Joan Kitts was buried on a rainy afternoon in the St. Lawrence O’Toole graveyard in Barry’s Bay beside her beloved husband Charlie. Her nine children and many members of their families, some cousins and friends accompanied her on that final journey. Her daughter Julie said that when they drove into town, they were moved to find the church parking lot filled with cars and about seventy-five Barry’s Bay and area folks – relatives, friends and former neighbours – waiting to say one last goodbye to Joan. Above: Joan and her great-grandchildren in 2018 at Lake Clear. Four great-grandchildren have been born since that photo was taken and three more are on the way. Photo: Krista Rosien St. Louis.
Several people I talked to in the days between Joan’s death and funeral shared stories about Joan and said they would definitely be at the burial if they didn’t get to Ottawa for the wake and funeral as well. I wasn’t surprised because, even though she moved to the city in 1996, Joan maintained her ties to the community. She loved the people in the Bay and they loved her.
Every time I saw her, she gave me a big hug
Friend and former employee Carl Kuehl was at the graveside. Carl was the butcher at Kitts’ Red and White in Barry’s Bay from 1966-1973 and his wife Susan used to babysit for Charlie and Joan. After she sold the store, Joan kept in touch with Carl and, in later years when she came up to Lake Clear for holidays, she called him to order steaks which he delivered personally. “She was a great lady to work for, she was always happy,” Carl said, “and every time I saw her, she gave me a big hug.”
Dennis Billings, a member of the extended Kitts family, was there too. He worked at the store for several years when he was in high school. He approached Charlie with the idea of a night shift to stock shelves in the busy summer months. Charlie suggested his son Chuck help Dennis saying, “If he misbehaves, give him a good kick in the arse.” Dennis took these words literally. The following night Chuck didn’t show up, but Joan did. “Oh boy, did I get a good old-fashioned verbal whipping,” Dennis laughed. “The matriarch had spoken, loud and clear!” Dennis also experienced Joan’s great generosity in 1971, the first Christmas after his widowed mother’s death (and the first Christmas after Charlie’s death), when he was invited for Christmas dinner. “Good God, I was overwhelmed with the thoughtful care extended to me.”
Kitts’ Red and White in 1954. Photo: The Kitts Family of the Ottawa Valley & North America (Woermke), 2007.
Joan brought a “joie de vivre” to the work place
Sister Rosenda Brady travelled from Pembroke to attend Joan’s burial. She was Valley Manor’s first administrator, worked for many years with Joan and remembered her as a very compassionate woman. “Joan was well-loved by both residents and colleagues,” Sister said, “we were blessed to have her on staff.”
Linda Shulist had fond memories of Joan from their days together at the Manor. Linda said Joan saw herself as an advocate for the residents, and that staff saw Joan as an inspiration:
She brought a mature wisdom to our home and led by example. Many of the younger staff, myself included, looked up to her with respect and admiration. Joan had a wonderful sense of humour, a great laugh and a lifetime of stories. She brought a ‘joie de vivre’ to our workplace. She spoke with authority and could be direct, but that was always tempered kindness and with the resident’s needs.
Joan’s best friend Loretta Murray also worked at the Manor as dietary supervisor. She said Joan had a “real knack” for working with the residents because she understood them. “Joan could encourage residents to accomplish things others couldn’t,” Murray says, “and we always knew which patients Joan had worked with because they had a lip-print on their foreheads.” That was from a goodbye kiss with Joan’s trademark lipstick.
“Lord, I hate to see her go”
Joan’s family chose a well-known country song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as the closing song at her funeral in Ottawa. That song, which speaks of death, mourning and the strength of family, was certainly appropriate. The words “Lord, I hate to see her go,” brought a lump to my throat because they were true.
You see, I knew Joan my entire life. I am one of the many fortunate relatives from the extended Valiquette and Kitts families who benefited from Joan’s generous understanding of the size and inclusivity of the family circle. We all knew that her immediate family – her husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – were her pride and joy, but we were grateful that her big heart had enough room for us.
Joan Valliquette, the daughter of Martin Valiquette and Teresa Ludgate married Charlie Kitts in 1953. Here they are pictured with his parents, John B. Kitts and Julia Manion. Photo: The Kitts Family of the Ottawa Valley & North America (Woermke), 2007.
