Astonishing picture of my sister circa... 1970? As unearthed and sent by our wonderful neighbor just this year!
THE HEROINEWhen I first heard the reports of what George Floyd said while he was being murdered by Minneapolis law enforcement, a lightning strike went off in my head. In that strike I saw in perfect detail why the nation of Canada was able to feel sad about my father’s passing and even grieve for him, while his own children were unable to do so. And still can’t. Today is the anniversary of his death.
Then, as is the nature of lightning strikes, everything went dark again. Which meant I was stumbling around in confusion, wondering how in the hell I had managed to link the enormously significant and politically charged national tragedy of yet another Black man in his forties being coolly murdered by the cops to my 89 year-old father, Rod Coneybeare, puppeteer and writer-performer, the voice behind Rusty and Jerome on CBC’s “The Friendly Giant”, who died a relatively good death after an entirely privileged life.
I literally had two months or so of trying to find the answer to this puzzle, fumbling around like you do when you’re trying to remember a dream. But then, when I heard about another Black victim crying for his grandmother while he was being murdered by cops, it came to me. Embarrassing or even blasphemous as it is to make such connections, I’m going to offer it up:
It’s about decency in this most indecent age.
George Floyd calling for “Momma” as he takes his last breath is a plea simple and clear; it’s poetry, not prose. You know what it is without being able to explain it. Most of us can picture Momma without needing the details.
And don’t kid yourself. George Floyd’s plea made a lot of men wonder privately who they would call out for when someone is killing them. Certainly, I pondered it. Sadly, my own mother – lovely as she was in so many ways – didn’t make the cut; her alcoholism and many other problems didn’t make her that kind of savior. Her mother, however, might make the cut. I wondered; would I call out for Old Nana as a representative of the justice system cut off my last gulp of air for all eternity? (I excuse anybody I’ve met as an adult; I think that primordial cry is a little boy’s cry and it’s yanked out of us by the time we’re about ten).
And that got me thinking about Momma in general. I am nine years older than George Floyd, and I know nothing about him beyond what I’ve read, but I am absolutely sure I know Momma. I think I grew up with her, if you exclude certain cultural contrasts. And I suspect that while she still exists now, she will soon be part of a lost breed. So I want to say something about her before she goes.
I grew up in an immigrant family, meaning my grandparents were off the boat from Scotland. We spent a tremendous amount of time with them. Mathematically and sociologically that means - as I’ve pointed out to my kids - that my two brothers and one sister and myself were pretty much raised by people who were born almost one hundred and twenty years ago. Think of that. They moved to Canada after the Great War (before we numbered them; think of that as well).
As hip kids born in the 1960’s, we of course were hugely embarrassed by them, even as we loved them without question. Their accents were thick and their manners were old fashioned and courtly. My Papa (pronounced Pup-AH) collected coins; Nana ruled the kitchen and, far as I could tell, the household in general. The rules were very set, although to my amazement, Papa learned to cook - albeit under Nana’s watchful and distrustful eye - after her heart attack in 1977.
We, of course, were very far removed from these working-class Scots in our manners and behavior. My sister, Susannah, would seem the most removed. First, she had dead straight long blonde hair which resembled no one else in our family – kind of like the girl in Poltergeist. And she had all the groovy stuff a lucky girl born in the early 60’s had; a fun-fur rug in her bedroom, a peace symbol necklace, and most prized, a suitcase record player that rang out with “Yo Yo” by the Osmond’s or “ABC” by the Jackson Five. This was happening stuff.
And yet... And yet.
My image of my sister as a girl of ten or eleven or twelve is how she helped the ladies pour tea at those interminable wedding anniversaries (of relatives we’d never heard of), or at funeral receptions of those we knew all too well. A few years later, she knew exactly how to graciously greet the grieving and make the oldsters feel better in general. She knew what size to cut the cakes and crustless sandwiches and how high to fill the teacups (not too high, because folks were getting on in years, and a rattling teacup means embarrassing splash).
This was not unique to my sister. All the women in my family seemed to do things like this. Our cousin Judy almost surely did the same thing; in fact, even though I haven’t laid eyes on her in forty years, I’ll bet the farm that Judy knows exactly how to manage a funeral reception, tea cups, and sandwich sizes.
And, perhaps most importantly, with some sort of weird super timing, these women seemed to know when they were ‘needed.’ This was a mysterious phrase, but everyone knew what it meant, and it usually applied to older women in the family. Aunt Meg Dingwall – who I swear was 112 when I was born -- ‘needed’ visiting or caring for, and of course the ultimate needing was when someone was medically infirmed. At these times, the Army of Capable Scottish Women moved pretty much like the 82nd Airborne, and care and the protective cordon were put in place. And somehow they all knew exactly what to do and did it without question or thought of self. And everything was taken care of, particularly in the area of mysterious (and to we boys, gooshy) things such as getting new nighties at Eaton’s and hot water bottles and medicines I don’t want to consider even now.
I watched my mother care for her Aunt Mary when she got sick with cancer, and for two miraculous months my mother didn’t touch a drop of liquor but instead slept in the hospital to be with this terrified woman in her 80’s – who as far as I knew hadn’t really done much in life but twitter like a Monty Python guy-in-drag character and read Harlequin romances. But my mother, of course, saw a different woman; smartly dressed, capable, holding a job in 1942 and taking ten-year-old Beth on the streetcar to the Palace or Oxford movie theatre on the Danforth.
