Thursday, 3 October 2013

In Memoriam

Life is strange, it goes on no matter what happens, it simply goes on. Today my father and sister made arrangements for the funeral Mass for my mother. It will be in a few days at my mother's family Parish Church of Saint-Laurent in old Ville Saint-Laurent on the Chemin Sainte-Croix in what is now greater Montreal.
 Église de Saint-Laurent, Ville Saint-Laurent, Québec

The Church dates from 1720 and the Gougeon family are one of the founding families of the parish. As far as anyone can remember every baptism, marriage and funeral took place in that Church. My parents were married there in June 1955. Her funeral Mass will be held in the very same chapel my parents got married.

So my mother and her siblings grew up on rue Filiatrault in a grand house and went to receive a proper education which in those days meant going to a school run by nuns. Two of my relatives where priests and travelled quite a bit around the world. Which in those days was unheard of, we always looked at them in awe.

My Mom and her siblings in front of the family home on rue Filiatrault, (1939)

My Mom was educated in the skills of what then constituted a good education for a women, sowing, cooking and keeping house. But she had also her eye on getting into a career and because she was always very good at mathematics and could do lots of calculations quickly, she decided should become a teacher. She also loved to read and loved books, she read Simone de Beauvoir, Daphne du Maurier and Khalil Gibran, she also read Dostoievski and Tolstoi to name a few. She always had big fat books on her night table. I remember how they smelled of Chanel no.5 her favourite perfume. She also love to go to Art Galleries and meet artists. She liked Canadian artists like Krieghoff and Suzor-Côté and many others.

She loved pearls, emeralds, sapphires and jade. Her favourite Champagne was Charles Heidsieck, she would drink that instead of wine or liquor but she did like a gin and tonic, as long as it was weak. Sometimes she would ask me to make her a G & T, but not too strong she would always add. She loved to eat sole simply poached with boiled potatoes and parsley or Lobster Thermidor, so you did not have to play with the shell which she found too messy for dinner.

She had a very good memory of people's faces and events, though sometimes she would confuse names but quickly corrected herself. She was very organized and a good manager of any situation. Very discreet and would often say that it is better to smile than to say something unpleasant. In fact she had this saying about people who could not keep their tongue or would gossip, ''elle a un estomac froid'', she has a cold stomach, referring to whatever this person knew, it would come out. She would often admonish me to say nothing about this or that topic to certain people, because she was afraid they would gossip. She certainly valued highly being able to keep a confidence, ''muet comme la tombe'', mute as the tomb.

She had lots of good common sense and was very practical in all things. She certainly tried hard to teach us, children, these things. Don't be so emotional, you have to be sensible, she had no time for drama in life. She also believed in the stiff upper lip approach. Can't change the past and just move on.

She taught us responsibilities at a young age and counted on us kids to help her run the house. After my father got into the Hotel business around 1961, they had many social engagements, so we children had to help out. With Expo 67 in Montreal and the Canadian Confederation Centennial, my parents were out almost every night for months on end. So we had our chores and no slacking was allowed.

Being the eldest I had to look after my younger brother and my little sister. My Mom would often tell me what to prepare for dinner from what she had arranged previously during the day. However without fail the next day my sister would insist that I had tried to poison them and would complain bitterly to my Mom.  She would laugh it off saying; obviously it could not be that bad since you are all here. With time I learned to prepare meals my brother and sister like to eat and it was fairly standard stuff and it bought peace.

What to this day I have not quite understood was how she managed to have so much time for us, listening to us tell her about our day and play with us and take an interest in our little problems or worries, give advice and find solutions to what we as children thought impossible to solve. Supervising our homework and taking an interest in what was going on in school.

She also had time to make birthday cakes and cookies and prepare meals from scratch, I still remember those meals and how good everything smelled in the kitchen. We also lived for years close enough to school so that we could actually have our lunch at home and a hot lunch waited for us every day, no instant soup or sandwich routine, there was always soup but it was always and without fail made fresh, from the broth to the ingredients. I once asked her on a hot day why did we have to have soup, she simply told me, because it is very good for you, she had this theory that hot soup cooled the stomach on a hot day, I believed her.

