Parachute Riggers by Paraskeva Clark

Elinor Florence on the “Chute Girls” of World War II

Author Elinor Florence

Canadian author Elinor Florence shares wartime stories.

Editor’s note: Canadian author Elinor Florence shares stories and pictures of life in World War II in her blog Wartime Wednesdays. Here is her fascinating photo story of Canada’s female parachute packers, reblogged by permission. I wonder how changing attitudes toward women’s roles in the 70 years since the war have affected the way we remember those who served. Have you talked about working women in wartime with your family? — MAB 

Featured image (top): Parachute Riggers by Paraskeva Clark, Russian-born Canadian, 1947, via Canadian War Museum. 

Cheers to the Chute Girls!

Of all the work performed by women in uniform, packing parachutes — those complicated contraptions of silk and leather — meant the difference between life and death for a man plunging from the sky.

Canadian airwomen check the folds in a parachute during World War II. Photo credit: Canadian War Museum.

Here’s a photo of some very smart-looking Canadian women carefully laying out a parachute on a long table, checking that every fold is in place.

There was a tremendous need for parachutes in World War II.

Fliers not only needed them during training (especially then) but every time they went out on operational flights. During the six-year conflict, hundreds of thousands of parachutes were sewn, packed and distributed. Twenty thousand parachutes were opened in a single mission, dropping paratroopers into France on D-Day.

And for the most part, parachute packing was women’s work.

In the book We Serve That Men May Fly, the story of the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, author Mary Ziegler quotes one officer, explaining why women were particularly suited to the job.

“Take parachute packing. To a man it’s a dull, routine job. He doesn’t want to pack parachutes. He wants to be up there with one strapped to his back. But to a woman it’s an exciting job. She can imagine that someday a flier’s life will be saved because she packed that parachute well. Maybe it will be her own husband’s life or her boyfriend’s. That makes parachute packing pretty exciting for her, and she does a much more efficient and speedy job than an unhappy airman would.”

Perhaps there was even some truth to this outdated attitude!

Foothill Fliers was the station newsletter of No. 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary, and in the October 1943 issue, it published an article titled: “Temptations of a ‘Chute Girl.”

Foothill Fliers was the station newsletter of No. 3 Service Flight Training School in Calgary, Alberta, during World War II.

“Temptations of a ‘Chute Girl” by Corporal Muriel Ellis. No. 3 Service Flight Training School, Calgary, Alberta, 1943.

Although the article was written by a woman, Corporal Muriel Ellis, she kept the tone light. Here’s an excerpt:

“Ever miss those nice sheer pre-war silk stockings, girls? When you work all day with enough silk to make stockings aplenty for the next eight years, wearing cotton stockings, it’s a great temptation to whip out the scissors. Particularly now, when real $1.50 chiffons are as scarce as beefsteak in Berlin.

“That’s what the girls in the parachute section, packing six to eight chutes a day, and thinking of the dear, dead days of silk-legged delight, are up against. The silk from one chute would make no less than 160 pairs of stockings, and if you like Nylons, there’s 200 pairs of them in one of the big umbrellas.

“Chute rigging has been on of the chief activities of the Women’s Division since Ottawa decided that there were hundreds of jobs in the air force that could be done by the ladies. And, as you can see, one of the most ironical jobs.”

The photo below shows AW1 A.S. Olive packing a parachute at Wolseley, Saskatchewan. Behind her you can see the individual cubbyholes, where each parachute was kept until checked out before a flight.

AW1 A.S. Olive packs a parachute at Wolseley, Saskatchewan.

In spite of this humorous approach, packing a parachute was far from simple. Here’s one description of how it was done:

“The main canopy is 56 square yards of silk and is 24 feet in diameter. Fastened to the pack are two rings known as the D rings. From the right ring run 12 rigging lines up the right side of the canopy and down the left side and then fasten on the left ring. These lines measure 52 feet apiece and total 700 feet. The canopy and lines are stowed in a small pack 11 inches by 16 inches in concertina fashion. The placing of such a large quantity of silk and lines in such a small space is a very intricate operation and well worth witnessing. The weight of the parachute complete with harness is 25 pounds.”

Sounds pretty complicated, doesn’t it?

Before the parachute was packed, it had to be minutely examined for flaws. Here’s a group of civilian women inspecting a parachute.


Civilian women inspect a parachute. Photo Credit: Bettmann and Corbis.

