Dear Readers, I remember that when I was five years old, I was watching the state funeral of Winston Churchill on our tiny black-and-white television set, entranced by all the pomp and ceremony. My beloved Great Grandmother had recently died, and I didn’t know quite what to make of it. She had had polio, and so had callipers on her leg, and used crutches for her whole life, but she was a formidable woman. Once, she picked up a youth who had been bullying my gran, upended him into a dustbin and sat on it until he begged for mercy.
“Will great-gran’s funeral be on the telly too?” I asked. I wasn’t sure why my Dad guffawed.
It took me a while to realise that not all deaths are equal. Some get international television coverage, and some take place in the shady corner of an urban graveyard, and some take place in a crematorium with a couple of mourners, as was the case with some of the homeless people that I worked with.
I am grieving this week, but not particularly for Queen Elizabeth. I’m sure that she was another formidable woman, and she has done a great job and all. I feel as if it’s the end of an era for sure – after all, she’s been Queen since before I was born. But on Wednesday last week, my beloved Aunt Rosemary died of liver cancer, which claimed her life less than a fortnight after diagnosis.
Rosemary lived in Collingwood, which, as regular readers know, I visited many times, lastly in April this year. Although she was in her eighties she still walked faster than me, leaning into the future like the prow of a ship. She did yoga several times a week, and when she took her beloved wheaten schnoodle dog Charlie out for a walk he got a proper workout.
But what was so special about Rosemary was her interest in people. Whoever crossed her path was a potential friend, and people confided in her almost instantly. She was fascinated by people’s stories, their histories and the things that they’d done. She remembered all the details too. She was still going for hikes in the mountains around Collingwood in the spring of this year, and was regularly hosting lunches for various community groups.
Rosemary was an extraordinary cook. She could make something out of nothing, and then make it reappear in such a delicious and different guise that you wouldn’t know that it was yesterday’s leftovers. She was ahead of her time in not wasting anything, be it food or scraps of material that she often turned into wonderful quilts and wall hangings. And she was so generous – she shared her skills and her good fortune with everyone who crossed her path, be it the birds in the garden, people in need, or her hungry visitors. I always said that I ate better in Collingwood, with Rosemary’s home cooking, than anywhere else in Canada, including all those fancy restaurants in Toronto. Rosemary put her big, kind heart into everything that she did.
At my wedding back in 2001, my mother was admiring a brooch that Rosemary was wearing. In spite of my Mum’s protestations, Rosemary took it off and gave it to my mother on the spot. Forever after, when I’d been to Canada Mum would ask after ‘that lovely lady who gave me the brooch’. Rosemary perfected random acts of kindness before they were fashionable.
I love the photo below – it’s the exact moment that my Mum (on the left) was admiring the brooch (Rosemary on the right, with her lifelong companion Linda watching on)
And, like me, Rosemary loved the natural world. She worried about the plants in her garden, she fretted about her orchids getting whitefly, She noticed what people were planting, and she watched the birds on her feeders with a kindly eye. She was interested in everything, and it kept her much younger in spirit than her years. There was nothing cynical about Rosemary, nothing world-weary. To be truthful, I am still reeling, and I know that the other people who loved her feel the same.
We live in such strange times that it’s hard to get our bearings. For some people, I’m sure that the sorrow that they’re feeling about the Queen’s death has been sparked by the memories of other, more personal losses. The event feels like so many things: a lightning rod for supressed emotions, a chance to show respect, an unexpected day off. Nobody quite knows what they’re supposed to be feeling, and it doesn’t help that we’re being told how to behave and what our emotions should be twenty-four hours a day. Today I learned that people were being prevented from visiting the Covid Memorial Wall opposite the Houses of Parliament if they weren’t part of the queue for the lying-in state. As I said earlier, not all deaths are equal.
The loss of my Aunt Rosemary has left a bigger hole in my life than the loss of Queen Elizabeth ever will. Every death is a tear in the fabric of the universe, the end of a story. It’s true that Rosemary will live on in my memories, and in those of the people who loved her so dearly. But I will never eat her pancakes again, try to keep up with her on a dog walk, or sit in her living room watching the grackles taking more than their fair share of the bird food. My life is diminished by her passing, but maybe that’s the measure of how much of an impact she had on me, and all those around her. May she rest peacefully in the knowledge of how deeply she was loved.