Ethel “Eileen” Taverner Hess was born September 4, 1917 in Lewisham, Ontario, Canada. She was the oldest of nine children and she helped to raise her brothers and sisters during the depression years of the nineteen-thirties and forties. Like most families they grew their own vegetables and killed local game to provide for the nourishment of their bodies and the love of family brought them through hard times. Freshwater catfish and a hymnbook were staples for survival and blueberry picking was a skill that every family member was efficient at. Eileen married young and had one child named Patricia, whom she affectionately called “Patsy.”
By the late 1950’s, Patricia had grown up to be a young woman and Eileen’s brothers and sisters were all grown as well. Their parents left the hamlet of Lewisham and moved down the road to Barkway. Eileen remarried and she and her husband, Hank started a life outside of Gravenhurst. It was a happier time and the entire Taverner family prospered in the area and each of Eileen’s brothers and sisters raised families of their own. Patsy immigrated to the U.S., found work as a Stenographer, and married a man from the states. Eileen focused her efforts on her husband and their home and she talked to her daughter “long distance” whenever she got the chance. Hank was good at making money, better than most, and the two of them enjoyed what life had to offer. This included traveling with Hank’s job and building a house on Doe Lake. Eileen drove in to Barkway once or twice each week to take care of her aging parents.
Patricia had two children and settled in Upstate New York, about 350 miles south of where Eileen and Hank lived. She brought the children up to visit on the odd Easter or Christmas holiday but it was the summers that her son, Michael remembers more than any other times. Eileen, or “Gram” as he called her, was a wonderful grandmother to him but she was also someone whom he admired and respected. She was someone who stayed positive but told you the way it was. She faced adversity with her head held high and she rolled up her sleeves without calling it “sacrifice.” She always moved forward but remembered where she came from. She was attentive to others and would drop whatever she was doing to help someone, whether it was to cook a meal or offer a pleasant thought. She didn’t boast, brag, or condemn and she would do something rather than talk about doing something. She had a smile for most occasions and her eyes smiled really big.
“Where are we going, Mother?” I asked. “We’re going to find THE OPEONGA ROAD,” said Patricia. It was 2004 and I was up on holiday from Texas. I had been to Ontario to visit several times over the years but it was just me this time. Mother lived alone now, and my own children were almost grown, and I had flown up for this trip and had rented a car in Toronto. Mother read in a magazine article several years before about an area where Irish Settlers had immigrated to eastern Ontario in the 19th century. Though the people and the towns were gone, their descendants and a few of the old structures still stood. Mother wanted to make a pilgrimage to see what the Irish had seen when they first came off the boats that delivered them by way of the St. Lawrence River and the Ottawa River in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s. It sounded intriguing and the road trip would get Mother out of the house for a couple of days.
The Muskoka area is beautiful at all times of year. My Canadian family lives primarily in this area but this trip was a little north and east of anything I had seen before. The landscape didn’t disappoint and Mother and I marveled at our surroundings as we twisted the back roads to our destination. It was a roller coaster of hills and the fall colors were magnificent at every turn. We eventually came to the ghost town of Balaclava, the home of old farm barns that stood tall and proud after a century and a half of when craftsmen built them. We stopped on a bridge that overlooked a creek and an old wood mill. The scene looked like something out of a Thomas Kincade painting and we stood there for several minutes, watching the reflection of the mill against the still water of the pond in the foreground.
We spent the night in Renfrew, roughly twenty-five miles from the Quebec border. It was an older hotel from the 70’s, complete with a small elevator and a front desk adorned with polished brass, and a restaurant that promised “fine dining.” Mother and I ordered a salad & steak as we sat in the near-empty dining room of the establishment. We had a way of talking for hours and that night was no exception. We would go on about family, history, life lessons, & spirituality. We talked about books, authors, art, movies and music. The topics were limitless and, as long as we steered clear of religion and politics, our conversations were upbeat and would pass the time quickly. When they finally brought our steaks to us an hour later we had hardly noticed that they were late. We turned in shortly after retiring to our rooms.
Spirituality is something that each of us in this world experiences differently. I like to think that we all have our own journey, our own road to get to where we’re going. In 2002, I had become a Catholic Christian after being baptized at the Easter Vigil at our hometown church. That is a story in itself and I will write about it one day. When Mother and I woke up the next morning she reminded me that we were going to drive to Mount St. Patrick and try to find a Catholic church that had been erected near the site of a holy well that was discovered in 1867. There was something fantastic about what we were about to see. I didn’t know how I knew that. I just knew.
Finding the road to Mount St. Patrick was almost impossible. Truthfully, we almost gave up looking for it and my joy for this trip was dwindling. However, once we drove up to the church property all of our anxieties melted away. It wasn’t the church that we were interested in so much as the holy well that Mother had read about. Father John McCormac arrived in the area in January of 1867 and the story is that he blessed the well in Irish tradition and the priest and his flock of settlers built a church on the site in 1869. The water is said to have healing properties and a well was built near the creek that runs through the land. We walked up to the pump house and just looked at each other. It was quite unremarkable and at first we thought we had found the wrong place. After entering into the very small building that was painted white and baby blue, we found testimonies on the inside walls of the building, written on various scraps of paper and fastened to the walls with tape, tacks, and even chewing gum. There was a sign on the pump that read “Not potable water,” and we felt a little disappointed. I asked Mother “Do you want to pump some holy water?” She just laughed and said “Sure, why not?” We found a couple of glass containers in our rental car and we went to work filling them. All of a sudden, there was a feeling of calmness and peace that washed over us. It was a holiness that we both felt and it changed the way we behaved. We became reverent of our surroundings and began to take the written testimonies seriously. We signed the guest book that was displayed in the place and visited the grave of the priest who had started all of this. Fr. McCormac died in 1874 at the young age of 33. The town that had once prospered in the area was gone and all that remained was the church, the cemetery, and the holy well. We got in the car and drove in silence for a long time.
