March 24, 2024

Rob Vanstone: To Mom, with love and a lament, on her 90th birthday

Nov. 20, 1976, outside Taylor Field. My mother, like her rebellious relic of a car, was smoking too much.

We were stuck in traffic, with horns honking for reasons that didn’t have anything to do with the congestion on the streets of Regina, after the Saskatchewan Roughriders beat Edmonton 23-13 to win the CFL’s Western Conference championship.

“We’re going to the Grey Cup,” Helen Vanstone informed me.

“I know, Mom,” her 12-year-old non-prodigy of a son hissed. “We just beat Edmonton.”

Obviously, the message wasn’t sinking in. No wonder my marks in Grade 7 at Massey School began with decimal points.

“I’m not sure you understand, Robert,” Mom said, correctly. “We’re going to the Grey Cup.”

Unbeknownst to me, Mom had applied for two tickets to the 1976 Grey Cup Game, contingent upon the Roughriders representing the West.

The desired result having been achieved, we were destined for Toronto.

On Nov. 28, 1976, we were at Exhibition Stadium watching the Green and White face the Ottawa Rough Riders.

It looked oh, so promising when Saskatchewan assumed a 20-10 lead. But there were tears when, with just 20 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Tony Gabriel caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Tom Clements and ultimately delivered a 23-20 victory for the underdogs from the Eastern Conference.

It was the worst day of my life until my dad died.

I lost my mom just over four years ago — on Dec. 11, 2019 — and am now at the point when I can think about her without a twinge of sadness. Well, most of the time, anyway. There is one regret.

For many of her milestone birthdays, I was able to compose a column of appreciation that would appear in the Regina Leader-Post or one of its sister publications.

When Mom reached her 60th birthday, I wrote pretty much the same column that was published when she turned 70 … and 75 … and 80 … and 85.

There was also the annual Mother’s Day column, in which I would skilfully rephrase everything that had been written 365 (or 366) days earlier.

A few of them were clipped out of the newspaper by Mom and displayed on the wall or on the refrigerator.

After she died, and it was time to clean out her condo and go through all her files, I found every single column that had been written about her.

Every single note I had left her.

Every single note I had left for Dad.

Every birthday card. Every Christmas card. Every report card. Every failed art project. (Is that a duck or a cow?)

As far back as elementary school, Mom and Dad always ensured that I had an unlimited budget for reading. If I wanted a book, a magazine or newspaper, all I had to do was ask.

My love of sports was fuelled by a voracious appetite for the written word. Not long after I was able to identify a football and a puck, I knew that I wanted to write about sports for a living.

Thanks to Mom and Dad, I was unknowingly doing homework for my future career(s).

Alan Vanstone was the organist for the Regina Pats from 1971 to 1974. During his hardball negotiations with the Pats, who paid him $25 per game, he insisted that his hockey-loving son be allowed to attend every game for free. Deal.

My football fascination was ignited by Mom, who took me to Roughriders home games further back than I can remember.

Eventually, we branched out and attended Grey Cup Games (those of 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981). We also followed the Roughriders on the road via Dash Tours, making many a bleary-eyed bus trip during a period that spanned 1977 to 1981.

The first time we made such an excursion, the Roughriders lost 11-1 in Calgary. That was a precursor to another 1977 road trip — to Edmonton, where Saskatchewan lost a 38-0 nailbiter.

Two trips to Alberta … and all we got was a rouge!

Yet, we kept going, even though the bus typically pulled into the Southland Mall parking lot in the middle of the night on a Sunday — just a few hours before Mom had to go to work and I had to go to school.

Our devotion was rewarded on Oct. 29, 1978, when we attended what will always be my favourite sporting event — a supposedly meaningless game in Edmonton.

The 1978 Roughriders had but three wins and a tie when they travelled to the Alberta capital for their season finale.

