Monday, November 07, 2011

Nuhan Seto - 1917 to 2011

My grandmother passed away on November 3rd. She had been in Toronto with us for as long as I have been here, which is 39 years. By the time she was found in her bed by my aunt, she had been gone for a few hours, having slipped away peacefully and painlessly.

There was a funeral visitation on Sunday, and the funeral itself was held earlier today.

Being known as the family photographer (which is to say, the annoying guy in everybody's face with a camera at every family event), I was tapped to provide photos. And I discovered that this is hard. I have photos taken at many family events. The digital archive goes back to 2000. But none of the photos I took at each family event were taken with the thought that the person I was photographing might not be alive later.

Especially so with grandma -- for 39 years, I have thought of her as akin to a force of nature.

Between me and my cousins, we came up with more than a 120 images, some of which were scans of very old photographs -- a family treasure trove which was passed to me for further scans.

Two of us spoke at the funeral earlier today: my cousin Wayne and myself. Wayne read a presentation from his sister, my cousin Anne, who lives in Mauritius. This is what Wayne read:

“le fabuleux destin de (the fabulous destiny of) Grandmere Seto”
(by anne sujo - copyright 2011)

Family and friends, we are gathered here today to pay our last respects and commemorate the passing of a very important person in our lives.

It is with immense sadness and pride that I share with you some of my thoughts and memories of our great Grandma Seto. For, there is no other word that comes to mind, other than “greatness” that can describe her person.

Had Grandma Seto lived to her next birthday in January 2012, she would have reached her full
95 years. She was indeed someone, who lived her life to the fullest and enjoyed the company and love of her late husband, our Grandpa Seto (who passed away just over 10 years ago), her 3 children, Bik Sim, Wai Yu and Wai Man - and not to mention, 11 grandchildren, the spouses of her children and grandchildren, as well as 11 great-grandchildren. What can be more “great” than that? We can therefore, say that Grandma Seto was truly blessed to be so well surrounded by such a close-knit family as ours - Family, the “glue” that holds everything together.

Not only was Grandma Seto strong physically, but also mentally and spiritually. Nothing seemed to bring her down or get in her way. Not even the fact that she was hard of hearing or probably considered “too old” - When Grandma Seto had a yearning for a bit of harmless gambling and her sons were too busy to take her to the horseraces, well, her little legs would literally speedwalk her to the bus stop, and she would actually hitch a ride all the way to the Niagara Casino! Talk about fiesty and fast! I’ve never seen anyone her age who could walk so fast! So, my dear cousins, I guess we can say we certainly inherited some mighty genes!

Hardworking and loyal – she was a devoted mother, wife, grandmother and great-grandmother in many ways. Alongside her late husband, Grandma Seto was one of the pillars in the restaurant business that the two of them led for many years until their retirement. We will never forget the traditional Christmas dinner gatherings that were always held there – the late night majong, the food, the warmth, the joy and laughter. The restaurant has long closed down, but the spirit of family gathering and warmth still remains.

Generosity - another one of Grandma Seto’s many traits - whether towards her family or close friends, she would always put others before her first.

My visual memory of Grandma Seto will always be one that is positive and happy. Her physical and mental strength was evident in the way she spoke and moved about. She had a smile so bright that would stretch from ear to ear. And the twinkle in her eye showed that she was not only very alert and independent, but also very strong-willed.

The sudden passing of Grandma Seto has left a void in many of our lives and we will surely miss her. However, I believe that she has passed to us many of her qualities, and through us, her “greatness” will continue to live on.

Let us be comforted by the image of both Grandma and Grandpa Seto, now reunited in love, happiness, peace and harmony. May she forever rest in peace – God bless us all.

I spoke last. My presentation had been in the back of my mind, percolating, since Thursday night, and finally written down in first draft format by 3:30am on Monday morning. This is the edited, final version of the eulogy that I read:

I met my grandmother, Nuhan Seto, for the first time here in Toronto in 1972. I was a couple of months from turning 14 – she had already marked a half century in Canada’s Centenniel year and had added five more birthdays since.

We didn’t have a lot in common – I was her eldest grandchild, the son of her daughter Bik Sim, the boy whose only life experience to that point was northern British Columbia; she the woman whose life had begun in post Manchu China, changed through marriage, motherhood, the rise of the People’s Republic, changed again through immigration to Central America, changed yet again through immigration to Canada. But over the next 39 years, I grew to love and respect my grandmother for who she was and what she represented. She was a simple, straightforward person who wanted the best for her family. And for me, she was a link to our family’s past.

As I think about my grandma’s life, I see three important lessons.

The most important lesson is that change is not only inevitable, but it is accelerating. In China in 1917 after the fall of the Manchu dynasty, the term “women’s rights” would have been met with blank stares. In Canada, there might have been outright scorn, since the right to vote for women was only a year old, and there was active resistance to this new fangled notion. Today, it would be foolhardy to suggest to any women in this room, Chinese Canadian or otherwise, that they cannot have full participation in our increasingly globalized society.

Since 1917, change has been the most important aspect of life. Think about race relations, gender roles, technology, medicine and any number of other things that matter. Now compare them between 1917 and today, 95 years later. The changes in knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and capabilities are a part of our world and touch the lives of all of those that my grandma cared about..

But Grandma was a conservative –she may have disapproved of many or most of these changes – especially anything that she might have considered non-traditional. But I have first hand evidence that Grandma was able to accept new things that affected the lives and happiness of members of her family, in her acceptance of my own non-traditional choice in the creation of my own family.

My son Corwin is 12, a bit younger than me when I first met grandma. But like all of his cousins, great grandmother has been part of his life since he was born. And when I asked him yesterday how he would remember her, he said “Great grandma always had a smile for me. She has never frowned at me.”

While that may be true for her great grandchildren, there are others who have felt grandma’s displeasure in a more direct way. The episode of the thief on the street has become a family legend. In the early 1990s, my grandma, who was then in her 70s was walking home one day through Kensington market. As she walked, someone snatched her necklace, breaking the chain, and ran away. Grandma immediately took off after the thief, shouting imprecations, with cane upraised, intending mayhem and retribution. The thief escaped, which on the whole was fortunate, both for the thief and for the rest of us – it would have been difficult explaining to the relevant judicial authorities why he had been beaten to a pulp.

That winter, or perhaps during a winter soon after, my very non-traditional wife Jill recalls walking with grandma after a family gathering, and having her come up to a snow bank. Jill was concerned about getting grandma safely over the snow bank, but grandma solved the problem by hopping over it like a young girl.

So the second lesson of my grandma’s life is that obstacles can be surmounted with grace and style. The third important lesson is that courage is important, but dignity is not necessarily so, particularly if you are chasing down injustice.

Our fleeting lives are like flames in a brief interval wedged between the eternity of the past and the abyss of the future. If we are lucky, our way through the darkness is lit by the lives of those close to us, as we in turn light the way for those to come. In this room, in this city, on this planet, there are 25 direct descendants of my grandmother – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren – all of whose lives were directly affected by the actions and choices made by my grandmother, the light of her life spilling across generations to help show us the road leading forward.

Her light is gone now, but while it was here, it shone on many people. Because of my grandmother, all of our lives shine a little brighter.

by Do-Ming Lum
copyright 2011

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