A year ago today, on a sunny summer day, my grandmother died. It's strange to think that a year has passed already. She lived for 91, and in us her memory lives on. What follows are excerpts from the eulogy I gave at her funeral:
My Gramma was born in Ontario in 1918. Following her birth, her parents decided to move to the Swan River Valley to farm. She grew up on that farm with her brother John and her sister Francie, south east of Swan River, where they attended local schools.
Following a career in teaching, she married my grandfather, and moved to Blue Skies Farm north of Bowsman. Although my grandparents’ time together was short, they both had a love of the land and of horticulture They shared a common vision for their property and worked together to carry it out. One of the last books she was rereading was a book of my grandfather’s on soil management. In one of the last telephone conversations I had with Gramma, she gave me marriage advice as she often did, and told me that one of her most precious memories was of the unity of thought she had with my Grandpa Ernie, and how much enjoyment marriage was.
Gramma always enjoyed sewing, and after their daughters Connie and Jennie were born, she sewed clothe from whatever was available- mostly old flour sacks, old curtains, and old wool coats, until yard goods became more readily available. She made coats for the girls and also took a tailoring course where she learned to sew suits and clothing for herself, all on a treadle machine. These clothes often continued life overseas via the St. Faith’s missions. I think that I learned frugality and a love of sewing early on when she often gave me packages of scraps to make doll clothes and other crafts.
Gramma believed strongly in being involved in her community and in doing things for others. Because she wanted her daughters to learn from her example, she taught Sunday School and led 4-H, continuing to share her gardening experience with 4-Hers many years after her children were grown. She always enjoyed being involved with young people and their parents, willingly mentoring and sharing information, listening to their hopes and dreams.
Two of Gramma’s outstanding characteristics were her fierce independence and determination. A story from her early life related by her brother, John, will give you an idea of how she developed these characteristics. In his words:
"Shaw School, where we started and attended for several years, was just a few miles away. When Phyllis was seven, Dad bought a docile small white horse and cart for her to driver herself to school. She was responsible for seeing that Jimmy, the horse, stayed at the school during the day and for getting herself home after school- a big responsibility for a seven year old. She took me with her for a special day for beginners before I started school."
This determination and independence then served her well when she chose, as a woman, to continue farming after Grandpa died. She was fortunate to have Great-Grandpa Provins and wonderful neighbours who helped with their time and advice. But she also faced tough adversity that would have deterred many others. For example, she would have to wait to get her machinery fixed regardless of the order in which it was received. She was in great physical condition and could work circles around most people. On March 15th, 1980, her diary says, "Shoveled by garage and over to the big trees- an hour. Split wood for four hours."
Five weeks later her diary read, "Washed hair and was going to dry it outside while putting the siding back on the house where the insulating men took it off to drill holes. Began to fall off ladder so jumped. Felt cracks at top of leg bone. Didn’t faint. Went in, phoned Ed Baird, got cleaned up and used my dust mop as a crutch to get to the car. Picked Ed up and went to the hospital. Had x-rays. Broken hip bone just above the ball."
She went by ambulance to Winnipeg and had a pin put in her hip. She came home on May 17th on crutches, but that didn’t stop her from gardening that year just the same as usual.
Always interested in the interdependence of the land, plants, animals, and people, Grandma cultivated and tested numerous varieties of garden vegetables, flowers, herbs, and fruit trees. She carefully recoded such things as height, days to maturity, disease resistance, size, colour, and flavour.
The beginning of Gramma’s love affair with lilies began in 1947 with a Lemon Lady lily given to her by my grandfather. This developed into a passion over the years. She experimented with cross pollination and waited patiently for the years to go by until she could see the results in the form of a new lily bloom. Form the knowledge she gained, she wrote articles for newspapers and magazines such as Grain News and The Manitoba Gardener and progressed to giving talks at various meetings and conventions. She worked for five years with Professor Lenz of the University of Manitoba maintaining lily test plots and recording every detail. Through these activities she became more widely known and her circle of friends increased rapidly.
Friends, gardeners, and lily enthusiasts were welcome in her garden at any time. She was always very happy to host Open Garden tours for the various societies she belonged to. We have many photographs of these happy times. She gave anyone who was interested lengths of yarn of a particular colour to mark the lilies they wanted bulbs from. Sometime before freeze-up she dug, bagged, labeled, and distributed the bulbs, never charging. People’s friendship was her reward.
In 2000, Gramma was deeply honoured to receive the Manitoba Horticultural Society’s first Prairie Garden Award for Excellence., With her price money she purchased a Mantis tiller to ease her gardening load. Unfortunately, someone else wanted to ease their load and took the tiller from her shed.
Motivating quotes and sayings lined her cupboard doors and backsplash. An anonymous example is "Nobody knows about your integrity, sincerity, talent, or good will unless you give examples in action." She lived by putting others before herself and always sharing what she had. In the words of her lily society friend Brent, “She treated everyone fairly. Everyone had a chance with her. She never judged anyone by their appearance. She always gave encouragement and encouraged the horticultural board to try things even if she didn’t approve. She’d say, 'Well, try it, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll fix it.'"
Another friend, Diane, had fond memories of the fun she and Gramma had riding to lily shows and conventions together. One of the words Diane and several others used to describe Gramma was the word ‘encouraging.’ One of the seedlings Gramma shared with Diane turned out to be an unregistered lily. As she often did, Gramma declined to register it. After much work persuading Gramma to let her do so, Diane registered this lovely yellow and burgundy lily as "Phyllis Irene."
Species lilies are those that originate in the wild and are often used to develop other lilies. Gramma’s last talk was on species lilies. Recently, an award in her name was created for the best enhanced species lily.
While Gramma's horticultural life was growing, she also became a grandmother to my two sisters, Pamela and Jillian, my brother Edward, and myself. Along with her many special horticultural awards hanging in her house is the World’s Greatest Grandmother award.
Going to Gramma's almost every summer was always a special highlight for us. We all have many special memories of time spent with her, playing in the creek, running around and having parades in the garden, picking fresh vegetables and flowers, playing on the porch running our own glove, hat, and vitamin shops, and eating fresh baked bread out of her wood burning stove.
Some of our friends couldn't understand why we would choose to go to Gramma’s whenever we had the opportunity. In college I would usually come to visit her most fall and spring breaks, and I had a very good friend who didn’t realize until third year that I also had parents and didn’t live with my grandmother!
Gramma once told me that although her father had to leave school very early in life, "he never stopped learning." This love of learning was passed on, and a short time before she died she told my Mom a couple of months ago that she wasn't ready to die because there was so much more to learn. Every birthday and Christmas we could always be sure we would receive books as gifts. Gramma loved to read and enjoyed many magazine and newspaper subscriptions, some of them paid up until 2015. She was always interested to hear what we were learning in school and encouraged us to continue our education.
A eulogy for Gramma wouldn't be complete without mentioning her love for animals. Cats, skunks, and raccoons were all welcome at the feeding bowl on her porch. She also enjoyed watching the many birds that came to the feeders in her yard. She liked dogs but she particularly enjoyed the antics of her many cats. One particular cat that she had for 19 years spent many hours at the garden with her, but was also her protector. Big Spot would meet people at the door; if they passed muster he would walk away, if they didn't, he stood guard. Occasionally his judgment later proved correct!
Gramma was a very principled lady who always made time for others, who cherished her friends, and loved her family. When asked what was the thing that made her happiest in life, she looked surprised and said, "I’ve done what I wanted to do where I wanted to do it."
The world was a better place with Gramma in it.