“Oh, Ken … It’s too late to be funny!” Mom would say whenever Dad’s quips mismatched time and place. These words are now carved into a secret spot on Mom’s gravestone, the side facing Dad. Maybe it’s too late to be funny, but I know my parents would see the humour in this message – and in my telling of this story.
Despite having five siblings, the task fell to me to work on my parents’ gravestones. Mostly due to my proximity, eagerness and perhaps also my teacher-nature. I had strong feelings about what the words should say about them. First Dad, then, nine years later, Mom.
How do you encapsulate almost 91 years (Mom) and 80 years (Dad) onto a stone? It was challenging, but it needed to be done.
When Dad died, we bought a half-ton granite stone cut in half, intending to use the other half for Mom. The company agreed to sell us Mom’s half of the stone if we prepurchased and stored it until Mom’s time came.
But I didn’t follow through. I didn’t want Mom’s time to come.
When Mom died nine years later, I sheepishly asked if her half of the stone was still available. It wasn’t. I resigned myself to the lack of symmetry, burying my shame for letting Mom and my family down.
I started on the engraving. Words and images carved in stone matter. A kind and patient designer guided me. We started with the basic details: full name, birthdate and death-date. Then, whether or not to include Mom’s maiden name.
I also added Tr’iinjoo Zu’ – the Gwich’in name Mom was given by a family friend when my parents lived in Aklavik, Northwest Territories, the community where they married in 1958.
Becoming a Registered Nurse, and working in remote northern communities, were a significant part of Mom’s life. I added RN.
Then a cross to reflect Mom’s devout Christianity.
This process was moving along nicely. I was checking boxes.
Although Mom had left Ontario in her mid-20s, living in NWT and Yukon for the rest of her life, she was proud of her Ontario heritage. I included six trilliums, the official flower of Ontario – one for each of her six children.
Then came the epitaph. Describing Mom in about 10 words was tough. I thought about it for weeks. Just as I’d come up with something I liked (and sibling-approved) I received a frantic, “Stop the presses!” call from the owner of the stone business.
“I saved your Mom’s half of the stone!” he said. Apparently, he had hidden it and, although he could have sold it several times over, he told people it was spoken for. I was speechless and teary. I thanked him, updated my family and shared this heartwarming story with anyone and everyone who would listen.
We were in-sync again, uniting Mom and Dad’s stone; two halves forming the whole. Mom and Dad together, side by side into eternity – solid as a rock.
Dad’s Inuvialuktun name, Okalisuk, meaning “talks lots,” was on his stone. Dad’s epitaph was 10 words and Mom’s ended up being 11. Mom, a quiet introvert, got the extra – and final – word. Cheeky.
During the final gravestone proofing, I received another frantic voicemail, this time from friends in the community where my parents are buried. Apparently, record snowfalls and recent rainfalls were causing the hillside cemetery to slump.
Dad, an Anglican minister, had officiated at countless burials. Stories of burials going awry were plentiful – the time a casket slid off the dock into the river, heading downstream. It was recovered by pallbearers; soaked to their armpits, boyish grins on their faces and manly grips on the casket. Another incident saw a pallbearer slip into the grave during the lowering of the casket.
I spent the day thinking about the absurdity – and reality – of my parents becoming a tourist attraction if their feet started poking out. Dad would love this; Mom not so much. If it didn’t come across as so funny and far-fetched, I might have been crying.
My fears were laid to rest that night after I chatted with the groundskeeper. His concern was that the municipal government was cutting the road-bank too close to the cemetery and those buried in the front row (specifically my parents, whose feet were only four feet from the road) might start appearing. He reassured me this wouldn’t be happening any time soon and encouraged me to proceed.
Later that month, our family spent 10 days boating down the Yukon River. Upon landing, we paid our respects and tidied my parents’ gravesites. It was Dad’s 90th birthday and he might have been having the last laugh as my husband crouched behind his gravestone, seeking refuge from wasps he had stirred by cutting the grass. No doubt Dad had been stung countless times during his decades as a volunteer groundskeeper.
A month later, we gathered to place Mom’s gravestone, which, remarkably, mostly went off without a hitch. In yet another act of kindness, the equipment operator refused to accept any payment for his work. Bless him.
I have to side with Dad on this one. It’s never too late to be funny. Of course, honouring my parents was the foundation of these projects. The basic details of their lives have been documented and carved in stone. Also carved in stone is the joy and love I have always felt for them and from them.
And, if their toes start poking out of the road-bank in my lifetime, I’ve promised I’ll take photos – I might even sell tickets.
Grace Snider lives in Whitehorse.