It was also examined in a hanging position. According to the article in Foothills Fliers:

“Each fold must be exact, all rigging or shroud lines must be in the pockets straight and true. The metal fittings have to be kept free from rust, and a dozen other things checked to insure the fast opening of a parachute. For a chute must not only open, it must open fast!”

Each parachute is also examined in a hanging position.

Then came the tricky business of folding it correctly, so the delicate lines wouldn’t get tangled and caught up when the silk unfurled. Once again, the racks containing the packed parachutes are visible in the background.

Then comes the tricky business of folding the parachute correctly.

The below photograph of Beatrice Jennox was copied from the book We Serve That Men May Fly, the story of the RCAF Women’s Division, by Mary Ziegler.

Women of all nationalities and branches of the armed forces performed this vital task. Here an American WAVE (short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) demonstrates parachute packing techniques. Later this branch became known as the U.S. Naval Reserve (Women’s Reserve), but the nickname WAVE stuck.

The lettering on the parachute bag indicates that the location is Naval Air Station, New York. Note her Parachute Rigger rating badge, and framed prints of Navy life on the wall behind her.


An American WAVE (short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) demonstrates parachute packing techniques. Photo credit: U.S. Navy, now in the collection of the National Archives.

The care of the parachute was also of great importance. Records were kept to ensure parachutes were tested regularly.

The chute was opened and hung up for 48 hours to enable it to air; weather permitting, the parachute was taken outside and aired by nature, ballooning with the wind. It was then well shaken to get rid of any insects.

At periodic intervals, the women also went up in an aircraft and “drop-tested” the chutes, attached to 180-pound dummies. According to the Foothill Fliers: “The girls feel like bombardiers as they circle the drome at 100 miles per hour, hefting the dummies out!”

Here’s a group of WRENS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) checking to see that a parachute is filling correctly, by opening it in the wind.

A group of WRENS (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) checks to see that a parachute is filling correctly.

If a tiny hole or weak spot was noted, the parachutes had to be carefully mended. This painting by Paraskeva Clark, who was appointed by the National Gallery of Canada to record the activities of the women’s branches of the armed forces during wartime, shows the process of sewing the parachutes.

Parachute Riggers, 1947, by artist Paraskeva Clark. She was appointed by the National Gallery of Canada to record the activities of the women’s branches of the armed forces during wartime. Image credit: Canadian War Museum.

The intense expression on three of the women’s faces draws attention to their tasks of cutting, folding, and securing the lines of the parachutes. This 1947 oil painting is part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum.

Here’s a photo of women mending chutes at No. 38 Wing RAF & Airborne Division Headquarters. You can see by the volume of fabric and the number of lines that this was a fairly cumbersome job.

Women mend chutes at No. 38 Wing RAF & Airborne Division Headquarters.

Mary Purdue, whoever she was, was named in this advertisement for an American brand of cereal as a Champion Parachute Maker.

Editor’s note: A 1940s U.S. cereal ad paid tribute to a Champion Parachute Maker. To see the whole ad, visit

The parachute-packing women were intensely aware that their activities were of the utmost importance.

A sign on the wall behind these members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force reads: “REMEMBER, A MAN’S LIFE DEPENDS ON EVERY PARACHUTE YOU PACK!” I doubt very much if the sign was necessary.

Parachute records noted when it was packed, and by whom, so every parachute could be traced back to its packer.

A sign on the wall behind these members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force reads: “REMEMBER, A MAN’S LIFE DEPENDS ON EVERY PARACHUTE YOU PACK!”

Many men died no matter how well their parachutes were packed. And in each fatality investigation, the parachute had to be inspected to see whether it was a factor.

Anna Dundas (née Mayer) of Winnipeg enlisted in the RCAF Women’s Division in January 1942 and served at No. 10 Service Flight Training School in Dauphin, Manitoba. You can read her whole story by clicking here: The Memory Project.

Anna Dundas of Winnipeg remembers inspecting the parachutes of airmen who had crashed.

Here she describes one sad but memorable incident :

“There were three of us in that section. We had to inspect parachutes for rips or tears and hang them in a well to air them for 48 hours, and then repack them.

“The only time I was nervous inspecting a parachute was where they brought it in after a crash and it had burned. And we had to go through it. We, when I say we, I had to. I was the only one that worked on it, to make sure there were no body parts in it. And the smell of that burnt silk was very, very strong, it was nauseating. And it was kind of a daunting job. But we had to do it, that was part of the ritual, before they could throw it out.”

