I sat on the edge of the turquoise bathtub; my tiny bum comfortably seated on the matching chenille mat and pink-slippered feet dangling above the linoleum tile. My mother’s focus alternated between her task at hand and her smiling eyes finding mine in the mirror as I watched her.
“You press down gently, but firmly – like this – for about thirty
seconds,” she said as she held the eyelash curler in place.
This was one of our girl rituals. It was never too early, she would say, to learn how to take care of your skin or apply cosmetics. I adored how she shared the mystique of femininity before going out for the evening: There was something truly hypnotizing to me about watching her transform into a beautiful, jeweled, and powdery- smelling enchantress.
I was not allowed to play with Mom’s make-up, but she bought me my own gloss so we would do our lips together at the end – standing side by side in front of the mirror, hers a frosty bright pink and mine with only a slight tint of color and a delicious cotton candy smell.
I was happy for my Mom and Dad when they went out; my five-year- old emotions aligned with Mom’s excitement about the night ahead. I would transport to her destination in my minds’ eye after their goodnight kisses, believing her dreams were coming true through good times that she told me that I too would enjoy when I reached womanhood. She was, quite simply, my everything and the most beautiful woman in the world to me.
Back then, there was no reason to believe that anything could ever go wrong.
Florence Lillian Mackiewicz was the eldest of two daughters born to Polish immigrants Vladislava (Lillian)and Alfons Mackiewicz. After immigrating to Canada, Lillian and Alfons met through mutual friends and were married in Edmonton, Alberta on September 9 th , 1939; he a furrier, and she a homemaker. Their home was warm and welcoming, often filled with family and friends, the music of Bobby Vinton, and the aroma of old-country cooking— cabbage rolls, beet soup, and the bacon and onion steam of a seemingly endless supply of perogies.
Florence was born on February 2, 1941, eighteen months after Lillian and Alfons wed and was raised in a home full of a modest kind of abundance—love and laughter. She was a happy, chubby, healthy baby, albeit somewhat choosey with her affections. As a toddler, little Florence preferred the outdoors, entertaining herself for hours in the garden amongst the rows of flowers (roses being her favorite), resting in the shade of the raspberry bushes, or setting-up tea service for her imaginary friends on the lush grass underneath the apple tree.
Florence’s sister Zenna was born in 1944, when Florence was three. Charged with her care, she took Zenna everywhere, never making her sister feel like a tag-along, protectively standing-up for her at school, and covering for her mischief at home.
A straight-A student, Florence also took piano lessons and played beautifully. She hoped to teach piano one day: her idea was to have students come to her house for lessons. But once she was married with children, a husband and home, these rather entrepreneurial plans never materialized.
Florence became a striking young woman—5’8”, slender and small-waisted, with pale blue eyes, a flawless complexion, and light brown hair that she always wore short. Her legs were long and her walk graceful. She had an enviable skin tone that transformed each summer into a Mediterranean bronze.
Many spoke of Florence’s presence; a lightness and elegance that turned heads when she walked into a room. She had a lovely laugh and a good sense of humour, but her social trademark was sharp wit and offering the snappy comeback. She loved to dance, belonged to the curling club and a bowling league, and was a good pool and card player – particularly hearts.
Maintaining the illusion of good-girl throughout adolescence, Florence dated more boys than her parents knew about – favoring boys who had convertibles. She snuck her share of lemon gin and beer, and only close friends and her sister knew that she smoked cigarettes.
Florence always dressed to go out; her sense of style came easy – her outfits, jewelry, shoes, and handbags coordinated in a breezy way. She loved to dress in bright, fun shades, especially her favorite colors of turquoise and pink.
Roses remained her favorite flower and, just like baby Florence, she continued to be selective with her affections into adulthood—quiet and reserved until she got to know someone. To those few, Florence was described as warm, approachable, and a loyal friend and confidante.
After graduating grade 12 with honours in 1958, Florence surprised everyone by opting out of university, declaring she already had a good job as a key punch operator at Medical Services Inc. (MSI). She said
she did not want to waste her time or her parents’ money.
MSI was where Florence met Edna, who would become one of her closest friends. Because they lived just two blocks apart, Edna and Florence walked to and from work together every day. Back then women didn’t wear sneakers or loafers, so they traversed the miles in stiletto heels and pencil skirts, in all-weather conditions including snow and ice, over difficult and sometimes precarious terrain like gravel roads and even railroad tracks in places!
Florence also met the man who would become her husband through work in 1964, when they were both 23. Having been promoted to department supervisor, it was Florence’s job when one of the machines went down to call a technician from International Business Machines (IBM). Enter Gerald Wayne Hohn—6’4”, handsome, with black hair, blue-grey eyes, and large capable hands. By day he was professional and clean cut, and off-hours he wore a leather jacket, played guitar, and drove a black convertible MG. On his second maintenance call, Gerry asked Florence out to a company hayride.
