Lives Lived: Madge, Passed Away At 111 Years, 188 Days
There was a day I can remember in the backyard of my childhood home, with my grandmother. She’s sitting on a lounge chair with her feet up. Her bunion-curled toes are sticking out of her tan leather open-toed sandals, second toe slightly crossed over her big toe. It’s warm outside, but not hot. She’s sipping a cool drink, iced tea maybe. It was the spring of 1982.
Grandma, Madge, is crying, a slow awkward cry. The kind that tears slip down your cheeks at quiet intervals. She’s not weeping, not making heaving sounds. Just quietly and shaking her head, muttering sentence fragments, and slowly crying. I’m nine-years-old on this day, which makes me too young to be delicate about asking her why she’s crying, and too old to crawl onto her lap and just give her a hug.
“Grandma, what happened?”
She looked sort of incredulous, and quite baffled. “I can’t live through another war,” she said, “I just can’t do it. I don’t have it in me.”
My grandmother died one year ago today, February 22, 2020. It was a day we’d seen coming in the short term, and a day that had been anticipated, in a general sense, for about a decade. One doesn’t expect longevity for elder folk who live past 100, but my grandmother defied the odds. Despite all that, it’s still a passing, and I’ve learned over this last year that the emotions involved with the death of someone who lived to 111 years are just different. She was phenomenal in years, likely one of about 10 people in this country sill alive at her age, and yet totally, unobtrusively, normal, in most other aspects.
She was not on any medication. She had no artificial joints or limbs. She had never had any sort of major surgery, and she beat the odds on getting through that many years in life without any sort of major accident. Think about that. In almost every way she was an anomaly: She just really didn’t have anything wrong with her, and not much had gone wrong to her by accident, which is just pure chance. Very late in her years, after she had moved to the long term care home, Madge took this concern to my mother: Are you sure there’s nothing I should be taking pills for? You see, she didn’t have a tray of pills like all the other people she lived around. My mother’s response was to skip the doctor, go and buy her some Asprin and cranberry pills, and instruct the nursing station to ask them to please distribute these to Madge at dinner. Problem solved.
Friends would often ask, incredulous: “How is your grandmother?” And when that answer was, year on year: Fine, just bored. Great, nothing wrong with her — it became a bit of a thing. Her mind was also totally sharp as a tack. In 2016 I remember asking her what she thought about the election, and she said: “You know, I really was hoping to see a woman become President in my lifetime.” This coming from a woman who was ten-years-old when (some) women first won the right to vote in England, the country she was born in, and Canada, the country she immigrated to.
Her hearing was only about 40% functioning on a good day, but that mostly the result of a bad infection in one ear as a young girl, so nothing new. Yes, her eye sight declining — foregoing the cataract surgery at 99-years-of-age was a regretful and negligent miss on the part of that doctor; she could have continued to read a couple books a week and interpret complicated knitting patterns for many more years. At 104, she still did her own cleaning and most of her cooking. By 106, she was gearing up to move to a longterm care home, the most elderly resident, but among the least needy.
Here’s the day in 2016 when I picked her up with a bunch of her great grand kids to go celebrate her 108th birthday at a restaurant. She thought that was funny sitting with all the kids. She made wise cracks and teased the kids. “Well I’m just no good anymore, not like you” she would tease. “Oh Gigi, you’re just old, don’t worry!” Gigi, short for Great Grandma, is how she’s been known to us for the last 20 some years.
There was a marked slow down for her life between 108 and 110, and the last time she left her home was to celebrate her 110th birthday, this time with cousins and family from all over, complete with the a sabred bottle of champagne in her honour.
The day Madge died is also happened to be my husband’s birthday, so we were planning a nice dinner out. The actual moment I got the call that she had passed I was at a volleyball tournament for my middle daughter, in some sports arena where hundreds had gathered for an indoor tournament. And on the phone that day that I found out that my brother-in-law had returned from a business trip to Europe, having flown home from Madrid. His employer instructed him, ‘out of an abundance of caution,’ to self-isolate at home for two weeks at their apartment in Brooklyn — which is basically where they’ve been since.
