When I was a child growing up in Lawn, my aunt, Ellen Mary, was a frequent visitor to our home. As you can imagine, with five little girls running around, the house was often in an uproar! There was no shortage of bickering, fighting and sometimes out right physical brawls. Mom would try to keep the peace with idle threats like, “You kids better quiet down or I will tell your father when he gets home from work!” Yeah Mom, like that was going to scare us. Dad is even gentler than mom, and I don’t remember him ever even raising his voice to us girls. So needless to say, mom’s words would go unheeded. But then Ellen Mary would speak up, “Listen to your mudder or I will haul down your pants and smack your arse!” Suddenly, the house would go quiet. It is not that we really believed that she would hit us. Ellen Mary was a very kind hearted woman. However, she spoke those words with such conviction, that we obeyed her, not out of fear, but out of respect for her authority. That is the kind of woman she was.
Ellen Mary was a person who will be remembered in our home community of Lawn, for her volunteer efforts. While she was not a woman of great wealth, she gave freely of her time. In the mid-eighties, she made history by becoming the first female fire fighter in our province! At the time, as a teenaged girl, I thought it was silly. Why would a woman want to join the volunteer fire brigade? But as an educated woman, I now respect Ellen Mary as a “trail blazer”, leading the way for other women to enter this noble profession. Today, as an educator, I help to teach young people the importance of equal rights and acceptance. Nobody had to teach Ellen Mary that. She just knew that her contribution would be as good as that of any man. Her forward thinking was way ahead of her time!
I recall another way in which Ellen Mary clearly demonstrated a way of thinking that was ahead of her time. When I was attending university in the eighties, she would sometimes stay at my apartment in St. John’s when she was in town for medical appointments. She had no problem making herself at home; putting on the kettle, taking out her tub of tobacco and rolling up her dearly loved home-made cigarettes at the table. One summer, I rented a place from a university professor, and he would often drop by for a visit, sometimes accompanied by another professor. I remember once feeling embarrassed, as Ellen Mary would go on and on with stories about our home town. I thought, “Why is she boring these educated men with stories about the bay?” It surprised me to learn that they were not bored at all, but rather entertained and fascinated by her stories (especially the Folklore profs!). That became clear to me when after one of my classes, my prof called me aside to ask when my Aunt Ellen Mary would be visiting again, and be sure to invite him over so he could talk to her again. Even years after I graduated, any time I saw my former prof, he would ask about Ellen Mary. She certainly knew how to leave an impression.
While we now recognize outport Newfoundland as having a rich culture, back then being “from the bay”, was not something you bragged about. But Ellen Mary did. While she was not a highly educated person herself, she could easily hold her own in a conversation with any professor or doctor. Her confidence was unshakeable. As a shy young woman, who felt intimidated in the presence of people who were more educated than me, Ellen Mary taught me a very valuable lesson. Sure, there will always be people out there who are smarter than me….richer than me….and better looking than me. But there is nobody out there who is BETTER than me. Nobody had to teach Ellen Mary that. She just knew it.
One of the fondest memories I have of Ellen Mary is seeing her arrive on her 3-wheeler ATV, with a bandana tied under her chin, and a smoke dangling from her lips, to deliver the AVON. “AVON calling,” my sisters and I would joke when we saw her trike pull up in the yard. Of course, driving an ATV on the roads is illegal, but that did not stop Ellen Mary. In fact, she once got pulled over by an RCMP officer who was about to ticket her for her blatant offence of the law. But somehow, she managed to talk herself out of the ticket. I can almost hear her, “Now listen here, me child, I am a member of the fire department, and this is my only means of transportation. If I can’t ride my trike, then I have no way of responding to a call for help.” From what I heard, not only did the officer rip up the ticket, but he also apologized to her.
As these stories clearly demonstrate, Ellen Mary was a woman of great confidence. She will also be remembered as a woman of great courage. Right from the day that she drew her first breath, fate would deal her a heavy blow. Her mother died from giving birth to her. Later in life, she lost a child of her own, a beautiful, infant girl, named Yolanda. She also had a son, Michael, with medical issues, who spent much of his childhood at the Janeway Children’s hospital, with his mother always by his side. These are just a few of the challenges that Ellen Mary faced in life, but she faced them all with courage. Never one for self-pity or bitterness, when life dealt her a blow, she took it in stride and carried on.
It saddened me to hear of Ellen Mary’s sudden passing on May 20th, at the age of 63. However, remembering her life brings a smile to my face. Ellen Mary is a beautiful example of a life well lived. The true measure of a person is not the wealth that they accumulate over a lifetime, but the love that they give and receive. Ellen Mary was certainly well loved, by her husband, Mike, her daughter, Denise (Conrad) who gave her two adoring grandsons, Patrick and John, and her youngest son, Michael, who through his volunteer efforts, is following in his mother’s footsteps. She was also well loved by a large extended family, friends, and community members. As a final tribute to Ellen Mary, I would like to leave you with this poem:
What is Success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.
By: Ralph Waldo Emerson