My Wonderful Sister Lydia
This was my eulogy I read when we lost my wonderful sister Lydia Howell Dalla-Vicenza suddenly in a car accident.
At the risk of repeating many of my sister’s wonderful attributes that have been shared today, I will try to offer a brief recollection of what my sister meant to me personally and how she helped me as I was growing up. This will not be completely chronological, so I must apologize. I’m just jotting down thoughts as they come to me. There’s many…but I’ll try to keep it brief.
Lydia – My wonderful sister. She was the life of any party. She was the glue that kept all of the family together and regularly shared what was going on in everyone’s lives via phone calls, text messages or emails. She was the person in the family that would be there at a moment’s notice if anyone anywhere needed anything.
Being the ‘baby’ of the family, most of my siblings parented me at least a little bit. My oldest sister Judy Dalla-Vicenza was 20 when I was born, engaged to marry Ren Bertolo and already in college to become a nurse. My oldest brother Mario Dalla-Vicenza (or Butch as we called him) was almost 19, seriously dating his childhood sweetheart Deanna LeBlanc and well on his way to becoming a very successful accountant/business executive. Dad worked at a lumber mill 5 days a week and my mom worked at a small restaurant 5 days a week. This left the siblings who were still at home to look after me when they weren’t in school. Dennis, Lydia, Kenny and Jimmy all took turns doing time with me… but Lydia was the one who did the lion’s share of it. She was only 10 when I was born, but because she was the female at home, she would be appointed the primary caregiver for me.
It was the way it worked in those days sadly… she was the girl. Boys generally weren’t held to the same standards.
I have often felt a bit guilty about that over the subsequent years actually. I think that her being ‘stuck’ with me kind of pre-destined her fate in life. As she moved through her own life Lydia always seemed to be the one who nurtured other people while putting her own hopes and dreams on the backburner. She wanted to be a teacher so bad but was never able to pursue that goal to its fruition. She would have been an excellent teacher. She had a way with dealing with misbehaviour that was no-nonsense, yet logical and fair. It’s quite possible in my mind that if she hadn’t been saddled up with me at such a young age, her life would’ve taken a totally different course. That thought has been in my mind for decades and now I share it with you all here today.
One of my earliest memories with Lydia was my first TV appearance…sort of. Sault Ste. Marie had it’s own TV station called CJIC and they also had their own ‘Romper Room/Howdy Doody Time’ styled local kiddies show called, ‘Miss Linda’. I probably watched it every day. Lydia took me downtown by bus when I was 3 years old to be in the audience that was regularly on camera as part of the Miss Linda show. The funny thing is, I remember the bus ride and walking to and from the bus stop with her and can’t remember actually being on the TV show. Back then, TV shows were ‘live only’ so there wouldn’t be a taped ‘later viewing’ to see myself. Apparently simply having a downtown bus trip with her was more fun to my young brain.
In 1963, our family took over the lease of a small restaurant in The Soo, The Underpass Grill. Mom had always wanted her own restaurant and luckily dad and her were able to pick up the place from the previous leaseholders The Simpson Family, who conveniently lived right across the street from us at our brand new home on Greenfield Drive. It was a lucky break for mom and dad but wouldn’t turn out to be much fun for the teenage kids at home.
Dennis, by that time had already started working at Algoma Steel in Production Planning so he was mostly kept out of doing shifts at the restaurant. Lydia on the other hand, would go to school during the day like other teenagers and then walk or bus straight from school to do a shift until our restaurant closed at 8:00pm. Kenny and Jimmy did this as well. Then once we were all home, she would sit me down with my schoolwork and make sure that my oral presentations, essays or any type of mandatory homework was completed to perfection. Remember I said she would have made an excellent teacher? I was at the top of my class because of her. I always made honour role.
With that schedule I have no idea how she could be involved in as many extracurricular school activities as she was. She loved singing of course, the French club, basketball etc.
Shortly after we took over the restaurant lease, mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and the family workload increased significantly to try to keep the restaurant afloat while mom went into the hospital for treatment. On top of it all, there now were the added hospital visitations. Because dad would visit mom every day after work (often with me in tow) the maintenance and running of the restaurant fell squarely into the laps of the Dalla-Vicenza teenagers once the hired daytime staff had gone home each day.
In June of 1967, a week or so after my mom’s death and funeral, Lydia moved out of our house. That was at the end of my grade 4 year. I passed that year at the very top of my class.