It was a day, with the full benefit of hindsight, that the world was teetering on the edge of the old world, and the new world. And it was this day that my grandmother, who had a knack for timing and self-preservation, decided to leave. Within a few weeks her long term care home home would been locked down tight, and had she held on, she would have died alone, like so many of our elder folks have in this last year. The sadness of missing that moment is almost unbearable. The thought of the person having to take those last breaths on their own, without the reassurances of those around them, telling them it’s ok to go, is difficult beyond words. And yet, hundreds of thousands of people, the world over, most nowhere near as old as Madge, have endured this fate this year. This has effectively removed an entire cultural moment around death — for tens of millions. That’s a whole new sort of grief that our society will be sorting through for years to come. The disgusting number of lives that have been lost, to bad management and profit-over-people, in long term care homes is an issue many governments must address, and quickly.
We were lucky. Lucky to have death, to be able to hold death. That week leading up to her passing, different family members drove in for a visit; my cousin spent an afternoon with her, and although they hadn’t each other in years, and she reported that my grandmother addressed her by name. My mother was there every day, my aunt came by, the daughter of Bunny, other family friends who have known her for decades, they were all able to come and take a moment to fare ye well.
The last afternoon that I spent with her, I sat beside her on her bed, being careful not to heed the signs next to her bed that read “Fragile Skin Be Careful.” But she reached out and gripped onto my hand, held on tight, and used that force to haul herself up and open her eyes, to look at me. She said something that wasn’t very audible, and smiled. I smiled back. I gave her a hug, and a kiss on the forehead. And told her it was ok to go and be with Syd again, her husband.
Who would have thought that those simple actions, of being with a dying relative, to give them a hug and a kiss, for doors to be open in long term care homes where your community could support you, and the residents who did not leave the building, were about to be over, for the foreseeable future?
Planning a funeral for someone as elderly as my grandmother is a different sort of affair. If you make it to 111 years, you can be sure that all of your friends did not. It isn’t the sort of funeral that you need to have to make sense of an event. One of those funerals that allows you to let your grief progress to a new understanding. It also isn’t the sort of thing that your community is anticipating…by that age, the only people in your immediate circle are your living family members, and the friends and community built around them, meaning, they are all quite secondary to the deceased. My grandmother had outlived multiple waves of her own friends, her own son, and had been a widow for more than 40 years (you can see her threadbare wedding ring on her finger in the photo above, which she wore until the day she died).
Our family isn’t very big, but we are quite spread out, which means that mobilizing and organizing to pull kids out of school to make an expensive flight is sort of better done at an opportune time — a school break or a long weekend — neither of which were on the event horizon for late-February.
So we did what many families do in this circumstance, and decided to postpone the Memorial service, this Celebration Of So Much Life, until a time that was easier to get together. A time when we could double up and make a family visit out of it.
Which meant that it never happened. At least not in the way we had originally thought.
My grandmother lived in Canada, along with her daughter, and myself. Both my brother and sister live in the US. On the other side of that giant undefended, and very closed border.
For a time, we kept pushing it off into the distance. Certainly April 2020 was out of the picture — this was our pre-pandemic plan, to do the funeral during the American school spring break which usually backs onto the Easter long weekend. Then we optimistically thought maybe we could shoot for the summer, then maybe the fall. But by the time summer came it was clear that no amount of waiting was going to loosen the border restrictions. So we organized for a very small gathering, outdoors only, everyone in masks, at the end of August, and patched in the siblings and cousins, grandchildren and great grandchildren, by FaceTime. It was a poor equivalent to the real thing, and immensely sad not be together on this day. But we tried. Eight of us gathered to give her the proper burial she would have wanted; with a priest, surrounded by family, and buried her next to her husband who had been patiently waiting for his bride more than 40 years.
At nine-years-of-age, I can’t say I was abreast of world events. This was 1982, and the technology audit of my house was as follows: a single television in the living room and a bunch of hardwired rotary phones attached the walls. Since this was the spring, and before my parents bought a colour tv in 1985, it meant that the television would have been black-and-white. Every winter my grandparents would drop off their prized possession, their colour television, for us to enjoy while they wintered in Florida, at their mobile home. They were living the dream of the Canadian retirees: spending their summers in Canada and then packing the car to drive to Florida, migrating like actual snowbirds, until April, when they would return with tanned skin, and large sacks of oranges.