* * * * *

Another woman named G.D. Martineau wrote an eloquent poem about her feelings, describing her anxiety at the importance of her work.

The Parachute Packer’s Prayer

 G.D. Martineau

When they posted me here to the section,

I was free as the pitiless air,

Unashamed of confessed imperfection,

Having no sort of burden to bear.

I was not an incurable slacker;

Neat, not fussy – I fancied of old,

But today I’m a Parachute Packer,

And my heart takes a turn with each fold.

When I think how I snugly resided

In the lap of this land we could lose,

I believe if I left one cord twisted,

I would place my own neck in a noose.

So I lay the fine silk on the table

And I lift each pale panel in turn.

They have said that my folding is able

But it took me a long time to learn.

For the cords must come free for smooth flowing

And the webbing attachment be stout,

For the brute of a breeze will be blowing

If the aircrew have to bale out.

‘Cos the flyer must float unencumbered,

Come to earth to complete the design,

See, the ‘chute has been carefully numbered,

And the name in the log book is mine.

So is conscience awakened and care born

In the heart of a negligent maid.

Fickle Aeolus, fight for the airborne,

Whom I strive with frail fingers to aid.

Give my heroes kind wind and fair weather,

Let no parachute sidle or slump,

For today we go warring together

And my soul will be there at the jump.

I found the last two lines very moving: “Today we go warring together, and my heart will be there at the jump.”

* * * * *

Here is the best story of all, and one that I located after much diligent searching of the Internet. It comes from a small town newspaper in Watkins Glen, New York called The Watkins Express, dated July 7, 1943.

This man, RCAF Flying Officer J.R. Delaney, had managed to bail out of his burning plane and was saved. In gratitude, he sought out the parachute packer, a young woman named L.A.C. Irene Camken, who worked in a parachute packing station in Rockcliffe, near Ottawa. Flying Officer Delaney was from Mount Vernon, New York.

A grateful airman visits Leading Airwoman Irene Camken at her RCAF station to thank her for packing the parachute that saved him. Credit: The Watkins Glen (NY) Express, July 7, 1943.

And because the old clipping is a little blurry, here is a transcript:


When a flier has to bail out of his aircraft, he not only appreciates the parachute that does the trick of saving him, but looks on its packer as the person who threw a life preserver when he started to sink.

Flying Office T.R. Delaney of Mount Vernon, New York, who recently jumped from a flaming aircraft, landed safely and went to the parachute section of the Royal Canadian Air Force Station at Rockcliffe to thank the airwoman who “brought him back alive.”

She is Leading Airwoman Irene Camken, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Camken of Belleville. Formerly a fabric worker at the Cooey Metal Works, Brighton, Ont., LAW Camken enlisted in the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force fourteen months ago, and has been packing parachutes ever since. In her estimation, that is a real war job.

“You can never let yourself forget how important your work is when you’re packing ‘chutes,” she said. “It isn’t your life that depends on them. It’s somebody else’s, and your best is the only job that’s good enough.”

Now transferred to another station of the RCAF, LAW Camken took along evidence of how good her “best job” can be. It is a new identification bracelet, one shining side bearing the RCAF crest, her name and Women’s Division number. The other is the side she prefers. That reads: “With sincere thanks, T.R. Delaney.”

On behalf of all those men who fell safely from the sky — not to mention their mothers, sisters, and wives — I want to send a big Cheers to the Chute Girls, wherever they are now. Happy Landings!

Bird's Eye View by Elinor FlorenceAuthor Elinor Florence grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm that was the site of a wartime training airfield.  Her historical novel, Bird’s Eye View, tells the story of a female Canadian intelligence officer who works as an aerial photographic interpreter in World War II Britain.


Demystifying Home Care

Editor’s Note: The following essay began as a guest post for OpenPlacement, a company that links seniors and their families with providers of senior housing and home care services. In writing this piece, I’ve relied on my experiences as a professional caregiver, but the views expressed are my own, not those of my employer, and I did not receive any compensation for the essay. The client in the story, Mrs. Josie Delancey, is not a real person, but the issues underlying her fictional character are drawn from real life. — MAB

Woman Sitting by the Window (detail) by Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry

Woman Sitting by the Window (detail) by Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry, via Wikimedia Commons.

