On March 24, 1996, two uniformed police officers knocked on the door of a modest New Westminster home and delivered the news no mother should hear: your daughter died at noon today on Blackcomb Mountain.
“My daughter was always involved with dangerous sports so, in some ways, I had been preparing myself for such an announcement,” says Mavis Pickett. “Still, it was a sense of incredible loss.”
Through the tragedy, the knowledge that her daughter would not want her to quit kept the grieving mother going. That awareness and a sense of humour continue to keep her going.
Nothing in the early years of her life would have led Mavis to believe that she would end up doing stand-up comedy in her senior years. Born Mavis Manzer in 1932 to a Canadian father and the Scottish woman he fell in love with while serving in the armed forces during the First World War. Mavis grew up in New Westminster, the city of her birth. Her father worked hard at a number of jobs including woodworking and dredging the Fraser River before eventually finding work as a stationary engineer. When the Second World War broke out, he served in the Royal Canadian Navy as a Chief Petty Officer for the duration of the war, which meant Mavis and her mother were alone from the time she was seven years old until she was 14.
As a full-time homemaker, Mavis’s mother had a nice sideline career making wedding cakes in the old Scottish style, featuring Royal Icing, delicate latticework and rosettes. She was a creative, talented woman who enjoyed writing memory verses, which were to be presented orally, as well as poetry. She also danced, which would have a huge influence on her daughter. By the time Mavis was five, she was already presenting the verses her mother had written, taking Highland Dance lessons, piano lessons and singing in a choir. Mavis also entered the school system as part of the very first Grade 1 class to attend Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary School in New Westminster.
She went on to attend other New Westminster schools before graduating from the Duke of Connaught High School in 1950, and then enrolled in the Arts and Sciences at UBC, a degree program she never finished.
Tom Pickett, a fellow schoolmate, graduated in 1953 and accepted a job running a Dad’s Cookies outlet in the Prairies. Mavis agreed to marry him and accompanied him first to Regina, and then for a long stay in Winnipeg. The children started arriving shortly after they moved to the Prairies – Edward first, then Marna and, finally, Mavis Anne.
During those years, Mavis devoted countless hours to teaching Scottish Highland Dance to young students, which she’d done from the studio in her family home since she was 16.
“Dance was important to me because I was good at it, loved it, and I loved teaching,” she says.
Then, in 1970, Mavis decided to return to university and enrolled at the University of Manitoba, where she obtained her Bachelor of Education degree. Mavis decided to go back to university at nearly 40 because, “I just thought I would always like to go back. I went as soon as my youngest child was in Grade 1. I had taught dancing since I was 16 and just didn’t have any certification and always wanted to have it.”
During her university years, her two eldest children also attended university, although her son went to UBC and lived with his grandparents in the home where Mavis had grown up.
When she graduated, Mavis taught elementary school in the Fort Garry School Division, as well as some night school courses for the Education Department at the University of Manitoba.
When she retired, she moved back to New Westminster in 1993 to her childhood home and lived with her son and one of her daughters.
“My plans were to do something involving teaching and movement,” she says. “Since I taught dance all my life, I thought I would like to teach line dancing.”
Mavis joined Century House and took a line dancing course taught by Peggy Phillips. At the same time, she took fitness classes from Connie Waterman who encouraged her to take her BCRPA fitness certification, third age certification, then Osteo Fit accreditation. “Connie was an incredible mentor,” says Mavis. “She was just amazing.”
Now a certified Osteo Fit instructor, Mavis started finding work and eventually got to the point where she was working for four different seniors centres, teaching 16 classes a week. She has since scaled back to six classes per week, but is still teaching at two centres.
“I love teaching,” she says. “I wanted to do something in that line. For me it isn’t teaching: it is helping people learn. That’s the excitement. I’m doing something I believe in and really enjoy.”