My mother’s cousin Mary did the same, and in fact I believe she made sure that her own mother lived with her until the day she died, despite all the challenges you can imagine that involved. But she did it. This is remarkable.
My sister was, of course, my sister and a terrific companion she was; I think we are the only brother-sister I ever heard of who left home and moved into our own apartment together. It was the early 1980’s so we partied, drank, listened to Let’s Dance and Cyndi Lauper over and over again, and yet.. And yet…
Our Great Aunt Meg fell and broke her hip, age 80 something. I got to the hospital before my sister (I can’t remember why) and found a circle of relatives around Meg’s bed. Meg looked rough. Her eyes were bruised, and she had a kind of palsy and she looked very confused about where she was. She thought my Papa was the cab driver, which was kind of a bitter pill for a man who had driven his wife’s sisters around his entire married life. But the most startling thing was that some candy-striper (did they exist then? I think they did) had put a pink bow in Meg’s iron grey wisps of hair.
Now, Meg was not a pink bow kind of gal. For one thing, she cackled and hit. A lot. She was crafty and paid we teenage boys to walk her up the icy sidewalk to her apartment house door – but she only paid you after you got her up there. A character, but not a pink bow character.
So, we were all standing around like idiots not sure what to do and suddenly in strode my sister, full of 22-year-old energy. “Aunt Meg, what’s going on here??” And without blinking an eye, Meg suddenly snaps into coherence and says, “Susie, get this bow out of my hair!”
Which, of course, Susannah did.
Just as she went running off to our Nana and Papa’s apartment when they began to fall. Just as she went to The Bay to get nighties for Nana once they moved into the old folks home they swore they’d never need (“it has to be the Bay or Simpsons, she’ll know the difference if I try Zellers”); just as she went with our own mother to all those appointments that, in time, spelled the death knell of cancer. She and my wife, born the same year, took charge of my mother and once again it was all about taking care, nighties (again!), overseeing medical care and medication, diet and comfort. I watched them do this with a kind of wonder, and yet it didn’t occur to me – for one second – that I was watching a dying breed. My wife, my sister, my cousin Judy, my mother, my Nana, Aunt Meg and Mary, Judy’s mother Mary, all a dying breed. And this year, I was to learn, I fear a misunderstood breed.
That scene with Meg and the pink bow must have been in the mid 1980’s. Aunt Mary dying of cancer was a few years later. My own Nana was mid 90’s and my own mother died in 2002. A lot has happened since then, and much for it for the better. Certainly society no longer expects women to fit into such rigid roles, and what we expect and don’t expect from women has become, I hope, a hell of a lot more realistic – although I’d like to point out that my own wife, as a result of caring for both my mother and her own mother through terminal cancer, came to the conclusion that “what I’m really good at is taking care of people”, and thus this year, after half a decade at UCLA and California State, works as a cardiac nurse at Cedars Sinai Beverly Hills and just graduated as a Nurse Practitioner.
But still, something has shifted. There is no better proof than the death of my father last year, which garnered national attention and national applause for his accomplishments. The applause, of course, should have gone to my sister, for not only did she see my father through his own illness, but she took my dad’s wife of forty years – her stepmother – and saved her life. It turns out my stepmother was seriously ill on a number of fronts, and my sister did what her lifetime had told her to do without question: she rolled up her sleeves and booked doctors appointments and got a hip replacement organized and negotiated residency at one of the finest seniors homes in the province and took over all of my stepmother’s business affairs which she clearly couldn’t manage on her own. Again, of course, ‘nighties’ came into the picture somewhere.
As it turns out, however, in 2020, these actions were a mistake. Today, in reward for this care, my sister is the subject of all sorts of threatened legal action and is being drained dry financially. Her name has been impugned, and my stepmother – who, despite being legally declared incapable of handling her own affairs – has a lawyer, perhaps hired by, of all people, her neighbors!
The sorrow for me isn’t in this madness per se – although it’s pretty “Stepford” on the part of the neighbors -- but in what it has done to my sister. She knew exactly what to do under the old rules, but the cruelty, character assassination, and presumption of venality under the new rules are something she really can’t get her head around. Nor can I really, and that’s saying something. But here’s what it comes down to: at one point in this world we assumed that family rallied around its most troubled members as part of duty; now our society assumes that if you’re helping out Aunt Sadie it’s for money or some other gross gain. It’s like Trump standing at Arlington Cemetery, literally unable to fathom why people would commit to something larger than themselves, when in fact the answer is right before him: because it’s the right thing to do.
And that’s when the lightning struck about Momma. George Floyd was crying out for the woman – or women – who cared for us without thought of reward and loved us and were the backbone of our families; who made our last names mean something and our sense of duty selfless. I know George Floyd’s Momma because I know my sister, just as surely as I know whose name I would call out in desperation as someone tries to take my last breath: my sister, with the astonishingly straight long blonde hair, who knew exactly where to buy the right nighties and how to plump the pillow and how much to fill the teacup.
We are losing a lot in this COVID world, and one of those things is the ability to imagine that we might be wrong. We so want to be right that we are warp speed fast at suspecting and condemning. And why not? Just about every institution has let us down. But we ought to be careful about our actual people. Momma. My sister. People who take care of us, who have chosen by tradition or by sheer decency of character to do the real work no one else will do. They deserve at least our consideration, even if we can no longer muscle up basic respect. After all, these people will not be with us long.
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