Every few months, I find myself standing on the doorstep of a new client, ringing the doorbell.

Who will she be? I wonder, this new member of the community of elders whom I meet in my work as a certified nursing assistant and companion to elders.

What family photographs will I see on her walls, what medicines on the table by her bed?

Will I have the skills she needs? Will she accept help from me, a person she’s never met?

Looking back on these moments of mystery on the doorstep, I’m struck by how high the stakes are when we try to help frail and vulnerable people as they grow older. When a family calls my agency to ask about home care, chances are this is just one step in a long journey. Perhaps their mom is struggling to cope at home with illness or injury. Perhaps their World-War-II-veteran husband has escalating memory problems that trigger agitation or even rage. Even in more fortunate circumstances, asking an elderly person to consider home care is a big step.

My hope in this essay is to demystify home-care by telling you something about it from my point of view as a practitioner with eight years of experience in the field. This work is by its very nature private, yet as the baby-boomer generation ages, there will be more and more elders who need the assistance of direct-care workers in order to live safely at home. That’s why I write about my experiences — taking care, of course, to preserve client confidentiality by changing any identifying details about my clients and their families.

Client Story: Mrs. Josie Delancey

Suppose you are an adult daughter named Alicia, and I’m here to help your mother, Mrs. Josie Delancey. You and your mother have met with my agency’s staff to discuss her situation. At age 85, Mrs. Delancey has been living alone in your family home since your dad died five years ago. But lately you and your three siblings have seen a big decline in her health. She was hospitalized twice in the past year, once with pneumonia and more recently with a fractured wrist. Her arthritis makes it difficult for her to stand up from a seated position. She’s no longer able to drive, and has become increasingly sad and listless. Her once-immaculate house fills up each week with discarded newspapers and used cat-food cans. She’s been losing weight and needs help with using the toilet as well as cooking, cleaning, medication reminders, and rides to the grocery store.

As you can see in this scenario, you and your mother have already given us lots of information that will help me do a good job. My supervisor has worked with you to set up a care plan that specifies what tasks your mother does independently, where she needs a little help, and where she needs substantial assistance.

Home Care Map

Indeed, since my agency uses secure email and web-based documentation tools, the information flows quickly and easily between the family and the client, agency supervisors, and caregivers like me in the field. Today, as I meet your mother and set about making her breakfast, I have a mental Home Care Map in my head that will grow and change with each visit.

Home Care Map for Mrs. Josie Delancey

Client Home Care Map

Tools of Support

Included in my mental Home Care Map is a list of intangible Tools of Support. It’s been my experience that the emotional support a caregiver can offer is just as important as the assistance we provide our elderly clients in the activities of daily living. As caregivers, we need both strong arms and kind smiles. When clients or family members resist care, or when something about our presence triggers some negative response from a client, we need to be able to work with the situation as tactfully as possible.

I remember visiting a friend of mine who was under hospice care, years ago, before I embarked on my career as a caregiver. I noticed that the hospice caregiver would help my friend get situated on the toilet and then wait outside the bathroom, with the door barely ajar. It was a small detail, but my sense was that in respecting my friend’s privacy at this vulnerable moment, the caregiver was supporting her independence and autonomy.

Appreciating Family Caregivers

Finally, I would like to express my appreciation for the family caregivers with whom I have worked over the years. A couple of years ago, I worked with a family caring for their 82-year-old father. He loved baseball, so for Father’s Day his son bought him a tablet device with a link on the home page to the Baseball Hall of Fame website. He especially loved the online exhibit, Picturing America’s Pastime. Looking at the pictures and telling stories about games he remembered gave this elderly man hours of enjoyment. I’ll always remember the thoughtfulness of the son’s gift and the joy it gave his father.

About the Author

Mary Ann Barton is a certified nursing assistant, elder companion and blogger who writes about health, healing, and caregiving for elders, their family members, and their paid and volunteer care partners. She finds joy in singing and is writing a book about finding rest and renewal as we care for others. See more by clicking here.

Illness, Forgiveness, and Families by Dana Snyder-Grant, LICSW

Editor’s note: Illness and blame. Blame and forgiveness. Forgiveness and healing. My friend Dana Snyder-Grant, a Massachusetts writer and social worker, has had ample opportunity in her personal and professional life to reflect on the meaning of illness and forgiveness in families.