Florence and Gerry dated for just over a year before he proposed; enjoying movies and parties, going to the park, and particularly Stage West Dinner Theatre. They bought and moved into their first home (against both common practice and the views of her Catholic parents) with their cat ‘Puss’. They married soon after on November 6, 1965 in Edmonton at St. James United Church, and while Florence had always dreamed of visiting Hawaii, they honeymooned in Yellowstone Park the following spring. The newlyweds enjoyed their first three years of marriage together documented meticulously in photo albums by Florence filled with family, friends, travel adventures, and exquisitely-hosted holiday dinners, all captioned with hand-written block lettering in the white borders.
Florence and Gerry’s firstborn, Michelle Marie, arrived in December 1968. Once I was on the scene, Mom left her job to take care of our home and family, a role she took immense pride in. She loved to cook, sew, garden, and make sure everything was just so; she truly thought of her family first and herself second.
I had Mom and Dad’s attention to myself for close to five years before my brother, Jeffery David, was born on February 5, 1974. Mom loved her little king with all her heart. Her family, she told her Mom, was now complete.
Mom and Dad were equally engaged in our parenting, perhaps Mom more so with Dad working full time and traveling for business. She was a strict disciplinarian, but sometimes respected our decisions, like
when I told her I was not interested in ballet lessons or becoming a Brownie. Mom proudly took my brother and me to parks and swimming pools in the summer and skating rinks in the winter. She wanted us to get fresh air, use our imaginations, and play. Knowing there would be plenty of time later in life for domestic chores, she often shooed us from the sewing room or kitchen in contrast to our father who encouraged us to stay close and involved in the garage, workshop, or at the barbeque. That said, Mom would always call us back to lick the sweet remnants off the cake beaters or let us keep her company while she did her hair or makeup.
Mom was very good to her parents (my Granny and Grandpa) and they adored her. Countless hours were spent at their chrome and formica kitchen table where Granny would iron clothes and talk in Polish while Mom and Zenna sipped Nescafe and painted their finger nails. Grandpa preferred to stay out of the woman-talk, but that never prevented Mom from trying to include him or kiss the top of his head while he sat in his recliner in front of the television.
Family life was simple and budgeting was a priority. Mom trimmed our hair (a regular source of conflict between she and I when my bangs came out crooked), sewed window coverings and clothing, baked our
birthday money cakes, and was a disciplined coupon clipper. Her one permissible luxury was her mink coat, which she proudly donned during the deep freeze of Alberta winters.
Mom and Dad enjoyed the rock music of the day, but Mom seemed to need music. As soon as Dad left for work she would turn on the radio, filling the house with the Electric Light Orchestra, Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, or songs with a beat like the Lido Shuffle that we’d dance to. She’ d call out to me to me turn down the volume while she talked on the telephone, perched on a barstool with her index finger twisting through the long, coiled cord. Music was always on in the car too, where Mom would sing and tap her rings against the steering wheel while she drove.
Mom’s love of flowers remained apparent. She bordered the front of the house with geraniums, mums, and snapdragons and tended fruit trees, rhubarb, and hot chili peppers (for Dad) in the back. With whatever we didn’t eat fresh, Mom made crumble or jams and jellies. She often had flowers in the house— a vase of her peonies, daffodils from the supermarket, or sweet peas from Grandpa’s side of the garden.
Summers between 1966 and 1974 were spent at our cabin just outside Edmonton at Wizard Lake; fun times enjoying water sports, quiet, lazy afternoons, and bonfires after dark. Dad was an accomplished water skier and Mom liked to float on the lake on the Dad-made barge, accompanied by a Caesar and a Harlequin romance.
Our life may have been simple, but it was predictable. And stable. Until 1977, when Mom discovered a lump in her left breast. In what may have been the most defining moment of her life – she hesitated. We will never know for certain why. We could (in hindsight of course), understand the fear or denial she may have felt. Or we could look to Mom’s only model for what might happen in a similar situation – as her Uncle had left her Aunt Val and their children only a few years before stating he married “A whole woman and not half of one,” when Val needed a radical mastectomy.
Mom finally confided in Granny, but it was close to a full year before she sought medical attention. Our competent, intelligent, detail-oriented, take-care-of-everyone-else Mom somehow neglected to take care of herself.
After a biopsy and breast cancer diagnosis in February of 1978, Mom quickly underwent surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. However, her situation was aggressively metastatic. Mom died on March 26, 1980 at the age of 39, when I was eleven and my brother Jeff only six.
I imagine Mom’s version of the afterlife to be much like the Hawaii she longed to see. Perhaps she is strolling on a white sand beach, the skirt of her sundress billowing gently with the tropical breeze, or maybe she is gazing into glorious sunsets from a veranda framed by the delicate fragrance of tuber rose and other flowers that she truly loves.