Guest Post: Heather Cannon Tribute
Heather Symmes Cannon in 1974 with the Exponent II board. Heather is at the far left. The following was delivered at Heather’s funeral a week ago. She was an Exponent II founding mother, a wonderful writer, and a woman many of us loved.
Guest post by Dana Haight Cattani
Heather’s first winter in Bloomington, she joined the YMCA. At the time, I was enrolled in the cancer rehab program there, and Heather and I frequently exercised at the same time. I rowed while she pedaled. She stretched while I lifted. Sometimes we walked the track together. I invited her to join me on Fridays for water exercise class, but she said it was too cold and besides, she didn’t want to have wet hair in January.
One Friday when I entered the pool area, there was Heather, buoyant in the water, hair dripping, and calling out, “Come on in. The water’s fine.” And it was. After that first class, she said, “Why did it take me so long?”
Why, indeed. Why does it take any of us so long to do the things that nourish our souls or make us feel alive?
One of the things that nourished Heather’s soul was faith. She wrote that in the agonizing time between finding her infant son Mason’s unresponsive body and the confirmation of his death from SIDS, she recalled a few lines from William Wordsworth:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heather’s husband, a lapsed Mormon, arranged for a funeral in the local ward. One of the speakers described the church teachings that we are beloved children of godly parents from whom we came and to whom we ultimately return. In Mormon theology, God is a consistent advocate of human agency and grants all people the power to help create the future through their own actions and interactions. We celebrate Eve as a bold and courageous leader who recognized the limitations of Eden and chose growth over stasis. We believe that our spirits are eternal, and that life beyond this world is creative and active as we continue to develop and progress. In this view, death is a separation, not an end, and our earthly relationships can be renewed in another context.
Heather later wrote that as she left her son’s funeral, “It was a gorgeous, sunny Boston spring day. I looked at the cloudless blue sky and felt an appreciation for being alive that I’d never felt before.”
Something had resonated for her that day.
Heather then spent 45 years in this church, and she wrote, “I have seen what the gospel means and the difference it makes in lives, and I cannot walk away from that. I know my life would be far more shallow and sad without the church.” At the same time, she acknowledged, “The church is not an easy place for single women.” Heather sometimes bristled at practices and attitudes that relegated her to the margins, including the church’s patriarchal structure and emphasis on traditional households with one man, one woman, and their biological and perpetually school-aged children living at home. She refused to sing the children’s hymn “Families Can Be Together Forever” because she felt that its message excluded her. When I said, “Oh, I don’t think that’s what it means,” she replied, “Then change the words.”
The business world of Heather’s professional life was not a particularly easy place to be a woman, either. Thirty-five years ago, as a returning MBA student with three young children to support, she was an outlier. Later, as director of market research for Electrolux, she was often the only woman in high-level meetings. She told me once that it was clear there were important conversations that occurred in the men’s room at breaks. There were no parallel networking opportunities when she went alone to the women’s room. Heather witnessed gender and age discrimination, and for years she dyed her hair and omitted the year of her college graduation from her resumé so people would not guess her true age. When she retired and was no longer in danger of being overlooked for promotion, she let her hair go gray.
For decades Heather gave her time and energy to her chosen profession and religion, but I think it was no accident that she gave her heart to organizations where her gender and marital status carried no stigma or connotation of weakness but rather full fellowship and standing. Her forty-year association with the feminist Mormon publication Exponent II brought her lifelong community and purpose. More recently, her nearly two-year association with the local writing school Women Writing for (a) Change gave her the precious gift of an appreciative and helpful audience for her family history memoirs and poetry.
There’s a lesson there.
In E. B. White’s beloved children’s book Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur the pig says of his spider friend, “It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”
Heather was, too. She was my friend. She was my writing colleague. She was my sister in faith and doubt and service. I hope that when it is my turn to put out to sea and slip tentatively into the cool, dark water, I will see Heather in the distance, buoyant, waving to me and calling, “Come on in. The water’s fine.”
Heather asked that, in lieu of flowers, memorial donations go to Exponent. You can donate to Exponent II here.