“What other stories can we tell?” That’s what my great Uncle Barry said yesterday as he sat in his wheelchair in a room in a nursing home in Hamilton. We were on a quest, my cousin Janet and I, to dig up some family stories we might not have heard before. Especially about Nana, our beloved grandmother who poured us kool-aid, introduced the legacy of macaroni mess as comfort food, broke up our Barbie fights (I always, always, always somehow got Janet to be Ken) and grilled us about missing grades. If we got 99, where did the other point go?
Jan and I lived three blocks away and were born six months apart. We are what cousins are made for. And we spent years of our early lives under Nana’s tending wing.
But of course, Ellen was more than our Nana. She pre-existed her grandmother years. Uncle Barry loved his big sister, that was clear. Our Nana once made him Christmas dinner for 5 in the morning, because he was a Navy guy heading out to sea again. She sent him $100 to buy a car that he couldn’t quite afford. Barry remembered the cans of beer our fathers packed in that very car exploding all over the interior, cans without a tab that you had to crack open like a safe.
He told us our Nana “spoke her mind whether a good thing or a bad thing and stuck up for what she thought.” Yes. I do remember that.
Ellen loved tennis and her husband Gordon, “a peach of a guy,” according to Barry and everyone else who tells stories of the unassuming, quiet grandfather who died before either of us were born. Papa called those who deserved it a horse’s patoot.
We heard tragic stories of burning bridges and trains and coal and lives ended too soon. We heard about Sarah Armstrong, Ellen and Barry’s mother, who was strong and capable, outliving two husbands as women often did back then, one of whom let chickens loose in the living room during our Nana’s engagement party. This seems very unjust and I hope it isn’t true, or that it was a happy joke.
Sarah changed the tire of her 1929 Chev in front of a hardware store one day because there was no one else around to do it.
This image is emblazoned in Barry’s mind, watching his mom do that. In my mind she would have been dressed nicely, kneeling on the unpaved road. Doing this thing that not all moms did back then. Or even now probably. And it was at that moment in the telling of stories when I remembered something my daughter Holly (Ellen’s great-granddaughter, Sarah’s great-great) said to me this spring. We were driving down a quiet Port Perry street, and we both noticed a woman leaning on the bonnet of a pick-up truck, head tilted back in laughter, sharing a moment with a man she probably liked quite a bit. “You could pass right by the best moment in someone’s life and not ever know it,” said Holly. “Isn’t that strange?”
It really, really is.