My grandma Anderson became a schoolteacher in rural Nova Scotia when she was just 17 years old. She especially enjoyed getting through to the classroom troublemakers, a skill at which she excelled. I was born in Nova Scotia, but moved to Vancouver before I could form any memories. I have only the vaguest of memories of Grandma visiting us in Vancouver one time, probably in the late eighties, and for some reason a particular hotel in the city sticks out in mind as the place where she stayed, though I’m not sure that I remember that correctly.
The first time I really got to see Grandma was my first visit to Nova Scotia when I was ten years old. My dad and my sisters and I spent a happy three weeks that summer in the Nova Scotia countryside visiting family, learning new card games in the living room, how to throw horseshoes at Uncle Roy’s and Aunt Gwen’s place nearby, and how to play darts and 8-ball in Grandma’s basement with Uncle John. Grandma cooked and cooked and cooked, feeding us huge meals and serving up all sorts of fancy desserts and baked goods like cookies and her famous Nanaimo bars. She was always ready for a hug, constantly telling us how much she loved us, just as she had been doing for years over the phone and in letters and cards from so many thousands of kilometres away.
I was lucky to have the chance to visit her and the rest of my extended family in Nova Scotia six more times over the next two decades. During those trips “back home”, Grandma regaled us with stories of her youth, walking for miles across the ice in wintertime, jumping out the schoolroom window, helping take care of her siblings, and having to put the lights out during the Second World War because her family lived on the Eastern Shore, their waterfront home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and there were submarines lurking about. Grandma taught me how to judge when peas are ripe for picking and let me help out in her vegetable garden, weeding around the yellow beans, scarlet runners, carrots, and onions.
In 2013, my sister Josephine shared one of the stories from Grandma Anderson’s youth, about the time Grandma was lost at sea:
Each time I said goodbye to Grandma on her little back porch in East Ship Harbour, with the hill rolling down to the Atlantic ocean in the background, she’d tell me how much she loved me and how much she’d miss me. Each time we spoke on the phone she’d do the same. As the years went on and I began spending more and more time living and working overseas – oftentimes in countries making headlines for all the wrong reasons – Grandma would tell me how much she worried about me, how special all of us grandchildren were to her, how she could hardly wait to to hear that I’d arrived home again, safe and sound.
Like my other grandmother, Grandma loved her five grandchildren unconditionally. I don’t think we could have asked for anything better, and I hope that a younger generation will one day say the same about us.
My Grandma, Margaret Irene Anderson (née Monk), died at the admirable old age of ninety-two and a quarter on October 19th, 2014.
After the funeral mass at the Church of St Denis in East Ship Harbour, my brothers and I and three of my dad’s cousins lifted my grandmother’s coffin down onto the lowering device at the nearby cemetery, next to the resting places of her parents, three brothers, and husband, surrounded by over two dozen headstones bearing our family name Monk. The gentleman from the funeral home handed flowers to some of the women standing around, encouraging them to toss the flowers into the grave once the coffin was lowered down.
As our family and friends’ cars, parked along the gravel shoulder of Highway 7, gradually left to make their way eastward to the St Denis Parish Centre for the reception, I recalled as a very young boy learning over the phone that my brother Dan had broken his arm playing soccer with some older kids at school back in Nova Scotia, while the rest of us kids were already living in Vancouver. Out of the five of us, Dan had spent the most time with Grandma while he was growing up. She kept a photo of the two of them proudly displayed on the fridge, where she could see it every day.
Dan and I stayed behind at the grave after everyone had left. We asked and were allowed to help the guy from the funeral home to remove the lowering device and the artificial turf placed around the grave for the burial ceremony. The two of us bent down, dug our hands into the wet autumn earth just as Grandma had done so many times in her vegetable garden, tossed handfuls of soil gently down into the grave until the coffin was half obscured, wiped our hands clean on wet blades of grass growing over the graves of our long-dead Eastern Shore ancestors, thanked the funeral home gentleman, waved to the small backhoe as he arrived to finish the job we’d started, and walked softly out of the sloping cemetery to re-join the highway.