Renee Watkiss, August 5 1919 - February 4, 2013

Renee Watkiss, August 5 1919 – February 4, 2013

I just found out a few minutes ago that we lost our Gran last night. She was 93. Sometimes she was funny, sometimes she drove us nuts, but she was my grandmother, and I love her. As I’m sitting here, struggling to find something to say as a tribute to her, I’m thinking of dozens of things to write yet nothing comes easily.

Gran young

Gran and Ellen in the park, around 1987.

Gran loved writing. She adored keeping a journal, and she took detailed notes on everything that went on around her. If you wanted to know the temperature of a particular afternoon in 1992, she could go back in her diary and tell you. She was there for the birth of every goat on our farm, and recorded in her diary the names of every kid born. Later she started writing memoirs of her life in Kuala Lumpur with my grandfather. Even with all the writing she did, she occasionally told a story I hadn’t heard before, like the tale she told me in October about shopping in Cairo. Sometimes, when I’m writing, I imagine I’ll compile the stories of my life to share with my grandchildren, as she tried to do for us.

Gran at lodge

Renee was a traveller, and had tales of places I can only imagine. She grew up in a mining town in the north of England, where her parents lived and her ancestors had lived for generations, and nobody travelled farther than the next town over. Renee always knew she wanted out. She married my grandfather Albert because he valued education and she thought he was going places. Right she was, but first she had to live through wartime in England while Albert went off to war. Albert was taken prisoner of war in Asia and she heard nothing of him for years. When he returned, they moved to Asia and lived in Singapore when it was still a colony of the British. After a few years of the British colonial lifestyle, Albert was offered a job near Ottawa and the family relocated to Canada.

Gran with my nephew Isaac, her great-grandson

Gran with my nephew Isaac, her great-grandson

In Canada, Renee and her young family settled in Kanata, now a suburb of Ottawa. Kanata was a fairly new town, and Renee and Albert were active members of the community. They used to tell us, with great amusement, the story of a meeting about establishing the first church in town, and how nobody understood why Albert insisted the church couldn’t be named the First United Church of Kanata. After Kanata, Renee and Albert moved to Edmonton, and then later moved to Vancouver to be closer to my father.

Gran with my cousin Josh at my brother Neil's wedding

Gran with my cousin Josh at my brother Neil’s wedding

When we moved to a farm in 1988, Renee and Albert bought the property with my parents and moved into a house on the other side of the farm. Renee loved birds, and raised ducks and chickens on her half of the property. The ducks used to line up and march behind her single file at feeding time. Every single duck she owned had a name, and she raised hundreds every year. When she wasn’t outside with the ducks, she was sitting at her kitchen window with her journal, and her binoculars. She watched out the windows for birds and also for farm visitors. Before we even heard the first sounds of tires on gravel, our phone would be ringing as Gran called to know who had driven up our driveway. When it got too dark to see out the window, Renee would be doing word puzzles in her armchair.

gran and isaac

Although I remember fondly meals at Gran’s house when I was very young (Albert made us hotdogs with orange ketchup mixed with mustard), Renee was famous in the family for terrible cooking. She embraced microwave cookery with unmatched (and undeserved) enthusiasm. She also used to cook up giant pots of soup for the family, and slop for the pigs and chickens. The two giant pots of stewing vegetables looked and smelled exactly the same, and the only difference was that the mouldy scraps from the human soup went into the pig soup. Usually, when Gran was cooking, we kids would try to arrange to be invited to a friend’s house for supper. On special occasions, Renee would make her favourite fancy dessert: multicoloured instant Jello, in layers.

gran nose

Gran always had a sweet tooth. I remember one year I took her out for lunch for her birthday, and she had two pieces of pie for lunch, and no savoury food at all. Most years we didn’t bother pretending to eat healthy for her birthday – we went out for pancakes instead. Gran’s birthday in August was ten days before mine, and three days after my cousin Renee’s, so we started a girls’ birthday breakfast tradition, along with my sister Ellen whose birthday was in June. Gran always had crepes with whipped cream and peaches, and a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. When I moved to Korea, the tradition stopped, and by the time I came back, Gran didn’t want to eat out anymore.

gran neil isaac

Over the past few years, Gran got harder to talk to. She had trouble hearing, so she couldn’t understand what you were saying much of the time. She didn’t want to go to restaurants because the background noise prevented conversation. The only way to have a nice chat with Gran was to sit in her living room and let her take the conversation in whatever direction she wanted. So, whenever I visited her last year, I sat and listened to her reminisce about stories in her life. I’m glad, now, that I made the time to do that. My cousin Daisy suggested I send Gran printouts of my blog, so she could read my stories while I was away. I was going to order them bound in book form and sent to her, but I never got around to it. I still have a postcard I wrote to her, addressed and waiting for me to take it to the post office, as well.

gran with isaac

It’s difficult to be away from home when someone you love has passed away. Today will probably be spent on the phone or internet, getting in touch with cousins and aunts and uncles, sharing rememberances. Later I think Ellen and I will raise a glass to Gran’s memory, and tell stories of her. I’m sure she’d have liked that.