The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 11: The Meaning of a Bench
July 14, 2022
By Birgitta Jansen
In May 2021, a bench appeared on Sunflower Hill. A dedication plaque fastened to the back said, “In Loving Memory of Nola Jean; March 8, 1952 – January 13, 2018. Simply The Best.” Every time I passed that bench, I wondered, “Who was Nola Jean?”
In June 2022, a second plaque appeared on the bench: “In Loving Memory of Lindsay Merkel, May 22, 1953 – March 2, 2022, Fearless Leader – Beautiful Mother, Partner & Friend.”
Beginnings and endings. Two sets of numbers with little flat lines in between that connect them. Those dashes contain the lives that were lived with the loves and losses, hopes, dreams, disappointments, and all that shaped them. I notice two little plastic hearts fastened next to the plaques.
I already wanted to learn about Nola, and now there were more questions: who was Lindsay? What was their connection with Sunflower Hill? I started my search for answers.
What I found was a circle of long-term close friends who share laughter and tears, activities, travel, and a love of fun. They generously gave me their memories and stories about two members of this group now gone.
Nola Jean Doiron was born and raised in Cranbrook. Her first marriage sadly ended in divorce, and Paul was her only child. In her adult life, she worked in the Bank of Montreal’s mortgage department as a loan officer and manager. Those are the basic facts, but they do not begin to describe Nola. According to those who loved her, she was so much more.
One friend put it this way: “Nola was short in stature but mighty as a personality. She just brought light into the room; she had that energy, that smile. Everyone who met Nola immediately felt drawn to her. She welcomed people heartily into the circle of friends. She had a love for people; she was generous and caring.”
Nola loved dress-up parties and fun gatherings. It was Nola who initiated the group’s participation in the Lilith Affair, an annual show put on for women by women at Centre 64. “This is what we’re going to do…” she announced to the group. They formed “The Up The Creek Divas,” and all joined in developing the choreography for the different acts. They participated for five or six years. During one event, Nola dressed as Tina Turner and lip-synched to “Simply the Best” while the rest of the Divas danced behind her.
This was by no means all that Nola had to offer. She acted in plays and was part of a writers’ group. She was artistic and exhibited her artwork at Centre 64. She was most passionate about sunflowers and loved to paint them. She loved ladybugs, too.
Friends told of her remarkable courage. Nola was terrified of water but pushed herself through that fear. She learned to swim, canoe, and kayak as an adult, and came to love it all. She was also fearful of heights. But she never backed away from challenges; Nola believed in conquering them. She overcame her fear and hiked narrow trails at higher altitudes — perhaps not totally happily, but she did it.
She faced the brain tumor, the cancer that ended her life, with an equal measure of courage. She met these final challenges with amazing grace and acceptance. Even when she was already quite ill, her concern was with others. It was Lindsay who took care of Nola during her illness.
Nola and Lindsay probably knew each other in high school. They reconnected during the early 1990s, and over time became best friends and loving partners. Lindsay was “the rock” in their relationship and Nola had the space to blossom and be Nola. Their bond together was strong, and as a friend described it, they had a big impact on the people in their community. They married July 19, 2015.
Lindsay was born and raised in Kimberley and lived here for most of her life. She was previously married and had two children, Dylan and Riley, but eventually divorced. She was a registered nurse and worked as the head nurse of the Dialysis Unit for the East Kootenay region, first at the hospital in Kimberley and later in Cranbrook.
Lindsay was described as a most remarkable woman; strong, both mentally and physically. She was very competent, capable, handy, and liked to build things. One friend commented, “It was as if she could do anything she put her mind to.”
Lindsay’s daughter Riley knew her mom as the outdoor adventurer and traveler. She loved the outdoors, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and skiing (both downhill and cross country). It was Lindsay who organized many of the group’s outdoor activities and travels, such as trips to Mexico and other interesting places.
In 2022, Lindsay succumbed to pancreatic cancer, just four short years after Nola’s passing. Many friends find peace in the belief they are together once again.
They are both sorely missed. But the memorial bench has become an occasional gathering place for friends and family members who remember Nola and Lindsay. This year in May, when the balsamroot celebrated life by exuberantly covering the hillside in yellow, there was a bouquet of sunflowers left at the bench together with a partial bottle of tequila and a little red plastic cup. There were rocks painted with sunflowers and little ladybugs. The rocks come and go, perhaps going home with loved ones to remember Nola and Lindsay or to simply add colour to a garden. And sometimes newly painted rocks appear…
Nola and Lindsay may no longer be here in a physical form, but they will live on in memory and in people’s hearts. I suspect that each year, when the balsamroot blooms again, a group of friends will meet at the bench.
A huge “Thank You!” to Betty, Riley, Sandy, Jean, and others. This story was asking to be told, but without your contributions that could not have happened.
Photos by Birgitta except where indicated otherwise.