“It is typical for family members to adopt feelings of blame when another becomes ill,” Snyder-Grant writes. “Unconsciously, we think it is our job to protect one another from hazards in the world. If we can’t sit with the sadness and anger about illness, we look outside ourselves for something or someone to blame.” Here is her guest post written especially for Joyous Paradox.

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I write as a person who has had MS for thirty-two years, and as a clinical social worker, specializing in chronic illness and disability. I write for those of you who care for family members and for all of us who are aging into our futures. Both the personal and the professional shape my thoughts.

If spirituality is about our connections — with ourselves and one another; if spirituality is beyond ego — that is, beyond good or bad, right or wrong; if spirituality is about a connection with something larger than ourselves — nature, music, community, the breath, goodness, a Higher Power — then spirituality is also about healing. And in that healing, there is forgiveness. For when we forgive, we go beyond ego. Whether we are forgiving ourselves or someone else, we let go of the anger or the shame or the hurt. We put the past aside and become present.

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“Dad, I forgive you. I love you.” I said these words in my father’s hospital room two years before he died. He might have had some way of sensing me, but no-one really knew. I had come down from Boston to visit him, an aging man with Alzheimer’s Disease, now suffering from the flu.

Don’t we all embark on a journey of forgiveness with our parents and ourselves?

My relationship with my father had shifted in the last few years, as his dementia had become more pronounced. Aphasia now silenced his powerful verbal abuse. His lambasting insults, a sharp contrast to his recurrent tender remarks, were in the past. The years had helped me come to terms with him and our relationship. Now we had quiet times together when we looked at art books or at photos of his grandchildren. Painful memories of my childhood and adolescent years had given way to feelings of compassion for a life interrupted.

Don’t we all embark on a journey of forgiveness with our parents and ourselves? Because they didn’t love us in the way that we had hoped, or they hurt us because they, too, were human. And we couldn’t or didn’t have the wisdom yet to accept that they, too, had shortcomings. When would we finally forgive ourselves for our mistakes? And for trying to change what we couldn’t? And when would we forgive them?

I remember some words about forgiveness that I heard several years prior to that day in the hospital room. To forgive is not to condone, but to let go of one’s resentments and to heal. My father’s illness brought me closer to that moment of forgiveness.

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Did my mother ever blame herself in any way for my father’s Alzheimer’s? My work with individuals and families informs me that it is typical for family members to adopt feelings of blame when another becomes ill. Unconsciously, we think it is our job to protect one another from hazards in the world. We long to control that which we cannot. If we can’t sit with the sadness and anger about illness, we look outside ourselves for something or someone to blame.

The notion that an illness could happen for no reason is intolerable. As Harold Kushner writes in his remarkable book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, it is our human nature to make order out of chaos. Kushner also states that the real tragedy about these bad things — whether they be illness or floods or car accidents — is that they challenge our belief in the goodness of humanity (and for him, in God’s goodness). “Why can’t we allow the universe to have a few rough edges?” he asks.

Paradoxically, we come together to restore one another. My mother found healing in a support group for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. It was a place where she learned it was normal to have hateful thoughts for a spouse whom she loved.

“He’s lost so much of himself that he is no longer there,” she said to me in the last year of my father’s life. Yet she persevered, as was her way, and supported others who were trying to care for their partners. When we break our isolation in community to give and receive, we can believe that we matter. We are then able to think more clearly and realize that much is out of our control — world events, other people, physical health. All we can control is how we respond in the present.

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“I feel responsible,” said my mother. “Wasn’t it my job to protect you from all this?”

My mother in New York City had called me in Boston, having just learned from my sister that I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Thirty-two years later, I can’t remember my reply. I now know how to respond.

“I wish it were that simple, Mom. We still don’t know what causes MS, but we do know it’s a complicated host of triggers — biological, environmental, genetic, and chance, to name a few.”

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My mother’s response to my illness was a common one. We, in the Western world, wish to control people, events, and outcomes. Thirty years ago, we were just tasting the possibilities of the new modernity with cable news and satellite television, Walkman audio players and boom boxes, video cassette recorders and Apple computers. In 2013, we live in a society and time with a heightened drive to control. iPhones and iPads, texting and Googling, iTunes and Netflix, are all contributing to a more complex world, even as these very gadgets help us navigate that universe. Aren’t these new forms of communication made for us — aging baby boomers — who forget where we put our keys and wallets, or simply, why we came into this room? No wonder we seek control.

