passed away quietly and peacefully in the morning of June 18, 2010, at the age of 100.
Over two days, April 11 & 12, 2010, Eleanor and many members of her family celebrated her 100th birthday. It was a wonderful and remarkable event, and all of us who were there will carry with us the memories of her from that celebration: beautiful, smiling, and happy... because family was one of her greatest joys in life.
Some photos and notes from that day (and other older photos) are posted here.
Below are the remarks I gave at her funeral service on June 24 (they are also here, in Word format). Below them is the obituary notice printed in the Globe & Mail and Toronto Star.
On this page are notes about and my eulogy for my father, Jack Leeson who died January 28, 2009.
Photo: Christmas Day, 2009
I think it’s fair to say that if you asked anyone who knew my mother for their recollections of her, they would all talk about her warmth, her kindness, her generosity, and her love of her family and friends. And most importantly, all of these traits were wonderfully expressed in that smile of hers which we all loved. Almost everyone who has spoken or written to us about her in the last week has talked about that lovely smile.
When we were organizing her 100th birthday celebrations in April, Janet Kirk, the pastoral associate at Mum’s church, St. George’s, said to me in an email, “Your mother's smile lights up any room she is in”. For many of us, that might be the strongest picture that comes to mind when we think of Eleanor Leeson.
Even over her last years, at times when she might have fallen asleep, or during her last days, when she was clearly getting ready to pass on, whenever somebody reached out to her, suddenly her eyes would open, and when she saw – because her eyesight was excellent to the end — who was with her, that same familiar smile burst out.
And that smile was at its brightest and warmest whenever she first saw us: her family, and her friends. It was instinctive and instant. That smile would light up the room.
So I’d like everyone here – so many of her family and friends – to imagine how Eleanor would react if she walked in here right now, and saw all of us, here together. What a smile that would be!
There would be some more smile as well, for those of you here whom she had never met. All one of us would have to do would be to introduce you to her as our friend, and you’d get that same smile and greeting from her.
So, just for a moment, let’s all picture that smile she’d have if she saw all of us here together, and let it warm up this church. Let her, as she always did, bring warmth, love and happiness to this place.
Of course, many of her family did have that opportunity very recently. While we are here today, as John Wilton said, to celebrate Eleanor’s life, many of us in her family had the opportunity to celebrate with her, just two months ago, at her 100th birthday party. It was a party that spread over 2 days, and Mum was beaming, both with her own amazement that she was 100 years old, and from the happiness of being with so many of her family, including her grandson Andy, who came from England to be with his grandmother.
If she couldn’t exactly place or name everyone there, she knew they were people she cared about, and who cared about her. The wonderful staff at her nursing home of Humber Heights was almost as happy and excited about the birthday as we were. They too, cared about and loved Eleanor, and always showed it.
We all know that we, and Eleanor, were truly blessed to be able to celebrate that day together, and all of us will carry that memory of her then: happy, beautiful – and smiling.
I should say something about Eleanor’s life. A century is a remarkable time period, one that covers so much: so much world history, and so much personal history and experiences.
As most of you know, Eleanor was born in Peru where her father worked for a subsidiary of Imperial Oil. Eleanor was the first of seven children of William and Eleanora Young; all but the youngest, Frances, were born in Peru. I should note that Frances is here today, along with their brother John, who came from Edmonton with his wife Olivia.
Eleanor spent most of her first 12 years in Negritos, a town in northern Peru. She came to Canada once when she was five to go to school for a year until an English language school was opened in Negritos. That was long ago enough, that when travelling north by ship, they had to cross Panama by train as the Canal was under construction.
When the family did move back, they settled in Brampton, where Mum went to high school and began working. In the 1930’s, they moved to Toronto, where she worked at Imperial Oil, and, through her brother Murray, met Jack Leeson, who was then the head veterinarian at the Toronto Humane Society.
Mum and Dad were married in October, 1942. Their first home was the top floor of a large house in Rosedale which also housed the Cuban Consulate on the main floor.
In 1947, Jack and a partner opened their own small animal hospital in the then-suburban location of Avenue Road and Lawrence: the Avenue Road Animal Clinic. To save money, Eleanor, Jack, along with my sister Anne moved into the small apartment above the hospital, and while they were living there, I came along.
In 1955, we moved to Willowdale, and into the only house Jack and Eleanor ever owned.
But Eleanor’s world – and ours -- changed in 1961, when my father’s partner retired. Dad began working 365 days a year, mostly 12 (or more) hours per day looking after the animals, and meeting all the other demands on the veterinarian responsible.
But Mum also started working at the hospital then, putting in almost the same amount of time. She was allowed to take Sundays off to go to church, but often spent much of the rest of the day, sitting at the kitchen table, writing bills to their clients, since almost all the payment was done on “the honour system”. And while Dad had his professional responsibilities, she had hers as well, providing the warm and welcoming smile to all their clients, human and animal. At the same time, she had her other job at home, looking after the house and her two children.
At the hospital, they were both hard-working and dedicated to helping the animals in their care. Having worked there over many weekends and school holidays, I saw many differences in their approaches. Dad would always be asking us things like “How did the Smith dog eat?”, “What are you feeding the Jones cat?”
Mum was equally concerned about the patients, but saw them differently, because of who she was. She didn’t ask about the Smith dog, it was about “Spot”. The “Jones cat” was “Fluffy”. She treated everyone as a person – even the animals.
