For monarchists, the 21st April 2018 signified the 92nd birthday of the queen. For me it will be forever known as the date of death of a much more regal personage than any British queen. My mom, Agnes, died. Now there was a queen.
This lady, proud wife of a military man, gave birth to six children all of them when dad was away. She went to the hospital on her own and brought each home on her own. And not a peep of wah! wah! wah! out of her because, back in the day, that’s just what you did. You looked after things. Mom was fiercely independent and heaven help anyone who got in her way (I.e. tried to assist her) when she was perfectly capable of doing it herself. This stoicism got her through many things in life but towards the end it was a trait that could cause me frustration because she wasn’t capable of doing it herself but couldn’t acknowledge that. If you’re reading this, mom, I apologize. You did the best you could.
My mom lived 96 years and was just shy of her 97th birthday by a couple weeks. As much as it would’ve been nice to have a ‘7’ rather than a ‘6’ because then she’d had been that much closer to a hundred, the thoughts of her wasting away on her death bed those extra days was excruciating. And nearing the date she was to die and in one of her few lucid moments, she asked me to shoot her. She’d had enough. Her life was finished and what was there to look forward to except a bit of mushy food and a wheelchair. It’s in these final weeks, the adage that life isn’t fair really jumps at you. Here was a lady who ate healthy her entire life, took vitamins before they were popular, and ate to live rather than lived to eat. And how was she rewarded for that? The same way unhealthy, overweight people are - a slow death. My reaction when I found out she had died was, frankly, to heck with looking after myself if this is how it all ended. So I went out and bought a container of ice cream and caramel sauce and ate it. Yup, the entire thing. Then I bought another but good old Ralph made me realize it probably wasn’t the best way to grieve.
But mom did have a good life. No, she had an amazing life. She was named after Canada’s first female Member of Parliament (Agnes McPhail) and at six was honoured to shake the hand of her namesake (while wearing her new white gloves bought especially for such an occasion). At the one room school she attended, the teacher ensured all the students were outside to see Amelia Earhart fly over the school. Deaf for a large part of her life - but not knowing it - she eventually had an operation in Montreal and a couple days later hitchhiked with my dad to visit relatives. She rode a camel, slept in the parking lot of France’s Versailles, survived a horrendous car accident in Greece in the 60’s, and took the ferries back and forth from Newfoundland over 30 times all the while frightened of water. I recall she and her coffee pals skipping with my friends and I when I was 12 and she was .... older. She raised the first four of her children generally on her own because there was no housing for military families back in the day so dad was only home once a month. She made us ice cream as well as bottled home made root beer (then charged us 10 cents/bottle for it!). She could stretch a tin of soup to feed eight people and lived for two years with five children in a converted garage because that was the only place my dad could find to live. Mom only began working out of the home later in life and was amazed, pleased and surprised at the untapped skills that grew from her as a result of it. She took everything in stride. Nothing was a big deal to mom.
Mom was the money-person in the family. In the mid 1940’s with four kids and my dad’s salary being diddley-squat, she knocked his socks off one day showing him their bank book. She had saved over a thousand dollars that year. With four kids and little income. Unintentionally she raised us with the ‘it’s not the money you have. It’s how you spend the money you have’ adage. My oldest brother, a chartered accountant with Revenue Canada brought tax regulations to her one day to prove she was wrong about a financial issue. She wasn’t. He was. She challenged a bank manager on the same sort of thing. And yup. She was right.
Mom was the George Burns to dad’s Gracie Allan. She was the straight man. Dad was the one that thought of things and mom went along for the ride. She would gladly have followed him to the ends of the earth relishing each new military move with a smile while she packed and sorted all that was necessary. One of the more memorable moves was to Goose Bay, Labrador which meant all furnishings were to be stored for four years as well as determining the future needs of six kids, plus she and dad, our dog, two cats, three birds, two turtles, and a hamster. I would proudly tell my friends my mom was so adept at packing, she could put an entire household in one suitcase.
But everyone has that last transfer, my dad’s being in 2001 and mom following him way too long after that as far as she was concerned. This past Mother’s Day was our families first without parents but knowing mom didn’t waste a day of the time she had on this earth and having left us with good memories, it made it a bit easier.
Love you, mom.
Sheila Graham is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Board.