It has been more than 2 years since my Aunt Helen passed away. At long last I am posting my eulogy to her as well as some oft-requested photos:
"My Aunt Helen was a very strong and independent woman and, it was no wonder. She was the first born of Mary Bryerton, a young lady who at the turn of the century decided to leave her Montreal family of 16 siblings and venture on her own to a clerical job in the remote railway town of Cochrane in northern Ontario. There she met and married Ernie Poole, a strapping young homesteader, who worked as a guide and forestry man for the CNR. Ernie gave Mary a canoe for a wedding present. She used it to paddle to work everyday. Helen inherited their adventurous spirit, willful drive and strength of character. Her father, she said, was her hero.
One of three sisters, all very different and each remarkable in her own way, she lost her beloved brother, Ted, during the Second World War. She lost her youngest sister, Mary, recently, to her great sadness. The sisters, often separated by distance (and sometimes opinions) were nonetheless ever-present through the triumphs and tragedies that are inevitable in life. Betty and Mary shared the watch during the long illness and subsequent passing of Donald Mackey, Helen's husband and one true love. In turn, Helen was often at their side in times of illness and crisis and has maintained a strong, generous, and caring interest in her nieces and nephews and their families.
One of my favourite memories of Helen and her two sisters was at Christmas at my brother's home about ten years ago. I had brought along scores of those long bendable balloons that could be shaped into animals and such. Their instructions were to make outrageous hats. The whole family absolutely relished the task, but the balloons in Helen's huge and preposterous hat kept popping, reducing her, and us, to absolute, all-out, gut-wrenching laughter!
Helen and I were both teachers. Inevitably we spent hours discussing educational issues. We both deplored many of the trends now popular in the educational system. Having read the comments posted online from appreciative and adoring former students, I'm convinced she could only be correct in her assertions.
We talked of many things; the world, politics, having children and not having children. She had wanted to have a child, but never wallowed in the regret that she didn't. She was never one to indulge in self-pity. And, we didn't always agree in our views. But she was great; she never held a grudge if you didn't agree with her. Why would she? She never lost an argument. She refused to lose an argument and that was that! Then, it was swiftly back to more congenial conversation.
Though I, too, shared her love of art and music, I never possessed her drive and talent for such. I probably disappointed her in not sharing her passion for Shakespeare. She was generous in taking my friend, George, and I to Stratford a few years ago, but knowing me well, she booked tickets for musicals rather than drama. She was always good company. We had a great time together, enjoying West Side Storey, watching the swans attack a raccoon by the lake, enjoying a picnic at a 401 rest stop on the trip home.
I learned from her the skill of being a good houseguest: be helpful but not overbearing, enjoy your time together, but give your host and yourself space and time out; bring something to amuse yourself; bring books, lots of books, and organize your luggage! Helen finessed the guest thing.
She loved to travel and to experience life, but she could just as easily derive enjoyment vicariously through reading. Most times when I telephoned her she was curled up with a novel. Her personal library is immense and I believe she ordered books by the truckload from the Westmount library. I share her love of reading and only recently discovered to my delight we were both fans of crime novels, even some of the same writers; her guilty pleasure as one of her close friends described it. I believe that she was delighted when, as a child, I showed an early aptitude and ability for reading. She and my parents encouraged that by providing me with lots of books. I recall Helen and Donald giving me their copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe whilst I was in Grade Two. I quickly devoured the series. It is because of that gift that I still insist on having a tall lamppost topped with a beautiful antique lamp in my front garden.
Helen was a zealous monarchist. She had me reading the London Illustrated News as soon as I could read. I was immediately put on royalty watch. Easy enough for a child who loved gems and sparkling attire and who wished for the Tooth Fairy to leave not a few coins but rather a glittering royal tiara under the pillow. However I did grow up, and I can recall, as a slightly rebellious teenager, making an offhand comment to Helen about Queen Elizabeth. Retribution was swift; I was quickly informed and reformed of my errant opinions. Her respect for the monarchy persisted through life. Only recently, my young nephew, made a similar, obviously mis-informed, comment about the modern role of the monarchy. Helen, tight-lipped, rose to the defense of the Palace. She was not amused.
I will always remember Helen for her colours. I will recall the muted softness of her watercolours and photography, the gentle and cheerful spring colours of her wardrobe, the warm woods and soft chintz of the cottage she had painted and arranged and shared with my grandparents. I spent a lot of time there as a little girl, mostly with my grandparents, but quite often Helen and Donald were there. I remember the walks in the wood, gathering flowers, searching out the butternut trees, and swimming in the lake with Auntie Lala as I called her. I still admire and try to emulate in my own way that simplicity and elegance that always defined her person and her life.
I'll close with a poem that I wrote in 1958. I've forgotten the circumstances under which I wrote it; in reality I'd forgotten it entirely until I discovered it in her closet a few days ago. She'd kept it for over fifty years, and luckily it had survived her recent purges of her belongings. The poem, strangely enough, says a lot about what many of us are feeling today. It's called:
When I was in the valley
And the sun was high above
I was sitting down upon a bench.
All at once I saw a dove.
I loved her and loved her
And said she was mine,
But before I could catch her
She flew to the east coast line
I wished she'd come back,
And with me she'd stay,
But I thought that again
She would someday fly away.
I pray, Auntie Lala, that you have flown to the ones you love and miss."