In 1969, after eight years of this more-than-intense workload, they retired. Mum was able to finally able to spend time doing the things she loved and cared about, and was able to live out one of the great aspects of her character: Her generosity of spirit, and willingness to help and do for others.
She became more much more active with her church as a dedicated volunteer with the Altar Guild, and could spend more time visiting and helping family and friends, and keeping busy.
Besides the Altar Guild, she also supported other organizations and causes with both time and financial support.
And of course, over the years, she gave so much of her time to her children and grandchildren. When we were young, she took us to places ranging from the CNE to the Museum to Fort York, etc. Many years later, she would do the same thing with her grandsons Andy and David.
Twice she went “back to work”, volunteering in school libraries for her daughter-in-law, my wife, Oksana.
Another remarkable part of her character was her sense of responsibility-- something that, admirable as it may seem, may have cost her dearly.
One of my cousins, Pat Young of Vancouver, wrote an email recently noting that Mum always “put others’ concerns before her own”. Perhaps this came from being the oldest child in a large family. Although I’m sure all the children in the Young family were very responsible and well-behaved, no doubt her mother needed help looking after such a large brood. And later, when her four brothers all went overseas during World War II (and all came back), no doubt Eleanor stepped up her role in the family.
It was likely that same sense of responsibility that resulted in her giving up so much, during those years when she spent most of her hours working at the Animal Clinic.
After they retired, and they had all that free time, I know Mum would like to have travelled at least a bit, but Dad was what you could charitably call a “stick in the mud”. He would sometimes talk to me about travel ideas (purely theoretically, believe me). “Where would we go?” he’d ask rhetorically. “We’ve been to Europe”. By that he meant that they had been to England and Scotland once, and therefore there was no point in going back.
In 1990, their grandson Andy got married in Edinburgh. I can’t imagine anything Mum would have enjoyed more than to go to Scotland to attend the wedding, held in the small chapel inside Edinburgh Castle. But Jack wouldn’t go. He wasn’t doing well (after all, he only lasted another 19 years). There was at least one relative – her sister-in-law, Mamie Young -- who offered to look after Jack so Eleanor could go to the wedding, but she felt it her duty to stay home to look after her husband.
I think it’s appropriate, in reflecting back on the life of someone gone from us – even someone very close – to consider the whole person; to think of him or her as they really were, the good, the bad, the questionable, in order to appreciate and try to understand as best we can, who that person was.
I don’t intend here or elsewhere to find weakness or fault in my mother, but if I was to identify one … “flaw”… in her, I would have to say – from some deep personal experience – that she could be too good, too generous, too responsible, and didn’t stand up for herself more than I think she could have.
After my father died in January of last year, a number of people said they appreciated the eulogy I gave at his memorial service. They felt it captured a lot of his character – and he had a lot of it – as it was. Some said they thought it took some courage to talk about some aspects of life with him, but that my comments fairly reflected him as he was.
So, in thinking back on my mother’s life, it’s impossible not to talk about her life with her husband of almost 67 years, and since this reflection is mine, what it was like to be part of that life, as a child, and as an adult.
I’ve already given my reflection of Dad’s life, and won’t do that again here. This is Mum’s day. But those of you who knew our life at home, know how difficult things could often be there. My father was dominating, quick to point blame and had a huge temper, which was evident very frequently.
And Mum was the recipient of this, much too often. Once she started working at the Clinic, she was liable to this at home and at work. When they retired, they were together too much.
It wasn’t until the last several years of my father’s life, when he became weakened, with very poor sight – and more dependent on his wife – that he mellowed somewhat and became more deferential (usually).
All this isn’t to rehash the past, or to point fingers. It’s to better understand, and appreciate the remarkable character of Eleanor Leeson.
Growing up: in our house or at the hospital, it could often be painful to observe what went on between them. What was it about Mum that kept going, without (obvious) complaint… at least for many years? Her sense of responsibility? Her warmth? her generosity?
But we know that whatever transpired in her life, she simply transmitted love to those around her. She always retained her dignity and a tremendous amount of grace despite having to sacrifice so much of herself. Nothing, or no-one, could suppress that pure goodness that Eleanor personified.
Rest In Peace. Nobody deserves it more.
Eleanor: Negritos, Peru with brothers Bob (L), and John (R)
As when my father died last year, I found that I was drawn to certain music and songs over the time surrounding my mother's death. I've posted below links to a few songs that meant something to me during this time. It was not necessarily because there was any literal significance through their lyrics or music, just that I found some resonance in the music.
The songs linked below are all from YouTube; unfortunately, there are few examples of them there, so the visual content is often irrelevant, distracting, or even in one case, quite disconcerting. So, please ignore the video or pictures where needed.
I also found that I played Lhasa's great 2003 CD, The Living Road frequently, just for the sound of her voice and emotion of her music.
Lhasa de Sela was a child of American and Mexican parents, and who settled in Montreal. She died of breast cancer in January, 2010 at the age of 37. The CD ends with a song, which she also used to end her performances at the time: "Soon This Space Will Be Too Small". It was based on thoughts her father had shared with her about birth, life and death. He felt that "Birth is so violent and chaotic, that he was sure all of us at the moment of our birth are thinking, 'This is it. I'm dying'." To a fetus, birth must seem like the end of the world.
Here is Lhasa introducing the song at a Toronto performance that I was at in 2004.
And here is her performance of the song in Quebec City, 2005.