At the start of my grade 5 year and being a bit of a lonely kid with no interests in what other boys my age loved to do (sports and general pushing and shoving matches), I started learning how to play the guitar after watching my brother Kenny play ‘Love is All Around’ by The Troggs over and over again. Guitar quickly became my focus, my passion and a way to escape into a fantasy world. Now that Lydia was out of the house and I only cared about playing music, my grades went downhill very quickly. I barely passed grade 8 before I was to go into high school.
With each high school year, exponentially my marks decreased to the point that I failed pretty much almost every subject except my beloved music classes.
Even now I don’t even have my grade 10.
At home, Jimmy was busy with his college and work life as was Kenny. Dad has his own problems then – trying to adjust to this new life as a single dad with a very young son at home.
I personally think dad felt defeated and exhausted during this period and seemed oblivious to the fact that I was failing almost everything in school. If Lydia had still been at the helm, that wouldn’t have happened, whether I had a passion for music or not. With her guidance, I probably would’ve continued to be an honour student.
Although it’s well known in our family that Kenny taught me how to play guitar, and that Jimmy (with his incredible electronics abilities) built all of my early guitar amplifiers, my first time playing in front of an actual audience was with Lydia. Her and Jack Nelder married shortly after she had moved out of the family house in 1967 and they made their home in Echo Bay, a little lakeside town about 15 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie.
A couple of years later, Lydia had either volunteered or had ‘been volunteered’ to sing for a Christmas service at the little local church in Echo Bay. She asked me to accompany her on the guitar. When I agreed to do it she told me we were to do two songs… maybe one of them was ‘Silent Night’ but for sure the other one was ‘Oh, Holy Night’.
This may seem odd for a boy raised in a fairly devout Catholic family, but I swear I had never heard that song ever before at that time, which kind of scared me. I practiced and practiced it over and over again to ram it into my head. I don’t read music, so I have to figure out the chords and arrangement and commit it to memory. That’s why I know we played that song that night. It’s embedded in my brain for all time.
On February 9th, 1964 The Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time and the family watched the show as we did every Sunday night. Ed Sullivan was ‘much see TV’ on Sunday nights. There wasn’t much choice as we only had two channels and channel 10 CBS out of Michigan had Ed Sullivan.
Our local station could have just run a test pattern in that time period, because plainly everyone just watched Ed. If my memory serves me right, my brothers liked The Beatles from that very first appearance but I know for sure that Lydia did.
My parents thought The Beatles were terrible – so being 6 years old at the time, I sided with them. Lydia’s enthusiasm for The Beatles for the week and her constant listening to their songs on CKCY radio made me realize how great they were. By the time they appeared on Ed Sullivan on the next Sunday’s follow up performance on Ed Sullivan, I was a fan, which continues to this very day. Lydia brought me to see the film ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ that summer. It was crazy. Girls were screaming at the movie in the theatre! I remember Lydia being upset and wishing she had apples to shove in all of their mouths so she could hear the movie and the music.
Although my other siblings influenced my love of music and kept me current with their music collections and great musical tastes, Lydia inadvertently taught me a whole other love of music that would have never received from Kenny, Jimmy or Dennis. Marion was born in January of 1968 and was a bright, smart and sweet baby. It was shortly after this that Lydia would take me for periods of time to stay in Echo Bay with her, Jack and baby Marion. When I would stay with Lydia, she would always have music going on her record player. It was there that I started to fall in love with The Beach Boys, Tom Jones, Gene Pitney, and Leslie Gore…a whole different myriad of wonderful music that greatly influenced my love of many
Lydia and Jack moved back the Soo when I was about 12 I believe and lived in a second floor walk up of an old house on top the hill on People’s Road, about a ½ mile from where I lived with dad, Kenny and Jimmy. I would often visit her and spend the night while she awaited the birth of her second child. I remember Marion singing the song Chewy, Chewy from a K-Tel record over and over again almost before she could talk which was extremely cute.
I would help Lydia as she got bigger in her final month of pregnancy and she would let me feel the baby kick. The baby seemed to want to come out sooner than later and we were both quite excited. One day near the end of her term, Lydia in a very concerned voice said to me, ‘The baby has stopped kicking!’ My young mind didn’t comprehend that too much. To me, the baby was probably simply sleeping. Sadly that wasn’t the case at all. Her baby boy was stillborn. Lydia got to hold her little baby boy before they took it away. I wasn’t present for that of course, but she did say how the little baby boy looked so much like Jack. A funeral was held for it and when I walked in to see such a tiny little casket at the funeral home it shook me. What a sad sight that was. Apparently they discovered that the baby had a very long umbilical cord that had wrapped around it’s neck in her womb and choked it to death a couple of days before it was born.
