October 24, 2014

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Someone Will Break Out Into Recipes

In the latest episode of our ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and I talk official vs. popular religion, Dracula Dossier, food writing, and Margaret Murray.

October 18, 2014

Linna Laws (1946-2014)

I delivered the following eulogy at my mother’s funeral service, held at First Baptist Church, Orillia, ON, on October 7, 2014. She died on September 29th.

When my dad called me to tell me that Mom had died, I couldn’t stay still. I had to move. So with my wife Valerie at my side I left our downtown Toronto apartment for a brisk walk in a random direction. As we struggled to make sense of the news we quickly got to the question of her age.
Well, she was born in 1946, I said.
Valerie counted the decades on her fingers. The number came up as 68. Mom couldn’t still be that young, could she?
No way is that right, I said. I’m gonna be 50 in a few weeks. That’s mathematically impossible. So I reached for my phone and pulled up the calculator app and yes, sure enough, 2014 minus 1946 equals 68. Our ages fall less than two decades apart.
Even as a kid, I understood that I had young parents. Mom and Dad had decided to have kids early, they explained, so they would still be young enough to have fun doing it.
As a child, that struck me as a beguiling idea. Looking at it from the vantage point of middle age, in a time when people start families a decade plus later, caring for a baby at 18 seems impossibly daunting.
When you are an adult and time begins to take its toll on the people around you, you figure having young parents gives you something of an insurance policy.
To lose anyone in your life at such a relatively young age, completely without sign or warning, with no chance for goodbyes, shakes your sense of stability. To have it be your mom, the person who, if she was a good mom, provided you with the confidence that you were safe and cared for since before you were even conscious of anything—well, it’s shattering.
Given the sudden shock of this, it’s tempting to focus on the enormity of our loss. But we are all here to remember and celebrate her life. So let’s try to do that.
She was more than a good mom. She was a great mom.
If you made me sum her up in one word, both as a mother and a person, that word would be solid. She was strong, reliable, practical. Always ready to fix things. And, as everyone here knows, funny—she could take an ordinary interaction from her day and weave it into an epic anecdote. Combine that with warmth, cheer, and generosity and you had a love that was strong, and reliable, and always ready.
Last September, Valerie’s mother Muriel passed. Although I figured there was still plenty of time, it occurred to me that maybe I ought to know what the heck to do when that inevitable moment came for Mom. Understand that the broaching of difficult subjects has never been a Laws family forte. Being wise-asses, yes. Subject broaching, no.
So the answer came as no surprise, because it was the exact same one I would give were it the other way around. She went –pfff -- and made a dismissive gesture and said that there was no need to fuss about that. I forget the exact joke but the general indication was that it would be fine with her if we left her out for the city to pick up when they came for the leaves and tree branches.
It turns out the municipality frowns on that.
So we will have to make at least a little fuss.
When her mother, my Grandmother Hannaford, passed aged 90 after a brief illness, Mom saw me losing it. Which is what I do at funerals. She reminded me that there was no need to feel sorry for Grandma, who was gone and spared from suffering.
Of course, we have these services not for the person who has gone. We have them to feel sorry for ourselves, because we will now have to live without them.
Still, her words of consolation point to a combination of qualities almost never seen in the same person. When you use the word unsentimental to describe someone, the assumption is that you mean that they’re cold or detached or unfeeling. Mom was anything but: warm, loving, gregarious. Yet also possessed of an emotional practicality I wish I was capable of. If worrying didn’t fix a problem, she didn’t let herself do it.
Speaking of fixing things. One thing she never claimed to be much good at fixing was dinner. It not only delighted but amazed her when it turned out that I like to cook.
Even so, she did make certain key food items. And as trivial as it might sound, the items you make for family members, especially the ones connected to ritual occasions, become a tangible touchstone of affection. Stability in edible form.
So I will never again get to eat proper turkey stuffing. As Allen will, I’m sure, agree, everyone else does it wrong. Mom’s stuffing couldn’t have been more simple and basic—bread, lots and lots of poultry seasoning, and a ton of butter. And that was what was perfect about it.
I’m not the only one in this room who will also wish they had one more chance to eat her legendary chocolate chip cookies. She learned to give each member of a household their own separate tins, so as not to tear families apart. Mom said there was nothing special about them; she just used the recipe on the side of the chocolate chip bag. But she made them bigger than anyone else. Though they were wider in diameter and not quite as high, they had the approximate volume of hockey pucks. Through mysterious alchemy this size and configuration made them the best chocolate chip cookies ever baked in any oven. You’d think that we could reproduce this simply by making our cookies bigger. But I bet we lack the magic.
