(COURTESY AWI KIRBY)
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Cecelia Tsiononkeri Phillips Kirby peacefully passed away on September 4 at the Kateri Memorial Hospital Centre (KMHC), surrounded by three of her granddaughters, Kathy Kirby-Lazare, Leonda Kirby and Awi Kirby. She was 106.
Cecelia was born on March 3, 1914. Her parents, Angus Kanetakte Phillips and Mary Ann Tieshon McComber Phillips had 11 other children together, and Cecelia is survived by four of her siblings, including Doris, Elizabeth (Betsy), Nora and Mike.
The Kirbys lived on a farm in Kahnawake, and as her family members described it, it was a harsh life.
“My grandmother Cecilia shared her many memories of what she saw and experienced. A lot of good and a lot of bad,” said Leonda.
“She lived through memorable historical moments. She always reminded my sister Kathy and I that she lived through the Great Depression and that we should be thankful for what we have,” she continued.
When Cecelia was a young girl, she loved school and was very intelligent. Sadly, at just 10-yearsold, she was forced to drop out to help her mother raise her siblings.
She was also expected to work on the farm with the animals and did a lot of physically straining manual work. She pulled horses and would milk the cows every day.
She was a first language Kanien’kéha speaker, and married Joseph Sakokenhiatha Kirby in 1932. The couple had 12 children together: Frank, Barbara, Ronald (Ronnie), Jackie, Fred (Freddie), Normand, Dan, Carol, Sam, Darlene and Lorna.
She was predeceased by her husband Joseph and her sons Norman, Frank, and former grand chief Ronnie.
Her three granddaughters said that her harsh upbringing made Cecelia a tough woman. This being said, she had a hell of a sense of humour, making everyone laugh with her straightforwardness and wit.
Despite the tough exterior, she loved her family. That was her defining trait.
She also was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, who was baptized in 1955.
“Her faith carried her throughout her life,” said Awi. “When I would come to visit her, she would always say, ‘I’m praying for you. And I pray for your husband. I pray for your family.’”
“My tota raised my sister and me since we were babies,” said Kathy. She was an amazingly strong, loving woman and always was there for us and our families.”
Kathy was only 15 months when she and her sister Leonda began living with her, because her father Norman was in Boston for work. The girls said that they considered Cecelia their mother.
“She raised my sister and I with the language,” said Leonda. “My grandmother was a gift to my sister and me. She made us work hard with her cooking, cleaning, gardening, chopping up wood and piling them in the shed. My sister and I knew her the best,” she said.
Cecelia belonged to a generation that had to work extremely hard for their livelihood, and her focus was always on taking care of her family.
“She was a hard-working lady right up until her early 90s. She was always on the go. She was driving her brown Honda car up until she was 92,” said Leonda.
“She was always there for me,” said Kathy. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without her now. She never said no to me. I was her baby. We were always together.”
Tota Dynamite, as her grandkids called her, had family in New York, and her four youngest kids lived there.
Her granddaughter Mary Janetschek, born in New York, remembers her tota getting in her car when she was 80 and driving down to New York to visit her.
“We were very close with her,” said Janetschek. “Growing up, we were always at my tota’s house (in Kahnawake) – we would go back every summer and Christmas, whenever we could. We were up there all the time,” she said.
“She was just so funny. I’m the funny one too, and I swear I get it from her. We would laugh so much with her. She was always goofing around and doing funny things,” continued Janetschek.
Janetschek admired her strength and resilience. She also started to believe that she would never pass, because she had lived for so long.
Cecelia eventually moved into the Turtle Bay Elders’ Lodge in 2016. However, due to her advanced age, she was later transferred to KMHC’s Long-Term Care.
When she became a centenarian, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) held a gathering in her honour, as her faith doesn’t allow celebrations like birthdays. They made sure not to call it a birthday party, according to her granddaughters.
“She always said, ‘laughter is the best medicine!’ She had an amazing laugh. She loved to joke around with others. She was still sharp until the end. Always asking how the family was doing,” said Leonda.
Cecelia’s legacy is her family. She will also be remembered as the Kirby matriarch.
“She was a loving and caring, strong woman. She will be sadly missed by all of us,” said Kathy.
Although she never suffered from any major health issues, she was bedridden in her last few years and her granddaughter said that she was ready to go.
Cecelia was blessed with 46 grandchildren, 109 great-grandchildren, 82 great-great-grandchildren and two great-great-great-grandchildren. Mohawk Council chief Rhonda Kirby is one of her grandchildren.
A virtual service will be held tomorrow (September 18) at 4:00 p.m. She will be laid to rest on Sunday, next to her late husband at the protestant cemetery.