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Eulogy for Emily

My mother died on August 23, 2022, at the age of 88. A long life, dementia at the end to allow her to go out in style. Fuck dementia. Here is the obituary. And here was my eulogy at the service.

I’m going to call my mother Emily because that’s how I knew her. The story goes that the priest at her baptism would only accept a saint’s name, so Amelia went on the papers. Something she wouldn’t discover until she was an adult and needed a birth certificate. She was Emily to us. Emily, mom, Grandma and even at the very end, Great Grandma.

Emily was born in 1933, the second of seven children. A close family, she grew up in a remote bay where the only way in and out was by boat. On the basis of a high school education, an accomplishment enough at the time, Emily became a teacher in a one room schoolhouse on Wood’s Island. She’d have to get there extra early in the morning and start the wood stove so by lunch the kids could take off their coats. For years and years afterward, when she’d return to St Alban’s or Corner Brook, she’d inevitably run into a former student who would gush about how they had loved her as a teacher.

It must have been exciting to meet and marry a foreigner. She’d already had a penpal from Kenya, Peter, and was curious about the world. Only a few years in Canada, Adib Bishara Marshy had dreams of moving to the big city. New York was not possible, but Montreal was. They became Ed and Em, and had five kids in six years. The first, James, was born extremely mentally and physically disabled and lived most of his life in a residence. Our mother harboured a lot of sorrow over James, and only in my adult years could I appreciate what that must have been like.

But the four kids that followed kept her busy. I only discovered much later that not every mother sews and knits her childrens’ entire wardrobe. Not every mother fills rainy afternoons with arts and crafts. And not every mother laughed till tears ran down her cheeks at our dumb jokes and pranks. She nurtured our imaginations, our creativity and our sense of selves.

But. It was not an easy marriage. Twenty years of her life, prime years. When she emerged, however, widowed at 50, we saw our mother as we had not yet seen her. Strong, determined, independent, still young enough to take advantage of much that life offered. First thing she did is move. By then we were in Ottawa, in a small townhouse. Well didn’t she put that on the market and buy a much larger semi-detached with a huge garden that backed on to the forest. With the first two of her kids already moved out, and two soon on their way, it didn’t make sense to me at the time. Why a bigger house? But I get it now. She wanted space, her own place, control over her life, and the freedom to shape it herself. And then she began to travel. She visited me in Egypt, flew with Nadia to London, visited Mona in Scotland, Rob on the west and east coasts. She travelled with a friend to Spain, and then with Marc Pajot around the world. They took Spanish lessons in Mexico, and together visited their children who, at the time, were flung to all far corners.

Emily was a matriarch in the purest sense of the word. All she asked was to have us close by. She asked it a lot. Like, a lot. If she could have had us all move back home, she would have. And she would have happily fed us and taken care of us all over again, without question. We wanted her to have other interests, other passions--a hobby!--but by then that was a hard sell. Nothing was more interesting to her than us, her children, her grandchildren. And if she couldn’t do it with us, or for us, then it wasn’t worth the effort.

She allowed us to be exactly who we were. She didn’t always get the wheres and the whys and the whats and the whos. But it didn’t matter, she led with an open heart. The best example of that is how queer many of us are. So queer. She welcomed us one and all, unconditionally, from day one. She wasn’t one of those gardeners who spent all their energy weeding, trying to quell the chaos of natural diversity. Emily welcomed the chaos of natural diversity. Her garden was a little bit wild, a little bit messy, and full of surprises. I remember once she was reading Winnie the Pooh to one of her grandkids and when she came to this line, she looked at me and laughed: “Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”

When Emily sold her house in 2014 to move into a seniors residence, it was of course very bitter sweet. We all visited often and hung out with her. She had her sweet dog Sheba, made friends, played (and seemed to always win) at bingo, and enjoyed the outings and activities it offered. A year into the pandemic, Rob and Natascha took her home. It was what she had been wanting for years: to be close to her children, to watch her grandchildren grow up. Although this arrangement was exciting and cozy, the dementia was moving faster than expected. By the next spring, she needed professional care. We found a place for her at Granite Ridge, a long term care home in Stittsville. We all felt terrible about this, but then something special happened. She became the life of the party. She dressed up every day, did her hair and makeup, promenaded the hallways, and got to know everyone there, befriending and talking and socializing, hanging out. Our worries were allayed. She was okay, she was happy.

What is a life made of? What does it leave? Emily knew that there is nothing more important than the love we generate, the kindness we practice, and the gentleness of our gestures. Her essential warmth and default to kindness lives on in her children and grandchildren. It better, or they will have me to answer to now, the next matriarch! Not really, she left very big shoes to fill. Size 12 to be exact.


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