My Grandmother’s funeral was yesterday. She lived from February 26, 1924 to May 21, 2014. Her name was Florence May Harris (maiden name Kettle).
It was a beautiful ceremony, attended by friends and family from all over the country. I had to park down the street from the Church, in fact.
It is hard to qualify the influence that this amazing woman had on me, and really on everyone around her. Like so many of the generation that grew up during the depression and World War II, she had an influence that seemed far out of proportion to that of a single being. My grandmother was the type of person that built communities, and that was evident at her funeral.
Perhaps the beast measure of a person, in my view, is in the stories they tell. Hateful people tend to tell tales that justify their lists of grievances. Blowhards brag about their various victories. Good people tend to tell stories of a different sort. Here are some of my Grandmother’s”
- Marriage. My Grandfather, Howard, was a friend of my Grandmother’s brother, Charlie. They met at and married just before Grandmother turned twenty. My great Grandmother (Grandmother’s Mother) was initially very cautious about her daughter’s relationship. When Florence announced her desire to marry Howard, her mother told her that she would have to wait until next year. They were married on January 1st, 1944. That date says a lot about my Grandmother.
- The Sandwich: My grandmother did not like to talk about the depression. Usually she just said that they had what they needed, so it did not feel so bad. Once I pressed the issue, telling her that it was professional curiosity. She related a story about how her father would often invite the hungry into the kitchen and share a sandwich with them. She said he would always close the door to the rest of the house, so they could eat in privacy. My post 9/11 thinking kicked in at that point and I asked if that was for the protection of the family. Grandmother laughed and said no, it was so that their guest could eat in peace and enjoy the dignity of good food without people staring and pitying.
- Working Woman: My grandmother was from a working class family and yet finished high school, a relative rarity in her day. Nonetheless her job prospects when she finished were bleak — service (maid etc) was the only readily available job. Nonetheless my grandmother, a lover of math, prevailed and found gainful employment in several fields. She told me many tales of overcoming sexist and just plain annoying employers, but her favourite job story was more about herself. In short while applying for a job she noticed that her prospective employer had made several spelling/math mistakes. During the interview she corrected him, which cost her the job. She was proud of her choice, but also quick to note the consequences and laugh at her lack of diplomacy.
- Politics: My grandparents were true supporters of the democratic process, volunteering on election day well into retirement. I enjoyed discussing and debating politics with them, and will sorely miss my grandmother’s perspectives. My grandmother was heavily involved in the creation of the NDP (then CCF) and the canadian healthcare debate. The NDP were often seen as “those damned socialists” in those days, mostly by the type of people who always seem to think society reached its pinnacle during their childhood (or the middle ages) and everything since has been a horrible decline. One of my Grandmother’s favourites stories was about canvassing and putting up signs for her party and drawing the ire of a man who railed against her in anger, and began to get very threatening. Let’s just say Florence gave as good as she got and wore her colours proudly, without fear.
- George: My father is named after my Grandmother’s brother, who died of Polio when he was twenty. This was long before the universal health care that Florence helped fight for or the wide-spread use of the polio vaccine. The family gave up everything to pay her Brother’s hospital bills, losing houses and long hours to pay the costs involved. In the end he succumbed. My Grandmother carried her brother with her, in her heart, as long as she lived, painting a vivid picture of him in her stories about him. Through her I know of his wit and his artistic side, his smile and his courage. I feel like I know him, because of her words and stories. To come to know someone who died long before you were born, through stories and sighs, is a profoundly powerful experience. I owe my grandmother much.
We owe much to my Grandparent’s generation. They were not without flaw, to be sure, but they deserve the title of the greatest generation. My grandmother fought for social change, women’s right, equality, and fairness. She did not wallow in the difficulties of a world that often seemed like it was staggering from one crisis to the next with war and nuclear apocalypse looming ever closer. Her solution was always to forge on, in the direction she thought was in the service of her family and her country and the Good (that bright and shining good that seems lost now, even in fiction), no matter if things were murky, or difficult. In the end she willed her way through a congenital heart defect, the loss of an eye, and a long battle with c. dificille, an infection that is usually lethal. She pushed her way to 90 so that she could see her great-grandchildren grow and enjoy the lives of her friends. She never stopped building communities, never stopped anything really, until she finally wound down.
I will carry her in my heart, and speak of her in my stories.