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Humour, empathy came naturally to Rankin Family star

Raylene Rankin, a member of the internationally acclaimed group the Rankin Family who went on to a successful musical career independent of her siblings, died on Sept. 30 after an 11-year battle with cancer.

Sandor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

Raylene Rankin and Susan Crowe disagreed about a scene in Alistair MacLeod's novel No Great Mischief. There is no way that the story's narrator would take his brother all the way back to Cape Breton to die, argued Crowe.

"[Raylene] looked me in the eye and said 'you're not from Cape Breton.' " said Crowe of her friend and musical collaborator (along with Cindy Church), in the trio Rankin, Church and Crowe.

Crowe related this story on Friday evening while standing in the middle of the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou, the small Cape Breton village where Rankin was born and where her body was buried.

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Rankin, a member of the internationally acclaimed group the Rankin Family who went on to a successful musical career independent of her siblings, died on Sept. 30 after an 11-year battle with cancer.

Friday was the second funeral for Rankin, 52. A service had been held a day earlier in Halifax, where Rankin lived with her husband, Colin Anderson, and their son, Alexander.

The service in Mabou, on the west side of the island, drew hundreds. Cars filled the parking lot of St. Mary's Parish Church and spilled out along Route 19, the road that bisects the village and carries on north to Inverness and the Cabot Trail.

Well-known Cape Breton musicians, such as singer Rita MacNeil, instrumentalist Dave MacIsaac and others, joined family members and other residents. Local businesses gave employees time off to attend. The Red Shoe Pub, owned by Rankin and her sisters, Cookie, Heather and Genevieve, didn't open until 4 p.m.

"It was a real homecoming to a community that has loved her," Crowe said.

Mabou sits at the mouth of the Mull River and is surrounded by hills. Visible from the main street, dotted sparsely with a few businesses and big homes for large families, are farms on the slopes and apex of the hills. On Friday, deciduous crowns had begun to arrive at yellow on their autumnal journey to red, while the large fields still held a lush green appearance.

Here is where Rankin was born, the fifth child of 12, to Alexander (Buddy) and Kathleen Rankin. Neither were musical performers, but they encouraged their children in music. All the children performed locally as the Rankin Family in the 1970s before Raylene along with her three younger siblings Cookie, Heather and Jimmy, and their older brother John Morris, made the family name world famous in the 1990s.

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They won six Juno Awards, 15 East Coast Music Awards, three Canadian Country Music Awards and legions of fans in North America and Europe.

Shirley Campbell, who was at the Shoe Friday night, reminisced about returning to the area each Thanksgiving to visit her husband's family. The highlight would be seeing the Rankin children perform at the community hall. This is where tea was served following Rankin's funeral. Afterwards, some mourners moved across Route 19 to the Shoe.

"They'd jump up and dance, or sing or play the guitar," she said. while gesturing with her hand to indicate the ascending height of the children, "Whatever they would do. They were wonderful."

Mourners at St. Mary's church were told how John Morris would run up one aisle of the church to play the organ while Raylene would run up the other to sing.

No performance was taken lightly, said James St. Clair, a family friend who knew Raylene Rankin since she was born and taught her in high school. He spoke at both the Halifax and Mabou services.

"Her mother was very insistent … that they never go out to perform unless they had rehearsed. And unless they were appropriately dressed," St. Clair said in an interview.

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Rankin spoke of her upbringing in a documentary broadcast in June on the CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition. Her memories were of her parents' efforts in raising 12 children and of the fun growing up surrounded by music. Rankin spoke of going to local square and step dances nearly every night.

Though the Rankins eventually moved to a house on Route 19, they initially lived on Highland Street, known as the back street locally. Legendary fiddler Dan R. MacDonald lived beside them. John Allan Cameron lived there, too, and gave the Rankins their first piano.

It was all these influences – the music, their parents' work ethic, the interaction among the children – that Raylene Rankin grew up absorbing, St. Clair said.

From an early age, he said, Rankin demonstrated a sense of gratitude and other qualities he believes best captured in the song Gillis Mountain, which Raylene wrote and is on the Fare Thee Well Love album.

"It brings together her gifts of observation and the ability to feel deeply about things," St. Clair said.

It was at dances, kitchen parties and the school where they learned Gaelic that the Rankins would have heard the Gaelic songs they took off the island, according to their aunt Effie Rankin, who emigrated to Cape Breton from the Hebrides to teach Gaelic and married their uncle Daniel. The Rankins are not native Gaelic speakers and turned to Effie for help with their pronunciation on the songs they wanted to record.

