I just got back from my Godmother’s funeral. It wasn’t a particularly sad occasion, Godmother had lived a long rich life, the weather was beautiful, it was one of Toronto’ finest old churches and it was full. Former Prime Minister John Turner, an old beau, was there, as well as le tout Toronto of a certain vintage. There were faces which would have been instantly recognizable from the society and business pages of Toronto’s dailies a quarter century ago. I guess when a former Prime Minister attends, it means you’ve arrived (or departed, in this case).
My Godmother was a society bride when Toronto was a small town, with a small social set. The reminiscences focused on her prowess in a canoe, sailing, her lack of cooking skills, her formidable forehand, her hands-off parenting skills (or lack thereof) and the long glorious summers at Georgian Bay.
The last time I had seen my Godmother was at our wedding, 27 years ago, when she gave us a set of beautiful pewter candlesticks which grace our table. That was pure Godmother; not flashy, serviceable, but very high quality and built to last for centuries. Her husband (not my Godfather, as it happens) couldn’t be ther that day, he was busy solving a trade dispute in Washington. Later, in his 80s, he divorced her to take up with a cabinet minister, a move those at Georgian Bay thought to be in poor taste.
The wedding she attended was notable for two occurrences – Air India crashed that morning, dominating the headlines, and catcher Ernie Whitt hit a Grand Slam homerun for the Blue Jays, which prompted a roar through the crowd (several were listening on earbuds) that had nothing to do with the vows.
My Godmother came from a different era, one which is past, but bears remembering. Back then, a lot of Toronto wives went to the Lake for the summer, saying good bye to the city on May 24 and only returning on Labour Day. Husbands would make the long trek north on Friday afternoon, dog tired, and return Monday morning, while the kids basically became unsupervised fish all glorious summer long. I know, because I did it. For 5 years, I had no home but a cottage on an island in a lake, and then boarding school from Labour Day to June 21st.
These mothers were good at sailing, at gutting fish, at cooking bacon and eggs over open fires, at drying out sleeping bags. Some of them weren’t very good at being married, and when the kids left, and the cottage became empty, they left their husbands, or their husbands left them. They always kept the cottage, though. The lakes were full of older women in cottages filled with grandchildren but no husbands.
This is the life my Godmother lived. She shared it with me, because I stayed with her and her family on the long weekends from boarding school, home being too far away. She took me to the ROM, to Fort York, the University Club. She was my peek at Toronto society when there was such a thing, and I’m grateful to her for it.
Rest in Peace, Godmother, and Toronto the Good