I know a few people were interested in reading this, so I posted it here: this is the tribute I gave to Aunt Gertie at her memorial service.
So many of you gathered here today knew my Aunt Gertie, Gertrude Charlotte Ellis, only as an elderly woman. I want to take these few moments to give you a brief sketch of her life, the life that we celebrate here today.
Aunt Gertie had just celebrated her hundredth birthday a few weeks before her death. She was born on October 14, 1914. To put in perspective what it means to live a live that spans a century, she was born ten days after the Florizel sailed out of St. John’s harbour carrying the First Five Hundred, the volunteers known as the Blue Puttees who left Newfoundland to fight in the First World War. Her life spanned that war and the next, the Great Depression in between the two, and a hundred years of social and technological changes so great that the world in which she fell asleep last Thursday was radically different from the one she had been born into.
Gertrude Ellis was one of eight surviving children of Joseph Ellis of Hant’s Harbour and Mary Jane Porter of Elliston. Her parents married in St. John’s and raised their family there, and Aunt Gertie never ventured far from the St. John’s streets where she grew up, except for occasional trips to visit family and friends in Bonavista, and a single trip to Toronto in the 1950s. While all her siblings and, eventually, her nieces and nephews lived and travelled all over North America and sometimes beyond, Gertie seemed content to be the one who remained at home.
But she was not contented about every aspect of that life at home. She always told me when I was growing up that one of her greatest regrets was that she had not been able to continue in school beyond Grade Eight. Of course, Grade Eight was considered a good level of education to have attained in the 1920s, but Gertie was a good student — especially in Math, she used to tell me — and would have liked to learn more. She was an avid reader throughout her life and always followed the news and kept up a keen interest in current affairs. When I was a teenager and the magic of cable TV came to St. John’s, there was a period of several years when I used to come to her house after school to find the TV regularly tuned to the Parliamentary channel so that she could enjoy a few minutes of Question Period while she went about her daily chores.
Those daily chores formed the backbone of Gertie’s life from the time she left school at thirteen to become her parents’ housekeeper, until she was no longer able to keep up her own home in her nineties. In addition to caring for the family home, Gertie received an unexpected responsibility when she was just twenty years old. Her sister Flo’s infant daughter Joan, and her brother Sam’s four-year-old son Joe, were sent home from New York to be raised at home. While they were officially in the care of their grandparents, as was not uncommon in those days if parents were not in a position to look after their children, in practice it was the children’s Aunt Gertie who took over the responsibility of raising two young children. She took on the role of mother to my mother, her niece Joan, and her nephew Joe, raising both children till they were grown up. As a result, my mother, who never got to know her own mother well at all, was always very close to Aunt Gertie and in later years their roles were reversed as Aunt Gertie grew older and more frail and my mother took on the role of helping and caring for her.
When my parents were first married they lived in Aunt Gertie’s house until I was seven years old, and even after we moved out, I went to her house every day after school until my parents got off work. She was my constant caregiver and companion, my inspiration and the person who taught me so many things — some successfully, like baking, and some unsuccessfully, like knitting. Most importantly, I think, she taught me that even a woman of her generation whose life choices and experiences had been very limited by circumstances outside her control could still have a lively interest in and engagement with the world around her. She taught me that a life spent mostly in serving and caring for others could be a well-spent life and that there was little time to waste on regret over missed opportunities. She enjoyed the present moment and taught me to do the same.
Aunt Gertie was warm, gracious, generous and hospitable, as well as being opinionated and very funny. She always spoke her mind, regardless of who was around to hear it, and she had an opinion on everyone and everything. It was not unknown for her to greet a visitor she hadn’t seen in several years by saying something like, “Oh, I never would have known you, you’ve got so fat!” Her door was always open to family, friends or neighbours. There are dozens of people, some of them my mother’s friends from her generation and many of my friends from the next generation, who called her “Aunt Gertie” and knew that a warm welcome and a tasty snack would await them at her kitchen table. All those people who came through the doors of our home remember Aunt Gertie for her sense of humour, her hard work, her love for animals, and her readiness to make everyone welcome at her table. To me Aunt Gertie’s kitchen was not just the heart of the home but also the heart of the world, the place where, more than any other, I learned that the world was a good place to be, and I had been lucky to be born into her family.
I don’t know when exactly Aunt Gertie’s family joined the Seventh-day Adventist church, but I know that it must have been sometime in the 1920s, during Gertie’s childhood, because she often told me that she began her education at Centenary Hall, which was a Methodist school, and finished it at the Seventh-day Adventist school. She was the only one of her siblings who remained a Seventh-day Adventist throughout her adult life, even though, for reasons I never understood, she stopped attending the Sabbath morning church service sometime when I was a small child. It certainly had nothing to do with either personality or doctrinal differences with anyone in church; I think it might have had something to do with her dislike of dress-up, formal events. All during my growing-up years, while Aunt Gertie went out to do her shopping and other messages, I never knew her to attend a wedding, a funeral or any kind of formal occasion. She particularly disliked funerals and anything that reminded her of funerals, including white lilies, white carnations, and the hymn “Abide With Me” — which we will not be singing today!
Although she hadn’t been to church for many years, Aunt Gertie remained a committed church member, listening religiously to the church service on VOAR, paying a faithful tithe from her small income when she began getting the old-age pension cheque, and strictly ordering any workman doing work around her property that no work would be done during the Sabbath hours. Among the many things that helped form the foundation of my faith was the songs Aunt Gertie used to sing to me as childhood lullabies — mostly old hymns, though not “Abide With Me” or anything she considered too much like a funeral hymn! She loved gospel songs, a favourite being “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” the song that, when I volunteered at radio station VOAR, she used to always ask me to play for her while I was on-air. When I was little she liked to sing “Someone Will Enter the Pearly Gates,” “Give Me the Bible,” and, “When He Cometh, When He Cometh, to make up His jewels, all the pure ones, all the bright ones, his loved and his own.”
Aunt Gertie’s life was not without its hardships and challenges. When I was too young to fully understand what was happening, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was far more often a death sentence forty-five years ago than it is today. At the time my parents and I were still living in her house, and I’m sure there were times when she wondered whether she would live to see me grow up. Not only did she do that, but she lived long enough to see my children, Chris and Emma, grow up in the house next door, running in and out of her house in search of the forbidden junk food she loved to give them. She survived cancer a second time at age 90, and still had more life and energy left in her. Aunt Gertie valued her independence greatly and it meant so much to her to be able to go on living in her own home, which she was able to manage until she was almost 97. I remember thinking that having to go to a nursing home, something she had always dreaded, would absolutely crush her spirit. Instead, I saw her adapt to her limited mobility and new circumstances with grace and good humour, her cheerful spirit quickly making her a favourite with the nurses who cared for her and the friends and family who visited her.
Aunt Gertie suffered a stroke on Sabbath afternoon, the first of November, and died just a few days later. The last time she was able to carry on a conversation, with some difficulty, was on Monday afternoon, when I sat by her bedside and she told me over and over that she was feeling much better. “I’m feeling fine, you go on now,” she said several times, showing over and over that same spirit she always had — not wanting to be a bother or cause anyone any trouble. At one point on Monday she said to me, “I’m just tired. If I get some rest, I know I’ll feel better in the morning.” Now she is at rest, and I am confident that she will, indeed, be better in the morning. She taught me to look forward to that day when Jesus would come to make up his jewels, and now we who loved Gertie look forward to that as the day when we will see her again. I know that, like the stars of the morning, she will shine as a bright gem in His crown.