The Sister Shawl

“There’s always piece of unfinished work left,” said Mrs. Lynde, with tears in her eyes. “But I suppose there’s always some one to finish it.” Anne of the Island

Well it hasn’t been a great month for my Mom’s friend Val. You may recall that I wrote about the demise of the ketchup factory in Leamington, Ontario last month. Ketchup Factory. You know, I never really thought I’d be writing those two words side by side like that, and not only in one but two blog posts. I’m expecting an influx of artisanal ketchup-makers to start following me now. Wouldn’t it be a weird social experiment if I tagged every post “ketchup factory” from now on and then see what kind of follower I’d attract. I’m almost tempted to look up “ketchup factory” in the urban dictionary, but this is a family-friendly (albeit sweary) blog so maybe we should just speculate. “I took one in the ol’ ketchup factory last week, and boy am I SORE!” Something like that, right?

Anyway, careful readers will remember that Val’s relatives all came from the Leamington area and were involved, either directly or indirectly, with the ketchup business. #ketchupbusiness. “I took one in the ol’ ketchup business last week and I can hardly WALK.” (Okay, that’s the last one).

I memorialized the ketchup factory and the whole end of a way of life for the good people of Leamington, many of whom were related in some way to Val.

But since then, Val’s life has sustained another, even more personal, blow. Val, who celebrated her 71st birthday yesterday, had one sister growing up and just never really got away from her. Her sister, Gladys (who Val affectionately called Gladdy but I couldn’t never quite bring myself to call her that) was 9 years older than her, so I guess that makes or made (SPOILER!) her 80? Maths! Val and Gladys neither married or had kids and lived together, Patty and Selma style, their entire lives.

Val was and is one of those really important people in my life. One of the real pillars/role models. A constant. The family joke/saying is that she is a second Mom to my brother and me, and this really kinda felt true. When we were kids, she would phone in the morning on her way out the door to teach grade 3 to tell my Mom the wind chill was particularly harsh and to make sure we had extra mitts, etc. She would come over all the time, go to movies with us and our parents, go on holidays with us, you name it. Even today, I know I can count on a birthday card every year from maybe 4 people in my life, and one of them is Val, still signing them with a Y.O.M. (Your Other Mom). We would get together a couple of weeks before Christmas every year. Val would take us all out for supper and we could open our Christmas presents from her early. She always got us something small and inexpensive, but something that was really really thoughtful and cool. When we were younger, it was always something from this kick-ass toy store called “Toad Hall Toys” which featured European/classic toys, cool stuff you couldn’t get at Sears. When we were older, she’d buy us books. You may recall from the blog post, “The Story Shines Through” that it was at one of these Christmases that Val introduced me to Clive Barker, which was really a gateway to Stephen King, and my life has been the richer for it ever since. The best part about Christmas supper with Val was that whatever it was she got us and my brother, we could enjoy it exclusively for two weeks before the deluge of the regular Christmas presents were opened. I remember Val’s gifts over the years more than any other.

So, I think we’ve established that Val was and is great.

Thing is, she has (had) [SPOILER AGAIN, JESUS. SORRY] this sister. They say opposites attract, and maybe this is true with some sisters too? Because Gladys really was something else. I don’t feel like I really want to list all the things that bothered me about Gladys, except to say that I always considered it a good interaction if I came away from it without feeling horrible about myself. Most times, she would make a comment about my weight, my appearance, my job, my choice of friends, or anything that I might be sensitive about, and there would be an awkwardness that I’ve learned over the years to laugh off. But still, if I know I will be in the presence of Gladys, I need to mentally toughen myself for the encounter. It’s not just me, either. My wife equally feels/felt weird and uneasy around her most times, and I think my relationship with Val has suffered for it over the years. There have been times, especially after our daughter came on the scene, that I wanted to have Val over for supper and a visit, but then there is always that thought, “Um, do we need to invite Gladys too?” and my wife and I never really know what we should do and we end up not doing anything and I feel like a bit of a deadbeat fake son to my other mom most times.

All of this is leading up to the worst kept secret due to my sheer inability to keep surprises: Gladys died last week.