Shortly after that, Lydia and Jack moved back out to Echo Bay where Shauna was born. Incidentally Shauna had a very long umbilical cord as well, but luckily she escaped the same fate as her late older brother. By this time, I didn’t see Lydia and her little family quite as much as I had in the past. Too young to have a driver’s license and having to rely on rides to Echo Bay cut back on any visiting I might have had with her. On top of it, I now had my own little fledgling band and it consumed most of the spare time that I had.
Jacqui was born in 1973 an once the girls were a bit older, Lydia started working as a waitress at a Husky Car/Truck Stop on Hwy 17 East in Sault Ste. Marie to help pay some of the mounting bills of her little family. Luckily for me, where she now worked was very close to Rosanne and Pauline’s family home, which was where I often found myself. They were now singers in my band and I adored their whole family so much. That continues to this day I’m happy to share with you all.
We would all go drop in at the restaurant very regularly to see Lydia. Rosanne, Pauline, Tim and Rene Huot (all members of my band) loved Lydia as much as we all do. They loved to see her and her bright cheerful nature. I remember thinking even back then that despite so many hardships, she continually moved forward in life with grace, a smile that didn’t quit, a wonderful sense of humour and a deep caring for anyone she came in contact with.
In the spring/summer of 1975, Lydia, Jack and the girls made the huge move out to Saskatchewan for Jack to get a better paying job to support their little family.
I turned 18 in September of that year. My dad recognized by then that school was never going to be part of my life. Earlier that year, I had been presented an offer to join a band of wonderful, focused musicians to go on the road. I asked dad if I could quit school to go on the road in January of 1976. He thought about it for a few days then said; ‘I think if I don’t let you do this, it may be a great regret for both of us.’ My last day of school was before the Christmas break in 1975.
On January 2nd, 1976 I flew to Vancouver to start my new career.
In February 1976, I found myself playing with my new band ‘Shama’ at The Sahara Nights Dinner Club, a very large 350-seat restaurant/lounge in Regina, Saskatchewan. It was a two-week engagement. Lydia and Jack drove from Saskatoon to Regina the first Saturday to bring me back to their house in Saskatoon after my show so I could have some family time with them and the girls. I spent the weekend with them and then took a Greyhound bus back to Regina on the Monday in time to play that night.
That became a fairly regular thing for me to do when I played anywhere in Saskatchewan, whether it be Prince Albert, Yorkton or Regina. They would come grab me and Lydia would cook one of my late mother’s fantastic Italian dinners in honour of my visit on the Sunday. We would catch up and visit and go for walks with her kids or go to local playgrounds or malls. When my band actually played in Saskatoon, we did even more together. We went to Pike Lake outside of Saskatoon for picnics a couple of times and I regularly ate dinner with them during my weeklong gigs. Lydia was always an ardent supporter of me and/or my career.
Jack and Lydia attended my performances with Shama in Saskatoon at least once every week we played there. She even let the entire band stay at her house in the summer of 1976 while we all waited for flights to take us back to Sault Ste. Marie for a summer break… the first time I had been home since the previous January.
I mentioned earlier that Lydia was always ‘the life of the party’. I must mention that it was never done to draw attention to herself unless it was to make people laugh, like the time she wore a cow outfit to present me with my birthday cake a couple of decades ago. My current band mates Marc and Brent still talk about that… she always wanted everyone around her to enjoy life. If you’re having a get-together, you don’t sit around like sloths…you get up and laugh…you have fun…you sing…. you dance…. whatever. She was always the catalyst for such things, and everyone I know loved her because of that. You couldn’t have a bad time if Lydia was present. She squeezed the juice out of life.
Lydia even continued to be my de facto mother throughout my adult life. It was never heavy handed or demanding… just a loving presence that I had missed greatly.
When I met and married Joanne, Lydia was quick to try to establish a warm relationship with her. It was mostly reciprocated, but sadly the nature of Joanne’s family past didn’t allow her to fully engage with most people. Joanne had her demons and so after a time, Lydia stopped trying too hard to foster that relationship. She was always the same to Joanne when she saw her in person of course, but realized that they would never be as close as she wished them to be.
