On the first Sunday morning in April, I found out that Jean McNamara had passed away the previous day. (Among other things, this means God shared her with us for precisely 72 years and one day.)
Roughly six hours later, I was on the road to Sydney to see one of my all-time favourite musical acts, Buddy Wasisname and The Other Fellers, for the first time in nearly a decade. And somehow, I have the feeling that this is exactly what Jean would have wanted me to do.
Jean lived and breathed music. No one will ever forget the bold, passionate tones that sprang forth from Jean’s mouth for several decades. You couldn’t miss the dedication and energy in Jean’s voice, whether she was sharing a few favourite tunes at a house party, leading the way in The McNamaras Band with her fiddling husband Blair and his guitar-playing brother Terry, or anchoring the St. Francis de Sales parish choir at weekend Mass services and public events like the Strait-Richmond Health Care Foundation’s annual Christmas-themed fundraiser, Lights For Life.
The sense I get is that Jean came by her music, and her love of traditional Celtic culture, naturally. I still recall a variety concert at her native Johnstown in 2002, which saw Jean and her three sisters join their mother, Mary Catherine Gerroir (nee Campbell), for a lovely Gaelic song, “Mo Shuil Ad’dheidh.” Mary Catherine took the verses and her daughters sang the choruses, in a touching celebration of music, culture and family.
So of course I have “The Legend of Kelly’s Mountain,” “Flower of Scotland,” and “Fields of Athenry” (sung lovingly by Cyril MacPhee at Jean’s funeral service last Thursday) rolling through my head as I type these words. But I would be doing Jean a disservice if I limited my memories of her to music alone.
Jean and Blair always seemed ready to welcome you, whether or not they were doing so in their own home in Evanston. More than once, I would arrive at the house – sometimes at 10 or 11 p.m. – for what I assumed to be a brief visit, only to find Jean warming up the tea, or even putting on a pot of chili, with trays of sweets and sandwiches loading up the kitchen table.
Through Jean’s astonishing five decades of service to the Catholic Women’s League and the couple’s dedication to both their own parish and the Cursillo/Challenge retreat movement, they continuously displayed the kindness and support that God calls us to share with one another in His name.
This generosity extended into the most difficult period of Jean’s life. In her late ‘60s, corticobasal degeneration robbed her of her motor skills and, most strikingly, any trace of her voice. Another huge loss was still to come, as Blair passed away in the fall of 2014.
Some of us might have given up at that stage. With the help of an army of relatives and caregivers, Jean persisted.
Using a tablet to convey her feelings and communicate with the rest of the world (she was a constant presence on Facebook), jean’s love of music never abated. I will treasure the smiles she shared as we visited the family home for Christmas parties and other musical get-togethers as much as I did when Jean’s singing voice filled her living room.
A little earlier, I mentioned that I had gone to Sydney on the first Sunday in April to see the Newfoundland group Buddy Wasisname and The Other Fellers. In recent years, their accordion player Ray Johnson has added a Glen Campbell spoken-word piece, “Friends,” to his repertoire. I was touched that Ray shared this recitation with us on that snowy Sunday night at the Highland Arts Theatre, and today I’m struck by how much it reminds me of Jean.
“Who is your friend? He’s someone who warms you with a nod, or with the unspoken words in hard times.
“A friend is someone who clinks his glass against yours – or answers the phone at three in the morning when you’re lost, and with a few words of encouragement and concern, makes you realize that you weren’t really lost at all.
“The most important thing [friends] have in common is their ability to share with you your greatest joys and your deepest sorrows, for they are your friends.”
That was Jean and Blair.
As saddened as I am that they’re no longer with us, I’m grateful that they’re together again and that I got to know either of them, and have their voices, smiles and hearts imprinted on me forever.
Thank you, friends.