Sunday, February 11, 2007

Helen Rogers.

My wonderful grandmother Hon passed away early this morning in Montreal. My whole life, everytime she would encounter a new technology or read about some new trend, Hon would laugh and say, "It's time I checked out of here." Strangely enough, instead of preparing me for her death, that made me feel that she'd live forever.

She lived to be 88, though, and that's a good age to live to. She lived on her own until a few years ago and still had her faculties and never stopped getting the newspaper even though her failing eyesight meant she mainly looked at the pictures. So, we're sad, but we're grateful that it was quick and that we had her for this long.

If it wasn't for my grandmother, I definitely wouldn't have become a scotch drinker and I probably wouldn't have become a journalist. She would refer to the columnists in the Montreal Gazette, the anchors on CFCF-12 and the talk-show hosts on CJAD in conversation as if they were personal friends. It was the way the media creates this sense of community that first attracted me to the profession...

In another time, my grandmother would have worked at a newspaper, too. When she visited me at the Post, she was amazed at how many women worked in the newsroom and confessed that she would have liked to have reported on fashion, if she had been allowed to get a job. (When she tried to find work in the Depression, she was asked her if her father had a job; he did, so she was turned away.)

The first letter I had published in the Montreal Gazette mentioned my grandmother in the first paragraph. Six years later, the very first article I had published in the Post was about her. These are clues that I loved her very much and will miss her.

A garden to remember
National Post
Monday, July 29, 2002
Byline: J. Kelly Nestruck
Column: Personal Life

My grandmother's garden is in bloom. She is pleasantly surprised at how good it looks and wants to buy one of those disposable cameras to take a few pictures. "In case I have to sell the house," she says.

My grandmother is known to us all as Hon, due to my sister's youthful mispronunciation of the name Helen (she didn't want to be called Grandma, it made her feel old). Hon has been living on Cumberland Avenue in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace district of Montreal for 46 years, which is longer than I can remember, that's for sure. When I was a kid, I would ask (she had taught me this), "What's your name?"

"Mary-Jane," she would answer.

"Where do you live?"

"Down the lane."

"What's your number?"

"Cucumber!" This was the punchline, which I always found funny, because it sounded like Cumberland.

At the age when I found this particularly hilarious, I would come for a visit and go into her garden, disturbing the flowers, jumping from rock to rock. I didn't know it then, but the flowers and plants, which extended their roots beneath me, tell the story of my grandmother's life. Today, as she leads me on a tour of the most impressive parts of the garden, I've come to realize the living history growing around us.

At the north end are memories of my grandfather, who passed away 10 years ago now. The asparagus growing here -- tougher than the stuff you buy from the supermarket, but always delicious -- is from Carberry, Manitoba, where my grandfather Jim grew up with his nine brothers and four sisters. The rhubarb in the shade of the pine tree is another reminder of my grandfather. (It's interesting to note that it was planted by my father before I was born, before my parents' divorce, when he was still welcome on the premises.) My grandfather loved rhubarb.

"He'd look out the window and say, 'Looks like the rhubarb's about ready'," recalls my grandmother. "I'd say, 'Why don't you go get it?" (My grandmother is allergic to rhubarb.)

The beautiful hostas in the rock garden, known also as plaintain lilies, are a link to family I never knew. My grandmother grew up in Toronto and the hostas came from there, too, from her mother's sister's backyard. Aunt Peggy (Great-great Aunt Peggy to me, I suppose) gave some to my grandmother's mother to bring to Montreal, and here they are.

The daisies just down the steps from the back porch are from even further away than Ontario or Manitoba and evoke a trip taken over 30 years ago. My grandmother picked up the seeds for these at Butchart's Garden in Victoria with my grandfather. Meanwhile, the October Crisis played out and they worried about my mother, alone, back in Montreal.

The side of the garage is completely covered with a heavy vine; Hon doesn't know the name of it. Her friends keep telling her she has to cut it down, that it's ruining her wall. I think her friends are just jealous.

Once a police car stopped outside of the house and an officer got out to inspect her garage. "Oh no," my grandmother thought. "What have I done?"

When she spoke with the police officer, he asked her, "How do you get your vine to grow like that? I've been trying and trying, but I can't get mine to climb."

Many of the flowers and plants are memories of friends, some still around, others gone for years. The forget-me-nots were a gift from Lillian. The irises are from Winnie's mother; the ferns, from my parents' backyard.

The yellow flowers -- she doesn't know their name, either -- are from Betty. The other hostas are from my other grandparents. (To their credit, my two sets of grandparents have remained friends, long after my parents' divorce.)

The silver dollars -- Hon's famous silver dollars! Who doesn't have some of her dried flowers in their house? -- are from down the street, from a field that has long since been turned into houses. For a long time, the woman who owned the field, where the wild silver dollars grew, wouldn't sell the land, because she wanted it to remain in memory of her dead husband.

"Well, she was a little cuckoo, I think," says Hon.

Not everything here has a story that is remembered. The hydrangea, the peonies, the snow-on-the-mountain and the rocks date from when the previous owners, the Champoux, lived here. Mr. Champoux worked on Allo Police, while Mr. Wardwell, next door, was a Montreal Star man. The Wardwells, until they died, were best friends with my grandmother and grandfather and the friendship has been passed down the generations. My sister is going to be a bridesmaid at the Wardwells' granddaughter's wedding in August. (Perhaps, my grandmother will give the newlywed couple some silver dollars for their home.)

There are new flowers, too, of course, as history has not yet ground to a halt. Planted by Ilsa, the German lady who helps with Hon's garden, these are beautiful, exotic, unnamed (to us) flowers. Ilsa was our landlord, when my mom, my sister and I lived in a duplex on Madison. She now lives in a duplex herself and, missing her garden, comes to help my grandmother out. Hon gives her a bottle of wine every so often and buys Jarlsberg cheese to serve when she comes, after Ilsa rejected the Vermont Cabot cheddar my grandmother likes.

It's a sunny June afternoon, when my grandmother walks me through the garden, sharing her roots with me. "Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?" I ask, another of the rhymes we used to say. We talk about how a house nearby sold in only a few days for many times what the owners had paid for it. The area is going upscale. A couple of times, Hon has had people come to her door to ask her if she's selling.

More than half of her 84 years, she's lived here, but it's getting more difficult to live in the big house by herself. How many more years will she have here? Who will move in and inherit this history?

Who knows? But the geraniums in pots on the back patio are in bloom and she's going to go get one of those little disposable cameras and take a few pictures ...


Anders said...

A wonderful post about a wonderful woman. The first paragraph broke my heart. I'm very glad to have met your grandmother. She will be missed.

Denise B said...

That was beautiful. As a fellow "grandma's girl," you have my full condolences.

wkh said...

sorry to hear that Kelly.
I lost my grandfather, around the same age, back in April. It left me with the feeling that life is not as long as I assumed, that time is not infinite, and (upon watching my grandmother's vicious grief and caring for her in the weeks after) that 50 years really isn't very long to love someone.