She hadn’t been feeling well over the winter, but in the middle of June they finally figured out it was cancer and it had made its way pretty far around. A couple of weeks ago, my wife, daughter, Mom and I were to head down to Minneapolis for a few days. The main purpose of the trip was so that my Mom could see her beloved (yuck) Yankees play and especially see her beloved (less yuck) Derek Jeter play one more time. In recent years, my Mom had three Yankees that were close to her heart: Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and the Jeets (as she calls him). We got to see Andy Pettitte pitch in New York in 2007, and I felt bad that my Mom didn’t get to see Mariano Rivera on his farewell tour last year, so I was determined that she would see Jeter on his farewell tour this year.

But the night before we were to leave on the trip, my Mom called with a dilemma. That day, Gladys had two strokes and was in the hospital in a coma. They stuck her on life supports and then took her off life supports and it looked like the end was eminent.

Me: “Jeez. That’s all happened so fast.”

Her: “I know. As much as I was looking forward to this trip and seeing the Jeets and everything. I don’t think I can leave Val.”

Me: “But, but. The trip???”

Her: “I can’t leave my friend. You guys will still have a great time, I’m sure.”

Aside from the fact that it’s a bit sad that a 40-year-old man was genuinely bummed out that he couldn’t go on holiday with his Mom, we went ahead without her. When we returned a few days later, we expected the inevitable news. But ol’ Gladdy was tougher than anyone thought. She fought back, told the life supports to fuck off, and woke up from the coma. It sounds like she was hovering between this world and whatever comes after, because she made of list of people she wanted to see before she went. (Luckily I wasn’t on that list). Some of these people were people who had already died (no need to rush, you’ll be seeing them soon enough) and some were obscure ex-boyfriends, some of whom even Val did not know about.

G: “I want to see STAN.”

V: “Who?”

G: “STAN. S.T.A.N.!”

V: “I don’t know who that is.”

G: “Well find him. It’s important!”

and so on.

Well, she eventually worsened and slipped away last Wednesday after hanging on for a stubborn 10 extra days. In addition to my Mom, Val had her other best friend from childhood, Christine, with her. She flew in from Halifax when Gladys first took sick, and at the very least Val had her two best buds with her through the worst of it.

My wife and I attended the funeral, more out of love for Val than anything else. Sometimes you feel like you should attend for those left behind more than out of respect for the deceased, and this was one of those situations. When Val heard we were coming to the funeral, she wanted my wife and I to sit with her in the family pew, alongside her neighbour, my Mom, and Christine. I asked my Mom if any of the Leamington relatives were going to make it in. She thought no. She thought they had all died. We were Val’s family, as it turned out.


At the service, led by Val and Gladys’ interim minister, (a BAPTIST!) we learned of Gladys’ love of shopping and knitting (sort of makes sense). Apparently Gladys would knit wee hats for premature babies in the hospital and prayer shawls meant to be given out to people who were going through something terrible, either locally or around the world. I began to get a new appreciation and perspective on Gladys after hearing these stories of her anonymous kindness. Was there something more to her gruff exterior, gravelly voice and anti-social behaviour? At last count she had knit 165 prayer shawls since their church started the program in 2001. 165 and a half, actually. Gladys was part way through one when she got too ill to finish. So it was Val, also a knitter, who took up that last shawl while Gladys was in the hospital, and sat by her side 12 hours a day, and finished that shawl on her sister’s behalf. And in the last few days of Gladys’ life, she was draped and comforted by one of her own creations. That same shawl was draped over the communion table during the funeral, and the minister referred to it as “The Sister Shawl”.

As the service was about to conclude, this Baptist fill-in really got wound up. I don’t think these Presbyterians ever saw the like. He really drew out his “esses” and “dees” to the point that my wife later said she couldn’t even look at me during the service for fear of laughing out loud. Next time you see her, ask to hear her impression. “We are in the presencesssssss of the Lorrrrrddddddddd.” He got so worked up, Baptist style, that he ended the service by saying, “THE QUEEN OF KILDONAN IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE QUEEN! Not literally, of course, but in our hearts, and minds and memories. The queen of Kildonan is dead. The queen of Kildonan is dead.” I eventually turned to my wife, shrugged, and just said, “How about that?” The queen of Kildonan. Where did that come from? It sounds like the name of an old steam engine, or a luxurious ocean liner, or maybe even a war-worn battleship. In some weird way, I think Gladys would have liked that send off.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Sister Shawl

  1. I LOLed AND teared a little! How DO you do it?

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