I am caught today in a whirlwind of emotions and memories over the death of my mother, Alison Carr (Kelly). Alison passed away Sunday night after a struggle with pulmonary illness that became acute just under two weeks ago.
I find myself reflecting on the many aspects of a life lived like a restless lioness: regal, iconoclastic and inquisitive.
A lucky few among you knew Alison and even fewer knew her through the changing kaleidoscope of her lifetime. She was an amazing and dynamic woman whose passion and enthusiasm for everything touched many around her; for me these characteristics were more than a passing influence – they were my life’s roots. I would like to share a few of my thoughts and memories in this space as a tribute to Alison, in recognition of her gifts to me and hopefully as inspiration for we who carry on to life’s next bonspiel.
Alison was born at Brakenglade in Godmanchester Township at the furthest western tip of Quebec south of the St. Lawrence and grew up on William Lanktree Carr’s dairy farm that passed from the horse-and-hand-pump age to the car-and-electricity age during her childhood. It was surely Grant Bill’s farm, but Violet Beatrice (Monteith) Carr, Alison’s mother, was not a violet of the shrinking variety. Mom’s mom was a newspaper columnist, suffragette and outspoken matriarch of the family from whom Alison inherited a fiery spirit and independent streak.
As a girl she explored farm and woodland freely, developing a particular attachment to her beloved sugarbush, a remnant grove of the great northeastern hardwood forest perched on the rocky soil of the “last terminal moraine of the Great Wisconsin glacier”. Too rocky to clear for the galloping progression to farmland in the Chateauguay Valley, but just right for magic. She retained joint ownership of this oasis of the past with her dear sister Florence into her seventies.
It was there that I learned from her the names of all the trees and wildflowers of the sugar-maple forest, and that progress is a relative concept. Never a year went by that we didn’t stop to pick huge bundles of wild flowers for the family weekend party – long before rustic native bouquets would have been fashionable or even comprehensible to most denizens of southern Quebec. Characteristically, Alison didn’t care one bit about convention; she was a trendsetter, not a follower.
At the age of 23, Alison took her six years of accumulated savings earned as an office assistant to Dr. McCrimmon of Huntingdon, Quebec and booked passage over the Atlantic to England where she attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Striking a friendship with fellow young travellers in London, she continued on to France and Franco’s Spain. She often told me the most fantastic sight she had ever seen was the train of gypsy wagons gathered in the Pyrenees foothills outside of Perpignan, France, even today one of that country’s forgotten corners.
Alison was an athlete of some renown, skip of one of the most successful and competitive women’s curling teams in eastern Canada, winner of countless bonspiels and awards, and one of the early Canadian Curling Association’s top level instructors. Alison was known as a fierce competitor and was often able to pull victory from the ashes of defeat with late game heroic shotmaking. Many of her curling stories were punctuated with: “Well we were one down coming home…”
She followed other, “lesser” sports with passing interest and curiosity. When the Olympics came to town Alison decided she and I would follow the modern pentathlon, an eclectic mix of five sports meant to simulate the skills and stamina required by “modern” soldiers — I suppose at some point “modern” warfare involved horseback cavalry. Regardless, we attended all the events, from horseback jumping in Bromont to shooting in l’Acadie. Characteristically, Alison parlayed contacts in curling to get us invited to the cocktail reception for the modern pentathletes, where she was quite taken with the handsome Australian team captain and eventual winner of 44th place.
For me the thread of Alison’s life was relentless pursuit of the eclectic and sublime, a passion shared with her sister Elizabeth (Betty) Jones, eleven years her senior, passed these many years. My favourite childhood moments were the many adventures she and Aunt Betty invented and entrained the Kelly brothers in, Peter and I.
One summer we visited all the forts and fortresses of the Richelieu river, many of them ruins in the back of cow pastures found via vague directio
ns taken from village museum clerks and dusty historical society books. We sat with cigar-smoking-and-open-window-disdaining Uncle Howard Monteith in the back of Betty’s Toyota Corona on a many-day journey to find the grave of our ancestor John Monteith, “the first white-man to die on Manitoulin Island”, though apparently islanders disagreed. No cemetery was too unlikely to contain the remains of a Monteith, and we stopped, it seemed, at every one from Lancaster to Manitouwaning, Ontario.
However macabre it may have been for an eight year old to spend so many hours amongst the dead, I gained some important life lessons there. In the cemeteries of Quebec and Ontario I learned, among other things, an enduring love for the king of North American tree nuts: the butternut. It seems that the sp
reading and stately butternut tree was a favourite planting of cemeteries where its habit of dropping monstrous branches in windstorms was not a particular danger to the living. Yes the celebration of the eclectic was fully transmitted from Alison to me!
Her brother Joe Carr, also now passed, lived in Deep River, Ontario with his wife Carol who is still going strong, for all of the years I can remember. Our adventures included travelling to that, to me, mystical place. Alison painted it with characteristic enthusiasm as one of the deepest freshwater chasms in the world: “do you know it’s over a mile deep in places!” Joe managed the Chalk River nuclear facility and, of course, Alison had Uncle Joe tour us through the visitor centre. Having played with the remote control hands that manipulated the nuclear samples, is it any wonder my first job as an adult was at the Radiation Protection Bureau where I specialized in working with the radioactive caesium sources?
Alison’s biggest adventure was with her beloved sister Florence now of White Rock, British Columbia, but formerly of London, Hong Kong, Jasper, Alberta and other exotic locations. She joined Florence for a year in Hong Kong in 1980 and travelled to just-post-Mao’s China, Japan and Taiwan, becoming, as she claimed, the first person to perform a curling delivery (albeit without the granite stone) behind the Bamboo Curtain. Florence and Allie were both (and Florence remains so) stunningly beautiful women sharing the family’s fine sense of style, Allie in bold fiery colours (befitting her inner lion) and Flo in pastels.
There are so many other things to say about Alison, like how she spontaneously wallpapered the family room with the collection of national geographic maps that she kept since the 1930’s. As a six year old, I pored over those maps on the wall and could name, for instance, the capital city of Trans-Jordan, along with its English translation. I could follow the locations of American bombings in Viet Nam as related by Hanoi-Jane (Fonda) on TV. Or like how she spent hours exploring auction sales at farms across the southern reaches of Quebec, pursuing her passion for primitive farm furniture antiques. My participation was at first unenthusiastic, but I was recruited to complacency through an understanding that we would purchase any exotic houseplant that came up for sale. One summer we brought home a flagrantly blooming Hoya whose pungent night perfume drove some of the family outdoors to sleep.
I hope in the fullness of time I can remember and write down more stories, but hope in this brief account I have given you a glimpse of the great woman who was Alison Kelly. Perhaps there is some inspiration to take away.
I was thinking: what would Alison say to you if she had one thing to pass forward?
She had one unique message that she transmitted fiercely her whole life, beyond her mother-lion love for her family – siblings Betty, Joe and Flo; children and their spouses – Peter, Wendy, John Kuharchuk and me; grandchildren – William and John-Thomas…Alison would say that the world is full of interesting things in every nook and cranny and especially right here beneath your feet. There isn’t one interest or pastime, no matter how small or strange, that is unworthy of someone’s passion and energy.
So instead of Rest in Peace I say: Avanti, Mom, avanti! I love you.