“Sorry about your friend,” my son said. My wife must have explained to him why, earlier that day, I’d been curled up in the corner of the kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Thanks, buddy,” I told him.
“Who was she?” he asked.
I paused for a moment. I felt ill-equipped to explain a person’s life, especially a life like Frances’s, in just a few words, let alone to a little boy who had never met her.
“Well,” I began, “Her name was Frances…”
Frances was my first Women’s Studies teacher at Langara College. I won’t go into the details of what led me to Women’s Studies but it was an epiphany I had while sitting in a movie theatre watching A League of Their Own. Not even kidding. The important part is, I was 22 and decided to take Women’s Studies, followed by film school, so I could become a filmmaker and tell women’s stories. I had no idea what those stories were but figured Women’s Studies was a good place to find them. For me, it ended up being the academic equivalent of popping into a two year meditation retreat saying, “Listen, I’m looking for some tips on relaxing a little”. To say I got more than I’d bargained for is an understatement and I am still grateful pretty much daily for the life-changing experience that was my time at Langara.
Frances was a huge part of that. It would take the length of a two-year college program for me to try and explain all that Frances taught me during my time at Langara but it was more than just feminism. It was how to stand up and be counted as a feminist. The older I get, the more those lessons sink into my bones. Thank you, Frances.
In the beginning, Frances terrified me. Okay, I never entirely stopped being afraid of Frances, but, in the beginning, I was flat out terrified. Physically, she was intimidating, sure, but it was more than just her tall stature. It feels like some kind of lesbian feminist stereotype to say she was an Amazon but Frances was a damn Amazon. Now, I don’t mean that in the way people might describe someone as an angel. I don’t believe in angels. But I believe wholeheartedly in Frances. It was about how she carried herself, how she stood tall and took up space, unapologetically, and how she didn’t have time for your bullshit. As I told my son, she did not suffer fools gladly. (Which, of course, required an explanation of what the heck that expression means and derailed things a bit but hopefully you understand.) In a word, Frances was direct; she looked you in the eye and expected something of you. It wasn’t confrontational, just more along the lines of “Why wouldn’t I expect something of you? Don’t you expect something of yourself?”
I found Frances frightfully intimidating so I set about doing what I do when I want people I’m afraid of to like me: I tried to make her laugh. Lucky for me, Frances also had a great sense of humour. Making Frances laugh gave me a satisfaction so deep it was silly. And for years, when Frances was funny herself, it took me a second to be sure. (Wait, was that a joke? God, what if I laugh and it wasn’t a joke? Is it possible to actually die from her looking over her glasses at me?) It made the eventual laugh all the more delicious. Frances taught me that being funny could be an integral part of my feminism. Thank you, Frances.
While at 5’3”, I can’t begin to pull off intimidating like Frances could, thanks to her, I learned how to hold myself as tall as she stood and look anyone directly in the eye. I can’t always manage it, but the older I get, the easier it becomes and the better it feels. Thank you, Frances.
Almost a decade after my time at Langara, Frances came back into my life. I had landed an important job that I was very excited about. It felt like a pretty big coup and I was filled with passion and dedication. Things started off okay and I was doing a great job but, eventually, my inexperience and naivety about the sometimes unhealthy motivations (be they intentional or not) of human beings resulted in things starting to crumble. I had recently run into Frances at an event. By this point, she was Executive Director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and was running things there. No small undertaking. No surprise. When I needed help, I turned to Frances who came to my aid like…well, like the Amazon she was. By then I was so filled with self-doubt, so confused about what I should be doing with my life, I was absolutely falling apart. One day, in a flood of tears and run-on sentences, I told Frances all the criticisms levelled at me by some of the people I was working with, how they’d said this and told me I needed to do that and how I felt powerless to fix things. Frances waited until I’d stopped for breath, then she looked me in the eye and said calmly, “These are the thoughts of stupid people. You’re right here. They are wrong.” That was all it took. In that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. (And that “These are the thoughts of stupid people” would become one of my favourite expressions.) Frances taught me that it’s okay to name it when people are acting stupidly and to respond to them accordingly. She reminded me that I was smarter than I was giving myself credit for. I wish I could say I learned that lesson firmly but I fall into thinking everyone is smarter than me a lot. I often have to remind myself to check in with reality, rather than bowing down to the thoughts of stupid people, but I doubt myself much less now. Thank you, Frances.
