When I was little, I thought my grandmother was the Queen. Or at least royalty of some kind. She was the type of woman who arrived without an entourage but you always felt like she should have had one with her. We always came to the airport to greet her when she visited us from Toronto. Always. I guess in a way, we were her entourage. And her bell hop (my Dad), personal chauffeur (Dad), personal assistant (my Mom) and groupies (my brother and I). Sometimes she traveled with her friend, George Hendry. He was about 7 feet tall and we called him Big George. He was lovely. He, I suppose, was also part of her entourage. Because when my grandmother was in town, all eyes were on her.
Prudence Craig nee Holbrook, was the closest thing I’ve ever come to Canadian royalty. She has received the actual Queen of England (Elizabeth II) twice. Both times were with Big George at the Royal Ontario Jockey Club in the ’70s and ’80s. She was walking and talking formality, she was the one who taught me every single table manner I have to this day, to always use a coaster and how to behave at the ballet.
My grandmother was born in 1905 in Ottawa, Ontario at 24 Sussex Drive. You may recognize that address, it is officially our Prime Minister’s residence and has been since the 1950s. My grandmother’s extended family (the Wrights) were the original owners of the home. She grew up in the most beautiful house on Wilbrod Street which is now the Austrian Embassy. When Meg and I moved to Ottawa in 2008, we lived on Charlotte about two blocks from this house. I used to walk home from work sometimes down Wilbrod and would just stop and stare at the building for a few minutes wondering which of the windows would have been to her bedroom.
My grandmother was so full of life, so charming, so gregarious, you just existed to be in her orbit. She was the life of the party, the centre of attention. She was beautiful and stylish and eloquent. She could give a toast that you would make you laugh, cry, think and be embarrassed that you couldn’t do that yourself, all at the same time. She was a volunteer with the Red Cross in World War II and signed up to go to the front, where, eventually she met my grandfather, George Craig.
My dad loved to tell this story about my grandmother and her time during World War II. The joke goes like this, “Your grandmother insists that she drove an ambulance during the war in North Africa. I say she drove a tank. We’re still flipping for sides”. This joke used to make my grandmother roar with laughter. She had this amazing laugh and she thought my dad was hilarious (which he is). The moral of the story is that if you knew my grandmother, her driving a tank against the Nazis in the desert is entirely plausible. She was not a woman with which one trifled.
I loved my grandmother dearly but she was could be very intimidating. And she could make my mom cry. At the end of her life, she had brain cancer, and she made me cry too. Not on purpose, just because her cognitive function was so impaired before she died she couldn’t help but yell at people. I was heartbroken when she died. My mom also had breast cancer when her mom died and she never told my grandmother she was sick. When I asked her why she wouldn’t tell her own mom that, she said she didn’t want to burden my grandmother with her illness. I think it was because she was afraid my grandmother would somehow be cruel or insensitive about it. My grandmother was not loving towards my mom, but she was to my brother and I, which must have broken my mom’s heart.
I miss my grandmother so much sometimes, even though I was teenager when she died. She was so smart and classy. She went abroad to fight the war. She was a dedicated volunteer in Toronto for the National Ballet for years. I worshipped her even though I didn’t really know her. I have this vivid memory of sleeping over at her super chic Rosedale apartment when I was 6 or 7. When I woke up in the morning she was still asleep so I went into the livingroom to see if there was anything to do. No TV, no toys, no kids books. When she heard me awake, she came into the living room and asked if I wanted to play Go Fish. I said yes! So we played cards. I never did learn to play bridge like she wanted, but I cherish that game of Go Fish to this day. xo Janet