This post is the tribute I delivered at the memorial for my parents, Ernest and Esme Underhill, along with a post-tribute reflection.
When I think of my mom and dad there are some things that just stick in my head because they are symbols of what it meant to grow up in our family and to be loved by mom and dad.
Given that I am a teacher by trade, I would like to think of this as a brief moment of show and tell. I am going to share four symbolic treasures with you.
First, I have a fish. Besides the fact that dad loved to fish, mom and dad did other things with fish. I remember when a full size dead salmon floated to shore in front of their house. Dad was just so thrilled because the salmon was in perfect shape. He quickly rescued it to paint it with India ink and proceeded to make beautiful fish prints. It wasn’t just dad that was excited about fish. Mom got in on the act too. My siblings will remember the Easter morning we woke up, sat down for breakfast and almost gulped down our drinks before we realized mom and dad had placed a goldfish in each of my sisters’ glasses and a turtle in each of my brothers’. Mom and dad were always making outrageous, creative memories for us.
Second, I have some boats. Some of you will recognize these because my siblings have these same boats and so do some of the grandchildren. We were given them one Christmas. These are handmade and hand painted boats; you can actually see the portraits of our faces painted into the window of the boat. You could stick a candle in the smokestack or use it for a pencil holder. For me the boats represent my parent’s joy of the ocean, their love of sailing and in the giving of the boats, their inclusive spirit of sharing their joy of life with all of us.
Third, I have a piggy bank. Dad made six piggy banks for his six children and gave them to us one Christmas morning. I find mine quite beautiful (see picture). Each pig was designed differently and no two looked alike. I know some of these piggy banks might be long forgotten and some are broken. I have kept mine hidden away and my own children are not allowed to touch it for fear they might break it. For me this bank represents the riches of growing up with mom and dad. We may not have had a lot of money; however, we were wealthy. They gave us the gift of their resources, their energy, their time, and their money invested in our family as opposed to accumulating treasures for themselves. We were their wealthy fortunes and we are all the richer for it.
Finally, I have my last treasure. This is a metal heart. My siblings will likely remember these as well. One Valentine’s morning we woke to find a heart hooked over the doorknob to our bedroom. Each one of us received this metal heart with our name cut into it. I think this heart is a symbol of mom and dad’s great love for each of us. Mom and dad’s arms were open to all. Their hearts were open to their children, to their grandchildren, to their extended family and to their friends. Their greatest gift to us was indeed their love. We will carry their love in our hearts forever and I know they would want us to pass it on. It is the legacy they leave with us.
Post-Tribute Reflection: A Legacy of Learning
My parents left us with a legacy of love; however, they also left us with a legacy of learning. How many parents take you to the beach in the summer to make plaster of Paris casts of imprints you have created in the sand? How many drove and camped their tents on the wild shores of Long Beach, Vancouver Island before the Provincial Park was established–like beatniks, barefoot and free, combing the sand for odd-shaped driftwood, sketching and reading books. We never missed a summer of tenting; we loaded the station wagon and escaped to Jasper, or Ensenada, Mexico or the hot shores of Lake Osoyoos. We tracked down used bookstores and stocked up on 10 cent books and comics to read along the way.
The adventures continued at home. Drinking glasses paraded along the kitchen counter as we mixed chemicals, dangled string from pencils and waited patiently for crystals to form. We made ice candles and devised our own moulds as we layered molten wax to harden into unusual shapes. We hooked rugs of our own design. We carved pumpkins without stencils. We dyed Easter eggs and then used the leftover dye to dip tissue paper, napkins, coffee filters and paper towels in folded shapes to create explosions of colour. If dinner required tin foil we would reuse it and twist it into sculptures at the end of the meal. We wrapped old newspaper and shredded, attached, and bound it into organic sculptures. There were trips to the art school when my dad would prepare an upcoming exhibit; here I could play-act the resident art critic casting my opinion on each piece of art he set out for display.
Weekends were spent driving up the mountain roads in the Kootenays where we would find a creek, sit and sketch or turn over rocks to examine the periwinkles. Sometimes we ended the afternoon making hamburgers on the hibachi in the great outdoors or headed home for mom’s homemade English scones and tea. Sundays we often gathered around popcorn and watched National Film Board movies in the darkened basement as my dad previewed them for his art classes—these were often avant-garde films about art, artists, modern dance or animated features. Music filled the house: we danced to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and knew all the words to Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song, There’s a Hole in the Bucket, and Jamaican Farewell.
We drew, we painted, we sketched, we molded clay, we walked on beaches, we explored old ghost towns, we hiked, we picked wild huckleberries, we made jam and we wrote stories. Of course, we read. And we read some more. This was not school. This was my home. I grew up in a house of learning. I am deeply grateful.
Note: After a long, slow descent into Alzheimer’s, my father passed away on December 13th, 2013. My mom, trapped in the grip of Parkinson’s disease, followed him on February 13, 2014 just in time to join him for Valentine’s Day. My parents had been married for a remarkable 67 years. We celebrated their lives on May 9, 2014 on what would have been their 68th wedding anniversary.