I had the chance to hold a newborn baby girl the other day. I looked down at her squishy little face and thought, “Imagine if she lives to 102 like my grandmother did. That would bring us to the year 2119. What will life be like then? How far will we advance – and in what ways will we be forced to go back to basics?”
My grandmother Victoria was born in Gracefield, Que., in 1915. She was one of three sisters. The girls went to a school run by nuns but Vicky was not destined for the convent. She married an Irishman and had five kids. (I say Irishman because his name was Irish – Cullen. I always thought of my grandmother as Irish, too, but was recently reminded she wasn’t.)
My mother was the only girl, among four brothers. Vicky kept her daughter close, particularly when times were tough. There wasn’t much money but my mother learned how to cook a nutritious, satisfying meal out of very little. She certainly learned the value of a dollar.
Eventually, Vicky left her husband and chose to raise her kids on her own. That couldn’t have been easy, with English as her second language, in Ottawa in the 1950s.
Vicky always had a way with food and she loved to feed people. She worked in the cafeteria at Carleton University for a time, as a caterer and as a server at the Chateau Laurier. She had an extremely strong work ethic and didn’t let language barriers or any other obstacles stand in her way. I seem to have inherited her uber-optimistic personality, waking up after a negative experience with the attitude, “Today is another day. The slate is wiped clean. The possibilities are endless.”
My grandmother was one of the first people to teach me about a sustainable lifestyle. Living in a little renovated schoolhouse near Gracefield, Que., she kept a healthy garden, chopped wood to heat her house and traded goods for milk and eggs at farms down the road. Her boyfriend brought home venison during hunting season and Grandma turned it into the most amazing tourtière (French Canadian meat pie). To this day, I have not tasted one to match it. Every time I asked her what spice she used, she gave me a different answer.
During blueberry season, Grandma would take a few tin buckets to the rocky hillside and disappear for the morning. She brought back enough berries for everyone to enjoy fresh and she put some away for the winter, too.
Her raspberry preserves were my favourite, though. A spoonful of that sugary concoction with a blob of fresh cream on top was a dessert fit for the Chateau Laurier dining room, but it was served on a chipped china plate beside a wood stove at Grandma’s house.
Grandma’s homemade strawberry wine was also a hit, and anyone who had a nip could be found a short time later having a nap in front of that same wood stove.
Grandma had a song for every occasion. She passed this on to my mother, who raised us with Oh What a Beautiful Morning and put us to bed with Brahms’ lullaby (lyrics customized for the listener). Raising my three girls, I found myself inventing songs for brushing teeth, putting toys away, washing dishes and eating lunch, among other daily activities. Now I watch as my daughter Anastasia makes up songs for her little Leti. The tradition continues.
Perhaps because she spent so much time outside, doing physical work, Grandma Vicky was strong and healthy well into her 90s. When she fell and broke her hip, the doctors were amazed at how healthy the rest of her was.
Grandma finally passed away on Sept. 11. Even after a stroke, her heart was very strong. I think she would still be here today if not for a conscious decision to leave. She decided 102 years was enough. Time for a rest.
When we cleaned out her room, we saw that she still enjoyed a good love story, the occasional chocolate bar and one alcoholic drink (for medicinal purposes, of course) nearly every day.
We celebrate her life this Thanksgiving weekend by raising a glass of her favourite beer, and we might even try a few bars of one of her favourite French Canadian pub songs.
Her lessons to us are: don’t take life too seriously; let hard work be your exercise; spend more time appreciating than wanting; and an awkward silence can always be filled with laughter or song.
Troy Media columnist Diana Fisher is a freelance writer living on a 200-acre farm along the Kemptville Creek in Oxford Mills, Ont.
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