in their results, external markers of social expectations, manners and the like. Personal hygiene, like cooking ability, is pretty easy to check.

As a parent, it’s much harder (and more unnerving) to gauge the lessons that you taught without knowing it, because not all lessons are good ones.

Yet the longer I have thought about it, the more I have come to realize that parents are praised and blamed about their children far out of proportion to what they deserve.

We make our own choices. Period. Others may push and pull us, persuade us and even coerce us, but in the end we all choose for ourselves. Even submission is a choice. Anything else undermines who we are as individuals. It takes away our autonomy, our moral agency, and makes us less than human.

Years ago, I remember when my daughter went on what was billed a “human rights trip” through her high school.

Instead of a trip that sampled the beaches and shopping of France and Spain, she saw something of what was eastern Europe, from behind the former Iron Curtain in Prague to salt mines in Poland. I told her not to bother bringing me back some kitschy souvenir, but that if she saw something interesting, go ahead.

When she came back and presented me with a small chip of brick she had picked up from the streets of Auschwitz, I knew that the trip had been worth far more than its cost.

I have never been there and may never have the chance, but she had learned something for herself that I have spent a lifetime teaching other people’s children.

In a world of choices, the real triumph of the will is to remember the resilience of the human spirit, the power of hope, and the possibilities that unfold in a universe of relations from any single thing you choose.

Those possibilities can be horrifying if they come out of the dark side that lies in all of us.

But they can also be beautiful and inspiring, lighting up any dark place with love, peace, hope and joy — defeating that darkness, even if just for a moment, because it exists only because of the absence of light.

That’s a lesson to teach the children, all of them – they have choices, always, and choosing light allows them to see the next step clearly, however dim or dark the journey ahead might be at any point.

My daughter is a musician, but she learned along the way that music comes from the heart and the soul – a gift, as much as it is a craft, something that comes out of who you are, not just out of what you are able to do.

No parent could teach that, but it’s a lesson I’m glad she learned.

Her plane is about to leave, so it’s time for me to go back to the work I have chosen to do. I have promises to keep.

As a parent and as a person, I know I could have made better choices than I have, but I am still learning.

Life is a work in progress, after all. The sun always rises on a new day.

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Early the next morning, I walked down to the river at sunrise, as I like to do. It is a peaceful time, a few minutes that I can walk with my thoughts or just not think at all, alone and unpursued by the demands of the day.

I caught a picture of the sun rising over the Red River as it twisted east and then north out of sight, the trail of a jet arcing across a sky skiffed with bits of cloud.

James Taylor’s song, Walkin’ Man, has haunting lyrics. In the work I have chosen for myself, I am constantly sowing seeds. But there are many times when I feel the pull of the wild geese, the need to just keep on walking, drawn along by the journey and not distracted by anything or anyone.

Yet the wild geese come back, if they can. Some fall to hunters, others to the perils of the journey they make. Age makes no difference, because it seems better to fly toward the end of life than to be afraid of what lies ahead.

What we try to teach the children, our own or others, is rarely what they learn. In the end, the most important lessons are those they choose. Whether they follow our example or avoid it isn’t the point — just as long as they don’t let that yearning pass them by.

Birds do it, bees do it, all the time – leaving the nest is part of what it means to choose the journey, not just once, but many times.

But what biologists call the homing instinct is strong in all of us. Whether we make the trip in person or only in spirit, whether we make the trip frequently or only once in a while, we are all called home.

Remembering home reminds us who we are and where we come from. It grounds us, strengthens us, gives us a place to stand. It reminds us there is a place where we belong.

And that is a feeling you can walk with, wherever.

Love Letters

It’s been said the world needs more love letters. Unfortunately there are so few letters of any kind being written anymore, for any reason.

Even greeting cards are being fire-saled to the older generations who have not shifted entirely to e-cards and electronic messages.

The only real advantage we have over previous generations is not our ability to send messages world-wide, however, but just how fast we are able to do it.

Hand-written letters also went around the world – they just took longer to reach their destination and had other reasons for failing in their journey than do our messages today.

When it comes to love letters, it is not the speed of delivery that matters. It is whether anyone takes the care and thought to write them at all.

Living as I do in the heart of the continent, my favorite illustration goes back to the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Single men would come to work for the HBC, leaving their sweethearts behind in England. Yet they were in constant contact, if they chose it:

Every spring, as the ships arrived at York Factory on Hudson’s Bay to reap the winter’s harvest of furs, letters from England would arrive and there would be letters ready for the trip back. Every fall, when the ships returned with supplies for the winter trading, again, there would be letters. All across the continent, through to the Pacific coast, the HBC undertook to deliver the mail to its people — and held onto the letters that did not reach their destination as planned.

Those undelivered letters – simple, direct, thoughtful and from the heart – have survived for future generations to read and appreciate as examples of the many letters that did reach their destination and then vanished into history.

Our faster communication does not measure up well in comparison. It is touching to get a tweet for good luck or some hashtag #loving, but a read receipt to show the email arrived doesn’t carry the same emotional freight as a letter. No response at all just leaves us wondering if the electronic ship sank en route.

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