Ready to be with Charlie
In early August, I received a text from Julie informing me that Joan had taken a turn for the worse. I was profoundly saddened.
When I visited Joan in May and June at Élisabeth Bruyère where she was recovering from a stroke, she had three goals: “to go home; to go to Lake Clear; and to go to the Pilgrimage in Cormac.” She achieved all of these goals by the end of July, but shortly after, as arthritis, the effects of numerous surgeries and exhaustion caught up with her, she told her kids she “was ready to be with Charlie.”
Chuck told me at the wake, she died peacefully at home. They knew death was near, so the family gathered. Joan’s parish priest was there too. “It was perfect,” Chuck said. “We had prayed. We were laughing, telling stories and some of us were making sandwiches in the kitchen when she slipped away. She was surrounded and comforted by the sounds she loved.”
Joan and her children. Standing: Martin, Jack, Jim, Bobby, Chuck and Bill. Sitting: Colleen, Joan, Mary Ann and Julie. Photo: Krista Rosien St. Louis.
Rich beyond belief
A few days after the wake, funeral and burial, Sarah Conway shared her thoughts with me about growing up with her older siblings Janie and Tommy next door to the Kitts on Sandhill Drive. Their parents, Tommy and Joan were great friends with Joan and Charlie, and Tommy and Charlie were also first cousins. Sarah described Joan’s kindness, love and compassion for others: “When we lost both our parents, Joan jumped right in. Having quite a full plate of her own as a widow with nine children, she included the three of us in her family.” Sarah continued:
Joan was not shy to tell us when we might be making the wrong choices and yet at the same time, was the first one to praise us for our accomplishments. We shared many laughs, many tears and many prayers together but most of all we shared our love for one another. Joan also shared many memories of our parents with us. It is rare in life to know a person like Joan but if you are lucky enough, you are rich beyond belief.
That’s how I’ll remember Joan
Joan’s best friend, Loretta, told me they met in 1954 when Joan, Charlie and baby Julie moved to Barry’s Bay to open Kitts’ grocery store. The Kitts lived above the store and Loretta’s family, the O’Malleys, lived next door. Loretta was fifteen and Joan was eighteen. Commenting on the depth of their friendship, Loretta said, “All of my secrets went to the grave.” After Joan moved to Ottawa, Loretta said they talked at least four times every week: “We’ve shared good times and bad times; we’ve laughed and cried together.” Loretta visited Joan about ten days before her death. “We had a great visit,” she said, “lots of laughter and stories of the old days. That’s how I’ll remember Joan.”
Joan. Photo: Sarah Chapman Mantifel.
Wakes and funerals
Like most Valley folk, I’m no stranger to wakes and funerals. At Joan’s wake, Sarah Conway and I reminisced about how many wakes and funerals we attended in our childhood. “I remember Mary Ann Kitts and I popping into Goulet’s to attend great aunt Rose Doyle’s wake,” Sarah said, “we were on the way home from school.” I’m pretty sure I did the same, maybe with my cousins Konrad and Michael Yakabuski. It was part of growing up in the Bay.
These days wakes and funerals have a new layer of meaning. Of course, they are opportunities to mourn individuals and support their families, but now the obsequies cause me to reflect on the disappearance of a generation and the values which guided folks like Joan, my parents, their siblings and their cousins. Joan’s eldest, Julie, identified three of these in the brief but beautiful eulogy she delivered before the funeral mass began: faith, family and friendship.
Goodbye to a beloved cousin and friend
When I was a kid, I knelt at caskets with my mother beside me on the kneeler and my father standing behind us. She told me to say a prayer for the soul of the deceased. Then, if it was a family member or close friend, she gently touched the deceased’s hand. My dad was not a fan of that practice. To be honest, neither was I.
But, as I knelt beside Joan’s casket, with Julie’s hand on my shoulder, I reached out to touch Joan’s hand. No reluctance. No hesitation. A heartfelt goodbye to a beloved cousin and friend.
This, as the Kitts family returned to Ottawa following their mom’s interment in Barry’s Bay.
Photo: Julie Kitts.
About the author: A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark Woermke spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook.