On Saturday, Marion Jorgensen and I went to Pat Brownlee’s townhouse to “do” her kitchen. It was bizarre in a way, sad and good, fun and terrible. We talked to her periodically throughout the day. Pat
died a month ago.
Pat’s husband, Paul Armstrong, was away; we had free rein. One of the quickest spots to clean out was the spice cupboard. I know that people nowadays are more judicious about best-before dates and all that. Some people even buy their spices by the spoonful, lest they become old and tasteless. It wasn’t always like that, at least in my family. In my family, you “put things by.” In my mother’s case, for example, and in Pat’s, they put those spices by for about 30 or 40 years, according to the jars and tins we found. I’ve found containers like those in museums. Thing is, she didn’t need much spice. She added spice to every event she ever attended. The real deal. Fun, zest, humour, fury.
It’s up to family, I had reasoned, to dispense with personal affects; the kitchen isn’t so personal. I was wrong, of course. Food preparation is intimate. Her hands had touched every item; she’d shopped, cleaned, polished, stirred, sifted, mixed, rolled, peeled, chopped and served right there.
Some cupboards were hilarious. For example, we found the cat dish and a scratching post used to sharpen claws. The cat has been dead for ages. We found sponges and rubber gloves. Three new packages of each. Were they on sale? We found unrecognizable food and party supplies from last Christmas. We found her favourite apron. She and Paul had enough baking tins and pans for a family of 14. “Oh, Lord,” Marion moaned, “remind me to clean out my kitchen tomorrow!” It was a reminder of our own stuff. Most of us have too much, of course.
But perhaps these myriad baking tins and dishes represented the huge family of friends Pat had collected and cared for over the years. She loved her friends well: fed us, brought us soup and advice when we were sick. She loved our far-flung families too.
Marion and I took our time. We stopped for lunch and tea breaks. We sang, hummed, worked in silence, made wisecracks to Pat, who, we were sure, was overseeing the project from heaven. I was grateful to be able to do this one last thing for her. Pat had died while my husband and I were away. We’d said our goodbyes, but we missed the final weeks.
By the end of our day in the kitchen, we’d packed boxes for the Mennonite Central Committee, for the squirrels, recycling and landfill. Handling Pat’s teapot and cookie sheets turned out to be a personal way to say farewell.
When she learned that she was dying, she’d held her own wake. That was when she felt well. But the last few weeks were more difficult as the cancer took centre stage. Energy drained away; pain increased. When I phoned Marion in those last days, she said, “It’s time for her to go.”
At Pat’s memorial service, representatives from political parties, her church, Friends of Medicare and the peace movement all paid tribute. As did her husband.
Pat had moved to a hospice in her final two weeks, mostly cared for by staff, Paul and Marion. She died with Paul by her side, reading aloud Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens and Mayfield,
a poem by Maya Angelou that they loved.
Fly on, sister.
Keep it free!
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.