"She was a hard worker," Effie Rankin said of her niece. the day after the Mabou service. "No task was too menial. I remember seeing her in work gloves cleaning out the garbage."

Learning Gaelic was no different, says her aunt, it was just other matter to put effort into and improve at doing.

Humour was something, according to her aunt, that Rankin didn't have to work hard at acquiring. It came naturally and Rankin had a "hearty laugh."

"When you heard that laugh, you couldn't help but join in," said Effie Rankin.

"She loved jokes and quick responses," said St. Clair.

Despite a host of musicians attending the funeral service Friday afternoon, there was no star-studded ceilidh at the Shoe that night. Friday marked the opening of Cape Breton's Celtic Colours International Festival, a week-long celebration of all that is Celtic, that takes place across the island, which draws performers and spectators from around the world.

At the opening concert in Port Hawkesbury a moment of silence was observed in Rankin's memory. Natalie MacMaster, the acclaimed Cape Breton fiddler, spoke of how the Rankins paved a path for other musicians and how Raylene was a mentor to her.

Most of the mourners had left the Shoe by 7 p.m. and tourists far outnumbered residents as Anita MacDonald, 21, a fiddler from the other side of the island, played. Locals took turns step dancing and square dancing, leaving tourists struggling to keep up.

Though MacDonald never met Raylene Rankin, she found playing the Shoe Friday night "very emotional." It's not the Rankins' success she admires most.

"It's just they were so grounded," said MacDonald. "What was great about them was that they could bring the kitchen to the world, but then bring it back to the kitchen."

Humility is a characteristic often attributed to Rankin by those in Mabou who knew her. Bonny MacIsaac went to high school with Rankin and remembers a pony-tailed girl involved in many activities, who bounded everywhere with energy and "was just brilliant."

At the time, MacIsaac said, she was unaware of their individual and collective talents as performers. They didn't parade it.

Even after success and fame had come to descended upon Rankin and her siblings, MacIsaac would see her in the grocery store in Mabou expecting to be treated like any other member of the community. Rankin and other family members of her the band and family have summer homes around Mabou. And the family home is still kept, opened every summer by Rankin's sister Genevieve, who has become the family matriarch, according to their aunt.

Raylene Rankin once told a CBC radio documentary crew that it was Genevieve who convinced her to settle down when she was living out west and working odd jobs after graduating from St. Francis Xavier University. Raylene moved to Halifax and enrolled in law school at Dalhousie University. She was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar in 1988.

Bonny MacIsaac's recollections, however, were of the tragedies that have befallen the Rankin family.

In the radio documentary, Rankin spoke of how her father's sudden death in 1981 made her more protective of family and her privacy. Unfortunately, suddenness and death have often been coupled for the Rankins.

Brother John Morris died in 2000, in a car accident. Sister Geraldine died instantly in 2007, from a cerebral aneurysm.

"They've had a lot of hard hits," said Effie Rankin.

Even though Raylene Rankin had been fighting cancer for more than a decade, her death caught people off guard.

At the end of the radio documentary, Rankin said she was not done yet: "I guess I'm not ready to pack it in. I said to a friend: 'I'm not finished.' "

The hope she expressed, St. Clair said, had given others the hope that her health had turned a corner. Rankin had been planning to perform in Mabou this month.

Compassion was another word often employed to describe Rankin.

"Her attitude was always 'How can I help make this better for you?' " Crowe said.

Empathy was the word that Colin Anderson used to capture his wife, saying with a mixture of pride and disbelief that one human being could have possessed so much.

Anderson, too, was at the Shoe Friday evening and returned later that night, surrounded by friends and welcoming to those wishing to pass on condolences.

In a brief interview, Anderson said that the two services had been celebrations of his wife's life after the tough final days. He said she fought until the very end and he rejected any notion that she lost the battle.

"She won. She succeeded," Anderson said.

Then comes that word: "She had such empathy." Even as her life was drawing to a close, Anderson said, "she was worried about others." Especially their son, who was three when Rankin was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and 11 when the disease returned in 2009.

"The last few weeks were spent convincing her she had done her job [in caring for others]," Anderson said.

The sun broke through during the service in Mabou on Friday on what had been a cloudy day.

"It was a lot easier for people to come out of that church knowing it was sunny and beautiful," Effie Rankin said.

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