Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tribute to Big Nanny

I had the honour of delivering a tribute to my grandmother at her funeral today. Here is the written text of my speech (minus ad-libs and the grown man blubbering):

If you aren't up a sports fan,  I want to apologize, but I have to talk about the Toronto Blue Jays, so I’m going to start with a baseball analogy. I hadn't really followed baseball in years, but this year was special because this is the first season in over 20 years that the Blue Jays made the playoffs. Now if you're a Toronto Maple Leafs fan like my Aunt Mary, let me explain what that means - the regular season ends, but your team has been successful enough that they get to play extra games to see who can win the championship. In life, I am going to say that Big Nanny made the playoffs. Of course, the Blue Jays had some trials in the playoff, losing the first two games in the series against Texas, but coming back - including the most amazing inning of baseball I’ve ever seen. Nanny also had her trials lately. I think the victories you win when you have to make a comeback can be even sweeter; as good as it is to win, it is even better to win well. Even for the team that wins the World Series, the season always has to come to an end, so you want to have big wins, and hang onto those memories. You can have incredible moments where you throw your bat up in the air in victory, and those are the moments that you take a picture of and savour.

I start with this because my Nan was a devoted Blue Jays fan. I like to think that Jose Bautista is her second favourite Joe. Watching the Jays play baseball is something that she loved to do, although it’s not something that I remember about her from my childhood - anyone who has been around her the last few years knows how important the Blue Jays are.

I have to wonder how she could have had time earlier in her life to watch baseball. She certainly was never one to sit around, and I would go so far as to say she would find staying put irritating. I can remember when she worked at Fawcett’s Hardware, and before that at the Post Office, and she always played bingo at the hall, bowling at the lanes, and cards at the kitchen table. Even before that, I know she had a long and varied career which included working for Canadian Blood Services, and as a switchboard operator, while doing the stuff you have to do when you are raising four children.

I am the oldest of her grandchildren, and I’m 42 - the same age that she was when I was born. That means she had a whole lifetime before I was even around to see anything. I wish I could say more about what she was like as a younger woman, but I’m relying on ideas and stories from others. I’ve been asking. John did start to tell me a story the other night that included her dancing on the kitchen table with her leg in a cast . I’m pretty sure I’m missing some important context to that story, but it confirms what I’ve always suspected. She must have always been a handful!

She was also never one to keep her feelings to herself, and around her house the way she wanted it was the way it was going to be. I’ve personally never been one to wear a hat, which mean that I’ve never suffered the indignity of having her take it off my head and smack me with it for wearing it at the kitchen table. And I’ve never been a smoker, so I didn’t have to face the glare she would give the smokers after she herself had quit smoking. But I’ve seen these things happen, and I knew better than to cross any lines that she had drawn.

I will also say she was ahead of her time - this thing called “road rage” that everyone talks about? I’m pretty sure she invented it. I think it was Mary who was telling me that once Nanny was describing how someone had cut her off, so she showed how she gave them the finger! That had to be a joke, because I’m positive she knew the correct way to express her feelings.

She did have a wicked sense of humour. However, if you thought you were being funny she wasn't necessarily amused. She didn't have a lot of time for would-be jesters, or those who didn’t know what they were talking about. If you were going to try to say something smart around her, well, you better actually be smart. And if you really were, and it wasn’t something that would cause a needless argument, she would certainly discuss it with you.

I’m sure she recognized duplicity easily because she was fairly well read. For a while, when Lori had a used book store in Sussex, Nan would help tend shop and talk to customers. She could discuss any book in the store and make recommendations, since she probably read just about anything they were looking at anyway. Customers love to hang around and chat with her, and she loved those discussions.

Even so, she never did get on the internet. That’s really OK - my brother doesn’t have facebook and we still manage to communicate. But I think she could have learned to enjoy having some much information available. Even so, I wouldn’t say she wasn’t being left behind. Like the rest of her generation, she just saw so much change that in the end it must have been hard to even keep track of what was a fad and what was a new normal. I can find it hard myself, and I’m a middle-aged guy who actually works in technology. She once asked, back when the internet was first becoming mainstream “how are we going to run an electronic super-highway, when we can't afford to keep up the roads we have now!”

But change or no change, she was not afraid of much. I don't know if any of the other grandchildren remember much about our Grampy, but I do. He took me fishing, and watched hockey with me, and let me sit on his back and ride him like a horse on the livingroom floor until he had to rest. He made pom-pom throws for the backs of chairs, and couldn’t say anyone’s names correctly unless it was simple like “Bob” or “Jim”. Couldn’t or wouldn’t - I’m not sure which. They would have been quite a couple. When Grampy passed away, Nanny found herself with no husband and her children grown up. I was nine, so my recollection may not be as accurate as those who were older, but it seems to me that rather than use that as an excuse to feel sorry for herself, she forged ahead. I'm sure she mourned, and I know that they loved each other; but she knew that she had a lot of time left. As a child I watched her pick herself up and carry on, and that was my example for how someone deals with loss - even losing the most important person in your life. And I am grateful for that lesson.

She traveled quite a bit after Grampy passed away, doing bus trips with her close group of friends, or visiting family like when Lori lived in Toronto. She did not shy from trying new things. She did whatever touristy thing someone travelling should do, visiting all the sites and piling up all kinds of experiences.

And of course there was Avon. I’m pretty sure I’ve got a few bottles of Wild Country body wash stocked up, and who among us doesn't have a bottle of skin-so-soft ready to make your bath luxurious, or take price tags off of something, or in case you need some bug repellent? She became to me the model of what an Avon lady must be. And she won president’s club so many times I couldn't count it. I know she was always proud of how well she did with Avon.

That’s explains how so much Avon product found it’s way into gifts. That, and her finds at yard sales when she saw something that she really thought one of us should have. After she negotiated a better price, of course!

In the last couple of years it became more difficult for her to do all the things she had done. This is where I think her passion for the Blue Jays became even more important for her, with 150 or so days a year when she could cheer (or yell!) at her tv. This year was more cheering :) I also know how special it was when my brother Jeremy took her to Toronto to watch a Jays game. I’m sure he will never forget what that meant to her.

There are so many highlights to talk about. I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I say that my Nanny lived a lot of life in her 84 years. And when I look around and see my mom and my aunts and uncle, all of us grandchildren, and my children and all the other great-grandchildren, I am happy that so much of who she was will live on. All of those memories that we have with her, we can share them with each other just like that photo of Jose Bautista tossing his baseball bat in the air, and how that image was shared throughout the country.

There was a moment in the hospital on Monday a week ago, when we all knew where things were going. While we were sitting with her, Nan opened her eyes and was struggling to speak. We weren’t really sure what she wanted, but we tried to help. We adjusted her blankets, and listened hard as she mouthed a few words but couldn’t quite get it out. We moved her oxygen mask away, and when we did she looked up at me and said “God, you’re handsome”. We all laughed to tears. I think it was the greatest thing I had ever heard. It’s so fitting that, gasping for breath, she wouldn’t say “I love you”, or “Don’t worry about me.” If she wasn’t struggling so much just to speak, she probably would finished the phrase “God you’re handsome...but you need a haircut.” I’ve certainly heard that from her before. And to be honest, she could have been talking to my cousin Ken sitting beside me. Or maybe she thought I was Johnny Reid - I know she thought he is handsome. Or maybe she was seeing Dr. Yummypants. It’s really hard to say, because she was not really herself after that (as far as I was able to see). But I will always remember that her last words to me were exactly what a vain man like me would want to hear. I’m sure she knew, so she made it a good one, like she always did.