Saturday, November 04, 2006

For Grandma

My grandma is sick. Last Sunday morning, she had what the doctors have now confirmed to be a stroke, and has been in the hospital ever since. My family has not lived within easy driving distance of my grandmother's house for quite some time, and so my father has flown to the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario for those of you who are uninitiated) to be at her side. His sisters and two of my grandmother's sisters are there as well. My uncle is anxiously awaiting his flight from the West Coast. At first, we thought that the damage from the stroke was relatively minimal, affecting her speech somewhat, and weakening one side of her body, but the doctors have informed the family that the stroke is 'evolving', that the damage is spreading. I didn't know that strokes could do that. This is a cruel way to find out.

As luck would have it, my father and his younger brother and sister had just returned from visiting the Soo. I thank God, Buddha, Allah, the sweet baby Jesus, and the time-space continuum that they all made that trip. For their sakes, as well as for Grandma's.

On Friday, the hospital set up a 'family conference'. This is a meeting in which the patient's condition is discussed with the family and the patient. Everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE) who has had any involvement with my Grandma's care was present, along with all available family members and a social worker (who is there to make sure the family is doing ok). From what I can tell, the care has been excellent, and the doctors are great, but all anybody seems to be able to tell us can be summed up in three awful little words: wait and see.

So while my family is waiting and seeing what the fate of our beloved matriarch will be, I thought I'd take some time to tell you about the remarkable woman that is my grandma.

Born on December 28th, 1919 (for those of you that know me, that means that I was my Grandma's 60th Birthday present), Beulah Marguerite Carkner (nee Lawrence) is the oldest of thirteen kids, (8 of whom are still living). Beulah grew up on a farm near Hartland, New Brunswick, in the heart of the potato, and bible belt. She helped to raise her younger siblings through the Depression, babysat the future magnates of the potato world, Wallace and Harrison McCain, and as a young woman, moved to Saint John to work as a nurse. At one point, her youngest brother, then just a baby, was very sick. In a last ditch effort to save him, my great grandmother, Mildred Lawrence, brought him to Saint John, where my grandmother was able to save his life by giving him the simplest gift of all: a transfusion of her blood.

I should note that although it has been over sixty years since she left the Hartland area, my grandmother has the uncanny ability to recall near complete narratives of the area and its people. Once, on a drive through her old 'neighbourhood', she charmed us all with the family histories of each house that we passed (including one hilarious story about the McCain boys). Her stories have brought my distant family home to me, and to the rest of her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, helping us all to understand where we've come from. And when she gets together with her brothers and sisters, watch out! 'Cause the family narratives flow like a river. There's nothing that is more of a comfort to me than listening to the tales of my family. But I digress.

When World War II began, Grandma left New Brunswick to work as a nurse on the base at Summerside, Prince Edward Island. It was here that she met my grandfather, Wallace (Wally) Carkner. They were married on December 30th, 1943, shortly before he was shipped overseas. My Grandmother would go on to give birth to six babies in the next thirteen years, the third of whom would become my father.

Now, my grandmother is a strong-willed, intelligent woman, and always has been. She was hardly the ideal of the 'obedient' wife of the mid-20th century. In fact, I suspect that Grandma would give many of the young 'liberated' women of today a run for their money when it comes to independence of spirit and speaking her mind. These personality traits did not mesh well with my grandfather's ideal of a wife, and thus, despite their love for one another, the marriage would ultimately dissolve. The final strain was the tragic death of their eldest son, Terry, in a car accident in 1961. He was only 17 years old. I'm not sure that the family has ever fully recovered.

After my uncle's death, my grandparent's marriage quickly went from bad to worse. The separation was not a pleasant one, and when the dust settled, my grandmother was forced to leave Ottawa, to return only a handful of times- for the marriage of my parents in 1976, for the birth of my cousin in 1977, and for my Grandfather's funeral in 1992. She had gained custody of her two youngest children (the older three stayed with Grandpa), and settled in Toronto.