Lydia and Jack eventually, sadly divorced and then a couple of years later Lydia met Vern Howell. Although he was much younger than Lydia, they were a perfect pairing and when I eventually met Vern I personally liked him immediately. He treated Lydia with all the respect and love she deserved and was clearly a solid presence in her life. Lydia loved her Vern back unconditionally and they participated in many things together.
Our oldest brother Butch and his wife Deanna and their sons Peter and Mark moved to Regina in 1983. In 1982 their oldest daughter Janice had settled down in The Soo with her new husband Glen Skagen and their baby Sarah so they didn’t make the move out west.
In 1992 our father Mario Sr. passed away.
On a side note, it’s odd to me that both of the Mario’s in our family (my father and my oldest brother) were seldom referred to by their given ‘Christian’ names. Mario Jr. as I mentioned earlier was referred to as “Butch” and my dad was called Vic, which was a nickname from childhood as a play on our last name. “Hey Dalla-Vicenza” became “Hey Dalla-Vic” to just “ Hey Vic” and it stuck for life.
Like I was saying in 1992, our father passed away. That was a strong catalyst for us to all get together sooner than later … so in 1993, it was announced that there would be a family reunion to be called the ‘Dalla-Gala’ in Craven Saskatchewan, a wonderful little valley area slightly northwest of Regina with a huge campsite available along with a big guesthouse. Butch and Dea hosted the reunion there and being that it was almost equal distance for the Ontario families as well as my little left coast family, it was fairly well attended.
It was there that more of the family got to know Vern. He was loved immediately. Vern was a humble man whom, like I said, adored my sister and that instantly made him ‘family’ for all of us. At that family gathering, Butch even announced Vern’s new Italian name to honour him… Vernuccio Howellini. Lydia was very proud of that family recognition and told the story many times over the subsequent years.
This brings me to an aspect of my dear sister’s personality. She loved to share stories…. Over and over and over again. I don’t know if she even realized how many times she repeated the same stories to the same people but most of the time we all endured it unless we were in a hurry… then you would cut her off with a quick, “Oh Ya – you told me that Lyd’.
She would then abruptly end that story and launch into another that invariably you had probably heard before as well.
In retrospect, it was an endearing trait and I would love to hear a repeat of one of her stories right now… it wouldn’t bother me in the least. I miss her so much.
I have to end – I could literally go on for hours but I’ve taken more than my allotted time I’m sure… please allow me to end with these little bits.
I’m so grateful Lydia and Kelly became so close. They had a relationship that developed incredibly quickly. When Kelly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, Lydia hadn’t even met her yet. She phoned to tell me she was flying to Victoria to be there for her. Kelly was wondering why she would do such a thing. Once she knew the type of person Lydia was there was no question as to why she would do such a thing. Lydia was just simply that caring as Kelly soon came to realize.
On Sunday morning of July 23rd, I was flying out of Winnipeg to home. We were starting to head down the tarmac and I hadn’t turned my phone on to airplane mode yet. It rang and I saw that it was Lydia. I quickly sent her an auto-reply text message that said that I would call her later.
I landed several hours later. My layover was in Vancouver enroute back home to Victoria. I tried to call her and there was no answer. I then listened to her message and although it was full of static, I heard her say ‘Hey little brother. I’m driving on the highway right now and a little bored. I was thinking about you and wanted to chat and let you know that I love you. Call me back when you can’
I figured I’d try to call again later, and promptly erased her voice message. How I wish now that I hadn’t.
I got home and nearing dinnertime I was puttering in the backyard while Kelly was lying down for a nap. We both had our phone ringers off. I walked in some time later and saw that I had received multiple messages. The latest text message was from Karen, Jacquie’s partner and quickly called her. She asked me to bring the phone to Kelly as well as she had to share something very urgent with both of us. I woke Kelly up and we both heard the devastating news.
I’ve been walking around like a zombie for days. This wasn’t supposed to be. I’m trying to imagine a world now without my wonderful sister in it.
What a phenomenal girl. What a blessing she was in all of our lives. She was such a selfless person.
I have a few ideas to share with you now:
1) Death is certain. Love is eternal. This should be a reminder to surround ourselves with people who love and uplift, because this life is much too short for anything less.
2) If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.
3) “Remember that people are only guests in your story – the same way you are only a guest in theirs – so make the chapters worth reading.”
4) “Love is stronger than death even though it can’t stop death from happening, but no matter how hard death tries it can’t separate people from love. It can’t take away our memories either. In the end, life is stronger than death.”
5) “Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”
Thank you Lydia – I promise…