Diane Sweeney: Wife. Mother. Grandmother. Feminist. Born March 6, 1934, in Winnipeg; died Feb. 25, 2020 in Delta, B.C.; of congestive heart failure; aged 85.
In 1961, Diane Sweeney wrote a letter to the editor of the Vancouver Sun, in response to an article that highlighted how “easy” women’s work had become with the advent of modern appliances.
“Can a washing machine go to church with a child or a dryer laugh with one? Will a refrigerator make them aware of changing seasons? Does a stove cultivate a sense of humour, imagination, honesty, fairness or compassion?”
She and her husband, Ed, had five children at the time and went on to have two more, filling their house on the western side of Vancouver with noise, love, yes – that endless laundry – and often the smell of Diane’s Italian meatballs she learned to make from her grandfather, Grandpa Nick. He had raised Diane and her siblings, after their mother’s death from appendicitis. But although her formative years were spent without a mother, Diane was a natural caregiver and nurturer, with all the maternal instincts. She was a warm, intuitive and empathic mother and grandmother and an exceptional homemaker.
Education wasn’t an option for Diane, who was bullied by her schoolmates as a young child for being Italian in Canada during and after the Second World War. She left school at 16 to get a job and support herself and her family, but she was wickedly smart and a voracious reader. She adored Victorian and Regency literature – Jane Austen being a particular favourite – but read everything. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury sat next to her recliner in recent years. She also loved the arts and had an eye for up-and-coming artists. Her home was filled with the beautiful objects she’d cultivated, a grandchild’s painting hung next to a Pauline Paquin painting.
Her skills as a caretaker and cook and her lack of formal education didn’t make her diminutive, even though her husband’s nickname was Big Ed. She was the quiet listener in her relationship with Ed, who was the boisterous politician. But she was a strong feminist and as her husband, children and eventually the editor at the Vancouver Sun came to know, one that shouldn’t be crossed. Once, during a federal election, Ed ordered his favoured candidate’s sign to be placed on their front yard. The next day, the sign for Diane’s favourite candidate was sitting on their lawn, right next to his.
Diane’s body started to fail in her senior years, an ironic juxtaposition because she was so strong and resilient. She underwent numerous hip replacements and back surgeries, she fell and broke her shoulder last Christmas but never complained. When she lost her husband to complications from heart surgery and a son to brain cancer, she stoically supported her children and grandchildren, hiding her own pain and grief.
“When the day is done and the lights are finally off, don’t tell me I’m not tired,” she wrote in that letter to the editor, signing off: “Tired, but definitely not bored.”
Marlisse Silver Sweeney is Diane’s granddaughter.
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