I cannot imagine how devastating it must have been for her
to lose her eldest child, and then effectively lose her family as
well as the life that she had known for over two decades, and then
be faced with literally starting all over again. But she did it, all the while raising two teenagers by herself. (By all accounts, this latter task was not exactly all sunshine and picnics, but all parties involved have survived the experience, and my grandmother continues to share an enviable bond with her younger son and daughter).

Here was a woman who had been married for 23 years, and consequently had not worked outside of the home during that time. She needed a career; one that would pay well enough to feed, clothe, and house three people. Her background was in Nursing, but her history of service was not enough to get her a job- she needed certification. So what did my grandmother do? She went back to high school. HIGH SCHOOL, at the age of 47. And obtained her GED. Next, she proceeded to put herself through the Quo Vadis School of Nursing in Toronto. All while working to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Upon receiving her certification, Beulah worked at Toronto General for a year or so, and was then offered a job in the Labour and Delivery Ward of the Sault Ste. Marie General Hospital, where she worked, helping to deliver and care for babies, until her retirement in 1984. I cannot think of a more rewarding way to spend your time. Most people have one or two kids; my grandmother has had hundreds, maybe even thousands. I have even met some of the people she helped bring into this world: I went to school with one in England, and I worked with another right here in Fredericton. They're not kidding when they say it's a small world.

But growing up, I did not know any of this. My grandmother's demeanor is fairly no-nonsense, and I remember that I used to be intimidated by her for that reason. It was not until my grandfather's funeral that I finally figured out that a no-nonsense demeanor does not mean that she loves her family any less. In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find a woman who loves her family more than my grandma loves hers.

My father tells me that Grandma has asked for pictures of all of her grandkids (there are nine of us) and great grandkids (of which there are now eight) to be placed in her hospital room. I can just imagine a veritable gallery of memories surrounding her as she snoozes and her children look anxiously on. Upon hearing of her request, I realized that I may be out of time, and that I had wasted all those stupid years being intimidated by a woman who would have done just about anything for me. I'm just glad I came to my senses before it was too late, and got to visit her once or twice as an adult, to get to know her as she really is. Now I have my images of her through a child's eyes, as well as some memories from an adult's point
of view.

This is the woman who made me
my first blanket, an article that hardly left my side for the first
seven years of my life, and did not leave my bed until I was thirteen. I still have it. It is disintegrating, so I've preserved it, but it still exists. When the twelve-year-old me couldn't stop crying at my grandfather's funeral, she took me aside and calmed me. She was the only one who could. She is the woman who taught me how to knit, how to ice cookies, and to bake checkerboard cake. She inspired
my first foray into quilting (which is still in progress...), and taught me to love gardening and yard saleing. She attended my undergraduate convocation ceremony, and upon its conclusion presented me with a wall-hanging she had quilted for me. I was floored- it was so beautiful- and all I could do was nod when she said she hoped it was ok. Later that summer, when I traveled by bus for three days to visit her and my aunt, I arrived in the Soo wanting nothing more than a shower and a bed. What I got was a cup of coffee, a set of knitting needles, and some wonderful conversation. I am so glad she didn't let me have what I wanted that day: What I got was infinitely better than any nap ever could be. During that same visit, I remember her telling everyone and anyone that would listen about her granddaughter, the university graduate, potentially a future Prime Minister! I was embarrassed and incredibly pleased at the same time.

So here's to you, Grandma Beulah. I love you so much. Take your time, play some Skip-Bo, and give em' hell.



At 5:53 AM, Anonymous Michelle said...

Jenn, this is a beautiful post to your grandmother. I don't even know what else to write, it is so touching I had difficulty reading it because my eyes were all blurry. I'm glad you chose to share this with us.

At 6:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenn, what a beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman. I remember your trip to the Soo that summer, Beulah talked about nothing but you for weeks afterward! She is so proud of you.

The other Jenn
(your second cousin)

At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Jorge said...

Wow, Jenn.

What a great story.

