In this eulogy, which I gave for my mother, I indicate how blessed my brothers and I were to have had Mom as our moral compass. As a holiday gift to you, I want to share with you what she taught us.
On behalf of my four brothers, thank you for being here today and for the support you and many others have given to Mom on her long journey home.
Many have expressed their sympathies and condolences, which while we very much appreciate, our emotions are ones of joy and celebration in sharing with her the natural wonder of a full cycle of life, passing on to the next, with the same grit, grace, class and dignity she lived by.
Wilma’s natural passing is in such stark contrast to those who perished a week ago during the massacre in Texas, which was horribly tragic and unnatural, and our sympathies and condolences go to their families, friends and the community of Sutherland Springs.
Wilhelmina Herberdena Cornelias Visser Faas lived a remarkable life filled with a combination of jubilations and tragedies. The tragedies started a few days after her birth in 1919 with the passing of her mother, two aunts and an uncle, for whom she is named, from the Spanish Flu epidemic.
Then losing her first son, Jacob, due to malnutrition in the womb when he was ten months old in 1945 just after the liberation in The Netherlands, which was blockaded during the occupation, with most of its citizens surviving on what they could scrounge.
And then, 45 years ago, losing the love of her life, our Dad Casper, who died suddenly at age 57 from a massive heart attack.
Despite the tragedies, the jubilations were many and well deserved, culminating with a beautiful peaceful end. But not without a fight, defying what was humanly possible, surviving over ten days without any nourishment or fluids. Wilma loved life; and in much the same manner in which she lived, Wilma was determined to leave this earth, on her terms, surrounded by her family.
When Dad passed away, our grief was almost inconsolable. With Mom, the joy of having her pass in her 99th year over-compensates the grief we have.
Rather than go through a chronology of her incredibly interesting life, I will attempt to capture the essence of her being.
In short - Wilma was one real piece of work.
I say this not out of disrespect, because she was a character:
· a bit of a contrarian
· brutally direct
· calculating (some could successfully argue a bit manipulative)
· hilariously funny
· protective of others
· tough as nails
Those who know Wilma, and who have watched Downton Abbey, can relate when I suggest that Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is a dead ringer for Mom, in spirit, attitude and appearance.
Both Violet and Wilma were unique and complex characters; but more importantly, they were Women of Character. Elia Saab must have had Wilma in mind when he wrote:
“Elegance is a statement, an attitude. Elegant women are women of character with confidence.” Wilma had confidence in spades, confidence because she had a strong sense of self, and rigorously adhered to her interpretation of the aphorism that “Right makes might” - and was she mighty.
Wilma vigorously defended and promoted what she felt was right, yet her love of debate helped her shift her positions if someone made the more compelling argument. She was a master at drawing people into debate by intentionally taking an extreme or outrageous position on something to bait people into a vigorous discussion. Because she knew what buttons to push, Wilma from time to time took perverse pleasure in pushing them.
An example of shifting her position was when I told Mom that Lee and I were getting married, which I did with some trepidation. When I did finally tell her, she gave a polite acceptance; the next day she warmed up to it a bit; then on the fourth day she said, “I have been thinking about it quite a bit.” I thought - I bet you have!
Then she continued, “You know I come from another generation where even being gay was not accepted. And when I grew up, everybody had a family member or friend who was a puff, (that’s the term they used in The Netherlands), and we just didn’t talk about it. Then the war came and we did not even want to dream about it, for fear that someone may overhear. We saw the mentally disabled, the Jews and the gays being taken away. Then she proclaimed - I am so proud of you - you are exercising a legal right; and if people don’t exercise their rights, they could be at risk of losing them.” How prophetic this insight became.
Since then we had a number of discussions on the need for people to not be bystanders to history, but to become witnesses, protectors, defenders, resistors and activists. In these discussions, she exposed her fear of dying - remorseful because she felt that she could have done so much more during the occupation; even though during this period, she and my dad were active in the underground resistance.
Her admonition to us was, “don’t die in remorse like me, because there is always more you can and must do to help others.“
I tried to convince her not to feel guilty because what she did was very significant, and that she inspired me to the work I do in the area of bullying, abuse and protecting democracy. She should consider this one of her legacies. This gave her some peace.
Wilma was first and foremost a Mother, and what a Mother she was. No one could accuse her of being a June Cleaver. Perhaps the fact that she lived in a man’s world raising five boys motivated her not to fall into the traditional motherhood trap - a slave to the conventional role of waiting on, cleaning and cooking for men.
Mom knew what she liked and what she did not. She was a horrible cook because she hated cooking. Thankfully Dad was a good cook, and taught us how to be; otherwise we would have starved.
We learned early to never ask Mom to sew a button on a shirt - something she was incapable of doing right because she just didn’t like doing the mundane. This was in contrast to what she did like to do - knit, crochet, and needlepoint. Her creations - gowns, sweaters, and sun catchers are legendary. She even had some of her work featured in the Tuck Shop at The Royal York Hotel.