Spending as many years as I did intimidated by Frances, the day she told me one of her secrets brought me much closer to understanding what being bold actually involves. It involves bangles.
Anyone who knows Frances will have a hard time imagining her without her signature silver bangles, adorning both arms. I was preparing for a meeting I anticipated being confrontational and I was in a panic. Frances jangled her bracelets at me and calmly asked, “Do you think this is jewelry?” I looked at her blankly. “This isn’t jewelry,” she told me. “This is armour. Every time I have to speak in front of people, every time I have to attend a meeting where I know some man will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I feel these on my arms. And they can’t touch me.” I had seen Frances, on more than one occasion, very calmly and with a biting sense of humour, take down much bigger men than she at meetings. Knowing that she had to consciously step into that bravery made me think I could do it too. Thank you, Frances.
When my mum died suddenly in 2007, my wife Michele and I spent a month in a daze, packing up her home. Once that was done, the shock began to wear off, the grief began to set in, and the loss hit me with the strength of a freight train. My wife suggested we get away somewhere for a few days to just rest and grieve. It seemed a complicated thing to do. We needed to be somewhere relaxing and private, where we could feel comforted but not be expected to return anyone’s smiles if we couldn’t manage it. We found the perfect place when Frances and her wife Marguerite welcomed us to their bed and breakfast on the Sunshine Coast, Honeysuckle Cottage. When I needed it, Frances sat with me in their beautiful garden, overflowing with life, and talked to me. When I needed it, Michele and I stayed in the guest house and cried, watched movies, stared at walls, and grieved. When I think of that time, I am still overwhelmed with gratitude. I can’t imagine being able to be exactly where I was emotionally anywhere else. It was a softer, gentler Frances I experienced on that trip, one who didn’t expect me to be brave or even consider donning armour. But once again, Frances had quietly, calmly held me up and helped me know that I was going to be okay. Thank you, Frances.
There are many more Frances stories I could tell in which, over the past couple of decades, she taught me about things like organizational management, marriage immigration, bookkeeping and the fight for abortion rights in Canada. But it was the way she lived, how big she loved, how hard she laughed, how bravely she fought, and, most of all, how committed she was to mentoring the likes of me, for which I am forever indebted to her. I am not the only one who has Frances stories to tell. I know so many people who can trace back pieces of ourselves that we love directly to Frances. She didn’t create those pieces, but she held us up so we could figure out how to use them. She looked us in the eye and expected us to figure them out. Her mouth turned up at the corner in a smile or her cheeks ruddied with laughter and she encouraged us to step into everything we were worth. Sometimes she instructed us directly, sometimes she led by example, but always, she cleared the way. If we can be half the people she taught us to be, we too will be nothing short of Amazons.
“So, Buddy, she was someone very important to me at many times in my life and she taught me so much. I’m really sad that Frances didn’t get to die of very old age because that’s what should have happened.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry you’re sad.”
I took a deep breath and marvelled at the compassion in my boy, the one with the usual attention span of a gnat, who had just quietly, calmly sat through all my tearful stories about my teacher, mentor and friend. And I was grateful.
Later that day, exhausted from crying, I had to get ready to go be entertaining at an event. I felt overwhelmed by the idea but, at the same time, that it was just what I wanted to be doing. Reaching into the cupboard where I keep my jewelry, I pulled out my bangles and a big, glittery bracelet. Armoured up, I knew I’d been well trained and could do this.
Thank you, Frances. For everything. I love you so much.