We also use to watch cartoons on television in black and white, my favourite was Popeye and Bugs Bunny. For a snack she would have carrots and celery sticks for us, never were we allowed chips or peanuts or chocolates or cookies because it would spoil our appetite and certainly never soft drinks with the exception of Christmas day.

Her favourite cook book was La Cuisine Raisonnée, the great classic of 1919 written by Sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame. The main theme of this cooking book was that cooking was a science that needs to be mastered and that you can prepare good nutritious food for your family all the while maintaining a strict family food budget. The book had strict instructions on discipline in the kitchen, hygiene was very important at all times. It is full of advice, per example do not let anything boil needlessly, even water because it dirties the walls. The emphasis was on cleanliness which is next to Godliness. The book's motto Sapiens Mulier Medificat Domum, sets the tone. Nutritious and economical meals were a virtue, do not prepare luxurious meals that excite the senses and leads to gluttony, a sin.
Soeur de la Congrégation de Notre Dame

One has to remember that this was a book written by nuns to be used in a convent and in good Catholic Homes. It remains a very good cook book from meats to poultry to fish to desserts, etc... Everything is clearly explained and easy to understand in impeccable French. My mother referred to this book constantly while cooking and I enjoy reading it too though I wonder if I would have much use for the recipes today. This is how I learned to cook from an early age.

Mom also had all these stories about different food and how good it was for your health, fish was good for memory, liver was good for the brain, beets were good for healthy blood, carrots for vision, spinach for muscles etc... So we ate lots of different foods and never complained. If we did she would point out to us that many beggars had little compared to us. If a beggar came to our door, my Mom would always offer a cup of coffee and a big sandwich. She refused to turn them away, she saw this as a duty on her part.

There was always in her life the remnants of the education she received from the nuns and the respect she had for those women who devoted their lives to education.

Mom came from a traditional background and a conservative one at that, land, family status, number of male heirs per family and social standing was very important.  Despite this conservative Catholic background my mother was intelligent enough to see the world change around her and go with the flow of new ideas and attitudes. She was not the stick in the mud type.

She had no time for people with narrow views on life. It could be that with the new role of women in society after 1960 and all the travel my parents did, she gained a new perspective on life and I remember her telling me that the old ways were often wrong and brought much unhappiness to people.
Her mother died when she was quite young, she had a weak heart and having repeated pregnancies was to much of a strain for her. My mother recognized early that women had to have a say on the size of their families. Despite the Catholic Church ban on contraceptive in 1967 when the Pill became available to all, my parents decided that they could not afford more than 3 children and contraception was the way to go.

I can say that my mother was a feminist in her time, she would state her opinions politely but firmly, you knew that you could not dismiss her, she would not stand for it. She encouraged all of us to get a good education and took special interest in my sister's education. Education was the way to a better future. Being a teacher she knew how to motivate us.

She had several careers during her lifetime, from a teacher she then became interested in entering the business world. She learned to drive a car in 1961 when women did not drive at all in Canada. She always liked smaller cars, and her first was a Vauxhall. In business she had a sense to know what the customers wanted and would cater to their taste and often influence the buying of merchandise to go with the customers demands.

