Edited by Rina Barone. Photography by Bryan Davies.
I first met Gertrude like I meet a lot of people in Creemore. She walked into the bookstore one day and sought out a book. I knew right away that this was someone who loved reading and that books held a special place in her life. Over the years we'd talk 'shop' during her visits, what book she was currently reading, what book she was looking forward to reading next, if this is the year she'll read all five of the Canada Reads contenders, or just the winner. And if it was a special visit to pick up a particular book (like say, publication day for Obama's recent memoir in which she pre-ordered months in advance, and when I phoned her to let her know it was in, she let out a whoop!) she would wear her charming book earrings in celebration. "I wore these especially for today," she'd say, with a smile on her face. After 38 years in the community, Gertrude, and her husband Bryan, have left Creemore to live closer to family. Though we miss seeing her on the street, we always look forward to her next visit.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Toronto after my parents moved from Jamaica in 1948 with my brother and sister. They joined my Grandmother who had come up in 1927, leaving my dad at school and seeking better opportunities for the family.
You recently moved to Wasaga Beach - how is this new chapter of your life?
COVID has made everything so different than I had planned. I'm still driving teenage grand-children to their part-time jobs as much as I had expected. But I'm also working as a front door screener at a nearby retirement home. So at the moment all those creative projects and all the gardening I had planned are going very slowly.
What have been the biggest changes in the community over the years that you’ve witnessed?
It is wonderful to see so many young families move into the smaller communities like Creemore and Stayner. There are a lot of creative new businesses that are environmentally respectful, with entrepreneurs building the future they want to see. And thanks to the support for the refugee programs we now see such a variety of cultures and foods everywhere around us.
What would we be surprised to know about you?
I studied Latin in high school and I follow Pope Francis' Latin Twitter account.
If you had a life motto, what would it be?
Make an effort, not an excuse. Practice makes progress.
When and where are you at your happiest?
I'm happiest getting together with family. My mother was one of 11 children and was close to her siblings, most of whom had emigrated to the States. Summers were filled with family visits. So whether it's meeting up with cousins, coffee with my brother and sister, checking in on nieces and nephews, or Boxing Day dinner with my children and their families, this is when and where I'm happiest. The conversations are always lively, full of reminiscences, which I hope will be good memories for my grand-children.
"I feel connected when I am with family. My sense of self is defined by the people with whom I share history.
When we gather, I think of parents and grand-parents who have passed on and how they are represented by those who are present."
You and your family are very involved in local charitable organizations, why is giving back to the community an important family value?
I believe we gain so much from giving back. It takes you outside yourself to where you can learn what is needed to support the community you live in. The Jamaica Canadian Association started in my family's living room in 1962 and one goal was to facilitate connections for Jamaicans in Toronto. For younger people, community work is valuable for personal skill development, with opportunities for friendship and fun. Thanks to Bryan's Rotary Club membership, we attended the 2018 International Convention in Toronto. In addition to chatting with members from Africa and Asia, I listened to speeches by Britain's Princess Anne and former First Lady Laura Bush. These wonderful experiences happened just from being part of a local service organization.
You’re a volunteer facilitator with Rainbows Georgian Triangle (a not-for-profit program that fosters emotional healing among children grieving a loss). Can you tell me how you became involved with the group and what it means to you?
This happened through Hospice Georgian Triangle, an organization I had been involved with since 1998 when I was supported following the death of my first husband. I was inspired to continue my involvement, first as a volunteer then as PSW staff at Campbell House Hospice Residence. I had always shied away from working with young children who are facing loss, unsure of my capabilities. Then my grandchildren lost their dad. In stepping up to support them, I also saw how capable the Season's Centre for Grieving Children was with their program. So I came to be a bit more sure of myself to work with children experiencing loss. Plus our Rainbows Coordinator and the other facilitators are so terrific it actually feels like a family. You see these kids blossom and express themselves and it is so gratifying to know you have helped.
As a personal support worker for the elderly, aging is part of your line of work. What are your thoughts on aging?
