Lena Neufeld (nee Penner)
1927 ~ 2021
Tribute to Mom
We’ve had a couple of weeks to realize that this day was coming soon and to look at family photos and to be reminded of what we will miss deeply.
Our mom/grandma/great-grandma was a bit of a complicated woman in some ways and a very straightforward one in other ways.
She made her way into the world in the midst of very difficult circumstances – enroute from her family’s home in Russia as they fled an increasingly threatening situation, leaving her with a birthplace of Moscow on her birth certificate and a very early travel history. And now she has left us in the midst of another set of very difficult circumstances – the severe restrictions of COVID-19 which have kept most of us from even saying an in-person goodbye, which will always sadden us.
Mom was born on July 13, 1927, enroute from Russia to Canada, the fourth child in a family that would eventually welcome 12 children – 6 boys and 6 girls. Her family’s first home was in southeastern Saskatchewan, near Weyburn. She grew up during the Depression. That gave her a lifelong unwillingness to ever waste anything. It also made her very grateful for her very hard-working parents. “We never knew that we were poor,” she said. “We were well fed, well clothed and well cared for.”
In Mom’s mind, one of the greatest privileges of her life was her education – her opportunity to complete high school at Rosthern Junior College in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, and then to attend Manitoba Normal School in Winnipeg to get her teacher’s training.
She loved her five years of teaching, and I marvel at the creativity and organizational skills it took, especially during her years of teaching all 8 or 9 grades in a one-room school. She loved her students and was loved by them. A highlight was creating and directing the special school programs that brought the community together. Her teacher’s heart showed through right to the end of her life in the pleasure she took in decorating the little corner shelf outside her apartment door with different seasonal decorations for each month – just like a teacher would decorate her classroom.
When she met Dad and they were married – almost on her birthday – July 12, 1952, she gave up teaching and took on the role of a farmer’s wife and, quite soon, as a mother of two children, a girl and a boy. “What more could you ask for?” she would say. Two was the perfect number for her.
She worked very hard alongside Dad. I can remember being amazed as an adult (who now realized how much work it was) at the size of her garden. She pickled and preserved and cooked and baked to provide for her family.
And she invested in us, her children. Her generation didn’t say “I love you” often but they expressed it in their loving care. I can remember coming home from school and heading out to the truck on the field during harvesting season so that we could work on our reading and spelling homework, and so that she could listen to me read a Psalm from the German Bible each day in order to keep that part of my heritage. Sorry, Mom! ☹
As I grew older, I remember her letting me off the hook when it came to helping in the kitchen so that I could focus on my homework. That didn’t do me any favours when it came to learning how to cook – that had to come later – but education had been so important to her, and she wanted that opportunity for her children too. Gerald and I were both good students, and she took great pleasure in our successes.
Much of my adult life has been spent far from my parents, first in Ethiopia and then in Ontario. During our 16 years in Ethiopia, Mom and Dad wrote a letter to us every week. One week was Mom’s turn and the next week was Dad’s. I did likewise, and Mom saved all my letters, carefully packaging them in order, year by year, and giving them back to me when we returned to Canada to stay. That served us well when we had to complete the applications for Old Age Security and Canada Pension Plan recently, as we had to list the exact dates we left and returned to Canada for each term overseas and each home assignment back in Canada. It was all in those letters and all in chronological order.
The greatest sign of Mom and Dad’s great love for us when we were in Ethiopia was their willingness to get on a plane (for the very first time) and visit us there. It was way out of their comfort zone – especially hers – and it was a once-in-a-lifetime international trip – never to be repeated. When we returned to Canada but to live in Ontario, they again made that trip to see us – a much shorter one this time – but again just once. We would have loved more visits, to have them be a part of our daily lives for at least a few weeks every year, but “adventure” was not Mom’s middle name. She loved her routines.
When we were back in Canada, communication was by phone call. I would have loved to be able to text or email – so often I thought of a little thing that she and Dad would love to know, but that technology was not for them, so we saved what we wanted to share for those phone calls. Mom liked the routine of a weekly phone call at a set time – Sundays at 2 p.m. – a long one, especially after Dad was gone. Until her eyesight began to fail, she made a list throughout the week of things she wanted to tell me, and most often our calls would begin with her list, just so she wouldn’t forget anything.
Those calls during these past almost 6 years since Dad passed away also let me see how she processed grief and aloneness. Her faith became her rock. She sang through the Mennonite Hymnal and clung to Bible verses and TV church programs. She knew that death was not to be feared (dying, yes, but not death), and heaven was waiting.
COVID-19 has kept us apart even during these final days of her life and has made the final year of her life very isolated and lonely. The friendships and shared meals and social activities of Cedar Estates gave her days purpose and pattern, but suddenly that was all gone.
Despite the restrictions of these final days in the hospital, God gave us several special gifts. Early during her time in palliative care, she was still responsive to short phone calls. On one day, I ended my call by telling her I loved her and heard her tell me she loved me. Hers was not a family or a generation where those words were said often – so it was very special to say and to hear them. And on the next day and our last real phone call, I let her know that I had been looking through family photos and she said, “I’ve had a good life, haven’t I? 90 healthy years (the last 3 of her 93 years had been much harder). Two perfect children – no, don’t argue. I mean it. Wonderful grandchildren – and a wonderful husband – if only he had been with me a little longer.” Those words and that recognition of a life well lived are wonderful memories.
Mom sometimes struggled with anxiety, but her last days were mostly peaceful and without pain – also great gifts. We miss you, Mom, but we are glad for your forever home in heaven and your reunion with Dad.