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The faces we've lost: Erika Tiessen 'knew how to do or fix almost anything'

Ottawa Citizen logo Ottawa Citizen 2020-12-17 Joanne Laucius
a person posing for the camera: Erika Tiessen died April 12 of COVID complications. © Provided by Ottawa Citizen Erika Tiessen died April 12 of COVID complications.

Each day since COVID-19 entered our lives has been accompanied by worrying, and wearying, lists of numbers: case counts, infection rates, tests administered, hospital admissions, deaths. The figures, dispassionate and detached, become a blur, and the importance of what lies behind them is increasingly forgotten. In a special obituary project, we will memorialize and recount the stories of just some of the nearly 400 names and faces behind COVID’s deathly toll in Ottawa.

Erika Tiessen’s children joke she was to them what Google is to everyone else — the source of bottomless practical information.

Tiessen could do or fix almost anything, from cars to household appliances. She had the encyclopedia of home repair, gardening and cooking right between her ears.

“I think it came from a deep confidence that she was able to do anything herself. She was resourceful and knew how to figure things out for herself,” said her daughter, Rebecca.

“She had a lot of knowledge and she just paid attention to things. Her guidance was never to fixate on problems, but to solve them.”

Born Erika Penner in Peckelsheim, Germany, she was eight months old when she came to Canada with her parents, Helen and John, as part of the second wave of Mennonite immigration to Canada.

a group of people posing for a photo:  Photos of Erika Tiessen. © Tony Caldwell Photos of Erika Tiessen.

Tiessen spent the early part of her childhood on a farm in what is now Point Pelee National Park. When the land became part of the park, the Penner family moved to another farm a short distance away and grew fruit in an orchard.

There was a lot of freedom on the farm, but also a lot of responsibility. By the time she was nine, Tiessen was taking care of three younger brothers. She married at 16 and became a single mother to two sons and a daughter at the age of 33.

Tiessen lived almost her whole life in Leamington. In 2007, she moved to Kingston to live with Rebecca, a university professor, and her family.

“Wherever she was, it was the centre of fun,” said Rebecca, who is now a professor at the University of Ottawa. “She would organize potlucks and card games. Her place was always a social space.”

In the past four years, Tiessen had been dividing her time between Florida and Rideau Acres near Kingston, spending a few weeks every spring and fall in Ottawa.

She drove back to Ottawa on March 13 this year. She was hospitalized on March 31 after she started to suffer from shortness of breath, and died of COVID-19 complications on April 12.

Throughout her life, Tiessen had picked up skills from farming to bookkeeping to catering to sales. The cellar was always full of canned food, said Rebecca.

Tiessen spoke through the language of food. She could deliver an apology without words with a well-timed cake, or offer comfort with a homemade soup made with ingredients from her garden.

“She would make the best soup. And it would help you with any emotional challenges,” said Rebecca.

She has seen a new side of her mother since her death as friends have called her with messages of condolences.

“One of her friends said to me, ‘Your mom treated me like I was her best friend. But then I would see that she was best friends with everyone.'”

Tiessen is survived by her children, Tim, Dan and Rebecca, six grandchildren and brothers Vic, John and Ron Penner.

The Faces We’ve Lost


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