I have booked tomorrow off work so that I may attend a little ceremony, with food, wherein my mother will be awarded the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal. She is being awarded the medal in honour of her painting. It is not that her paintings hang in any art galleries that she is being awarded this medal, but because they hang in private homes across the country.
It began around the late nineties or so. Mom, by then already in the second half of her seventies, read an article in a newspaper of how two boys from a town about an hour and a half drive out of Toronto had fallen into their local river and drowned. The photos that accompanied the story included school portraits of the two boys, and one of the mother, in agony over their deaths. Mother decided she had to do something: she would use her talents and paint portraits of the two boys and send them to the woman. She asked me what I thought of what she was doing, and I confess that I thought intruding on someone's private grief may not be the thing to do, but I didn't say that. I asked her if she thought she was doing a good thing, and when she replied yes, she thought she was, I told her to continue on, and never mind what others said. (I actually got that from her. It was something she told me often growing up.) She contacted the newspaper that carried the story, and managed to get the address of the family, and mailed the portraits. A few weeks later, mother received a gushing letter of thanks from the woman, telling mother how much it had meant to her that somehow had reached out to her in her grief. I could not have been more wrong in this case, and never have I been so glad to have held my tongue.
That was how it began. She then began sending off portrait after portrait to people who had lost loved ones in tragedies. She sent them off to the Creba and Stafford families; to a family whose children burned in a house fire; to the families who lost their sons when a bus crash killed many members of a maritime hockey team; to the families of firefighters and police officers who died on duty. She even sent a portrait of a little girl who was believed to have been murdered to the little girl's mother- despite the fact that the mother happened to be in jail for the killing at the time. Mom saw a photo in the newspaper of the mother giving the daughter a bath in the kitchen sink, and both were laughing happily. "I can't believe anyone who could bring that kind of joy into a child's life could then kill them," said Mom. Once again, I held my tongue. My view of the world is far darker and more cynical than mother's. However, it turned out she was right: the mother was a victim of a botched autopsy by an incompetent coroner, now disgraced, and was since released. Her letter to mother was among the most touching, as she told mother that it meant so much that someone somewhere believed her when she claimed her innocence, and reached out to her. Mother's single biggest task, however, was to paint portraits of every single member of the Canadian Armed Forces who died in the Afghan mission. She hasn't kept track of exactly how many portraits in total she has done, but thinks the number is over three hundred.
It may be higher. She frequently gets requests for second and third copies of portraits, so that one can go to an estranged parent, or a school, or a legion hall or station house. She takes no money for any of these, although my brother, who mails these portraits across the country at his expense, wishes she would at least start charging for shipping and handling.
Mom has scrapbooks at home filled with letters and tributes she has received from families, police and fire departments, and the military. Not everyone writes to mother, but many do, telling her what those of us who know her already know: that she is a wonderful and loving woman, as well as a talented artist. She has never asked for any recompense or recognition for her work, although she loves reading out the letters of thanks she has received to her friends and family, and she was never told that anyone was trying to nominate her for this or any other award, (some cousins, friends and family members are trying to get her name in for the Order of Canada) because she would have told whoever was doing the nomination not to put themselves out for her. But we did anyway, because we believe she deserves some recognition for her work, and because she has done what most people today believe is impossible. When reading the news, it is the easiest thing in the world to become depressed, and to be overwhelmed by feelings of helplessness. The news is full of darkness about which we seem to be able to do nothing. Mom is one of the few who has decided to do something in her own small way to push back against the darkness and to not stand by helplessly, who instead of throwing up her hands and asking rhetorically "What can I do?" instead looked within herself and asked "What can I do?" and then rolled up her sleeves, and did it.