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A year of firsts: Isobel Beun

Illustration by Greg Stevenson/i2iART Author: Canadian Living Credits: Illustration by Greg Stevenson/i2iART

Community & Current Events

A year of firsts: Isobel Beun

My grandmother's blue eyes sparkle with mischief. Dinner is almost ready, but she's up to something. "Where's my handsome boyfriend?" she demands, waving to my hubby, Joe, who grins. He knows what's coming.

"Now, Joseph," she says, using his full name, as she did with my late grandpa during their 52 years of marriage. "This is very good scotch. Are you trying to get me tipsy and have your way?"

"Well, you are a fine-looking woman, Isobel," he admits on cue. She pats his butt and giggles, like countless times before. "There may be snow on the roof," she chuckles, winking at me, "but there's still fire in the furnace. I don't feel a day over 70."

Grandma goes to her first hockey game
Make that 96 years young. Not that you'd know, because age has never held my grandmother back from anything. Since Grandpa died in 1989, she has made a religious pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia; taken cruises to Alaska and the Caribbean; and visited family across the country. Last year she checked yet another "first" off her bucket list: attending an NHL game.

Grandma loves hockey almost as much as she loves Jesus and gravy. (During Ottawa Senators games on Hockey Night in Canada, she perches on her armchair, tut-tutting the play while my mother, Rose, loudly "coaches" from the couch.) So when my parents bought premium-level seats for Grandma to see her beloved Senators battle the Boston Bruins, she was delighted. So was the crowd, which gave her a standing ovation after the announcer flashed her face on the video scoreboard and she responded with a near-perfect Queen Mum wave.

The game itself went all too quickly. "Look at that!" she exclaimed when a Sens player, chased by a Bruin, deftly backhanded the puck. "That fellow thought he was going to take the puck away, but our boys were too good!" She was also hilariously outraged with
Bruins fans, whom she deemed "a bunch of traitors," when they loudly cheered their team's win. "This is the home team and they're doing the likes of that to them!"

If she missed some of the finer points of play ("Oh my, they skate fast!"), it's no less than you'd expect from a farm girl born in 1918. After all, "Proper ladies didn't go to hockey matches back then," she tells me.

Growing up in a different time
That's hard to comprehend, knowing my grandma was a tomboy who'd cut school in MacGillivrays Bridge near Williamstown, ON, to ride her horse bareback, her waist-long braids flying behind her. She skated and played baseball. She milked cows before breakfast and cared for the youngest of her 14 siblings.

Tough as it was to be a feisty young woman growing up in that era, she persevered via ingenuity and good humour. Even her 1936 courtship with Grandpa during the Great Depression took some doing: Grandpa spoke no English, and Grandma no French. She learned the days of the week so he could ask her out. "Lundi?" he'd ask. "Non, Mardi ou Jeudi," she'd reply.

Today, she still teaches her family to stand tall, behave with dignity and search for good in others. Her wisdom may sound like tired old bromides, but it still sticks like gum to your shoe. Once, when she caught me gossiping, she fixed me with a stern look before sharing a story about tattling neighbours in Montreal, where she raised eight kids alone during the Second World War while Grandpa was away working as a train engineer. "Sweep the dirt from your own doorstep," she said, patting my hand, quietly acknowledging my transgression, "before you look for dirt on others'."
 
What's left on her bucket list?
So what's left on Grandma's bucket list? She talks about travelling to Alaska again, this time first class. "I've done without all my life. I'd like to go and be treated like Lady Godiva," she says. To which I reply, "You know she got around naked on a horse, right?" At the other end of the phone, Grandma starts laughing, until she can't breathe. "Well, girl," she says, between gasps, "I guess I'll have to make sure I get a room
by myself!"
 
I laugh, too, but after I hang up, I think about how Grandma's "getting on," as she puts it; I don't know how many more firsts she'll have. I think about the character that has sustained her through all her other firsts: the first time she rode in a car, at 18 (after having grown up with a horse and buggy); the first time she buried one of her children, lost to cancer; the first time she held me—the first of many adopted grandchildren and great-grandchildren—at 10 days old, and told my mother, "This child belongs with us."

"I've had a good life," she's been saying lately. I can't help but tear up, knowing she's preparing me. "Now, girl, none of that," she always responds, lightly touching where my heart is. "You know I'll be there. Just remember what I taught you." I will, Grandma, I will.

Read more inspiring stories about Canadians embracing a year of firsts.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Still In The Game" in the February 2014 issue.
           
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A year of firsts: Isobel Beun

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