But I digress.

In a time of illness, family members need to stay open to one another, not to hide. Hiding only fuels the shame.

I write for family caregivers. Control issues are at play in a family when illness rears its ugly head. When one family member has an illness, the entire family has an illness. Sarah has rheumatoid arthritis. She and her family need to negotiate the needs and demands of the illness; they need to journey together with the unpredictability, adapting plans in order to accommodate pain and fatigue, medical appointments, or accessibility needs. At the same time, they must all modify their expectations and assumptions. And keep the lines of communication open.

When feelings of guilt or blame or anger simmer in families affected by illness, these powerful emotions come into conflict with the love that also exists. If my family is supposed to act as a buffer against the world, didn’t someone do something wrong? Such paradoxical feelings may hinder honest communication, an important ingredient in any relationship.

In a time of illness, family members need to stay open to one another, not hide. Hiding only fuels the shame. This may be a time when you want to consider seeing a counselor or therapist to help you transform those moments when self-doubt and twisted perceptions interfere with positive action.

In a time of illness, staying open to each other as a family can help us live into the unknown as a spiritual quest — learning to let go of assumptions, expectations, and control. We can begin to accept our limitations by honoring our whole selves. We can manage unpredictability by living into the moment.

So neither my mother nor I did anything wrong to cause the MS. Or my father’s Alzheimer’s. All we can do when illness shadows our path is walk side by side, from this moment on.

— Dana Snyder-Grant, LICSW

Dear Judy, When My Mother Read the Part of Job’s Wife

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When I was little and living with my mother and my twin sister in a small house with a big garden in Napa, California, we used to buy groceries at Lyerla’s Market. You pronounced it “LIE-er-lahs,” with the accent on the first syllable. It had a wooden floor of long, narrow boards, always very clean. The man who most often checked out our groceries was nicknamed “Shorty.” My mother liked to say he’d scold her if she spent too much. I don’t know why she liked to tell that story: her extravagance, his caution. What would she be buying that cost too much? Ice cream, or preserved fruits for baking, or beef steak?

Once, waiting in line at Lyerla’s, I stole a single, cellophane-wrapped jawbreaker, the kind of thick, hard, red ball of candy that lasted forever in the corner of your cheek and stained your tongue red. I don’t know why I took it. I think I was surprised, a few seconds later, to discover myself still holding it in my hand. Nobody seemed to notice; not my mother, fishing for money in one of her smooth, dark blue or brown handbags; not my sister; not Shorty. In the car going home, I sat on the edge of the front seat of our scratchily-upholstered green Chevy and tried to suck the candy without being seen.

“Have you got something in your mouth?” my mother asked, sharply, taking her eyes off the road to glance at me as though through the clearer bottom half of bifocals.

“Uh-uh,” I said, somewhat thickly.

For some reason, she decided to let it go.

A few years later — I must have been eight — the Food Fair opened at the edge of town, out past the intersection where Imola Highway turned towards the state hospital. Food Fair was a modern market. When you went in through the glass doors, the first thing you saw was a yellow painted wooden bench filled with comic books. Donald Duck, Archie and his high school friends (I couldn’t stand Betty and Veronica), Little Lucy.

At home we were not allow comics, so these had me mesmerized, or would have if it weren’t for the drama of the rest of the place. There were pink lights over the meat packages, and wide white aisles floored in linoleum as clean and hard as bars of soap. The mirrors over the produce cases were tilted at odd angles. Grapefruit, tangerines, cantaloupe, Boston lettuce, bunches of radishes stretched away into forever. And the canned soups! My mother always made her own soups from scratch. Deep pots of chopped kale with ham, or chicken soup with all the vegetables mitered at their corners. Slightly watery pea soup you had to tolerate because we were of Swedish background and the recipe apparently came with the family. With all that, you can’t imagine how exotic those rows of red and white cans of Campbell soup appeared.

“Marsha’s mother gave us mushroom soup by Camp-Bell,” we told our mother one afternoon, coming home from lunch at a friend’s house. In our excitement, we pronounced the “p.”

“Oh,” said my mother, not as impressed. “From a can?”

