‘83 years of a life so well and lovingly lived’

Joe Banks remembers his beloved, spirited mother and the joy she derived from “little people.”

dad-looks-back-w2015-16Children and laughter: two elements of a life lived that my mother, Jacqueline Leclerc Banks, so much embraced that rare are the photos taken over her 83 years in which children do not appear, or she or someone else in the photo isn’t laughing.

The one accompanying this column, of all of them, best captures who she was, and her quite special relationship with “little people,” as she commonly called children.

It was shot by my niece when Mom visited with her family in Texas in May 2014. She was 82, and the great-grandson beside her was 15 months. But the chasm of age and experience between them seem stripped away in that millisecond. I hope you see that too.

When she died this past August, mom had experienced about as happy a life as any woman who had married and given birth to six boys – two of whom had predeceased her. Although sound in mind, her body was failing her. She could no longer walk without the use of a cane, then a walker, and finally a motorized wheelchair.

Pain in her hips and legs was becoming a near-daily experience, though the retirement residence she called home was as lush and comfortable as she could have dreamed in her earlier life.

The recent talks my brothers and I had been having with her about getting her name on a waiting list for a nursing home made her increasingly quiet and somber, even as she understood why we had to start the process. The mother was becoming the child, and her sons, the parents.

Still, her death was a shock. It was not what we’d expected for someone whose default position was strength from joy, which she found easily in the faces and voices of young children. She’d regularly say the happiest years of her life were when she was having babies in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

And when we started having them, she inhaled our experiences vicariously.

But funerals are typically, and by their nature, sad events. And it was for that reason that when it came to arrange hers just days before the 2015 Labour Day weekend, we were determined to follow her wishes. She believed in celebrating, not grieving; her own mother’s funeral had the atmosphere of a party, with attendees bringing donations to the area food bank and Salvation Army.

And it was a nod to childishness, for she hadn’t had one of her own. Her porcelain doll collection and kitschy toys, assembled and collected very late in life, was an attempt to make up for those lost years.

You see, her father died in 1942 when she was nine. And as the eldest of the family of four children during the worst of the war years in Montreal, she was expected to help raise her siblings and be a support to her unemployed and destitute mother, my grandmother.

Those were mean, even brutal days in Canada, when the city government would move such families from squalid apartment to squalid apartment, the infamous “relief” housing known for rats and cockroaches.

And so in her most reflective moments, she’d tell us that she was drawn to childish things so late in life because she never experienced them in childhood. Children were always at the centre of her universe, and all other elements spun off from there.

That, and laughter. Get mom to laugh and she’d focus on her joy of the moment, not what was behind her, or ahead.

Fortunately, my younger brother was mom’s own personal comedian. He’d make her laugh just by gesturing, making a funny sound or telling us about some amusing story in his twisted way.
That laughter was mom’s tonic.

She had suffered from depression for many years. It was a battle she fought and treated for most of her life. But as you’ve gathered, she never wanted to let it consume her. In her diaries she referred to climbing out of her “pity pot,” even though self-pity was never part of her character.
Instead, she was worn down by time, as people who are able to live into old age feel. She wasn’t looking forward to experiencing a further breakdown of her body and her dignity, and the prospect of residence in a nursing home.

She feared living without a mind and a memory if she feared anything at all, in spite of all the trials she experienced throughout her 83 years of a life so well and lovingly lived.
Thanks to children and laughter.