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.