She was “not always nice,” stated my cousin Wilma in her tribute to our aunt Gertrude (Harder) Klassen at her funeral last Monday. I smiled; I heard some chuckles. Yes, we all knew what she meant. Other words that came up to describe our aunt in the course of the day were “direct,” “forthright,” “feisty,” “determined,” even “intimidating.”
We all love it, of course, when people — and their funerals — leave us with unambiguous memories. It’s rarely possible, however — not if we live long and close enough to others, and if people are real. My aunt was real and so I’m glad that in the spirit of who she was, we were honest about the complexity of her even as we celebrated her accomplishments and her much goodness.
Aunt Gert was a woman of great intelligence. She was a voracious reader. She liked some people better than others, for no decent reason it seemed, and sometimes this showed. She possessed a strong faith in God that began simply in childhood, was severely tested by doubt in university, then deepened through the myriad experiences of her life. In her twenties, she was admitted to medical school but had to withdraw from her studies after a couple of years for health reasons. She became a nurse, and then nursing instructor, instead. She cowed more than one young nursing candidate as dean at St. Boniface School of Nursing but was also, I’ve heard anecdotally, considered “our best teacher” by others. She sought adventure and service by working also in Australia and in Pakistan.
One of her biggest steps of faith, she said, was marrying (at 51) the widower who lived across the back lane from her. He was considerably older, for one thing, and she a professional woman with no great ambition to marry. It seemed something God was asking her to do, however, and when she finally agreed, she asked a couple things of God in return: that theirs would be a happy and joyous marriage, and that his grown family would accept her and her family accept him. These requests were abundantly answered. The five years she and John Klassen spent together, until his sudden death, were happy ones indeed, and the most obvious proof of her respect and love for him (at least to us nieces and nephews looking on) was the fact that she permed her hair because he’d wished it, and kept it curly throughout their years together! She was a feminist before the word was commonplace, but such a detail was no compromise; rather, it was the kind of thing that love could easily do. For if she wasn’t always nice, “more importantly,” cousin Wilma noted, “her spirit was bent toward that which was good and right.”
She taught us important things. When Wilma and her husband Dan were leaving for overseas work with Mennonite Central Committee in Africa, for example, she said, “You may think that you’re going overseas to do God’s work but don’t forget that you are God’s work, and God will want to change you.” This was advice Dan and Wilma often passed on when they were country directors in another MCC assignment.
The wisdom that stays with me was Aunt Gert’s insistence on using, rather than saving, lovely things. One should live simply, but if one happened to have fine china or a luxurious towel or a beautiful candle or a best dress, well then, eat off it, dry with it, light it, wear it; don’t put it into a cupboard to wait for some better and more important occasion that might never come. Her philosophy was “seize the day” meets “more with less.”
I liked my aunt a lot — her complexity, her mind, her heart, her opinions. Maybe I saw something of myself in her complicated temperament. I also saw, as Wilma did, the direction in which it was bent. And here’s the interesting thing. In the years leading up her final three years of major memory loss and inability to articulate her thoughts, she kept saying that she was determined to be content and uncomplaining. She worked on this, day by day, through the move from her house by the river to an apartment to a bachelor suite in a seniors’ residence to a single room in a personal care home. And when she lost mobility and so much of her mind, she remained content and uncomplaining. Staff praised her as one of their most cooperative and cheerful residents. Since I’ve seen alzheimer’s disease and dementia turn the personalities of some of our family’s mildest and kindest people into their polar opposites, this puzzles me a little. Was she, by choosing so firmly, able to set the course of those last years? I don’t know how the diseases of aging played out in her case, but it does seem a kind of grace — one of those ironies we are occasionally honored with perhaps — that she should be granted the wish she worked so hard to make true.
June 27 note. I’ve added the following photograph, because of Al Doerksen’s comment to this post. It’s the photo to which he refers, taken by our father.