But when a convenience store opened on a corner leading out of our development, my mother would walk with us down the street in the dry winds of California summer to buy Eskimo Pies after supper. There was a certain variation that came on a stick like an ordinary ice cream bar and had a thick glob of chocolate candy in the middle. We would walk home looking at the sunset in the wide sky, eating the chocolate coating off the bottom of the bar to control the drips, hearing the chain pull tight on our dog’s collar as she strained after cats, coming to the last bit of intense sweetness as we reached the steep driveway to our house.

Today when we met for lunch, you talked about how it is important for you in your life as a minister to be willing to be with people as they are dying. For some reason, when you said that I had a deep feeling of grief. Tears came in my eyes a little and I had to will them to be still.

Over the last few years, I have come to believe so much in the poignancy of everyday life. There is something about the awkwardness of unshed tears at lunch at the Gaslighter that is very valuable to me. Ice cream bars, comic books, jawbreakers, the small details of unsentimental reflection, flashes of conversation, embarrassment, longing, these are the things that seem to matter when I think about dying.

When I was a child in Napa, shortly before we left there, my mother began taking us to meetings of a Unitarian fellowship. There was a group reading of Archibald MacLeish’s play on the story of Job, “J.B.,” held at some fellowship member’s home. My mother read the part of Job’s wife. It was evening. I remember something about the living room, assorted stuffed chairs in a rough circle and standing lamps with dark pleated ivory shades and pull chains. I sat on the arm of my mother’s chair — I must have been ten or eleven then — and I remember the light falling on my arms, making the fine hairs on my skin look alternately dark and light.

My mother spoke. I think I must have been reading over her shoulder, or else I read the play afterwards by myself, because I can remember seeing the blocks of words down the page and knowing when it would be her turn to read them. There must be a part of the play where the voices speak of sorrow down and down, on and on, one after another, those words coming out into the empty light of the air the way they came laid out in spaces of black type on the lighted page. When my mother spoke the part of Job’s wife, the sorrow in her voice was so deep, so old, so large and so peculiarly slanted towards my life that I found myself weeping. It’s that rolling motion: there’s a certain form of grief in which you aren’t sobbing, your breathing is undisturbed, but the water rolls over the round sides of your cheeks like a warm and distant ocean. It’s so far away from you that you have a distinct surprise in being where you are. You remember what you have just been doing; you have a muffled worry about what the others in the room must think of you; you wipe the tears off with your hand; but at the same time you are relaxed a little, and they keep coming.

I hesitate these days to read “J.B.,” but sometime I would like to. Remembering my mother speaking that evening, I am sure she was doing that thing we call invocation, calling upon the things that are deep and touch us all. When my mother is speaking, in that memory I have of her, I believe she is speaking of her own dying, and mine. I believe she is saying, in the words she reads aloud in the circle next to the standing lamp, something that she can never say in real life. She has an ease in her grieving as she reads that never happens when we are together. In her reading, she is mourning, but she is also moving on.


Mary Ann

Editor’s note: I wrote this letter to the minister of my church on April 9, 1986, which is 27 years ago this week.

Hospice Memorial Service

This piece was written a year ago in May, 2011, following a memorial service for my mother, Lisette Berglund Hyde, and other patients of Seasons Hospice. 

Dear Everyone,

It is Friday, May 20, 2011, and I am here to write about being at my mother’s hospice memorial service two days ago at the community center in Wellesley, MA. When Steve and I checked in at the reception desk, I fought a mad impulse to confront the greeters: “Hi there. My name is Mary Ann Barton and I hate my mother.”

I wanted to blurt out, “She was mean to me.” I refused to have any of the nice foods at the table with the sweet green plastic tablecloth and the bowl of fruit. When my twin sister Katherine arrived I felt a little better, because I was so glad to see her. Steve was very nice to me, asking if I wanted some food. The room filled up fast. Everybody seemed to be talking to each other and maybe even having a good time.

Okay, here we are, I am here at my mother’s hospice memorial service. I can’t believe that the woman who is singing a song to open the service is singing in such a soft voice. Doesn’t she realize that she is not at the bedside of somebody who is dying? She stands beside the podium looking out at row after row of people who are dressed in nice clothes from all walks of life, and doesn’t she realize that we are almost overcome by the difficulty of hearing anything other than the words that pour into our brains? Don’t you understand, oh beautiful and young singer, that your soft voice hardly penetrates because my head is stuffed so full of Not-Wanting-to-Remember?

