My maternal grandmother was born on August 29, 1911 and christened Margaret Jean Fargey (pronounced far-gee) – I always assumed her schoolmates gave her the rhyming moniker Margy Fargey. Her hometown of Weyburn, Saskatchewan is a small city in the southeast corner of the province, just 70 km from the North Dakota border. It is perhaps best known for being the birthplace of W.O. Mitchell, author of the iconic Canadian novel “Who has Seen the Wind”. My Nana (as everyone my generation and younger called her) gave me her first-edition copy of Mitchell’s book, printed in 1947. The title page bears the inscription, “To Margaret in memory of childhood in Weyburn. Bill Mitchell”. My great-grandfather, Harry Fargey, owned the town’s hardware store, and Mitchell’s father ran the local pharmacy.
My great-grandmother, Jean Milligan, was an Irish immigrant, while my great-grandfather Harry’s family had lived in Saskatchewan for generations. I’m not sure if Margaret is a family name, but Nana’s younger brother was named after their father. Evidently Nana’s mother was very keen on calling the boy Robert after a brother she had lost as a child, but her husband was having none of it. My uncle’s registered birth name is Harold Fargey Jr., but his mother always called him Bob. What’s more, she introduced him as Bob and registered him for school as Bob when the time came. He may well have been Harry on paper, but for all intents and purposes he was his uncle’s namesake, not his father’s. We always knew him as Uncle Bob.
In 1930, at the tender age of 19, Nana married David Cameron. He came from Winnipeg and his family was well known and highly regarded in Manitoba. My grandfather was, by all accounts, a very bright man. He probably could have carried on the stellar reputations of his father and uncle, but either the Depression got in his way or perhaps he simply didn’t want the pressure. Either way, he moved away from Winnipeg and married my Nana who promptly gave birth to first my mother and then my aunt Carolyn before she was 21 years of age. They lived in Regina for a time, then moved to Winnipeg, but like so many during the Depression, David couldn’t find work anywhere.
They relocated one final time to Ottawa when the war started. My grandfather probably felt he could find work in the Ministry of National Defence, but alas they were not looking for men with his skill set. In the end it was Nana’s secretarial skills that paid the bills. Nana told me years later that my grandfather felt emasculated by this turn of events, as would most any man of his generation. After casting about for work in Ottawa for almost five years, he finally joined the army. He needed to contribute to the family coffers to regain his pride. Unfortunately for his wife and daughters, however, he was killed in Italy early in 1944 – a loss my mother never really got over. Nana, now a mere 33 years old, was left to raise two girls on her own.
Nana stayed single for many years after her husband died. My mother married in 1952, and Aunt Carolyn followed suit in 1956. My parents settled in Toronto in the early ‘50s, and Nana followed them to be close to her grandchildren. She got a good secretarial job working for an American Airlines executive and took advantage of the city’s lively art scene, becoming a member of the ROM and the AGO and buying yearly subscriptions to the ballet, the symphony, and The Royal Alex Theatre.
I always assumed that Nana didn’t remarry because she just never found the right man – after all, she was still relatively young, intelligent, and attractive when my grandfather died. Nana had the most lovely legs I have ever seen – even nicer than Betty Grable’s. It turns out, however, that she deliberately stayed single. My Uncle Bob, Nana’s younger brother, told me what actually happened. A friend and I were visiting him at his lovely home in California in the early ‘80s when, after I solemnly swore that Nana would never know, he told me the following story. Nana make a conscious choice to stay single after she was widowed so she could concentrate on her girls until they were married. In the late 1950s, with both her daughters settled, Nana began dating. It wasn’t long before she met a man named Bill whom she liked well enough to introduce to her friends and family. My father was an excellent judge of character, and when I returned from Santa Barbara I asked him if he had met this Bill character. Dad said he remembered him only too well and instinctively felt there was something off about the guy, but chose to keep his opinion to himself. Nana had been alone such a long time and was so happy that he didn’t want to burst her bubble.
Nana and Bill dated for several months, and then one day he disappeared. There was no answer at his home phone, and when Nana called his workplace she was told that they had no record of anyone by that name ever working there. Feeling confused and more than a little alarmed, she then began contacting her friends to see if any of them had heard from him. None of them had, but one friend after another told Nana that they had loaned Bill money. Nana had vouched for him so they had assumed he was trustworthy. That’s when the penny dropped. Clearly this guy was a grifter who had conned Nana and taken advantage of her and her friends. Embarrassed and humiliated, Nana stayed in Toronto long enough to pay back every dime Bill had scammed, and then got transferred to Vancouver to lick her wounds. I’m not sure how long she stayed out west, but from the time I can remember, which is probably the mid ‘60s, Nana was in Toronto and very much in our lives. She put the whole episode behind her and never spoke of it again.
I was born August 10, 1961 in Scarborough and was named Margaret Jean after my Nana. I began dating the man I would eventually marry at the tender age of 17. We married when I was 24 and eventually had two children, my son Maxwell and my daughter Hannah. When the kids were 6 and 4 respectively my marriage fell apart, and shortly thereafter my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. A scant ten months later he died, and at the age of 36 I was left to raise my two young children alone.
I was working as mail censor and librarian at the maximum security prison situated on the edge of my small village. Two inmate workers were assigned to the library from Protective Custody, or PC. That meant I usually worked with rapists. There were always guys, however, who were put in PC for reasons other than their crimes – often it was because they had enemies in general population. I had three inmate workers over my five years in the prison who fit this description, one of whom was a thief I will call Donald.
Donald had been in the system most of his life. He was the second of three sons, all of whom were born by the time their mother was 16 years old. His family was poor, and his home life was violent. His mother simply couldn’t afford to raise three boys, and out of desperation she put her middle son into care. Donald was sent to a Catholic orphanage run by monks when he was 7 years old. When I asked him what that was like, he simply said, “Did you see the movie about that orphanage in Newfoundland?”. He was referring to “The Boys of Saint Vincent”, a Canadian film made in 1992. It documented the scandal which arose when it was discovered that the brothers who ran the facility were physically, emotionally, and sexually abusing the boys they were supposed to be caring for. Yet another example of Christian individuals and institutions betraying the trust and compromising the well-being of those in their charge. Evidently Donald endured similarly terrible treatment in the facility where he lived. He ran away at 13 and began living on the street. At 14 he was picked up on his first offence, and had spent the intervening sixteen years in and out of prison.
Donald had a son with his girlfriend when he was 28, and mere months after his son’s birth he was back in prison for robbery, his crime of choice. When he returned home after a 13 month sentence, his girlfriend was pregnant. She did not tell him this or try to explain, rather he learned it by seeing the sonogram image of her fetus proudly displayed on the fridge. This was yet another in a long line of personal betrayals Donald had endured throughout his life and he responded as he always did – he got stupid drunk and stole a truck, and then sped away when the cops tried to pull him over. He was currently serving two years less a day in my prison as a result of this stunt.
Once when Donald came in on one of his regular library visits he approached me and said he was an artist. He had drawn up a few mock pictures which he thought might make good murals for my space. I really liked his work and approached the superintendent to ask for supplies and permission, which he readily granted. Donald then began spending substantial time painting in the library, and when one of my assigned helpers left the facility, he stepped into the position.
I did not mean to get emotionally involved with him, but I was vulnerable after my marriage breakup and my husband’s subsequent death. Donald seemed equally raw after the horrible way his girlfriend had treated him. I thought I could trust him not to hurt me because he himself had been hurt so often. Donald said he wanted to get a tattoo business going after he got out, so I loaned him some money. I left my job at the prison two weeks before his release date, and we arranged to meet in a local motel the evening he was let out. He never showed, and I had to face the abject humiliation of being abandoned and very likely conned.
He contacted me a couple days later, claiming he had taken the money out of his bank account and had every intention of meeting me when a former inmate who’d overheard us talking in the prison had robbed him. I reluctantly accepted his apology and we subsequently saw each other on several occasions. I gave him more money over that time despite harbouring serious doubts about his motivation. He disappeared after about two weeks, but I always felt that we actually were in love and he only took my money because that was how he had always survived in the past – it wasn’t personal.
A few years later Donald called me completely out of the blue. He explained that he was living on his own in the bush making an honest dollar as a lumberjack, and had not gone back to his old ways. He apologized for the way he had treated me, and said that while he truly loved me, he simply couldn’t see a way to make it in my straight world. He needed to be alone and redefine himself as an honest man, not a criminal. Donald signed off, expressing gratitude for the kindness and financial help I had given him while wishing me the best. I assumed what he said was true since he had nothing to gain from calling me, and I felt heartened by his words. My faith in human beings was restored. I wish Nana had received similar closure.
So Nana and I were both widowed young with two children, and had been taken advantage of by opportunistic men. I am a huge patron of the arts and have done a great deal of travelling, just like my grandmother. She, however, did eventually have a long-term boyfriend which has so far not been the case for me. His name was Barney McKinley and he was a reporter for the Toronto Sun, a muck-raking publication known for printing every scandalous bit of news they can get their hands on. My father called the Sun “a rag” and did not respect Mr. McKinley at all. The two of them never got along and one time they argued so heatedly that Mr. McKinley stormed out of our house. I’m not sure what the fight was about, but I’m pretty sure Dad won.
At some point in her 70s Nana slipped and fell on some icy subway steps. She broke her ankle in several places, requiring surgery and the implantation of a pin. My brother Michael and I came to her apartment during her recovery to serenade her. Michael plays guitar and I recorder, and Nana always enjoyed our Vivaldi and Bach duets. Nana needed a cane for some time after her cast was removed, and one day when she was still at this stage Mr. McKinley came over to watch some golf. At some point she hobbled into the bathroom, and as she limped her way back into the living room Mr. McKinley said, “Why don’t you make me a sandwich while you’re up?” Well, something must have snapped in Nana when she heard this because she replied,“Why don’t you make your own damn sandwich? And while you’re at it, make it in your own kitchen and don’t come back!”
I always felt this was probably a “last straw” scenario, although Nana didn’t go into details when she told me this story. She was always very discreet. At one point years later my daughter was considering opening up a sandwich shop. She loved this story so much that she wanted to call it “Make your Own Damn Sandwich” as an homage to her independent great-grandmother.
Nana never dated another man after turfing Mr. McKinley, but continued to find joy in the arts, travel, her family, and her many friends. I too expect to remain single the rest of my life but find fulfillment in all the same ways my grandmother did. Do I miss my Nana? Naturally. Or, to quote the lady herself, “Well, natch”, but I am grateful to have had her strong, trail-blazing example to follow.