…..or good-bye Mom.
This eulogy is not a chronological list of the events of Mom’s life. It is as much about her us, her children, as it is about Mom, for these are the events which shaped our lives, which made us who we are today.
Our mother Phyllis was born to Cecil and Beatrice ___ in the year 1930 at Beaumont Long Island Newfoundland; a younger sister to Doris and to be an older sister to Edwin, whom they adored. (Now don’t you be using those facts to get at our banking information) That would make her a Virgo, if you believe in all that Zodiac stuff. “Ah, that’s all old foolishness” Mom would have said about astrology, but be that as it may, she does have one character trait that is frequently attributed to Virgos: that of loyalty.
My earliest knowledge of Mom’s loyalty was that time she didn’t sell me out in church. I was an extremely shy kid. We were at some strange or new church for a service and while all of the other United Church kids were already halfway down the basement stairs I was still in the pew trying to hide behind my mother. I could feel the minister glaring at the top of my bowed head as he asked “Are there any other little children to go to junior congregation? —No others?” She let me squeeze a little further behind her and she studied the weathered cover of her hymnbook until he gave up. I loved her then for understanding my fears and for having my back. That was the first of many times she had my back.
She was also loyal to Dad beyond words and never protested or complained about his many ventures and adventures which ranged from launching the family home on oil drums and towing it from Pilley’s Island to Lewisporte to living his life-long dream of returning to the sea and the Labrador fishery with a schooner. Indeed, the only time I ever saw a chink in her loyalty to Dad was when he was running for the Progressive Conservative nomination in Green Bay. She said one day, quite adamantly, that should Dad win, she was NOT moving to St. John’s. Sin city she called it. She had already left one batch of very good friends in Lewisporte and didn’t intend to repeat that with her new Springdale friends. Because besides her family, Mom’s friends were the most important thing in her life. I am sure that secretly she was eternally grateful to Brian Peckford for winning that contest and therefore sparing her the need to make that difficult decision.
But where was I going with this – oh yes, Mom’s childhood. There are no childhood photos of little Phyllis that I know of. I do know that times were hard back then. You can joke about the walking to school barefoot through waist-deep snow, uphill both ways, but some days it wasn’t too far off. She often had to be escorted by Grandfather to school through the deep snow, carrying an armload of wood for the stove, where she would learn to memorize the Charge of the Light Brigade, and to do sums on a slate. Once, in a weak moment, she told us that they used to call the mix they used to clean their slates “snot” and I would beg her to tell about her school days again just to hear her say the word but she would just shake her head. Yes, it was pretty lean times but there were sheep and pigs and hens and taties trenched with caplin and all the rhubarb you could eat.
In her late teens Mom left home to work “in service” in St. John’s. She worked for several well to do families and although she wasn’t all that particular about the work part of the day, she loved the afternoons off when she could visit with her sister and other baygirls who worked out in service, where no doubt they gossiped about their employers who were not all as kind as they could have been. She told us of one house where she worked where the mice were bad, and of one morning when putting her shoes on she reached for her shoe-lace and picked up instead, a mouse’s tail. That story always made me shiver. She told us of knitting sweaters; of how she couldn’t afford much wool so she would knit up a sweater, wear it for a few weeks, then unravel it and knit the wool up into a sweater of a new pattern. She told of going to movies at the Paramount, and of window shopping at the Bon Marche. It was in St. John’s she met our Dad, Harold Parsons who hailed from Lushes Bight, but I don’t suppose it was her talent for revising sweaters that hooked him, more likely her big round blue eyes.
Mom’s family was her career. Four kids in five years: Mary, June, Peter and Judy. Then a little over a decade and a half later, another child, Tammy, who qualified as the classic Newfoundland example of “Her Aunt had she”. (Thanks Mom for having my back again)
A different life back then in Pilley’s Island when we were all little: Mom’s hands raw from scrubbing diapers on a board in water that had to be heated on the stove but if you look at the photo album you can see that we are all happy. Maybe it was because our house was built out over the shore on pilings and we fell asleep and woke to the sound of the ocean lapping the landwash.
Yes, there wasn’t much Mom liked better than children. Actually, can I say this? Mom liked boys best. I swear. Why else did Peter always get his own room and we girls had to share? Well, I suppose he was the only boy. Boys always got the special treatment. Like when her Grandson, young teenage Chad was visiting and got into the intoxicants and well, didn’t handle them so well, and Mom took the shovel and went out in the backyard and buried the evidence before his parents found out. She would have sold the girls down the river! Another example: all of our grad and wedding and baby pictures in a row on the mantle, she was surely proud of us, but how come it was only when she went by Gregory’s photo that she’d reach out and tap it a couple of times with her fingertips “D’as some sweet boy, dat Greg is”. Boys. N’ah, I suppose she loved us all equally – she doted on her grandchildren and then her great grandchildren, knitting them families of dolls and wooster socks and singing their praises. If she was correct they are all of super-human intelligence and the prettiest babies ever born.
I shouldn’t complain I s’pose. Mom did have a way of making me feel special. When she sorted her berries, she always picked out the very biggest and brightest and served them to me bathed in carnation milk with a sprinkle of sugar. If there was pastry left over from the pie she would pinch it around a dab of jam and bake me a purse. She gave me samples of cookie dough and bread dough (not sure how healthy that was.) Once she even walked all the way back up town to buy me a child sized lawn chair but that was only because I cried for it relentlessly for three hours. Our dear mother was blessed with patience but Job himself would have given in to my infamous whining.
I daresay everyone has their own list of family calamities – Mom certainly did and, great story-teller that she was, she loved to tell about them afterwards. We always said she should have her own sit-com called “Life of Mom”. I can see the episodes now: The Great Budgie Bird Escape in which Mom is found at the base of a tall poplar tree surrounded by her children and Dad halfway up the tree, clinging desperately to the tree with one hand, a birdcage dangling from the other. There would be The Great Truck Accident, in which Dad appeared in the doorway with engine oil running down from his tam, which Mom mistook for blood, the same accident from which we were left with basement of diesel soaked Alphabets cereal which even the rabbits refused to eat. Then the Great Christmas Adventure in which we got stuck in the snow on the way home from Musgrave Harbour and all hands had to push; Mom on one side encouraging us, Dad on the other teaching us to swear. The Great Grand Falls Carnival Adventure in which Mom clung to the wire fence, watching June and Peter holler from an airplane on a carnival ride which broke down leaving them both hanging upside down as the ride spun round and round with Peter yelling “Stop the planes! Stop the planes!”
But these were just little vignettes in the grand scheme of Mom’s life. What for us children is most memorable are the picnics, the boat trips, the many many road trips – always with the greasy Bag of Adams chips baking on the dashboard, Mountain Dew bottles rolling around the floor of the car, and Mary sitting in front with Mom because Mary got car sick, the rest of us wishing that we got car sick so we too could sit in the front next to Mom. Sometimes when we were driving Mom would get us to sing along with her: Bell bottom trousers coat of navy blue, she loved a sailor boy and he loved her too…..something something something but she loved the boy next door, who worked at the candy store” or “Onward Christian soldiers – marching as to war” – that was a hard one for kids. Years later after we had left home she continued to travel and she loved her cruises where she got to rub elbows with the privileged on the QEII and ride a donkey in the Bahamas. She walked the streets of New York which she always wanted to see after having heard her own mother tell of her time spent there.
When I think of Mom I think of an enamel jug filled to the brim with berries, and roasters full of meat and gravy, steaming pots of jig’s dinner, ice cream made using burgy bits, raisin buns, and endless jars of jams and jellies. Mom’s rhubarb relish was the best in the universe and she never complained when we polished off a whole jar at one meal. She was just glad that we enjoyed it. Those were the things she loved. That and her lawn ornaments. Her ceramic kissing Dutch children were her pride and joy. When my own children were little I would call her but before I got to say how sweet and smart they were I would have to listen to the Dutch lawn ornament report “Oh, I put them out, I touched them up with a bit of paint, somebody stopped to ask about them, they said they was the nicest ornaments they ever seen, I moved them over by the bush, I took them in for the winter” (always a sad day). Then came the ceramic boy in the tire swing; Tammy, you racked up the Brownie points with that gift; no one has outdone it since.
Yes, Mom sure loved the simple things in life but she had her dislikes too. She despised arrogance, disliked disruption to routine. She didn’t care for antiques; saying “they makes me lonely.” She hated to see anyone suffer. She despised baker’s bread, “Fob” she called it. She was never a dog person but she would tell you that she liked yours so’s you wouldn’t feel bad. She never smoked, she never drank alcohol, she never swore though we tried our best to drive her to it. No she would utter an “Oh shhhh-sugar!!” from time to time. I think she worked out all of her angst walking back and forth down the road; that climb up Boyles’ Hill that she did so many times was enough to knock the wind and the frustrations out of you. She didn’t like drama or “going’s on” or dirty books. When I once asked her jokingly if she ever read Fifty Shades of Grey, she scowled and said “Aah, I got no time for dat ole foolishness”. Good for you Mom, I didn’t read it either.
No, the Mom I will always remember is more like fifty shades of beige. Picture this. You are in the living room of a beige bungalow. The walls are beige, the click floor is beige, the carpet is beige. In a beigy brown upholstered recliner sits a little lady with hair, which for many years was died, you guessed it, beige, hair now as thick as St. John’s fog and as soft and white as angels wings. Her feet, in white ankle socks thin from a hundred washings, are crossed and resting on one ankle and with her toe she keeps her chair rocking back and forth at a slow steady clip which matches the pace of her knitting needles, from which is growing at an alarming rate, a white homespun sock. Through the colourless sheer curtains you can see the headlights of a car pulling into the neighbour’s driveway. Keeping to her own business, she does not look up or wonder who is coming and going, or wonder why, but it is likely Don Huxter, who calls her his gold-medal neighbour. Wheel of Fortune is on the TV and Vanna directs our attention to a phrase – two a’s are filled in, three t’s, and there are seventeen empty spaces. The contestant leans over to spin as Mom says, without missing a stitch “A Bitter Pill to Swallow”. It takes seven more spins before the contestant gets it. Here sits this woman who can’t recall what she had for dinner and who mixes up the names of her children, but next to her on her table is the latest Downhomer with all of the puzzles completed completely. “Mom” I’d say “We gotta get you on that show – you’d win your fortune and a new car!”
But Mom wouldn’t want a car. She didn’t want much in the way of material things, excepting of course her Daniel O’Donnel CDs. No, Mom never learned to drive. She tried to learn once, in her early thirties. Hard enough with a standard transmission and a rough gravel pit but Dad, why did you have to being the four kids along in the car? Not an environment conducive to learning. No, Mom never wanted to be anything other than what she was: a great quilter, story teller, baker, grandmother, knitter – sure she could knit her own funeral if she wanted to. And she would too if you asked her to. But sadly, she became unraveled by time and, like all good things, faded away. In the words of that famous old fellow, anonymous, “Mother’s hold their children’s hands for a short while but their hearts forever”. I think I’ll go knit that into the back of a sweater.
Thanks Mom for all of your love and inspiration and for teaching us that if you can’t make fun of yourself, who can you make fun of?
© Judy Parsons 2017
Email comments to JGParsons@judypstickletrunk.com