Thursday, February 09, 2006


I know this is supposed to be an art blog, and so it will be again one day, but in the meantime, please indulge my sentimentality. On Sunday this week we saw the end of an era and I've been thinking about it ever since. That was the day we visited my husband's grandmother for the first time in her new home, a nursing home not far from the house she lived in for 65 years. During that time she slept under a different roof only a handful of times, and was always relieved to get home so I've been worried about how she's adapting, though her attitude has always been the best.

During the thirty years of her life before moving into the little wooden house she helped her husband build around 1940, Grandma's life was difficult and transient. She was born in a Mennonite community in Ukraine in 1910 and was raised speaking Low German. She retains her accent to this day, though she's lived in Canada for most of her life. The Russian Revolution saw her forced from her home with her parents and younger siblings (seen in this photo many years later) in the early twenties, living in refugee camps in Germany and England over a total of four years. In the English camp she met Abe, who would later become her husband. They landed in Saskatchewan and the next years were spent working as migrant farm labourers to pay their government debts. The family moved slowly west until they ended up in Chilliwack, British Columbia. It was there that she married Abe and gave birth to their first son, my husband's father. Abe managed to get work at a Macmillan-Bloedel lumber mill in Vancouver, Mac-Blo being a huge employer at the time. They bought a city lot and lived in a shed, Grandma giving birth to her third child in that same shed, while building their house. These were small people, Abe being among the tall ones at 5'3", and the house was built on their scale. Grandma, the shortest, has been looking up at my overgrown boys from her height of maybe 4'7" for years, declaring "they're almost as tall as me!"

Life was easier after that. Grandma devoted her life to her family and her religious work, and by the late 1970s, when her husband died, she was the matriarch and would cram everyone into that little house for every holiday gathering. If it was summer, and there were too many, they would eat outside, like at her parents' 50th wedding anniversary in 1959 which was also her and Abe's 25th (Grandma and Abe are up front):

Her energy and work ethic are an inspiration to me, and had our second child been a girl we probably would've named her Katharina, after Grandma. Up until she was 90 she'd do errands and shopping for her 'elderly neighbours', some of whom were 20 years her junior. Here she is with my husband and his younger brother in the late sixties:

The only real physical impediment she's ever had is early hearing loss, but even now, as she rolls toward her 96th birthday, she's still as strong as a tree... well, maybe a tree stump. But in the last year she has started suffering from dementia until it was so bad in January that it was time to make a change. Now that she's in care, my husband visits her as often as he can on his way home from work (and it's always like the first time! :) because her deafness and memory loss leave her feeling really isolated, but still she laughs and looks for ways to help the other inmates.


Blogger ValGalArt said...

This is the most touching and endearing post! I find her background fascinating and I love the part about the little home too! People always ask me why houses Val? This is the exact reason why. This little house captured so eloquently in this photo is all we physically have of our memories of times gone by and capturing the essence of parts of ourselves. What a little treasure... the whole story is a treasure and I hope she has many happy moments despite her dementia. That is always so difficult for us, but she could hopefully be feeling some contentment. Beautiful post Andrea!

9/2/06 1:00 p.m.  
Blogger Caroline said...

She sounds like she was an amazing woman - such a shame after so long to be getting dementia. Its great to hear about a life lived so well.

9/2/06 1:31 p.m.  
Blogger Toni said...

Andrea this post is so moving and endearing. How wonderful for you to still have her in your life at age 96.
She may be getting dementia but she will always remain the same person in your hearts and mind.

9/2/06 5:00 p.m.  
Blogger andrea said...

Thanks Val. It seems like she's been part of my life forever, though she was probably 75 when I first met her. I know what you mean about houses. When they disappear for something 'bigger and better', where do the ghosts of the past go to hang out I wonder? Grandma = her house, to me, and if this separation is hard on me, what's it like for her???

Caroline: She really has done her best to live a good life.

Toni: For years now my husband and I have pumped her for stories and photos of the past, and those are the things that will remain for me. When her house is dismantled, we will be first in line for the photos and documents. Nothing else matters.

9/2/06 6:48 p.m.  
Blogger Brian the Mennonite said...

I like the way you have presented this. I love the little house and the gathering outside in the backyard. I have been to many gatherings that looked much like that one.
Does Greg speak any Low German when he goes to visit grandma?

9/2/06 7:15 p.m.  
Blogger Nan said...

Andrea, I will indulge your sentimentality anytime! I am really touched by Grandma's story (and your poignant telling of it) and the sweet, sweet expression on her face in every photo. It's very sad to be losing part of her to dementia. But she has you, you who values who she is and how she has lived and will take care of the things that are precious to her long after she is gone. Because you cherish the stories, she will live forever. What a great tribute to her! Thank you for sharing her story.

9/2/06 7:31 p.m.  
Blogger The Whippy Curly Tails said...

Such a nice post. So fun to read about your family.

Stop by the Whippy Curly Tails blog, you have been tagged!

9/2/06 9:48 p.m.  
Blogger The Daring One said...

This is beautiful and will be so important to your family. EVERYONE BACK UP YOUR FILES. That is all.

10/2/06 1:33 a.m.  
Blogger carla said...

This is such a lovely story...a woman's life pressed briefly into a few paragraphs. She does sound quite remarkable. It must be sad to see that she's living moment by moment now, but it's good that Greg can visit her often. These photos are really wonderful...I see the faces with smiles or no smiles...caught in a second...and it's just the tiniest slice of whole lifetimes. On another note...that jumpsuit looks like something I had back in the 80's. My goodness...what were we thinking??? BTW, I love the dining room decor. Your painting looks great - I really like how you carry it over to the sides of the canvas.

10/2/06 2:51 a.m.  
Blogger kyknoord said...

I love the sense of continuity you have with the past.

10/2/06 2:53 a.m.  
Blogger Joyce said...

how lovely. Reminds me of my dad and mom (82 and78) who going around helping the old folks in town.
I'm impressed that you know so much of grandma's history. That does it, I've got to get dad talking and then I'll get it on paper, since my brain is totally unreliable.

10/2/06 4:00 a.m.  
Blogger andrea said...

Brian: Not only does Greg not speak Low German, neither does his dad. Back then there was much more of the American 'melting pot' attitude in Canada (here, anyway) than the current more Canadian 'cultural mosaic' model, and Greg's grandparents were bound and determined to raise their children to be as 'Canadian' as possible.

Lyn: I will comply. But not yet. :)

Nan, Daring One and Kyknoord: I love looking backwards. I seem to need to know where I came from (in this case by association and through my kids) if I want to know where I'm going.

Carla: Thanks and though painting around the sides is an aesthetic decision -- it's also a pragmatic one (no frame needed :). I am fascinated, too, by the 'moment in time' aspect of photos.

Joyce: Start asking! Greg and I have been gathering this stuff and digesting it for years. It's not surprising since he has a history BA and I'm a fanatic for period photos. Besides, we both love a good story!

10/2/06 11:24 a.m.  
Blogger The Unknown said...

A lovely and touching story Love.

19/2/06 4:47 p.m.  

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