Somehow I realized that I shouldn’t ask the obvious question: What war? I had no idea what she could be referring to. At that time, if you had asked me what sort of war we could on the brink of, I’m sure I would have said nuclear war. That’s what us kids talked about. At school we built time capsules to be encased in a wall for the future, and we talked about fallout shelters, rather we learned about them in school, but I don’t recall ever actually going to one — it might be that suburban Toronto in the 1980s wasn’t thought to be a ground zero. But despite all this, my sister would advise me to consider what I had really wanted for Christmas that year, since it might be the last one, given that it was likely the world could end in a nuclear war, maybe next year, she would say. We had seen that movie on tv, The Day After, which ended with a giant mushroom cloud explosion on the horizon, and a sort of red afterglow in the sky. The message that got through to me as a child was this: Despite the misleading title, it didn’t matter what happened the day after that cloud, because you were already dead.
Could Grandma mean that kind of war? I took a quick stock of that day: I looked up at the sky, smelled the air, looked to see if any neighbours were screaming and running down the road….looked at the other adult faces for signs of panic and fear. I didn’t know really what the clues were that we were on the brink of a nuclear war, but I figured I would just know. However there was no clue of what she was so upset about, nor what “war” she was referring to. It looked, smelled, and generally seemed like a fairly regular spring afternoon.
The war she was afraid of, in case it hasn’t already popped into your mind, was the Falkland Islands War. It was short (74 days), relatively bloody (649 Argentinians soldiers, and 255 British soldiers died), and in fact rather unofficial, given that neither country actually declared war on the other. Rather, these two countries created a war zone in two extremely remote locations: South Georgia, basically about halfway to Antarctica, and the Falkland Islands, off the Southwest Coast of Argentina. Again, closer to Antarctica, and certainly closer to Argentina, than to Britain. But both were considered British Crown Colonies, and strategically important given their location. For Madge, I imagine it wasn’t about an undying loyalty to the Crown, or mixed feeling about Argentinian statehood. It was just that she’d already seen what war had done to her country, to her family, and to her personally.
Madge Irene (nee Poulton) Snelling was born on August 18, 1908, in a Glouchestershire town, in the Southwest of England, called Wotten-under-Edge. She was the second child of four. On May 24, 1916, while serving in WW1, Sergeant Albert William Poulton was killed, at Rimes.
My great grandmother’s sister had already migrated to Canada, and she wrote to her: Come to Canada. We can take care of you — on our homesteading farm in the Prairies of Saskatchewan. All they had to do was go to Liverpool, England and board the Minnedosa; take a sickly crossing where they would encounter icebergs; land in the Port of Quebec City; and then take a train for five days across the country. And thus, moreorless, my great grandmother set off to Canada, with her four children, aged seven-to-twenty.
My grandmother lived for so long that there were waves and categories of her memories. Although sharp as a tack until the very end, she would remember different eras at different times, in no regular or seasonable way. There was just a lot of years to keep track of. I was always fascinated with her story, with her history.
At some point in my twenties, I seem to have successfully convinced her to write down her memories, but I only discovered this twenty years later. At the last visit that I recall her being fully lucid, where I had brought three of her great granddaughters to visit, I was looking for ways to keep them engaged in a visit, for more than the usual 10 minutes. On her bookshelf in her room, I noticed an old photo book, and a stenographer’s note book. I took it off the shelf and started to read it with the girls.
Inside the photo book, a passport-sized photo slipped out and fell onto the bed. I picked it up and looked at it, realizing it was by grandfather.
“Watch this,” I said to the girls. “Grandma, I found this photo, who’s this?” I asked her. She took in into her hands, had to adjust her eyes to see it properly, and then she said, so tenderly it make my heart skip: “Ah. Oh, oh. That’s him…(stroking photo with index finger) That’s my, my, what’s his name again? That’s my husband.”
The story of her landing in Canada is a story that has lived in my family for years. Starting my teen years, we had a ski chalet in Quebec that we used to drive to, a full 10-hour drive away, which meant that we often passed through Quebec City. Each time we passed through by Quebec, I would try to imagine what she would have seen, as a 13-year-old, standing on the deck of that ship, as it pulled into port, in her new country. From the archives, I found this photo, which I have surmised, is what she would have seen from her vantage point on the deck of the ship that day. The limestone walls of the walled city that lead straight up, past the Plains of Abraham, to the copper clad roof of the Chateau Frontenac.
