Although it’s a commonplace that once we pass a certain age, death becomes “the new normal” as we watch dear friends and family pass away one by one, it never gets the least bit easier. Just this Sunday in our little community of New Denver we lost one such dear soul, Sally Lamare. One of many charming “characters” who made the Slocan Valley what it is—or was—Sally was known to virtually everyone. She had a way of making everyone feel like family.
She was generous to a fault, often buying out the day’s stock of chocolate chip cookies or blueberry muffins at New Denver’s Apple Tree Sandwich Shop just so she could give most of them away. She made sure to give you a phone call precisely on the day of your anniversary or birthday and never once forgot. She made her visiting rounds of the elderly and shut-in. A true child of the “flower power” phenomenon of the 1960s, she embodied in her actions what others only sang or talked about. Certainly it took some fortitude to be the one buttonholed by Sally on the street, since you could be in for a very long conversation. For that reason, some avoided her, but were ultimately the poorer for it, just as our society is the poorer for expecting everyone to look and behave the same.
In some ways I’m not sure she ever got over the death of her beloved husband Barry Lamare, who died suddenly in 2009 of a heart attack. As deaths go, it was as fine as could be hoped, with the two of them holding hands at the head of crystalline Slocan Lake. In a millisecond, it was all over. They had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary the year before, one of those rare couples who fell in love during high school and never fell out of love. The common, good-natured joke was “When Barry Met Sally,” which seemed to go a lot more smoothly than the couple depicted in the popular movie When Harry Met Sally.
Barry and Sally were among the very best of the American expatriates who decided to build a new life in Canada during the Vietnam War era, following thousands of war resisters and homesteaders to the then virtually unknown Slocan Valley. Their story is mentioned in Katherine Gordon’s history, The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley. Like so many did, they arrived in a Volkswagen van, that stalwart of personal transportation that has since become an icon of the era. Their eldest son Joey would later make VW restoration a major part of his car business. Sally’s death in her sleep is a fitting bookend to Barry’s gentle passing.
Losing Joey prematurely four years ago was another blow to Sally. Just as she did with all our birthdays and anniversaries, she marked the date of his passing every year with a phone call to ease her loneliness over his loss. We were glad to share her sadness in the vain hope that it might ease her pain. For me it was a stark reminder of my own mortality: Joey and I were both born in 1959, just months apart. Because of this—and the friendship Barry and I had cultivated—Sally said she felt I was another of her sons. I often felt unworthy of the honour, but Anne and I had spent more than one Christmas dinner with Barry and Sally in our home and we felt very much like family. Both Barry and Sally never seemed “old” to me at any age. When she turned 80 last fall she remarked to me that she couldn’t believe she was really that age. Her final years were eased by her companionship with Tommy Gillies, a family friend for decades.
Barry had been a high school teacher in California in the great musical heyday of the Sixties and was probably among the first to include the lyrics of songwriters like Bob Dylan in his poetry classes. It doesn’t get any cooler than that! And with me being a poet we always had plenty to talk about. Barry and Sally both worked as teachers after moving to the Slocan Valley in the mid ’70s and she could point to any number of successful adults as her former students, including sax player extraordinaire Clinton Swanson.
She and Barry established the highly successful What Knot Woodworks, producing classic wooden toys and name lettering for nurseries. I wonder how many adults here today can recall growing up with these childhood treasures in their bedrooms, lovingly handmade and sold at Nelson’s Craft Connection and Raven’s Nest Gifts in New Denver. Understandably, after Barry’s passing, Sally seemed unable to sell the business—after all, it represented a good part of their lives together. She continued making the toys and letters until just a few years ago.
Given Sally’s highly social nature, I wonder if the “social distancing” protocols of the coronavirus lockdown were especially hard on her. Clearly she was someone who thrived on social contact, and the more of it the better. She was an ardent supporter of arts and culture and faithfully appeared at nearly every gallery opening, concert or other community event, busily snapping pictures to capture the memory. I’m not sure she was someone who really knew how to be alone, and let’s face it—one of the hardest things in life to cope with is loneliness, especially after losing a life partner. Luckily her irrepressibly cheerful nature got her through it somehow. To me she will always be that perennial “flower child,” with a bright sprig of petals in her long, still-dark hair, reluctant to leave the “Summer of Love” behind. If only our culture had stayed right there with her, imagine what a different world we’d now live in.
Sally, you were among the best of us—the memory of your ready smile and laugh will be an antidote to the dark times we must now endure without you. Let’s hope the world returns to sanity soon so we can celebrate your life, all of us together in one place and sharing the generous hugs that were one of your trademarks.
—for Sally Lamare, 1939–2020
Bathed in Nag Champa incense,
we approach her beeswax candle,
wilderness beacon on a windowsill
for souls lost in the night and
wanting warm, wanting home.
Just then, a moth the size
of my pinky fingernail leaps
from its cliff of air straight
into the flame, sputtering out
like a shot-down plane, wings
become one with hot wax.
Later, when we return to say
goodnight and godspeed,
a skipper moth skates the glass—
busy backyard socialite—
before melting back into the dark,
a “social distancing” too far
for us to reach. She is the moth fairy
we all knew, camellia in her hair,
dispensing chocolate chip cookies,
blueberry muffins, and O,
so, so much to say!
And what I want to know is:
Who but her will remember
every birthday and anniversary
without fail? Who will stop traffic
to share her news? Who is left
to carry the dream that dawned
on Yasgur’s farm and Topanga Canyon
just once before the music died
in our semi-automatic arms?
How many candles must we light
to match the stars in her eyes?
©2020 Sean Arthur Joyce