Goodbye to my friend, Sandy Korman
I went to the Kootenays this week, a part of the vast province outside our little urban corner that we often forget. It was beautiful, as it has been every time I’ve gone there for the past 26 years. The deep cobalt-green mountains that enclose Castlegar in its narrow valley, with the Columbia River running through, were dusted with white. The air was clean and crisp, but more like April than November.
I usually go to visit my friend Sandy. I met her when I got my first-ever newspaper job in the town in the next valley to the east, Creston, where she was living in the 1980s. Some might think, given what Sandy did later in life – she was NDP MLA Corky Evans’ constituency assistant for 15 years and an inexhaustible fighter for her piece of the province — and what I’ve written about for much of my journalism career, that we bonded over a shared interest in politics.
But we never talked about politics in the first years we knew each other. Even though I started work at the Creston newspaper, where Sandy then worked in the ad department, on the first day of B.C.’s general strike in 1983 during the height of Solidarity protests, I only remember ever only one vaguely political conversation. She told me her friends said she “gardened like a Socred.” They meant she had a beautifully kept lawn and lush flower beds, sometimes even with marigolds in them, all around the little house where she and her husband George and son Shaun lived – the kind of little house that used to be standard for families in the 1950s and still exist in many Canadian small towns.
No, what really started our friendship and always sustained it was a deep shared interest in belly laughs and breaking the rules for girls.
Other people might have seen us as a couple of young mothers. That was only one part of who we imagined ourselves to be. Seven weeks after I arrived in Creston, we were appointed to be Santa’s elves at the newspaper’s Christmas party. We decided to go as slutty elves and went to thrift stores in town to buy the most outrageous outfits we could find. We put on heavy make-up and teased our hair to improbable dimensions. At the party, we spent our time shrieking at Santa, our boss, that he was a dirty old man and slapping his hands. As I left the party, I fell down in the driveway, a combination of unfamiliar secondhand high heels, alcohol, and icy conditions, but I never felt a thing. It was my stomach that hurt the next day from laughing.
Even though I moved on up the ladder of journalism within 12 months of arriving in Creston, I went back to the Kootenays every year, where I felt like I’d found a home. And Sandy was always one of the magnets, this effervescent presence in my life who turned every visit into an indelible piece of performance art. She had stories, great Rabelaisian stories where she always triumphed over some f***ing stupid moron in her life or where a secret part of Kootenays life was revealed. There was always a thorough analysis of the failings and faults of her friends and political colleagues and the party she worked for – analysis that was usually shared with them first. Because in Sandy’s life, no one got a pass. She was the most intensely loyal sister, mother, daughter, aunt, friend, and political worker I’ve ever known – almost nothing could make her give up on you if you were one of the inner circle – but that didn’t exempt you from her assessment of where you were screwing up royally.
And then I always heard about the latest project. There were always projects.
My house has her projects in various corners. She was a potter when I first met her, always experimenting with new styles. I have a heavy speckled mud-coloured bowl from her earthy phase and a terracotta soap dish with aquamarines and greens from the Navajo desert phase and, my favourite, a couple of pieces of matte-white pottery with leaf designs carved in with the special, angled knife she used. I never got one of the mosaic mirrors and she only ever built one kitchen island, but I have a sweater from when she was knitting a lot, dishcloths she crocheted, and, of course, about ten of the beautiful glass pendants she started making in recent years. Every one was different. My favourite is the black one, lit from inside with a glowing core of red and gold leaf.
But that was just one kind of project. Another: Buying a house every couple of years and fixing it up, turning dumps into magazine-worthy works of art. During the 90s, by then on her own, she lived in a trailer in the Crescent Valley south of Nelson, a trailer that was more stylish and deliciously comfortable than some million-dollar Vancouver houses I’ve been in. The house-buying slowed down, but the desire to reno didn’t. After redoing the Castlegar house she moved to in the new millennium a few times, she and her brother Brian bought an older house two years ago, moved it, fixed it up and sold it for a profit. And, in typical Sandy fashion, when Revenue Canada tried to tell her that she then owed them $15,000 in GST because she had sold a “new” house, she went to battle. Unsurprisingly, for anyone who knew her, Revenue Canada lost.
And then there were her work projects. As Corky always said, anything that got done in his riding was because of Sandy. A story he (and she) loved to tell was how they got the money to build the new Kootenay School of the Arts. They’d been desperate and unsuccessful in figuring out where they would get the million dollars needed for it. Then the NDP government of the day announced a new insfrastructure fund, something Sandy knew would be committed to the most energetic lobbyists around the province within a couple of days. Corky was driving to Vancouver that day. When he left in the morning, Sandy had a $100,000 commitment from Adrian Dix, Glen Clark’s right-hand guy. By noon, when he checked in, she had a quarter million from Adrian. By the time he arrived in Vancouver that evening, she had the full million.
