penny in a castle

A digital chapbook.

It’s a wonderful life

with 2 comments

I’ve spent the last two weeks thinking about life and death. What is the value each life holds and what does it mean to die a good death. I have also been thinking about what I call “big lives” versus “small lives.” 

Big lives in my mind are those of people who have tremendous success – at least, according to what we value in our Western society. They are wealthy or powerful or famous (or all three). They are leaders of organizations, companies, countries.  They traverse the globe, they give speeches, they are recognized for their work.

Then, there are those who live small lives.  They may have a tight budget that walks a fine line. They may have blue collar jobs that don’t seem to go anywhere. They work hard, without gaining a lot of recognition or winning awards.  They might stay close to home their entire lives. You would probably pass them in the street and not notice them.  They are the everyday.  They may wonder, what is the point?

My mom was one of the people you might think had a small life – if you had watched from a distance.

She died this week after living for two years with pancreatic cancer. 

This week we celebrated her life – and the impact on those it had around her. 

I often wonder if hers was a life that nearly never happened. She told stories she herself had heard from her mother and father – of being very sick soon after she was born – in days when a trip to the doctor cost a small fortune and to be avoided at all costs.  She was sent home abruptly from the hospital when my grandparents could no longer afford the bills. Somehow they all struggled and she survived.

She had terrible eye sight that required surgery at a young age.  When her parents could not afford to have further corrections made, the doctor did the required surgery in a back stair well.  Years later, an optometrist commented to mom on what good work the doctor had done – he could still see the neat scars.

Mom grew up in small VLA home where her parents tried to make ends meet while keeping a family of four girls going.  Mom talked vividly of the good times – of love, of laughter, of singing, of stories.  Life was hard but somehow she made it sound beautiful.

Mom went to school “with the nuns” in both primary and high schools and frequently regaled my brothers and I with stories of horrendously strict teachers who were fond of the strap and the giddiness of young girls. Mom talked about being called up on the carpet and failing math despite her best efforts.  Yet, she still spoke warmly of friends she had.  I know of at least one friend that she stayed in touch with over all these years. Her friend had dreamed up the idea of creating a fan club for the Kinks in Toronto. Mom still had the letter she had received from the band and how much trouble she was in with her parents when they opened it. 

After graduating, Mom worked her entire life.  She worked for the provincial public health labs. She worked in real estate offices. She worked for a news paper. She worked at Burger King and had fantastic stories about trying to keep up with a multitude of orders during the lunch hour crush.  She sold Luwasa plants.  She did accounting for a water bottle company, a garbage bag company (that eventually skipped town), and for Cannon (one of the best companies she ever worked for).  For a few years while we were young, she ran her own home daycare – and tried to keep hyperactive children from terrorizing the cat and dog.  When she was the same age I am now, she started work for the public school board and worked for 20 years at five or six different schools.  She did accounting and attendance. She ran transcripts and graduation ceremonies. She doled out bus tickets and Ritalin.  She dealt with the worst students that the teachers could not handle and sent down to the office.  She was more than a secretary – she was a manager, accountant, writer, event planner, pharmacist, counsellor and social worker all rolled into one.

While working for the school board she was a strong representative in the union and sat on committees and at the negotiation table. She frequently took courses and went to conferences.  It was always as a volunteer and she was never paid a dime for the extra hours she spent poring over documents.  My mother had a strong sense ethics and what was right. She could not always agree with the direction the union took.  She was not always popular for her position or what she stood for, but I believe she brought a lot of common sense to the table.

She gave generously of her time to the church and belonged to both the Ladies Auxiliary and the Catholic Women’s League.  She spent countless hours making sandwiches and spaghetti.  She volunteered for a number of other causes as well over the years – including collecting door to door for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and making African AIDs Angels. 

Yet somehow she always found time for her past times, family and friends. She had a social schedule that was something to marvel at.  Over the years she took up aqua fit and tai chi.  She tap danced and belly danced (although she never did seem to get the hang of using a scarf).    She tole painted beautiful pieces and gave them away.  She went bowling and dancing.  She had her “witches” club, her dinner clubs and her breakfast clubs. 

Through all of this she loved and lived for her family. 

She met my Dad at a Young People’s Club many years ago.  They were married for 45 years. I don’t pretend all of those years were perfect but they stuck together through it all – and still remained dancing together to the end. 

Mom raised three crazy kids in a fun and loving home.  She came to school pageants and plays.  She drove us to countless swimming, skating and music lessons, dance practices and hockey games. Often this involved getting up at ungodly early hours and staying up late.  Mom supported us when we went to university and college – through all the all nighters and anxiety attacks.  She was there with us as we made our way into the working world and as we moved out into our own lives – providing solid support and advice.  She put up with the parade of boyfriends and girl friends – and still graciously accepted all the outlaws we chose to marry in the end.

But it was her grand children who gave her the greatest pleasure. She loved them all fiercely. She was their biggest cheerleader at piano recitals and soccer games.  She listened avidly to their stories and looked forward to their phone calls and emails.  She wanted to watch them live and grow up as much as she could.  She wished she could see where all of their stories went.

Mom – despite numerous set-backs and obstacles – was one of the toughest ladies I know.  She never let cancer define her, and she hid her true pain until the end. She chose to live life to the fullest as long as she possibly could. She faced it all with grace, hope and courage – as well as a wicked sense of humour. 

Many people came to her visitation and funeral.  They all said similar things – she was very strong and that she will be missed.  But what I noted the most was how mom had connected with each of them individually – “I knew your mom from this school” “I knew your mom from bowling” “I knew your mom from the breakfast club” “I knew your mom from the union” “I knew your mom from the church.”

Based on all of this, I believe in the end, what matters most is not whether your life is big or small.  What is important is the impact you have had on others.  My mother had a full life. She touched so many people in positive ways and we are all so lucky to have known her.

I know that I miss her already.  I want to continue in her foot steps to reach out to others in positive ways no matter how small they may appear. I hope that others she knew do too so that her impact can continue to echo for years to come.


Written by pennyinacastle

August 24, 2014 at 2:55 am

Posted in Random thoughts

2 Responses

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  1. Your tribute to your mother brings tears to my eyes. The room at the funeral home was packed with people, and that’s how I knew how much she touched people, and how much people loved her. We are so blessed if we have parents who are beautiful, strong, loving and who have shared the richness of their spirits with us. To lose such a spirit makes for sadness. The loss also, as you said, inspires us to live up to the big ideals they exemplified in their lives. You mom was a lighthouse and she will shine for you and for your children for a long time to come.

    D_I_H (@Debra_I_H)

    August 25, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    • Thank you so much for your kind words – they really are appreciated. Thank you as well for your support – as the listening ear over the past few years as well as for helping to celebrating mom’s life. It is so nice to know that you are thinking about us. It makes all the difference.

      I feel very lucky to have known my mom – I have looked up to her over the years and she has been a good friend as well as a parent. In the last two years, I have been in awe of her strength – she is my hero.

      Thank you again for sharing with us.


      August 26, 2014 at 1:37 am

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