As I near the end of this year of living backwards, I’ve been asking myself, “Who is the person who most exemplifies the values I wish to emulate in this phase of my life?”
Left: Margie’n’Eddie: The original Saltwater Hearts.
The one who comes most readily to mind is my friend, Margaret Yates. Until the age of 25, I knew her only as the mother of one of my best chums, Audrey. It wasn’t until later, when I was a young mother and Margie was a senior, that we forged our own friendship. Much of it was carried on long-distance. Out of the blue, she’d telephone to ask about the family or fill me in on the news back home. Fat letters would arrive jammed with photos of weddings I’d missed. On other, sadder days, out of the envelope would spill an obituary and a fond narrative about a departed friend. Margie understood that, for me, she was a lifeline to home and memory.
In the year before her death, Margie’s sharp intelligence began to falter. I did most of the talking, while she responded mainly in monosyllables. She somehow managed to infuse even those few words with both passion and warmth, ably holding up her side of the conversation.
My memories of Margie are big on the fundamentals (love, friendship, generosity, tolerance) but sketchy on the specifics. So I called Audrey to fill in the details. Over the phone on a Sunday afternoon, we celebrated the woman who had been her mother and my friend. As we spoke, the memories began to slot themselves into categories. The following are just a few of the ways in which Margie is my role model in the art of “growing younger”:
Community Activism: “My mother was an active community builder,” Audrey recalls. “Both my parents gave of themselves as a team. They were always fundraising for community events or church initiatives: it sprang from their faith connection.”
The local Boys and Girls Club was an early and favoured recipient of their efforts, as was the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen. They spent years fundraising for the construction and outfitting of the Regional Hospital, and campaigned strenuously for a volunteer fire department. Their work addressed humanity’s most basic concerns: children, the hungry, the sick, the endangered.
As Audrey remembers, her mother’s strength lay not in organizing or driving these efforts. Instead, “Mother was a positive and joyful cheerleader. She was always working the phones, mobilizing people and getting them out to events. She had no qualms about asking them to contribute their resources to the cause.”
Margie’s gig as an Avon Lady gave her access to every home in the community. “Doors opened to her,” says Audrey. “She knew everyone and everyone knew her.”
I listen as Margie’s daughter softly recites some lines from one of her mother’s favourite songs:
Hands that serve,
Hearts that care,
When you need us,
We are there…
“She wasn’t just a soft ear,” Audrey explains. “Her hands were continually working on behalf of others. She made a point of visiting those who were in difficult places in their lives and was continually connecting people to resources.”
Lifelong Learning: Margie was an avid learner. Late in life, with encouragement from her son Russell, she enrolled in college courses and was particularly captivated by the study of folklore.
“She really knew a good story when she heard one,” says Audrey. “We grew up surrounded by good, authentic storytellers and folk singers.”
Margie’s own contribution to the field of folklore was formalized in a paper entitled “Dairy Farms of South Bar.” For me, no words are more evocative of a way of life that, once solid and real, has now vanished forever. I am grateful to her for ensuring the memory of it lives on.
Lifelong Romance: By the time they reached their 60s, Audrey’s parents were known far and wide in the singular: Margie’n’Eddie. Their relationship was ushered into immortality by the singer-songwriter Dave Gunning, an accidental bystander during the pair’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. He was on stage that night as the two quietly toasted each other in a private celebration at Cape Breton’s Keltic Lodge. His song, Saltwater Hearts, is an ode to their romance:
Saltwater hearts underneath the moon
Changing tides rolling like a tune
Into the days that keep ending much too soon
Saltwater hearts always drifting back to you
All the things that we love best always seem to stand the test
In the shadows fear can hide but our dreams are still alive
Margie’n’Eddie were masters at keeping the dream alive.
Connecting Through Art: Margie’s principal visual medium was photography while her pictures were primarily of people. My husband Mark, an avid photographer himself, was a particular fan. “She was one of those people who could tell a story with her photographs. Even the sequence of photos taken at her son’s wedding told a story. That’s a real art.”
For Mark, the photos were enhanced by the narrative that accompanied them. “She’s tell you the story behind the photo and it would come alive in your imagination.”
This is a picture where she was, for once, on the other side of the lens. In commenting on the photo, a friend asked Audrey if her mother had posed for the shot. Audrey’s response was both immediate and vociferous: “My mother was not a poser. That was the antithesis of my mother!”
Painting was also something at which Margie excelled. Her very first painting, produced late in life, took second prize at an art exhibit. “I asked her why she didn’t continue painting but she said she got too bored,” says Audrey. “She always craved new experiences.”
Celebrating Diversity: Growing up in a white-bread world, I didn’t know anyone of African descent until I was in my teens. My only experience of the First Nations people from whom I descended was when they arrived at our door selling the wooden poles used to prop up clotheslines. In that world, Margie was an early pioneer of diversity. “My mother treated everyone with respect,” Audrey remembers.
Mark has his own memories of Margie’s warm, welcoming presence. As a South American, he was a strange, foreign intrusion into our resolutely homogeneous culture. But not for Margie: “She had a genuine desire to understand who I was and where I came from,” he remembers. “She was prepared to accept the truth of my reality. If you were honest and generous with her, she responded in kind.”
Right: Mark captured by Margie’s lens.
Even the eccentric and the … well, difficult … found a place in Margie’s orbit. Gathered around her Christmas table were several elderly relatives in various stages of Alzheimer’s. One of them mistook the wastepaper basket for a urinal. “She taught us to love the unlovely,” Audrey recalls, the affection in her voice audible even at a distance of over 4000 kilometres.
Audrey and I end our conversation with promises to reconnect soon. Later, as I reflect on my memories of Margie, I recall the words from the Shawshank Redemption, spoken by Andy to his buddy Red:
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
Margaret Yates was one of those people who got busy living. May you do the same in your years of living backwards.
Susan Young de Biagi is a regular contributor to prdn.
“As a trained historian, my twin passions are writing and teaching. In addition to Cibou – my first novel – I have written or co-written three books of non-fiction, and authored a number of digital, educational products.”