We found “The Opeongo Road” later that morning. There were several markers on highway 60 and we drove the meandering blacktop north and west for several miles while looking at the old barns along the way. Our pilgrimage ended in Wilno where we found a local pub and we parked our bums while enjoying a sandwich with our dark beer. After a time we got back in our time capsule and headed farther west, enjoying the southernmost area of Algonquin Provincial Park. We kept a lookout for moose but found only signs that read “Moose Crossing.” As the sun disappeared over the horizon we plotted a course south to Mother’s place and we arrived late that night.
My grandmother, who had lived with Mother for several years, had taken a fall a couple of years before and was currently residing in a nursing home in Gravenhurst. She was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and she no longer recognized anyone. Mother had taken me to see her before our road trip and it was a visit that I didn’t care to make. I had seen Gram in 2002 when my daughter, Lori and I had visited and that was when I had witnessed for the first time what the disease was doing to her, and to Mother. Her short-term memory was limited at that time and she talked mostly about her childhood. She had told me the story of a man in Lewisham who had bought her some reading glasses when she was young because he realized that her family could not afford to buy them and he had the means. It was a story from her youngest days that she had never told me and her eyes gleamed as she talked, as if it happened yesterday. She yearned for pieces of candy and she refused to eat her vegetables. This was the same woman who had eaten healthy all of her life and had often quipped “The mind is the first thing to go.” Now she no longer conversed with people and she swore like a sailor. It was hard to recognize the woman in the wheelchair. During our visit a few days before, Gram held up her hand and yelled “Taxi!” incessantly. Mother and I had left without saying goodbye.
It was the day before I was to return home and I told Mother that I wanted to see Gram once again. I told her that I wanted to do it on my own and she said okay. I had already begun to pack a few things and I had put the holy water into a shoulder bag along with some snacks for the plane ride. For no reason, I decided to bring the shoulder bag with me to the nursing home. I followed the same path that Mother and I had taken days before to the Alzheimer’s wing where security was a little tighter. Some of the patients there were known for “escaping” and one had to know a combination to get in and out of the main door. I walked up to the nurse’s station and a nurse I had met the other day told me “Your grandmother is in the dining room. We’re just about to feed them lunch.” When I entered the dining room I saw a sea of white hair. Some of the old people were staring at me while others looked down or slept as they waited for lunch to be served. Some of them talked amongst themselves and one of them was yelling. It was Gram. “Taxi! Taxi!” Her right hand was raised as if to hail a cab and she yelled loudly. “Taxi!” I was forty-two years old but I felt like a child again, waiting for my grandmother to tell me what to do next. I knew that simple instructions such as these would not be coming from her mouth now or ever again. She was sitting at a round table with three other residents.
The familiar nurse walked in and seemed to sense my trepidation. She made me feel at ease and offered “Why don’t you sit down beside your grandma? There’s an empty seat there and you can feed her if you like.” About that time, Gram yelled again. I was pretty close to her now and realized for the first time that she was not yelling “Taxi!” She was calling “Patsy!” I listened to her some more and heard her say very clearly “Patsy!” I laughed nervously. I took the seat beside her and she made eye contact with me for the first time. I was scared that she would start yelling again or maybe even stab me with her fork. But, it was as if she really saw me, and then she smiled. Those blue and silver eyes were smiling, too and all was good. I looked down and saw that the holy water was about to fall out of my bag. I quickly put my hand around it and placed it on the table. I made some small talk with Gram as I got comfortable in my chair. The first course was mashed potatoes and I fed her as if she were a child. She continued to smile and she remained calm the whole time. Another course came out and I spooned that to her as well. I then looked up to where the front doors of the dining room were and there stood a priest! I quickly asked the nurse “What is that priest doing here?” She told me “Priests come through here all of the time. They visit all of the nursing homes in Muskoka. We never know when they’ll be here or which priest we’ll get, but they don’t stay long. Do you need him for something?” I quickly rose from my seat and walked to where the priest stood. He was standing beside a nun and they both saw that I was approaching them. “Pardon me,” I said. “Could you do a blessing?” I explained the holy well and the holy water like a bumbling idiot and the priest asked “Do you want me to bless the water or your grandmother?” “Both!” I exclaimed. The priest and the nun both followed me to Gram’s table. I gave him the water and he said some words over it. He then opened the bottle and got his fingertips wet with the contents and he reached down and touched Gram on the forehead and said some more words as she looked up at him with a smile on her face. She continued to be at peace and I thanked the priest and nun for the kind act they had performed. It was a wonderful experience. Again, there was a sense of calmness and tranquility that I felt. It seemed to me as if the same calmness washed over Gram and the entire dining room of “Leisure World.” I can’t explain it better than that.
Gram was done eating and one of the nursing staff aides told me that I could wheel her into the sitting room to watch television. So, I did and I took a seat facing her. She got a little fidgety and I could see that she wasn’t going to watch any television. I remembered that I had a chocolate bar in my bag. I pulled it out and asked her if she wanted some. She suddenly got still and nodded her head yes. I fed her a couple of pieces and then she fell asleep in her chair. She looked peaceful. It was the last time that I saw my grandmother.
This is a story that I wrote many years ago. Like most stories that I have written, it was done spontaneously and I have no record of it nor have I found anyone who remembers reading it. I wrote it again, trying to stay true to the original. It is a testament to my grandmother who was an inspiration to many. She came from humble beginnings and worked for what she had. She taught me to help others and she continues to try and teach me to have a healthy diet. She is someone who had a lot of class and I always admired her wit and sense of humor. I miss her and I look forward to the time that I will see her again.