Globe and Mail
Globe and Mail
Writer: Mary-Jo Dionne
Agnes Graham collected friends like others collect spoons (and she collected those, too)
Mary Agnes Alvenia Heft Graham Independent. Adventurer. Matriarch. Military wife. Born May 1, 1921, in Dornoch, Ont., died April 21, 2018, in London, Ont., of natural causes; aged 96.
In the 1960s, while stationed at Canadian Forces Base Lahr in Germany, Agnes Graham chipped off pea-sized chunks of the Berlin Wall during a visit. She’d show me, her granddaughter, those stones when I was visiting in Toronto. She’d tell me, somewhat prophetically, that if everyone did the same, the wall would be gone. Those pebbles represented the forward-thinking she practised throughout her life.
Agnes was an early advocate of women’s rights. She learned from her mother, who was actively involved from the 1920s onward and named her after Agnes MacPhail, Canada’s first female Member of Parliament. Agnes recalled her mom buying her a pair of white gloves to hide a pesky rash, so that she could shake hands with her namesake. Stories such as these enchanted her grandchildren, including the time the teacher in her one-room schoolhouse hurriedly gathered the students outside and directed them to look up as Amelia Earhart’s plane soared overhead.
At 15, Agnes left for the city, where she would work in the dining hall at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital. She roomed with young women who would become confidantes for the rest of her life. My grandmother collected friends like others collect spoons (and she collected those, too).
She met Gordie Graham in her teens and they fell in love, despite an earlier warning from Gordie’s father for him to “stay away from riff-raff like that,” while pointing to Agnes and her friends, a group of tough (read: self-sufficient) young women. They married in 1940 and moved often as his Air Force postings took them everywhere from Happy Valley, Nfld., to Marville, France. She loved the military life and could pack a home into a single suitcase (well, give or take).
The family grew: Mary Lou in the first year of their marriage, Adele two years later, Don two years after that, then Jean in 1946 and, in the midst of a horrific January snowstorm, Sheila in 1949. Bruce was – oops – born in 1956. Gordie and Agnes, two peas in a pod, would explore more than 40 countries in their six decades together until he died in 2001. They rode camels around the pyramids. They reversed their Finnish rental car over the Russian border just to say they’d been. And, as near-octogenarians, they backpacked around Europe.
Agnes was equal parts dainty and powerful. Her giggle was childlike; her opinions adult: She would vigorously debate politics and the economy. She lived by the motto “everything in moderation,” and would only ever eat half of her much-loved Harvey’s hot dog.
When Gordie retired, a one-bedroom home in Toronto’s East End served as the backdrop to some of the family’s happiest memories. Many summers saw Oma’s six children and their spouses and 12 grandchildren cram in. We slept sprawled from the laundry room to the back patio. Theirs was a house of fold-away cots, pulled out with enthusiasm when coast-to-coast relatives appeared at their door; a door marked by a cheeky sign that read: “Castle Oma,” a play on Toronto’s storied Casa Loma. No one loved wordplay more than Oma.
Mary-Jo Dionne is Agnes’s granddaughter.