It’s the time of year we think of life stopping – leaves have severed their umbilical cords and parachuted slowly down to the ground. Mother Nature has pushed her Hold button so bears and other dreamers can find a comfortable place for their long winter’s nap.
Many cultures around the world – Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee included -- celebrate a Feast of the Dead at this time of year, and of course there is the Christian tradition of All Saints and All Souls days.
Not to forget Remembrance Day, when we stand in silence for a mere two minutes to honour the many brave warriors who sacrificed their lives to make ours easier.
These events celebrate the lives of people whose physical beings have completed their journeys.
The first funeral I remember attending was that of my grandmother, Nellie Franklin Marsden. I was one of 72 grandchildren who descended from her and my Grandpa Moses, who served as elected Chief of the Mississaugas of Alderville.
I sat about halfway up a staircase in Anderson’s funeral home in the little village of Lakefield, keeping my distance from the strange drama that was playing out below me. None of it made any sense to me at the time. All I knew for sure was that Grandma would no longer be around to let me lick chocolate icing off her spoons.
What I now understand is that everyone’s life should count for something, and it is the duty of those they leave behind to contribute to their legacy.
In recent weeks my life has been touched by five deaths.
Albert Lalonde died in a tree-cutting accident, leaving behind wife Jeanette, four daughters, and four grandchildren. I never met anyone who was any prouder of his Native heritage than Albert, who, within seconds of meeting a stranger, would reach into a pocket and produce photos of his grandparents – Archie “Grey Owl” Belaney and his first wife Angele Egwana. Our cross-cultural training workshops will never be the same without Albert’s moose-meat stew and fried pickerel.
Violet Lauer’s death shocked members of North Bay’s Jewish community, occurring at a time when she was acting as primary care-giver to husband Ernest who had just been hospitalized. At community functions Violet was a model of soft-spoken dignity, enjoying the admiration of her family and friends. Ernest’s heartfelt remarks at the synagogue service demonstrated how strong the bond can be between husband and wife.
Derek Restoule was, in the words of a high school buddy, “always smiling, always in a good mood, and loved football and hockey.” His death following a bicycle accident was surely the hardest to bear. He was blessed with having a mother prepared to protect her children from anyone who threatened to do them harm. She agreed to donate his heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and eyes so that other children might lead longer lives than her son, who would have been 15 on Christmas Day.
Larry Beaucage was a talented soapstone artist whose bear carvings can be seen in Native craft stores across Northern Ontario. Mukwa inspired Larry, but couldn’t heal him in this life from the pain of his addiction. He was at his happiest with an electric guitar or fishing pole in his hands, and his ashes were spread on the Little Sturgeon River where he could finally be at peace. The night before, Larry’s spirit name was revealed to a Nipissing elder – Waabzhkii – White Bear Man.
Jim Smylie was gruff on the outside, but a real softie beneath his fluffy orange coat. He visited our home with increasing frequency as his elderly “parents” could no longer give him the attention that cats require. While he was undoubtedly top dog among neighbourhood cats, he brought many protégées to our door to share in his meals. He spent the last days of his estimated 19-year life in pampered retirement, curled up on his bed near a heat register in a loving country home.
I will miss these kind and gentle souls. May their spirits be in a better place, and shine in the night sky with all the other stars.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.