Our Grandparents have such a rich history. I wonder, sometimes, if my grandkids will look at me with the same awe.

Probably not.

Anyhow, was good to "meet you" on mama's blog.

I hope things go well for your grandma.

At 10:57 AM, Blogger jenn said...

Michelle: I find the sharing helps. Thanks for reading!

Jenn: Thanks for telling me this. She is pretty remarkable, isn't she? ;)

Jorge: Thanks. Nice to meet you, too!

I think it's a gift to be able to really get to know our grandparents (and parents) as they are. It makes us appreciate them so much more. And I think that our grandkids will probably look at us the same way, because we're all just regular people, doing the best that we can with what we've got.

Oh, and by today's report, things are looking better. Although we still don't know if the damage has stopped spreading.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger jason evans said...

Beautiful tribute, Jenn. Very sorry to hear of her illness.

I'll be thinking of her today.

At 6:26 PM, Anonymous laura said...

Jenn, this was so moving, it brought me to tears. You are a very talented writer, I hope you will send this to your grandma so she knows how much of a positive influence she has on the world.

At 7:13 PM, Blogger chikashi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4:14 AM, Blogger jenn said...

Jason- Thank-you. I appreciate that more than you can know.

Laura- A copy has been printed so that it can be read to Grandma at the hospital (no computer access)- I hope that knowing how much she has affected us all will buoy her up a bit. Thanks ;)

At 9:54 AM, Blogger Grumball said...

What a great story! You make me envious, since I haven't been able to see my grandparents much, but we're all going back as a family at Christmas.

I am very sorry she is sick, and I hope she gets back on her feet quickly.

At 2:02 PM, Anonymous nancy latham said...

Hi Jen, Yer aunt Nan here. Grandma moved her left foot today, wiggled her toes a little and I cried. Three therapists there helping her and all of us rooting for her, willing that foot to move. This is so hard, but you know, she's fighting very hard to get back. We are doing all we can but she is tough and a fighter. I hope we all inherited that spirit!
Love to all of you who can't be here. In some ways, it's easier to be here helping than being elsewhere thinking about it. Keep that positive energy flowing this way.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger Glenna said...

I haven't had the pleasure of meeting you but have heard alot about you from your Gramma. I have worked with your Gramma for about 2 years now and have learned so much from her. She is such a great lady and have become very very fond of her. I pray for her recovery. You have done an awesome job with this blog. Her whole life is you kids!!
Love to all
Glenna Mick

At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jenn, just wanted to let you know my thoughts and prayers are with you and your father and the rest of your family through this time. I went through it myself a few years ago, Grandpere is still with us, but has slowed quite a bit since. But you are right, having known our Grandparents (and I was lucky enough to know Grandmere's parents til I was 12, they died at 96 and 103), it makes you appreciate life all that much more for knowing these generations.

Your post and pictures were such a moving tribute to what seems like a remarkable woman! Sending you lots of hugs from Ottawa to Fredericton.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger jenn said...

Grum- You get to go to the UK! Woohoo! Enjoy your time with your grandparents. I think it's harder when you have to be so far away from them (on them too!). And thanks for that.

Nan- I just knew she'd be wowing the nurses. In the words of my Daddy- wiggling toes today, dancing tomorrow! Ok... maybe not quite, but you know what I mean. Oh! and in case you haven't heard (which is unlikely, but anywho) Mom, Meagan and I have managed to book flights (it was quite the ordeal) for next week! I feel better knowing that I might be able to lend a hand...

Glenna- Thank-you so much! I've heard lots about you too- mostly from my father. Hopefully I'll get to meet you when I come up next week!

Jules- How right you are. Thanks, sweetie.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Thérèse said...

I agree with what Michelle said, completely.

Thank you for that glimpse into the life of a wonderful woman. It says a lot about her, and it says a lot about you.

And I'd say there's a lot of her in you, Jenn. :)

At 11:35 AM, Blogger jenn said...

Therese: I can only hope so. And thanks :)


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