As already mentioned the basic unit of affection at a Laws family gathering was teasing and the smart alec remark. When we were kids, Mom gave Allen and me years of material when, on one of our motor home journeys across North America, she backed up too close to a curbside traffic sign. My bike, stowed on top of the vehicle, paid the price. The meeting of sign and bike bent the bar behind the seat down over it. Now that was a perfectly acceptable bicycle but that was by far the most fun I ever got out of it.
This would have been after Mom learned to drive. She had to take the test twice because the first time around she broke the speed limit. When informing her she’d flunked, the drive tester told her she had a heavy foot.
Well, that foot stayed heavy even after she got her license. When Mom was on the go, she didn’t want to be on the way, she wanted to be there. Fortunately she had the folksy charm to talk her way out of a ticket. I got to see this in action a few years ago when we were late to a theater production in downtown Toronto. She was regular people, even when she was 10k over the residential limit.
That heavy foot, the need to go, speaks to her fundamental yen for freedom. She wanted to be out doing her own thing, as she would have put it. For years duty overrode that drive. When her father died and her mother’s health as a result seemed at risk, she moved in to an addition at 16 Alexander Drive to help keep an eye on her. She did it willingly but was constantly aware of the loss of independence.
When she had the chance to be free, she took it. And if she instilled something in me, it was to cherish and seek my own freedom, to find a life and live it. The words of hers I most recall are her three-word motto: “Go for it.”
Many parents would try to at least gently dissuade a smart kid who could have pursued a lucrative career from instead becoming a writer. Or more incomprehensibly yet, a game designer. But if that’s what I wanted to do, Mom wanted me to do that. She wanted me to go for it.
As for herself, Mom did not always have the best luck with employers. This despite the people skills that made her a top notch salesperson and adviser on all things gardening related. I suspect she was happiest when working for herself doing landscaping and installing ponds. Even when that meant slugging rocks, as she put it, or placed her in hip waders in mucky cold water. When rising gas prices put a kibosh on the driving required to make that work, she took a post as landscaper and custodian here, at her church.
Most of the other speakers, I’m sure, will talk about her role in this congregation. I know about her work here from the way she talked about it. Despite problems with arthritis, she was out there, blowing snow, stacking chairs, doing what needed doing. Whatever she did, she worked hard. Not for the sake of hard work itself, but because she believed in doing the job right. Although I make my living by sitting in a chair, making stuff up and writing it down, I take with me the example of her work ethic, her need to do the job right, every time I plan a project or hit a deadline.
Mom went for it by assembling a community of friends to have adventures with. She sang with various choirs. She went birding in the woods, risking mysteriously powerful spider bites. She took up kayaking. She went to Portugal to look at scenery and check out the tapas situation.
My mom loved water, so when she downsized to an apartment she found one on the lake. Then she decided the lake wasn’t quite close enough, so she built a water feature near her door. Unlike the fountain she installed in the previous place, this one stood outside, where it couldn’t overflow and warp the floorboards.
Because, between work and adventures, she was busy going for it, getting ahold of her wasn’t necessarily an easy matter. Her own mother, beacon of goodness though she was, had expectations and wasn’t shy about sharing them. Mom, who felt the weight of that, very consciously decided not to rule her kids through guilt. So for example she instituted a “no news is good news” policy when it came to staying in touch. All the bragging of recent accomplishments and other updating would happen soon enough, at Thanksgiving or Christmas or during a call on Mother’s Day. Which would often happen one or two days after the actual date of Mother’s Day, and multiple attempts to reach her. It was a Sunday. She had stuff to do.
Being laid up, either from the aforementioned mysterious spider bite, or hip replacement surgery two years ago, drove her batty. After hip replacement the patient has to stay still and in a particular position until healing from this massively invasive procedure occurs. This left us a little worried about how faithfully she’d obey doctor’s orders. Especially as she eyed the pair of wooden chairs she had hanging from the porch just outside her door. She’d been meaning to get around to refinishing those for ages, she said, so being stuck at home was maybe the perfect opportunity.
At this moment, the “no news is good news” protocol reveals it flaw. It doesn’t account for sudden catastrophe. And so it leaves the events I was saving up for Thanksgiving undescribed, and certain accomplishments unbragged-about.
Which brings us back to the years I thought we’d still have with her. This turn of events, frankly, leaves me feeling cheated. In language no one ever utters in a house of worship.
But if I imagine what she would say about a thing like this, she’d say that feeling that way is pointless, because it doesn’t get you anywhere.
If I’d had a chance to say goodbye, it wouldn’t have been all written out like this. There would be more jokes and less mush. Basically it would just be, “I love you Mom. And thank you.”
Life is sad and beautiful. It is sad, right now, for me, because my mom is gone. It is beautiful because she was in it.
Also, it is short. And you don’t get to choose just how short.
The lesson, then, that I take from the life and passing of my mother is to savor the brief time we get. And to live it, as fully as we can, and to keep seeking new adventures. To go for it.

October 10, 2014