When my mom was a child, growing up in Fernie, a small mining town in Southern BC, her family was poor. My mom and her sisters each had only an unimaginable one skirt to wear to school. (Skirts were required in those days, regardless of the cold winter weather.) My granddad, a miner, hunted and fished to feed his family. I don’t think they felt deprived, as they had what they needed, but there was definitely not much money to be had.
My mother had an older sister, Faye Laine, who was born with a hole in her heart. In those days she was called a ‘blue baby’, because the chronic lack of oxygen she experienced led to blue lips, a blue face, and blue hands. (Since going to medical school I’ve learned to call this cyanotic congenital heart disease.) Faye was one of the first children in Canada to undergo open heart surgery, as a young child. The local Rotary Club raised enough money to send her to Toronto for surgery, back in the 1940s. Faye continued to suffer from her heart condition however. She had very low energy, was sickly, and was unable to do much. My mom recalls that she couldn’t do the household chores, and the long walk back and forth to school was difficult, as she had to stop frequently to rest. My grandmother never spoke about Faye, but once she told me that Faye was a wonderful singer, and one of her favorite songs was “Amazing Grace”.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
I don’t suppose it’s a coincidence that this was her favorite song, this song about death and failing hearts. I can’t really imagine what her life must have been like. She grew up loved and cared for, but in a small and poor town, and I’m sure there were few, if any, supports for someone with her condition. She grew up in a time when everyone just carried on and made the best of what they had. I don’t think she complained. She was however seriously limited by her condition, and surely she must have wondered about her future.
When Faye was 12, her condition was such that another operation was recommended. (This was in the late 1950s). This time she went to Vancouver General Hospital with her mom, who was a very timid and shy woman. Grandma stayed at the YMCA, and walked the several miles back and forth to the hospital every day, through the terrifying streets of the city, as she didn’t have the money for bus fare. In the same hospital room was a girl recovering from a broken leg – Judy Hall. (I love the idea of a general hospital ward, where a terminally ill girl would have a well girl with an ordinary broken leg as a room mate – I don’t think this would happen so much now. I imagine that having healthy children around would lift the heart during tough times – being around youth and vigor is a reminder that life goes on around us, regardless of what is happening to us. I at least find this of comfort.) Over the days and weeks, my grandma and Mrs and Mr Hall became friendly, as the three of them were in that room all day, every day. (Granddad stayed home in Fernie to work, and to look after my mom and her two sisters.) Eventually the Halls invited my grandma to come and stay at their home, which she did. I can well imagine what a gift this must have been to my grandmother – to leave the scary streets of the unknown city for a family home. This was the beginning of a life long family friendship.
Faye’s hospital stay went on for weeks, and she never came home. She died after being in the hospital for two months from complications of her disease. The gravity of her condition must surely have been evident to her family, friends and her doctors, however I think it was also a surprise and a shock. As it would be. I’ve noticed when people live with life-threatening medical conditions, and defy the odds for a while, we start to believe this will always be so. We accept the miracle of their presence as the way it should be. And even when a loved one’s death is predicted, the sense of shock and surprise is strong. It seems to be something we don’t get used to, the idea of that people can leave us, that they are suddenly gone. And we are left with a gaping big hole in our hearts, and in our lives.
Some time after Faye died, the Halls made the long journey from Vancouver to Fernie for a visit. They brought with them a set of china dishes as a gift. A complete set for 8 with dinner, side and luncheon plates, large and small bowls, cups and saucers, a serving platter, serving bowl, gravy bowl, and a cream and sugar set. For my mom and her sisters, it was a wonder. This beautiful set of dishes that all matched. They had not had anything like this before. The dishes were used only for special occasions, like Christmas.
When my grandmother died, I was thrilled to inherit the dish set, still in immaculate condition, and nearly complete, missing only one teacup that, as my Grandma liked to remind us, my mother broke. (My mom doesn’t remember breaking it, which I think is a sign of her good mental health – I would have been mortified and would never forget making such a mistake. Alternatively, the story of her breaking the cup may have been part of my grandmother’s confusion later in her life, but on reflection, I think my mom must have broken that cup.)
Last night I served Christmas dinner on those dishes. My mom and dad are back in Yellowknife for the holidays, in spite of my dad’s protests to the contrary this summer. (And alas, its as cold as last year – minus 39 this morning. The locals keep telling my dad this this is unusual for December, but I don’t think he believes it for a second.) There were 8 of us crowded around the table – myself and Martin, Mom and Dad, and our Yellowknife ‘family’ – long time friends Anna and Linda, Laara and Anders. It’s a very special thing to have family, and friends who are like family, to gather with at this time of year. I am sure Mrs Hall, who is no longer alive, and her daughter Judy, who is, have no idea that their memory lives on in our family legend. And that this family has never forgotten their kindness, some 50 years later. And isn’t that true for us all – that we cannot know how our actions affect others, and how those ripples can spread out across miles and years.
Happy holidays to all of you, dear readers. I wish you an upcoming year filled with the kindness of strangers. May the gift of Mrs Hall be present in your life this year. May you also be a Mrs Hall this year. And thus the world will keep on turning and all will be well.