I belong to a line of very strong women. Lucid women. Practical women. Determined, tough, resolute. Women with chin-setting, laser-eyed conviction. I suppose I always sensed it. Of course, I’d heard the stories.
My paternal grandmother, having sold a two-story home with electricity, running water and sewage in Massachusetts in 1919, cried at the sight of the two-room shack with a dirt floor that awaited her and her four children in Saskatchewan. Then, she rolled up her sleeves.
My maternal grandmother bore thirteen children, and raised twelve. During the day, she tended a huge garden and preserved its harvest, baked dozens of loaves of bread each week, made meals, and watched the kids. In the evening, and late into the night, she sewed clothes for them, taking apart her husband’s worn jackets and pants, and cutting out suits for the boys from the salvageable sections.
After the stories, I was privileged to observe the living examples. My mother overcame a stillbirth, a natural birth, a lung hemorrhage, a Caeasarian section, and pneumonia in a four-year stretch in the 1950’s when she was in her thirties. Plagued with the effects of those health challenges throughout her life, she willed herself to survive for the sake of her husband and daughters, and, later, her grandchildren. She rallied from open-heart surgery when she was 79, and fought the limitations age imposed until her death at age 92.
My cousin and godmother, Janine, provided another inspirational example, especially during her battle with ovarian cancer. Whenever I saw Janine during her illness, in the audience for her grandson’s jazz camp concert, at her mother’s 100th birthday celebration, at my father’s funeral, or at home, her characteristic laugh brightened my day. Never once did I hear her complain. She spoke of her reality with steeled acceptance, without a trace of self-pity. On one occasion, four years ago, clear-eyed and matter-of-fact after another round of chemo, she said, “The doctors say it’s not a matter of if it comes back, but when.”
This is a woman who knew what she wanted, and went after it. When she needed to know how to do something, she got a book. A teacher by profession, she returned to school when her children were adolescents to obtain her Bachelor of Education degree in library science. A seasoned travel planner, she organized trips to Peru, the Galapagos Islands, Botswanna, Egypt, and India, among others. She and her husband were always willing to share the wonderful stories from those adventures. She was strategic, too. The demanding destinations came first, when she and her husband were younger. She was never afraid to face a challenge head-on.
I am indebted to her for other reasons as well. When I was a child, she fed my love of reading. My first Nancy Drew books and the obligatory Bobbsey Twins were gifts from Janine. One Christmas, I received an album of Christmas carols for the piano. I still have it. Thanks to her, I am part of a rare intergenerational godparent connection. Janine was the goddaughter of her uncle, Hervé, my father. I am her goddaughter. The key piece, though, is that Janine asked if I would be her daughter’s godmother. Wow. What an honour. And a responsibility. Her daughter is our younger son’s godmother. So—uncle, niece, cousin, daughter, first-cousin once removed. That sensitivity to family connections colored our conversations. She cared for the family treasures, and she poked behind the names inscribed on the family geneological tree for the stories lurking there.
It was the family stories she wanted to talk about during our last face to face conversation on June 30. She had so much to say, and my sense was she felt the constraints of time. We embraced at the end of the visit, and our eyes locked. Along that electric pathway, the bonds of two lifetimes synapsed in a telepathic good-bye.
Janine left us on Saturday, August 10. Her grace under the most severe pressure solidified the inheritance that a line of remarkable women has bequeathed to me. As the senior member now, it’s up to me to be the face of our common lineage for my daughter and my niece. Lucky for me, every day along that path, cameos of Janine, my mother, and my grandmothers, will guide me.