I know I’ve been away a long time. Here is why.
Born in Limosano, a commune in the Italian region of Molise, Mary (Pat) Incoronata, Mariglia, Mongrain, my mother arrived with her family, in 1924, in Niagara Falls Canada. She recalled biting an immigration official when he insisted she take off her clothes for a medical check. And so it began….
Though always vulnerable to the prejudice of the 1920’s and 1930’s, at 5 feet tall, she was a high school basketball player and stellar student. When she overheard a classmate’s mother say to another that her greatest dream would be to see her daughter become a nurse, at that moment, Mary decided she would become a nurse.
Class valedictorian, she graduated from the University of Ottawa in 1941. She worked at various hospitals in the Toronto region and then, on a whim, decided to move to Twillingate Newfoundland, then a separate Dominion of the British Empire where she worked as a district nurse. It was there, she joined the army in 1944 as a Lieutenant nursing sister. It was there, she met a handsome, dashing French Canadian officer, Edouard, who was to become my father. Demobbed, they lived first in Quebec City where I was born, and then variously in remote regions of Northern Manitoba and Northern Quebec, where he worked on the big hydro- electric projects of the 1950’s. They finally settled again in Quebec City for several years, where my siblings and I ‘grew up.’
Having travelled Canada, upon my father’s retirement, they travelled Europe. She paused briefly to care for him in his last year, before carrying on to Samarkand, Egypt, Russia, Paris and London, well into her eighties.
She was a woman of enormous paradox- sociable, entertaining, charming gathering people to her wherever she went. She was also fiercely private. Financially cautious, she believed in serendipity, following her intuition (though she never called it that) and had the largest collection of 4 leaf clovers ever seen. She emphasized to her children, hard work, discipline, and delayed gratification. In her own life, she threw out that rule book. One of her favourite expressions, where she met a frustration she couldn’t be bothered to overcome, was -phfewy…
She was not domestic. She took great pride in the fact that she had never worn an apron in her life. The story of the cold peas is one of the family favourites. She was known to regularly open cans of peas and serve them directly from there. Her reasoning-my father didn’t like his food hot anyway. But there was always dinner on the table at 5:30 sharp.
After living for several years in Vancouver, she returned in the year 2000 to Ottawa, the real place of ‘her coming of age.’ Surviving breast cancer at the age of 85, she was asked to write a brief account in a charitable publication. This drew her to the attention of Max Keeping, a local celebrity. It was through him that she was honoured as one of Ottawa’s 100 amazing people, for the publication of her first book at the age of 92, ‘As It Was In the Beginning’.
Indomitable, intrepid, she was frustrating and loveable in equal measure. She drank too much, smoked too much, kept herself thin as a rail, until she was 80. Then….phfewy….she decided to get fat.
She loved food, chocolates, peaches, and especially meat. Red meat. She didn’t feel right unless she had her meat. She violated every known principle for living into a healthy old age. She donated her body to science and the University of Ottawa will no doubt discover important learnings from that study.
She lived independently in an apartment in the Byward Market in downtown Ottawa until three months ago. However, with the advance of congestive heart failure, her habit of calling an ambulance when she was feeling anxious, her decreasing mobility, and much against her real wishes, my brothers, sister and I ‘helped’ her settle into Ottawa’s most luxurious retirement home. She hated it. After more trips to emergency ( where she always introduced herself as a nurse), and threats to move to the Chateau Laurier where she would drink Manhattans at Zoe’s, she organized by herself, a move to the Perley Veteran’s Retirement Hospital.
I spent three weeks in Ottawa, visiting several hours with her every day, during July and August, while my noble brother, his incredible wife and son took a much needed break.
We chatted, sat, she slept, I walked the corridors. We took the final trip to Zoe’s, the timeless cocktail lounge at the Chateau Laurier, where she had been a frequent visitor since 1938.
The last day I was with my mother, she driving her motorized chair, we went outside into the beautiful grounds of the Perley. Bird feeders dot the grounds. Their chatter and singing fill the air. She raised her face and it just lit up. She loved birds. I didn’t know that, until now. We shared a non-alcoholic beer in the pub inside. With her walker and her oxygen, she came with me to the door. I bent down and put my arms around her gently. I couldn’t help myself. I said: I love you. I love you. She said: triple that. She didn’t like being overly demonstrative. She said: I am not going to cry. I said: I’m not going to either.
She was the last of her classmates, the last of her generation, one of the last veterans of World War II .
She is survived by 4 children- Anita, Susann, Lester, Steven, 3 grandchildren- Lisa, Kevin, Alexander, 3 great grandchildren -Andrew, Anya, Anton.
So tonight, to honour Pat, it’s red meat- Ina’s Sliders and Peach Cake.