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Monday January 14, 2013

Dorothy Clara May McNeish

Wife, mother, prankster, life-long seeker of knowledge. Born Aug. 1, 1919, in Montreal, died Sept. 30, 2012, in Ottawa of Alzheimer's, aged 93.

From her Jazz Age childhood, Dorothy acquired a wicked sense of fun. Her parents instilled a strong sense of fair play, and she shared her father's taste for pranks. The Depression taught her hard work, vigorous disrespect of authority and suspicion of received wisdom.

She deployed two formidable engines to forge bonds of friendship and kinship - her smile and her food. Her smile welcomed you right into her world and confirmed how much she appreciated your company. She saved her warmest smile for those who screwed up. It said: "Don't worry, dear, we'll make it better." However, wallowing was not allowed. We quickly felt the whip crack: "On your feet, smile on your face and get on with it."

At 20, Dorothy started work at Bell Telephone. There she met a starchy Victorian, Bernard McNeish. The start of their marriage was rocky. The first night Bernard returned from work, Dorothy served a simple salad. After finishing, he said: "Good, what's for dinner?" Dorothy replied, "That was dinner!"

For the next 40 years, she worked 24/7, 365 days a year, nurturing four children, keeping an immaculate house and becoming the best cook possible. She was constantly experimenting. After receiving a microwave oven, she attempted each recipe in the booklet. When the children resisted her "cauliflower-with-vinaigre-cheese-melt," she retaliated by serving it every night for a month.

Although neither Dorothy nor Bernard had a degree, they resolved that their four children would have a university education and sacrificed to realize that dream. But we had to do our part. None of us saw prime-time TV on a school night. Dorothy had high expectations. When I proudly presented a 97-per-cent test result, she asked: "What happened to the other three marks?"

Nightly inquisitions about school results later turned to wider political and social discussions. Dorothy had a consistent ideology: The guy in power was a "bum" who was messing up the country and needed throwing out; opposition leaders became bums six months after taking power.

In her 60s, Dorothy pursued a new career: opinion and lifestyle surveys from our home phone. After a soft preamble of "Dear, this will only take a few minutes," she embarked on a relentless grilling.

When close to 70, Dorothy pursued the dream she had pressed on us - university. When she proudly achieved 78 per cent on her first exam, it took all my willpower not to ask about "missing marks."

Alzheimer's stole the details of her memories, but concentrated her personality. Her sweet, convincing smile won her regular "escapes" from her unit, past unsuspecting "dears" who held the door for her. On a drizzly September morning, she died, serenaded by the triumphal fanfare of a visiting Salvation Army band. I picture her bustling past a bewildered Saint Peter, smiling: "Don't worry, dear, I'm just going to the kitchen to fix us something nice."

John McNeish is Dorothy's son.

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