She loved her part of the province and the people who stuck it out there. She always felt – and drilled into me every time I visited – that these were the people who were the real economic engine of B.C. Vancouverites might imagine that their upscale restaurants and film industry and cellphone businesses were the epicentre of the known universe, but Sandy knew better. It was the loggers and pulp-mill workers and all those people who work in B.C.’s resource hinterland who made our lattes possible. She understood working people – even understood why they started voting Reform – better than her party did sometimes. So she fought for them and her part of the province. She helped create the Columbia Basin Trust and she campaigned with Corky for years to encourage new businesses that would use B.C. lumber, instead of letting it all be shipped off every year.
When Corky was out of office for the 2001-2005 term, Sandy took on another project, reviving the art gallery in Castlegar, taking it from a moribund and little-visited place to a home for all kinds of local artists and a popular Christmas shopping spot for people from all over the Kootenays. Sandy, the most gleeful NDP capitalist I ever met, loved bragging about how much money they made.
She was all set to start new projects this summer, as Corky rode off into the political sunset. She was going to make more of her glass jewelry, of course. It was so popular that she could sell out months of work in a couple of weeks at Christmas, and I’d always promised I’d help market it in Vancouver. She and her sister-in-law Arlene were talking about, yes, buying another house and fixing it up. She loved to travel, but had a phobia about flying (along with elevators and tragic diseases striking her down), so I came up with this plan last year that we should drive down to Mexico, where I knew she’d love the colours and all the arts-type people who have moved into the small towns there. When I talked to her in June before going to Europe, she had fallen in love with a new kind of potatoes – fingerlings that she’d bought at a market somewhere – and gone crazy over. She was going to plant lots of them in her garden.
In late July, after weeks of having problems with her vision, with headaches, and with just generally feeling bad, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, the worst, most aggressive kind. She had an operation in Kelowna, but doctors could only remove the biggest lump, not the tentacles. She tried radiation in September, but it made her so sick that she had to stop after only a couple of weeks.
So she came home, where all the energy she had poured into the people around her was returned. People, family and friends, moved into her house to take care of her and, in a way, to take care of all the friends who couldn’t be there. Her daughter, Jen, created a Facebook page to let people know about Sandy’s days for those who couldn’t be there. Her sister, Sheren, and Arlene took turns phoning people at key points to give them news, an exhausting job since I imagine that most of them, like me, cried for much of the conversation.
In spite of that, the house turned into, as her friend Niki Verzuh put it, “the House of Love.” People sent books and CDs and money to help with expenses. And they wrote endlessly. Her family took turns every day reading aloud from the dozen or more cards and letters that arrived every day. They took Sandy for walks by the river that she loved so much and they made dinners and played music and cried and talked endlessly about life and death.
Sandy, as always, infused everything with her same irreverent and passionately caring style. When she called me the first time after her diagnosis, her opening line was: “Well, guess I won’t be coming down to paint your house like you always wanted.” And when I commented tentatively that her speech sounded a little odd, slurred, she replied, “I do have a f***ing brain tumour, you know.” Apparently that was a popular line in many conversations she had at the House of Love.
And when I visited, our conversations spanned the range from “Oh, him, he was always a dickhead, wasn’t he?” to what she was going to buy everyone to Christmas to wondering whether she had really done anything with her life that was meaningful, that had changed the world a little.
I tried to tell her that she had, although, in the struggle of the moment to say everything that had been circling in my head for weeks, I’m not sure I did a good job. I never got the chance to try again. She got weaker soon after I saw her last, then slipped into a coma a week ago Friday. She died in the early morning of Nov. 11 at home, with her family all around.
What I would like to tell her now is how much I would have learned from her if we had ever taken our imaginary trip to Mexico. I have always been a person who rushed when I travelled, driving hundreds of miles in a day and never stopping. Sandy was the opposite. For her, travelling was all about the voyage: stopping at Rock Creek to have a beer by the river, going for a swim in the Simalkameen, checking out the perogies in Grand Forks.
Enjoying the voyage was what she did her whole life and so she filled her years twice over. She had nothing to regret. The biggest loss is ours. We have years to live now without her and without everything she would have done to make those years seem richer and more exciting and more fun. Castlegar and the Kootenays won’t have this person who would probably have cooked up more than one idea in the next 20 years to make her community better And I will never get to eat her fingerling potatoes or admire her latest home-decor find or have her cut through some knot of my anxiety with a couple of sharp sentences or listen to her latest funny story that will make me laugh until it hurts.
- Sandy Korman would have turned 60 on Dec. 15. More than 300 people attended her memorial service in Castlegar. Her family and friends have started a fund at the Kootenay School of the Arts to provide awards in her name. Donations can be made to Development, Selkirk College, 820 10th Street, Nelson, B.C. V1L 3C7.