As I continue my duties with the Just For Laughs festival, I am reminded that Monday night, July 16th, was the 5th anniversary of the death of my mother. It was during the festival in 2002 that she passed away, just one month shy of her 86th birthday.
I’ve always been someone who has a strong sense of duty and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I also believe strongly in the power of humour, so it was not uncharacteristic of me to have gone to work at a comedy festival on the night of my mother’s passing.
When it is fine to joke and what is fine to joke about are boundary decisions that each individual has to make for themselves. For me personally, there are few boundaries. I can laugh at just about anything and frankly, at just about any time.
Years before my mother died we had a jolly old time going in for a pre-arrange funeral for her. Most people find this to be a morbid topic, but I believe in the practicality of it and hey, why not have a laugh or two about it in the process? As for when I assume room temperature, my own funeral is already planned and paid for – it’s just a matter of chiselling in the right dates on the stone.
We already had the plot since my maternal grandmother was interred there back in 1983. My grandmother was a wonderful woman, who was afraid of thunder and lightening. Imagine the irony that we buried her on a mountain next to a television and radio transmission tower.
Anyway, Mother was instrumental in the planning of her own going away party and the advantages of doing things in advance is you know exactly what you’re getting, the cost will never escalate and most importantly, when the time comes and family members are dealing with grief, the nuts and bolts of planning have all been taken care of – no muss, no fuss. It puts the “fun” back in funeral!
Back in 2002 Mother was not too well (gee, I guess that’s an understatement, given the eventual outcome) but it was still a bit of a surprise when the end did come. My mother suffered from diabetes for the last 30 years or so of her life and her death was a result of complications due to the illness.
I still remember getting the call from the hospital that she had just passed away. It was very early in the morning and it’s always interesting that one seems to have a sixth sense about what awaits at the other end of a ringing phone. I got the news then made the one phone call I had to make for arrangements (when you have a pre-arrange funeral it’s one simple phone call to put everything in motion, from body retrieval and preparation to flower arrangements and death notices. It’s much more difficult to order Chinese food).
I then called family members to inform them and then prepared for my duties that night to go to Just For Laughs. Not wanting to be a downer at a comedy festival I told no one except Bruce Hills, the head of the festival, giving him instructions not to pass the information on. I also took my best friend, Mario Leblanc, to work with me, shadowing me just in case I had an emotional relapse of any kind (you know, like blubbering uncontrollably while trying to introduce a comic onstage – wouldn’t that be fun!)
Actually, I did tell one other person, comic Adam Ferrara. Each year the festival is a chance to renew friendships with those who regularly trek to our city for the event, sort of like going to comedy camp. You develop a certain rapport with people when they arrive and in the case of Adam, he would always try to crack me up whenever I had to make a backstage announcement or do anything else that my duties required. I was finally going to get payback at the expense of my mother.
Just seconds before Adam was to hit the stage I gently whispered in his ear, “my Mother just died a couple of hours ago, try and make me laugh now, yah bastard! Have a nice set!” Then I stood in the wings where he could see me from the corner of his eye and stared at him. To his credit he did make me laugh, as I knew he would. It was a very therapeutic evening. (By the way, the next night, comic Joey Elias came up to me to whisper condolences in my ear. He said, “I’m sorry, is it true that your mother died?” I replied, “Yes, she did seven minutes without getting a single laugh.” The initial stunned look on his face before he burst out laughing was priceless).
I made the trip Monday afternoon with one of my sisters to visit with Mom, up on the hill where she rests with her mother and my father, the man she was married to for over six decades. I make the pilgrimage on occasion, visiting on her birthday, the anniversary of her death and also whenever the need arises to talk to her about some issue in my life or to share news. It’s amazing how much wisdom can be imparted and how much more agreeable loved ones can be once they’ve passed on. Even now, she still never lets me down.
I guess at this point I should tell you a bit about my mother. Hilda Ilene Holder was a strong-willed woman who raised five children with love and lots of discipline. She was religious with a well developed sense of right and wrong and she was an ambidextrous disciplinarian. That means you never knew which hand was coming when a spanking was in your vicinity.
Unfortunately, I only got to know my mother later in life, since I was a late baby. She had already spent an entire lifetime raising four daughters by herself in Barbados while my father was here in Canada trying to scrape up enough money to support them, support himself and put a little away to get his family back together. That struggle took eleven years and during that time my parents didn’t see each other at all.
Many people of my parents’ generation endured similar sacrifice, but very few of their contemporaries stuck it out faithfully and remained a nuclear family with all the children sharing the same parents. Families drifted apart due to the distance and time, but that wasn’t the case with my Mother’s family. She just wasn’t going to let that happen – as I said, she was very strong willed.
It takes a special kind of person to endure that kind of hardship – as I mentioned, a person with a strong sense of right and wrong. That’s why I bring up the disciplinarian part of her. In raising four kids, all close in age together, she had seen it all and done it all, so by the time I came around, there was no way I was gettin’ away with nothin’ (and Mom would have cringed at the double negative in that last sentence).
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that she was always hitting me. No, that was far from the case. Sometimes all it took was a look. All of the kids and grandkids in the family knew the look, especially if you did something in public. We were all very well behaved children in public – there was no doubt about it.
I think back to one of the first times when I got the look. It was in church on one of the special occasions when the Sunday School classes would be part of the regular congregation, such as holidays.
I was sitting next to Mom, fidgeting as only a four-year-old can, because you know how exciting church can be for a four-year-old. We had just finished a hymn and sat down, which is when I chose to break the silence by asking Mom a question. As you know, children in church are incapable of whispering. I asked her who Andy was. She ignored me. I asked her again. I got the look. Words need not have been said. That was when I learned there was a time and place for everything and this wasn’t it.
Oh, she did explain who Andy was after the service. She made sure I knew exactly who Andy was. She sat me down with a hymn book in hand and I found out that Andy was actually two words. "And he walks with me, and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own." It was the hymn In The Garden, which has since become one of my favourites.
As religious as she was I know my mother went to a better place, but she will never be forgotten. She left more than just a DNA stamp on the family members she left behind. She imparted her sense of honour, sense of duty, strong faith and a moral compass that allows us to carry on for her and in the right direction. We should all be so lucky to have that kind of legacy to leave behind.
That’s the Stuph – the way I see it.