Joan Shannon. Nurse. Mother. Knitter. Resilient. Born June 2, 1931, in Montreal; died Jan. 5, 2021, in Montreal, of cancer; aged 89.
When Joan brought home another baby after having already given life to several, her mother noted that converting to Catholicism to marry the love of her life did not come with an obligation to have so many children. Joan continued to bring home babies. It had little to do with religion. She loved giving life and nurturing it. She was a caring mother to seven boys and five girls and continued to do so with grace and resilience as a single parent after her husband died.
Joan Kersgaard grew up in Montreal, her mother spoke mostly Finnish and her father mostly Danish. She trained as a nurse and worked at St Mary’s Hospital’s maternity ward in Montreal. It’s also where she met Bill Shannon. She had just helped deliver his sister-in-law’s baby and shown the father to his wife’s room, when an identical man stepped off the elevator. Joan was both puzzled and smitten. Bill and his brother Jack were twins and Jack’s wife soon set the couple up on a date. Joan was crazy about him, and although raised Lutheran, she did not hesitate to convert. Joan and Bill were married in 1954 and had their first child, Deborah, a year later.
In 1972, Joan returned from the hospital with Judy, her 12th child. Judy was born with Down Syndrome and they would be joined at the hip. A fitting metaphor for a mother and daughter who became inseparable, even after Joan had both her hips replaced.
The household was organized chaos. There was no need for one of those signs with the motto: Live Well. Laugh Often. Love Much. This came naturally to the Shannons, and it was infectious to anyone joining the family.
As the children grew up, so did their appetite. If there were fewer than five kids home for dinner, Joan wouldn’t bother to cook a meal. Leftovers would do. When Joan returned from the grocery store with a week’s worth of food, the fridge was often raided by her sons returning with late-night munchies. Joan eventually put a lock on the pantry and removed the fridge door handle, which she tucked under her pillow at night.
Summers were spent in a modest cabin on the shores of Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where Bill’s mother was born. Getting to the cottage was an adventure. Bill drove a wood-panelled station wagon pulling a trailer. The car was packed with a carload of kids, Joan (who was usually expecting or had just given birth), a mother’s helper (often a pregnant teen from the Catholic Community Services who needed support and a home during her pregnancy), a dog and a cat. Today, the cottage remains a magnet for the family, with 27 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Joan experienced the joys of giving life but also the pain of loss. Bill died of cancer in 1986 and her seventh child, also named Bill, died from ALS at 49, leaving behind five boys and his wife. It punctured her heart. Instead of retreating in her pain, she redoubled her efforts to wrap her arms around her family. She gave them permission to grieve but to also live.
Joan and Judy also ran a weekly knitting group at a senior’s residence in Montreal to make blankets for the homeless. Joan welcomed all knitters and set them up with whatever wool was available. No two blankets were the same and some are still visible on the streets of Montreal.
Now that Joan is gone, her children have made their homes Judy’s home. It keeps them tightly knit to each other and the memory of Joan.
Éric Blais is Joan’s son-in-law.
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