She was successful in her field and it did not matter if it was Women's fashion, a florist shop, Real estate sales or at organizing events, raising funds, doing charity work, she just had a natural sense of what had to be done and how to achieve her goals. Her greatest achievement and one she was really proud of was her job in Parliament as the Social Secretary of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

She quickly learned how Parliament worked and who was who. The Speaker is responsible for the functioning of Parliament and he oversees all, from the daily work of the House, to Official receptions,
budget matters, etc...  Mom had a great deal of responsibilities, I remember once she told me that when she started her new job, she was asked to organize a dinner party for the Speaker who was receiving some important guests. She reserved a room for the dinner and then went about doing the set-up and Protocol for the dinner. She enquired about the table cloth and silverware to be used. She was shown what was on hand and to her dismay discovered that all the table cloths were badly ironed, full of holes, stained and yellowed with age. There was no procedure for buying flowers or for the catering of food, no inventory of wines and liquor, it was all pretty haphazard.  This meant that the hospitality budget was  in total disarray. She came up with a plan and convinced the Speaker that if he would let her arrange things she would balance his budget and have new linens and new procedures for purchasing flowers and food. Even the preparation of Official correspondence was not up to standards, she could not believe that letters would go out with grammatical errors in them.

Photo by Yusuf Karsh

She was successful in implementing changes and restoring discipline in the Speaker's Office and suddenly was in demand with the Speaker of the Senate and with wives of Ministers and the Prime Minister to help them out in arranging functions. She knew a lot of people in Official Ottawa and she enjoyed the work and the social life.

After Ottawa my parents went on to live in Manhattan and then in Europe, they travelled extensively in many parts of the world. It was in 1999 when they came to visit us in Warsaw where I was then posted at the Canadian Embassy that we started to notice that she was not quite well. She was distracted and easily lost. One Sunday morning she told me that she was going to attend Mass at the Church at the end of our street. We lost her for four hours, we had no idea where she was and could not find her. She suddenly appeared at the front door of our house. I was relieved and asked her where had she been.

Mom visiting us in Warsaw in 1999

She told us a fancy story about meeting all kinds of people and how everyone spoke French to her.
I knew this was not possible after all we were in Poland not France. I became seriously worried, it was only later that I would find out that this was the early stages of Alzheimer. In the years to come her health would take a dramatic turn for the worst, slowly she faded away.

We, her family, have many memories of her and of what she achieved but overall she was the best Mom anyone could have, thanks to her we had a happy, care free childhood.


 '' La vie signifie ce qu'elle a toujours été. Le fil n'est pas coupé. Pourquoi serais-je hors de vos pensées, simplement parce que je suis hors de votre vue? Je ne suis pas loin, juste de l'autre côté du chemin.''

Charles Péguy, d'après un texte de Saint-Augustin

Our little family




  1. A beautiful tribute to your Mom! I enjoyed reading it very much. She was such an accomplished woman and clearly influenced many lives.

  2. So happy to read more about an extraordinary woman. Isn't perfume a wonderful thing, even if it is one as familiar as Chanel No. 5? The smell can always bring the lost back to life.

    And photographed by the famous Karsh of Ottawa, no less: that's a good one to have!

    On a rather more frivolous note, who is the attractive young man on the right of the family photo? Brother? Nephew? I want that shirt!

    With good wishes for a meaningful service.

    1. David that is my younger brother Stephan who lives in Florida. I use to say to my mom that she had something in common with Churchill and Stalin, she too had bee photographed by Karsh.

  3. I have been outside the reaches of the internet recently, and have both missed and *missed* your posts. Quite an eloquent tribute to an obviously wonderful person. So sorry for your loss.

  4. That was a lovely eulogy; I hope your public one is even a fraction of this marvelous prose.
    You did well.

    I want to try the tomato cake recipe AND try this sort of champagne !

    1. Spo thank you so much and do try the champagne it's very good.

  5. Laurent:
    A wonderful essay.
    This just came to mind--I hope that you and your siblings will submit an essay like this for Lives Lived in the Globe and Mail. Lives Lived has been one of my favorite places to read about real people, and your mother had a rich life as a normal person, active in various roles and places, a stellar example and leader to her family, and a path that connected with notable people (and, subject of a Karsh portrait! I remember you telling a bit about that). She is among those who deserve to be honored.
    So I say this as encouragement, consider offering something to the Globe. And if you do, tell me if it's published!!

    1. Mblj, thank you for the suggestion, I will speak to my siblings about it.