It frustrates me to see how much we avoid about the realities of aging. Today's seniors
likely saw septuagenarian grandparents die quietly at home in their beds, or in hospital after a brief illness. It may be a triumph of public health and modern medicine that we can now thrive into our '80's and '90's. But it still only takes one poorly placed foot-fall to break a hip and upend all those visions of also quietly passing at home some day. Suddenly the options narrow and not enough families are prepared for the choices: doggedly remaining at home but dependent on unreliable help, a pretty but financially draining retirement home that is ill-equipped to deal with declining health, or a utilitarian long term care facility struggling to meet the needs of its residents. My thoughts are that somewhere in the middle is a better response to aging that meets seniors where they are, not where they wish they could be.
You’ve been on the front line during this pandemic, what stories of hope and resilience have you seen?
The positives at the retirement home have been so gratifying. Staff respect how lonely the residents are without family visits, so there are always themed activities going on. One staff brings her dog for weekly room-to-room visits. Community members drop off puzzles, yarn and books – items that can be sanitized and put to good use, even Christmas gifts that Santa personally distributed to each resident. Youngsters have been especially caring: we received several packages of kind notes to share with the residents. Residents have their down times, but they also say how grateful they are to be safe, healthy and vaccinated, knowing an end is in sight.
You’ve been working on a beautiful Victorian miniature dollhouse, can you tell me about how this hobby started for you?
I was surprised to receive a dollhouse for Christmas when I was eight. It had been just what I had wanted. This was the common 1950's metal version complete with plastic furniture and I always remembered the happiness of playing with it. When I mentioned this memory to my late husband, being a carpenter, he bought the plans and constructed this lovely Victorian that I still have. It remains a work in progress, as crafts often tend to be, but I am always glad to lose myself in miniature wallpaper and decor.
What’s a perfect day to yourself look like?
I'm always looking for balance in a day. Not a morning person so I focus on a quiet start. I like the Bullet Journal method for organizing my time. I've come to enjoy adding stickers and washi tape to the blank pages where I will also write my Morning Pages exercise. I don't feel pressured on a non-work day but I do like to get some practical items off the list, just for a feeling of accomplishment. A day to myself is also going to include quiet time to read. Outside in our gazebo is perfect for this (and bundled up with a coffee on a sunny winter day is not out of the question). I also have a few favourite book stores, a couple of quiet coffee shops, and the local libraries that are good escape spots I look forward to visiting again some day.
Where did your love of books and reading come from?
My Grandmother was not a reader; in fact, she was frustrated by her lack of a formal education although she accomplished many things in her life. So she valued learning and seeing me read from an early age was gratifying for her. It reassured her that I would do well in life because I could read so she encouraged me and my books.
What is your earliest memory of a book affecting you in a deep and personal way?
I remember at a very young age finishing a Disney book and feeling very satisfied at having reached the end of the story. I was affected by the sense of having been in a little world somewhere and then coming back to reality. It felt empowering to know that the words enabled me to use my imagination. Reading from 365 Bedtime Stories gave me a feeling of companionship and helped me settle at night.
"A favourite book might be defined as something I would read again, but there are so many books I still hope to read that re-reading anything is not a choice I'd make. "
What can books teach us?
I believe we learn respect from reading, from hearing someone's vision of a story or situation. Reading allows us to place ourselves and learn from how our choices might be similar or different from those of the writer and his character.
If you could meet any of your favourite authors and ask them one question, what would it be?
I really enjoy The No.1 Ladies' Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith. It would be great to hear him explain how a professor of Medical Law & Bioethics in Scotland came to create such a remarkable heroine as an African female private detective in Botswana.
What are you currently reading?
Caste. The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I enjoy making a point of focusing on Black authors during Black History Month.
Gertrude King is a PSW offering home care and wellness practices. Rainbows Georgian Triangle was recognized as a local Grassroots Hero in 2019. Gertrude and her photographer husband Bryan Davies have also produced several picture books of private gardens over the years, and continue to collaborate on creative projects..