My mother was a woman with many hidden depths. She often came off as flighty or shallow, I think, because of her love of beautiful clothes or her fondness for acting, or her taste for perhaps a bit more wine than was really necessary, but she had a core of steel ( which she got from her mother Ruth), and that allowed her to take on challenges that would have scared off lesser mortals — including setting off for the Seychelles islands in her retirement years, to help my father beat back the jungle around a would-be BnB, where she learned how to cook fruit bat, among other things (which involves throwing them against the wall to tenderize them, apparently).
After growing up in Toronto in relative luxury on South Drive, with her younger sister Kathy and little brother John, doing all the up-and-coming Toronto society things like debutante balls and being raised largely by nuns, Linda fell in love with a young man she met as part of the theatre group at the University of Western Ontario — as she told the story, she would often go back to his apartment and do the dishes while he called his fiancee, who eventually fell by the wayside, defeated by the charms of this blonde bombshell with the big vocabulary and the cats-eye glasses.
Although her family might have preferred to see her marry a doctor or lawyer, Linda decided to marry a penniless farm boy from Saskatchewan who had just joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a fighter pilot. Despite — or perhaps because of — their differences, they became an inseparable team, he the director telling everyone where to stand and what to say (or which country and province to move to next) and she the young ingenue, playing the role of Air Force officer’s wife, party hostess, mother, and later grandmother, aunt, and walking encyclopedia.
While she may have had a core of steel, my mother struggled with depression more than once in her life, and she often put a brave face on what had to be a difficult life, dragging three kids all over multiple countries. She was the ultimate party hostess and always had the right thing to say or do to lighten the mood, but it can’t have been easy living in a tiny apartment above a barn in a small town in Germany with three young boys, or flying to Edmonton or Winnipeg or Toronto or Cold Lake, Alberta or New Brunswick to set up yet another new home all by herself. We had moved at least 10 times by the time I turned 17.
After my father retired from active duty, they moved back to another tiny town in Germany, where he worked with NATO, and then to the Netherlands, where he worked for SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). Then, they retired to the cottage in the Ottawa Valley, where she tried in vain to enjoy winter sports, until they decided to answer an ad in the newspaper looking for a couple to run a BnB in the Seychelles islands (which reportedly came with a house tortoise). After returning from that year-long adventure in 1996, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer, unfortunately, and was dead within a matter of months.
In addition to the difficulties of widowhood, my mother suffered a series of severe brain injuries, including a brain aneurysm in 2000 and multiple strokes in 2012. Although they changed her both mentally and physically, she was such a good actress that many people never knew how affected she was. For the most part, she managed it all with grace — even while putting her cardigan on upside down and backwards — and a lot of help from my wife Becky, who became her full-time personal care worker, with every medication and doctor’s name at her fingertips.
Linda was so indestructible that she even beat COVID. I remember calling the hospital after her diagnosis, fearing the worst, and the nurse said “She’s sitting up in her bed talking and she asked if she could please have some more books.” Even at the end of her life, with all of the abuse her brain had suffered, she still managed to read about a book a day — and big books, not just paperbacks. It was almost a full-time job just keeping up with her desire for new books to read. At one point, I suggested one by an author she liked, and she said “No, I don’t think so — I’ve read that one three times already, but I didn’t like it enough to read it a fourth time.”
Along the way, she taught me a love of nature, and especially the cottage her grandmother bought when she was a little girl, where she became known in her later years as The Lady of the Lake. And she instilled in me a love of reading and books and thought, and an encyclopedic knowledge of Shakespearean sonnets, which she would happily quote at length to my school friends — something that occasionally had an unfortunate impact on my social life. She gave me one T in my name because she loved the name Mathew but hated the name Matt; once when a friend called our house and asked to speak to Matt, she said: “No one by that name lives here.”
She and my father were opposites in many ways. She was primarily driven by emotion and he was driven by logic (fighter jets don’t respond well to emotional arguments). In other words, she was the heart and he was the brains, and I often find myself having internal arguments in their voices — my mother saying “Oh, that’s terrible, what if it means the end of everything,” and then my father’s voice saying “Don’t be ridiculous, that’s never going to happen. Go to sleep.”
After my father died, as far as I know she never showed the slightest interest in another man for the next 25 years — although she did enjoy arguing with at least one of her table mates at the retirement home in the way some old married couples do: “I put the salt and pepper right in front of you, Morris. Now be quiet and eat your breakfast.” And she became the secret weapon of the trivia club at the Donway residence, where they called her Doctor Google: after everyone had failed to guess the answer they would ask my mom and she would say it as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.
When she finally breathed her last, after yet another brain hemorrhage, I was standing under a tree nearby having a bite to eat with two of my daughters, while the hospital moved my mother from the emergency room to a palliative care room. And I remember wondering out loud what kind of tree it was, and I wished she was there so I could ask her, because she would have come up with it instantly. And while I was thinking that, she slipped away from the party that she had started so many years ago, and left us to carry on without her. Which we will now try our best to do.
Do not stand by my grave, and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints in snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle, autumn rain
As you awake with the morning’s hush,
I am the swift, uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight,
I am the day transcending night
Do not stand by my grave, and cry
I am not there, I did not die