She didn’t speak much about her early days. In her steno book, she writes:
I don’t remember very much but I know we went to Albert Public School and then I went to Bedford Road Collegiate Institute, taking a commercial course.
Those days, I imagine, weren’t easy. The pension offered to a war widow was meagre, and, as she wrote, “we had a hard time.” Her mother eventually remarried after she moved to Canada, but then she died just eight years later. While at the hospital for a broken arm, waiting with her at the elevator, next to Madge, she dropped dead. A blood clot, the doctor reported.
Madge got a job at an insurance company, and then in her own words, “got a good job,” at the University of Saskatchewan, until she got married. Madge was born left-handed, which in those days meant that she had to hide this fact, and learn to be write with the wrong hand. But she gamed the system. She could write perfectly with both hands, either or, and simultaneously, in mirror image. This made her a very efficient note-taker, back in the days before typewriters, when she began her office career.
Use it or lose it
When Madge turned 100, my mother organized a letter from the Queen, but politely declined a letter from our Prime Minister at the time (Steven Harper, a Conservative not in touch with her values). She was still living in a co-op apartment that was a walk up of one flight of stairs. When I would walk her home, after a dinner or an outing, she would pause at the bottom of these stairs and turn back to me with her signature wry whit: “You know what they say, use it or lose it,” and then trundle on up the stairs with her keys jingling on the lanyard around her neck. “I’m a big girl now, you don’t need to walk me home, you know.”
She lived in this one bedroom apartment until she turned 102, still taking the public bus to the grocery store, walking to church and finding ways to get to Casino Rama, to do one of her guilty pleasures, play “the one-armed bandit,” as she called them. Oh, and take advantage of the free buffet for seniors.
When we started to worry this flight of stairs might get to be too much, my mother found her a bachelor apartment, inside a retirement residence. This was a big step for her — for the first time in her golden years she could buy meal tickets for dinner, and she could keep her albino cat, Minu, with one blue eye and one green eye. This was a happy time for her. An old friend of mine also had her grandmother living in the same residence, so we got them together to introduce them, and they became fast friends. Bunny and Madge. I’m not making that up. They turned into dorm buddies when Madge was 103.
Bunny and Madge would spend time together drinking scotch and watching Saturday Night hockey games on television — it’s an image that endures for me, even though I never actually witnessed this weekly event. They would crack jokes and enjoy time together — she would remind me: “You know, at my age, there aren’t so many people who are with-it.” Bunny passed at the age of 99, like most of her friends towards the end, they were all a full decade younger. When I took her to the Memorial Service, she looked at me and said “That was my last best friend.”
Life got more quiet after Bunny. She kept to herself, and complained that her dinner companions at the residence were either rude, or just oblivious. Eventually, my mom found her a spot at an actual nursing home, where she arrived at the age of 106. Chester Village embraced her, and were good to her. We would go visit on Saturday afternoons to play Bingo with her and the other residents. She always won.
Madge was a lot of fun, one hell of a knitter, would fart little farts for the first of her ten steps after sitting down, had opinions about all the political events of the day, and could tell you the sports scores of her favourite teams, The Blue Jays and The Maple Leafs. She had a wry sense of whit and would jokingly say that she hadn’t got there alone, that Napolean had also helped her: “A little nip at night makes you sleep so well.”
Madge landed there in a new era, and an adjustment for her to have people to help her do things, such as like bathe and get dressed. On one visit she turned to me with a raised eyebrow after a nurse left the room. “Sure is different now….did you know there are male nurses? It’s been a long time (she let that trail off) … Ever different.” ”
Now that we’ve had the year that we have, there’s still one question that I realized I never asked her: What was the Spanish Flu pandemic like to live through? She would have been ten-years-old, living in England, going to school. But it just never came up. We talked often about how many advances the world has made, the many changes she’d witnessed in her lifetime. But never that pandemic. I’m just glad that I didn’t have to explain this one to her before she left. Good one Gram, Gigi, you made it out just in time.