At one of my mother's land-mark birthday parties, perhaps her 80th, a granddaughter toasted her as "a Canadian nationalist feminist". That phrase isn't often applied to shy, quiet women born in the first years of the 20th century, but in her case it was accurate. The nationalist part was obvious: Frances Fulford loved, and was ready to defend ferociously, her country, her birthplace (Ottawa), and her adopted home (Toronto). Her feminism was a bit more subtle, expressed in her characteristic way, through narrative.
Like many good storytellers, she told essentially the same story over and over. Her granddaughters came to know it well. It always involved girls and women who, in an infinite variety of circumstances, overcame serious obstacles and made lives of dignity and value. If they happened to be Canadian as well, such as Nellie McClung, that was all the better.
At her memorial service—she died on Dec. 23, at the age of 89—nine grown-up grandchildren delivered grateful tributes to her. One of my daughters spoke of what it meant to have a feminist grandmother, and another described the characters in fiction she admired, such as Jo in Little Women and Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. Those heroines, who often became teachers, were plucky, industrious, imaginative—and undefeated. Perhaps they influenced my mother's male descendants, too: all of her sons and grandsons, when choosing life partners, have allied themselves with women who are professionals.
In telling those stories, she was telling her own. In adolescence she and her siblings were left fatherless. At 19 she married an interesting but difficult man. He was a journalist, like many men in her past and her future: her maternal grandfather edited a newspaper In London, Ont., two uncles were American reporters, and a half-dozen grandchildren are journalists or writers.
Her husband, A. E. Fulford, was a talented editor whose life was seriously clouded by an old-fashioned newspaperman's addiction to alcohol. They raised the four of us, with considerable difficulty, before my father died in 1957. She understood that as a parent she was inevitably responsible for the most crucial part or her children's education. In my own case, she was my first teacher of narrative, and my first audience. I can bring back a memory of her telling me the plot of The Merchant of Venice before I started school. (She apologized for Shakespeare's anti-Semitism while describing the nobility of Portia's speech.)
At her death, my mother had 26 descendants, including 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. A year ago, when I mentioned that total to her, she was less impressed than I was. To her, we were not a clan but individuals, each of us a unique project of love and commitment. I didn't understand how deep that commitment went until I began watching her play on the floor with infant grandchildren (and then great-grandchildren), all of whom found her an enthralling companion. At the art of patient attentiveness, she was a virtuoso. There was never a sense that she would rather have been elsewhere.
She could be depressed and nervous, but she was defiantly independent. Until the age of 88 she lived by herself in her own house in the Beach district. The house meant a great deal to her: it was where she made a stand, asserted herself, and welcomed her grandchildren and their children. After her stroke she moved from it with great reluctance.
Our family is a demographic anomaly. In an age of widespread mobility, we tend to stay put. All of my mother's children, and (so far) all but two of her grandchildren, have chosen to spend their lives in Toronto. This partly reflects professional opportunities, but it also says something about the umbrella of concern she spread over all of us.
At age 65, when she retired from her job at Eaton's and found that her grandchildren didn't need all her energy, she started a new career. She became a volunteer teacher of English to immigrants, especially Greeks and Chinese. Aside from her family, this work—coaching small groups in a church hall—was the most satisfying of her life. Making newcomers feel at home was a practical expression of her patriotism. She trained for it by trying briefly to learn Urdu, in order to feel the daunting mystery of a radically different language. That was a fascinating experience, but she didn't really need it. She brought to her classes the patience she had learned in raising us. She had the good teacher's knack of appreciating every hard-won gain her pupils made, even when it might appear minuscule to others. Students sometimes became friends whom she invited home, and I remember her vivid, wide-eyed account of attending, 15 years ago, a Greek Easter celebration at which a whole lamb was roasted in a suburban backyard. She understood her students as part of the new Canada she gratefully embraced. She liked them as individuals, and liked what their differences taught her about the world.
She was modest to a fault. I heard her apologize for her bad memory on a thousand occasions, though she seldom forgot anything of consequence. She exaggerated her flaws and took her virtues for granted. Once I mentioned to her that, in comparing mothers with some friends, I'd been bragging about mine. "Bragging?" she said. "What were you bragging about?" I said I had been describing her work as a teacher. She didn't seem to think it was remarkable. I told her then, as I probably should have told her more often, that I was proud of her, that we all were, and for good reason.