While being trained as a fitness instructor, Mavis also decided to take the Peer Counselling training at Century House. She eventually graduated and went on to volunteer with them for three years, but it was when she was only two weeks into the course that disaster struck that fateful Sunday in March. Mavis thought about giving up, about dropping out of the course and not following through with her fitness certification. But then she realized, “Mavis Anne was always my biggest cheerleader. I thought, ‘I can’t do this now’, but I heard her say ‘Oh, Mommy, you can do it’. I knew the worst thing I could do is quit because it would have made her sad. If I was going to honour my love and feelings for her, I needed to keep going.”
One month later, Wendy Thompson held a one-day session at Century House about Laughter as the Best Medicine. At this seminar, Mavis heard about a class on humour and healing being taught at Langara College by David Granier. Without knowing the name of the class, Mavis called the college and registered by phone. She showed up the first Wednesday evening and was surprised to be joined by more than a dozen young students. It wasn’t until the teacher walked in and wrote the name of the class on the blackboard that she realized she had registered in Stand Up Comedy by mistake!
The first thing that went through her head was, “No way! I was looking for counselling. In no way was I looking for this!” She searched for a way out, but there was none, except to walk past the teacher - something good manners would not allow.
At the class break, Mavis told the teacher she had registered in the wrong course. They spoke for a while and he convinced her to give the class a try anyway. This was fine until the class was informed that they would have to go up on stage at a comedy club and do a stand up routine. Mavis balked, but David insisted she go through with it. “He told me I had to finish what I started, which is exactly what my mother would have said.”
So, in February 1998, Mavis went to the comedy club and did her stand up routine. “It went well and from there everything just happened,” she says.
Rick Cluff from the CBC radio morning show heard about Mavis and invited her on-air so they could do a feature on her. That morning, award-winning talk show host Vicki Gabereau, heard the interview while driving into work. Her staff tracked Mavis down and asked her to make a guest appearance on Vicki’s show.
And it didn’t stop there. An appearance on the Mike Bullard television show in Toronto followed along with a huge article in *The Globe and Mail*. More television features followed along with newspaper stories and performances at fundraisers as well as a mention in some books.
Mavis says of her success, “It surprises me that I am successful because I don’t swear, I’m not edgy.”
When some young people told her after a show that they found her funny, she asked them why. “They told her that their mother used to say those things!” she says.
Mavis talks about one piece of advice she received about stand up comedy. “You have to choose your persona. Whatever you say has to fit your persona. Comics talk about what they are. I talk about being a senior, trying to keep up with the younger generation, but not quite making it.”
People tell Mavis she must be nervous and ask her how she has the courage to get up on stage. She tells them, “Because it’s not me. Comics do not have to be intimidated because it is not them up on stage it is their persona.
“Suddenly, I find I am rowing the same boat as young people,” says Mavis. “There is equality about that. We are all doing comedy whether we are 16 or 76, every race, either gender. We are all up there trying to get laughs and survive. That is interesting as a senior because it takes me out of my peer group. I am competing on a level with young people. It is very good for me because I am not getting into the grumpy old lady slot.”
So, comedy has been more than an outlet for Mavis. It has helped her to heal from her tragic loss. At a workshop she attended, they used the image that has two profiles in white on either side of the image and a black urn in between them, and people see which one they focus on.
“You learn that it doesn’t last. After a loss, you live in the black and see some white, but later on, this reverses. You learn to focus on the positive space, the white. It’s worthwhile to understand you don’t have the urn without the profile. It is an important concept for whatever loss you have. You don’t get rid of it, it is part of your life. The positive exists with the negative.
It’s difficult coming back into functioning in the real world and the last step is the biggest one, because you are giving up lots of support. When you leave that support, you are on your own, and that is a very hard jump to make.”
“I always say at the end of each show, ‘Say Good Night, Mavis”, to my daughter, Mavis Anne. This is my little time with her. This is our time to have a laugh and some time together. Comedy has been a very definite connection with my dead daughter and has been very cathartic and helpful to me,” says Mavis. “When I get up to do it, she is who I talk to and it is her I spend that time with. We were very much alike in personality. We laughed a lot together and could finish each others sentences. I still miss her, but comedy time is like being with her. It’s a little visit. Even today, I still feel an occasional pit in my stomach, but now I know it won’t last as long.”
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