We remember so well, as infants, the nightly ritual of her getting us ready for bed, we lined up for her to scrub us down; then helping us into our pajamas, all done with the same rigor one experiences at a boot camp; then gently tucked us in, singing us to sleep, with the voice of an angel.
Mom opened our home to many, in part because she was an extremely social person, but more because she wanted to expose her boys to different people.
Diversity and inclusion was in her DNA, and she, through experiences, made sure it was in ours. Everyone has their implicit biases. Mom may have come close to being the exception.
Regardless of status, colour, religion, disability or ethnicity, Mom invited a wide range of people into our lives, in particular those whom she knew would help us understand that what everyone has in common is that we are all human beings who need each other.
All of our holiday events were shared with others, most of who did not have others to share them with.
Our friends became her friends, and became part of our extended family.
An early example of Mom’s empathy to others was, shortly after we immigrated, her befriending Ruth and Fred Parker, whose son Graham had an accident, which left him mentally impaired. Ruth, Fred and Graham immediately became part of our family, and we theirs.
Mom insisted that we treat Graham the same way we treat each other, reinforcing her position that everyone goes though challenges in life, and the importance of the basic ethic of reciprocity - doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Mom also taught us not to stereotype; for example, not all Germans during World War II were Nazis; reminding us, were it not for a German soldier, we would not have been conceived. Dad was shot on the first day of the occupation, and became a prisoner of war. The soldier guarding the infirmary allowed Dad to escape, indicating he hoped Dad would do the same if their situations were reversed – another reinforcement of the ethic of reciprocity.
Mom’s curiosity was infectious. She became a lifelong learner. Even after losing much of her sight, she, through the CNIB audio book program, continued to devour at least three books a week, covering every conceivable topic. I remember just a few years ago she wanted to engage in a discussion about general relativity, after finishing Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. All I could add to that discussion was, Huh???
Being an active listener, Mom was able to keep up with current events and some juicy gossip. Her hearing impairment late in life was suspect. Just when whispering something we did not want her to hear, she would chime in with a “What you say?”
Children and young people adored Mom; and she adored them. To all of our cousins, Mom was the favourite aunt, calling her Tanta Mien - spelt MIEN not MEAN, as it is a short form for Wilhelmina. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to view the wonderful collection of photos that Julie put together; and the pictures with infants and young people capture the mutual adoration they had for each other.
Mom, like she did with us, talked to them as adults, more to solicit a meaningful discussion with them. As a fabulous storyteller, she loved relating her wit and wisdom, coupling a serious message with humour.
As Wilma was an unconventional Mother, she was an unconventional Grandmother to Matt, Mike, Catherine (finally a girl) and Eric, and Great Grandmother to Brook, Logan and Aldon. The grandchildren loved going to Grama Wilma’s after school for their caffeine fix, which was concurrent with her cocktail hour, which she taught them how to make - a stiff shot of gin with no ice and just a splash of ginger ale.
Although Mom shied away from mundane domestic activities, through the work she did, taught us the value of hard work. For years she broke records in the number of baskets of tomatoes she picked.
For a couple of decades, every infant born at the Chatham Kent Health Alliance received a multi-coloured blanket knitted by mom, one of her many ways of giving back.
Mom sought out other mothers who lost a child, knowing that only a parent who experienced the same thing could relate to this.
As an early pioneer in palliative care, Mom helped so many in their final days and hours.
Mom was determined to live an independent life. We recall so well driving her to old age homes (as they were called then), insisting rather than waiting in the car, we join her to visit with the residents, adding great richness to our lives.
Now this was no doubt noble on her part; but there was also an ulterior motive, as we had to promise never to put her in a home - something we were able to deliver on until just five months ago.
Just shy of her ninety-ninth year, Mom moved to Fairfield Park in Wallaceburg. Fairfield is rightly recognized as the top such facility in Southwestern Ontario. It is truly a home where Mom received the genuine love, affection and care of everyone who worked there. She and we are so blessed for what they did.
Mom always saw the humour in life, and her stories could fill a book. Even on the day she died there was humour. While I was on my shift in our 24/7 vigil, a fellow resident, whom I will call Mel, stood at the doorway of her room. I invited him to come in because I thought he wanted to see her.
It turned out that he really came to check out her room because he wanted to transfer from a shared space.
The staff were absolutely appalled, and told him in no uncertain terms how inappropriate this was.
Well, didn’t he come back to ask if he could measure the room. Struggling with the tape measure, I ended up doing it for him. As he left, he asked how long I felt Mom had.
On leaving the home, the head nurse on duty asked if there was anything more they could do for us. I responded by saying we could not think of anything other than letting Mel know his new room was available.
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy Kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever.
Mom sang this prayer almost every day at lunch; and we sang it along with her. I sang it to her shortly before she died and her eyes welled.
Mom we all love you and we will miss you terribly - even though you were a horrible cook.