Friday, February 12, 2010


Last November, Grandma Lois died.

Her health had been failing for the last couple of years, and that, coupled with her Alzheimer’s, meant her death didn’t really come as a surprise. What was a bit of a shocker, to me at least, was the handwritten notes she left on exactly how she wanted her funeral to go down.

Grandma Lois wasn’t my grandmother. Not completely. Until the age of 13… okay 15… okay, my early twenties, where I went through a phase of addressing my friends’ relatives as if they were my own. I called their moms Mom, their uncles Uncle, and their grandmothers Grandma, despite having my own. I latched onto normal peoples’ families the way other kids latch onto gangs or chess clubs. In my universe, my friend Emily’s parents, aunts, uncles and pets were mine, too. And under this delusion, I spent some of the happiest days of my formative years at her family cottage in Wakefield, with Uncle Charlie and Uncle David and Grandma Lois, waterskiing and tubing and being a general pain in the ass.

The amazing thing was, I was always welcome. G-Lo, as she was known in her later years, was all class. She was the Grand Dame of that cottage, and she ran a tight ship. You did not chew gum, get tattoos, grow a beard or arrive at a garage sale anytime after 9am under G-Lo’s watch. You ate five almonds a day - any more and you’d get fat. And you wore your long underwear until Victoria Day. If not, it was pneumonia. Your choice.

But she welcomed me into her Queendom, and I loved it. I loved that she was so devoted to purple and pink that her clothes, her carpeting, her car and her fireplace were one or the other – or a tasteful combination of both. I loved that she sent handwritten notes and postcards. Her husband died in 1973, but when her grandkids went through her house, they found love letters dating back to the 1940s.

Then, there were the funeral instructions:

“Pay the bagpiper $50 or a bottle of whiskey.”

“I want hymns, but no singing.”

And one for her son, Bob, which Emily’s sister, Kate, read at the start of the funeral.

“Bob," it read, "please don’t be sad at my funeral. It’s no big deal. Be happy for me. I’ve had such a wonderful life. I’m with your father now.”

Tears flowed as the minister explained that G-Lo is still alive in many ways, because of the strong, amazing legacy she passed down on how to treat others. I looked at Bob, Emily, her sister, her brother, her husband, and her sister’s husband, sitting shoulder to shoulder a couple of pews in front of me. And I realized: G-Lo even passed down a legacy to me. She gave me the family I always wanted, and in doing so, taught me how to treat people. Plus, I can now claim I’ve been to a funeral where everyone wore pink, purple, or a tasteful combination of both.

I’d spent a lot of November beating up on myself. It’s something I excel at, if I do say so myself. I wasn’t working hard enough, or fast enough, or well enough. I wasn’t getting enough exercise, or making enough money. I was eating too much and not enough (sometimes at the same time.)

Sometimes I catch myself doing it. But in November, I dove straight in, like a circus performer. I had e-mailed part of my manuscript to my friend Karen in Sweden, and she said she’d send it back in the mail. I was certain this was because she hated it, and had made several million notes and comments along the margins, in red pen.

But sitting there, as we spoke along with the hymns, I thought about my own funeral. How in all likelihood, no one will stand up and say, “Natalie took eight extra weeks to finish her manuscript.” Or, “Natalie’s jeans all had holes in them,” or, “Karen was not a fan of Natalie’s work.” Instead, at least I hope, they’ll say I was kind. That I extended my home to bratty kids with family issues. That I knew how to have a good time, and gave good advice.

Arriving home that night, there was a package in the mail from Sweden. I opened it to find my favourite chocolates, and a handwritten note from Karen. It read,

“There are 335 left until next November. Hope you’re feeling better. I really, really loved what you sent me. I thought you might want some chocolate to celebrate.”

If I have grandchildren, one day they’ll find that note. Maybe they’ll reflect on some of my own brand of wisdom, like the importance of cheerfully-coloured socks, and cocktail hour. Hopefully they’ll think good things about me, and laugh about my teapot collection.

The chocolate, though, will be long gone.