Oh, God, please spare me from attending an evening of remembrance. Please let me be somewhere else, not in this row, not with all these other people who have wept and hugged and cried and borne up so bravely at the bedsides of their loved ones.

Now the nice tall man stands next to the nice shorter woman in front of the podium. They are asking us to come up, one by one, when the name of our beloved is read, come and take a rose from the pile laid gently around the clear glass vase and place this long-stemmed rose in the vase to create a bouquet of remembrance. If we are more than one person arriving here to breathe in and out as our loved one’s name is read, we can all come up to the front, just like taking communion, except that instead of receiving bread and wine, or body and blood, we will place a flower in the clear glass vessel that is marked, metaphorically, In Memory Of.

The first one goes up to the front. She chooses a red rose. She turns to us, holding the microphone, and she says, “I loved my mother. I had her in my house since 2006. She took a long time but the hospice make it so much better. Not easy, only better. They talk to us and they listen.” She looked up at us. “Oh,” she said, “all you beautiful people. I am so glad I came.”

We laugh with her and there is a pause. And then more people come up in ones or twos or threes. Here is a group of four women honoring the fifth friend who belonged to their group, they are bonded like sisters, up there telling stories, and it is so sweet.
I wish I could remember. I wish I could remember everything that every person said. I only remember that some people cried. Men cry, women cry, young granddaughter-teenagers cry. “I loved him,” they say. “I loved her,” they say. “She complained about everything,” they say, “but everybody loved her.”

“I was so happy that he had all his friends coming to visit him,” one woman said. “They are all retired, you know, so they don’t have anything else to do other than come and visit my dad. Remember, Jean,” she continued, speaking to the nice shorter woman, “you used to call me from your car when you came to see my dad and ask me where to park. Because the whole driveway and the street was full of cars belonging to his friends.”

Someone else says, “We played music all the time for my brother. Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, we had tons of CDs. My brother’s collection of CDs was almost as big as mine, so I just played one after the other and I checked to see did I have ones he didn’t have and if I did I brought them over and I played them.”

When our mother’s name was called, almost at the end of the long program, Katherine and I went up together. We picked a pink rose, and I kissed the bloom before putting it in the vase. When it was my turn, I said:

My mother was an amazing and a very complicated person. When we were growing up in Napa, California, she loved gardening and animals, nature and walking. She was always reading, and listening to the second most politically radical radio station in California, KPFA in Berkeley, with broadcasts by avant-garde poets and scholars like Kenneth Rexroth and Alan Watts.

She had Alzheimer’s disease. One of the aspects of her long decline was that I got to know her in ways that were very unexpected. I remember that when she was at an assisted living facility — this was well before hospice — I went to have lunch one day and sat down at a little table for four with Mother across from me. Another resident sat down next to me and leaned over, saying in a confidential tone of voice, ‘You have to watch out for her. She told me to go to hell.’

Seasons Hospice was wonderful to my mother. During the last six months or so of her life, she was happier than I remember her being since we were children. She lived from moment to moment to moment. When I came to her nursing home and woke her up as she lay on her bed or curled up in one of the sofas in the day room, she would smile. Dear Mother Lisette, I love you.

As I write this I am thinking about the last time I saw my mother. It was just before Christmas and I sang to her, as I usually did, and as usual she fell asleep to my singing. But just before she slept, as I sang the chorus of Silent Night, she looked up at me and joined in singing. Then I watched her going to sleep and I saw a deep glow radiating from her face. “Oh,” I thought, “her face is transfigured.” As I watched, the glow blinked out and she became just my mother, sleeping. I said goodbye and kissed her on her cheek. I walked out into the hall and said out loud to myself, “I wonder if that’s the last time I’ll see her.”

After the hospice memorial service ended, I asked three of the Seasons staff to sign my program. “You are the Hospice All-Stars,” I told them. So today, when I look at the program, I see a neat and sweet signature from Evy, the music therapist, who came so often to play guitar and sing for my mother; a fluid and decorative signature from Eirinn, the woman who signed us up to receive services; and, at the bottom right, the words “With Love, Chaplain John Gianino.”

Dear Chaplain John, I did not know how tall you were. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you while my mother was still living. When you called on the phone over the months and months of her journey, I thought you were a priest and Irish. But looking at your last name now I realize you must be Italian. Are you from the North End of Boston? Could I meet you at Walden Rehab, even though Lisette is no longer living, to say some things I cannot say alone?


Mary Ann