Larry Dick, the heir apparent to Ron Lancaster, had been designated as the starting quarterback. For most of the game, No. 23 stood on the sideline at Commonwealth Stadium, wearing a green warmup jacket.

By the fourth quarter, there was a clamour emanating from the stands — and not just from our small group of Saskatchewan supporters.

The Edmonton fans were chanting “We Want Ronnie!”

Then-Head Coach Walt Posadowski eventually caved in and inserted Lancaster into the game.

En route to the huddle, Lancaster was approached by Edmonton cornerback Larry Highbaugh, who offered a warm handshake.

(“He should have shook my hand,” Lancaster quipped. “With all the interceptions I threw him, I put in him in the Hall of Fame!”)

Lancaster quickly threw a touchdown pass, to Joey Walters, to create a 26-26 tie. Bob Macoritti added a convert that proved to be the game-winning point.

For good measure, Lancaster scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak — which was recognized by a standing ovation from Edmonton and Saskatchewan fans alike.

The game didn’t have any bearing on the standings but, nearly a half-century later, I still get goosebumps by simply recalling what it was like at Commonwealth Stadium.

It was a long ride home, but nobody on that Moose Mountain bus felt like going to sleep. We savoured every second of the overnight trek back to Saskatchewan, knowing that we had just witnessed something extraordinary.

Most of the people on the trip were in their 20s. I was the youngest passenger. Mom was the oldest.

Everybody called her “Mom,” in fact. It wasn’t just me.

She loved to tell stories, in her inimitable way, and she laughed as robustly as anyone at all the characters and that made those journeys such a joy.

I enjoyed them immensely at the time, of course, but only now can I fully realize how much Mom gave me by paying $50 for each of us, with the reward being a game ticket, one night’s accommodations at a nice hotel, a bus ride and a chicken dinner.

Here I sit, as the Roughriders’ resident historian, with the ability to offer first-hand accounts of so many great games and pivotal moments.

So here’s the regret: I wish I could show her around new Mosaic Stadium and prove to her that, yes indeed, my desk can be organized.

I wish she could look around my little workspace and see the pictures of Lancaster, Walters, George Reed, Rhett Dawson, Molly McGee and Dave Ridgway, to name just a few Roughrider luminaries.

Mom would surely appreciate the autographed Jim Hopson jersey, the 1967 Grey Cup pennant, game programs dating back to 1948 and, in a grocery bag, sandwiches dating back to August.

It would frustrate her to no end, mind you, that all my work appears solely on a website. She kept scrapbooks of everything I wrote for the Leader-Post, but never had the slightest desire to own a laptop.

A few months before she passed away, I decided to give Mom a MacBook tutorial.

“It’s easy,” I told her while placing the computer on her lap.

Within minutes, I concluded that I would have better luck teaching her how to fly a Boeing 747.

She was resolutely, proudly old school. She loved handwritten (or typewritten) notes and enjoyed a phone call.

For her 75th birthday, we bought her a state-of-the-art TV that included a PVR … and she was incensed!

“What about my tapes?” she protested.

Eventually, an ingenious technician from Radio Centre found a way to connect a VHS video recorder to a 60-inch television. It was akin to attaching tin cans to the back of a Corvette, but Mom liked it her way.

She loved cherry brandy and she hated it when she had to quit smoking. By the time she discarded the cigarettes for good, the damage was done. She eventually suffered from COPD, which contributed to the congestive heart failure that took her life.

But even in her final days, she would talk about the good times we had. Bedridden in the Regina General Hospital, she was uncomfortable but without the slightest regret.

She had lived a full life, on her terms, and who can ask for more?

Born in Birmingham, England on March 24, 1934, she survived the Second World War, the sudden deaths of two husbands, having me for a son and, lest we forget, the Tony Gabriel catch.

Not even 40 yards away from where the Ottawa tight end caught that pass, I fought back tears while snapping a green horn in two.

And Mom? Ever the optimist, she said with a smile, “Wasn’t that a good game?!”

Well, no, but …