Thursday, September 25, 2008


As many of you know, two years ago my paternal grandmother suffered a massive stroke, which left her weakened, unable to care for herself, but thankfully able to speak, move on her own (a bit), and she was still Grandma. Last Wednesday, she suffered a second stroke, and this time the muscles of her neck and throat were paralyzed, leaving her unable to eat or drink. The doctors informed us that regardless of what measures we took, her life would not extend beyond a few days. She hung on for nearly a week- thanks to the excellent care of the staff at her nursing home, and I think the love of her family. She died in the early hours of Tuesday, September 23, 2008.

Her death was inevitable, and not unexpected, and while I am relieved that her suffering is at an end, it does not change the fact that my grandma is gone. I fly to Ontario tomorrow to be with my family as we say goodbye to our matriarch. It will be a tough weekend, but a good one too: the stories are sure to flow, and we will all have the opportunity to reconnect with one another. While we are working our way through through our grief, I thought I would re-post my words from two years ago. If you haven't already heard, please let me tell you about the remarkable woman that my grandma was:

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 she left the Hartland area over sixty years ago, my grandmother had 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 got together with her brothers and sisters, watch out! 'Cause the family narratives flowed 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 was a strong-willed, intelligent woman, and always had 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 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 all sunshine and picnics, but all parties involved have survived the experience, and my grandmother shared 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 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 when I lived 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 was 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 unemotional on the outside does not necessarily mean unemotional on the inside. In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to find a woman who loves her family more than my grandma loved hers.

When my grandma had her first stroke, she 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 could just imagine a veritable gallery of memories surrounding her as she snoozed and her children looked anxiously on. Upon hearing of her request, I realized that I might 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 was. 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 now resides on my bed, in the place that her blanket used to occupy), 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. Boy are we going to miss you.



At 10:14 PM, Blogger JMH said...

Jenn, that was really good.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger jenn said...

Thanks, jmh :)

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good job Darlin'. Ya got me crying again.




Post a Comment

<< Home