Skip navigation

Wednesday January 16, 2013

McKAY, Thelma Mary, née Draper

When it was time to prepare an obituary for Thelma, we went looking for the right photograph. One nomination: the picture of a beautiful girl, about fourteen, with a face framed in waves of thick black hair pushed back off her forehead. She wears the Rupert's Land College uniform, and she gazes out of the picture with dark, solemn eyes. The photograph was probably taken in 1937 or 1938, several years into the decade of depression that especially plagued Western Canada. The early deaths of her mother and her eldest brother, and the Second World War had yet to come.
Thelma died at 1:05 pm on Monday, January 14, 2013, of aspiration pneumonia, a consequence of the Alzheimer's Disease she suffered from, by greater and greater degrees, for over a decade. She had been a resident of Cummer Lodge for the last four years, where she was well cared for; many of her family were there with her at the end of her life. She leaves behind Donald Douglas McKay, her husband and constant companion of sixty-five years, her three children - Donald Douglas McKay, junior, Nancy Jane Perkins, née McKay (wife of Victor Perkins), and Ross George McKay (husband of Nora McKay, née Salman) - and her seven grandchildren - Robin Simpson-McKay (daughter of Donald, jr. and Sandra Lee Simpson), Gregory, Alexander, and Claire Perkins, (children of Nancy and Victor Perkins), Heather, Rachel, and Rebecca McKay, (daughters of Ross and Nora McKay). She joins her parents and her much-loved brothers, Walter George Draper, junior and Kenneth John Draper.
Thelma was born in West Kildonan, Manitoba, then a separate city, now part of northern wards of Winnipeg. Her parents, Walter and Kate Draper, emigrated from England in 1912 and settled there, sending her to Victory School in West Kildonan, and then, when family prospects improved, to Rupert's Land College. Thelma's parents made the best of her education; their extra sacrifice for piano lessons left a gift that delighted her, and her family, all her life. Thelma finished her education at Dominion Business College before working for The Imperial Bank of Canada, and then the Department of National Revenue, until June of 1947. That month, in a ceremony presided over by Donald's older brother, Dr. William Angus McKay, she and Donald married.
In 1950, Thelma and Donald purchased their first home, A pink stucco post-war house on Lyndale Drive in the Norwood neighbourhood of St. Boniface, then an independent city, now another Winnipeg ward. They loved their new neighbourhood, the school and church, and their new friends. In this community of newly-weds, where the homes faced into a common park created along the Red River, and where everyone knew the neighbourhood children, they made lifelong friendships.
When they moved to Toronto in 1956, they developed another community of young families in the new suburbs of Etobicoke, and more enduring friendships. Founding members of St. Luke's Islington United Church, Donald served as a Steward and an Elder, while Thelma was secretary of the Sunday School and a leader in C.G.I.T. (Christian Girls in Training). At St. Luke's, she established a successful day care program for families with mentally handicapped children, staffed it with volunteers, and put the program on a sound financial basis with an inventive annual fund-raising campaign, supported with the help of her beloved C.G.I.T. girls. When the day care program became more institutionalized, and could carry on without her, Thelma took up the study of Braille, so that she could work as a translator, producing books for students through the C.N.I.B.
From the days on Lyndale Drive, when her son brought home a stray wandered up from the river, there was always a dog, or sometimes two; they may have been her children's pets, but they were her great companions. And when those children went off to university, and when she and Donald moved, at midlife, to Cambridge, Ontario, she was never without a beloved dog. Her last was a peaceful soul, a Black Labrador named Tar, rescued from abuse and adopted for a lifetime of walks and one-sided conversations.
In Cambridge, Thelma embraced new interests, as Donald and she renovated and repaired their remarkable house, a novel piece of domestic neo-classicism. This work excited a fresh interest in architecture, and in cities and towns of special architectural merit; Thelma joined Donald in trips around Canada and the United States. Savanna Georgia, and Boston, Massachusetts became new 'favorite places', and the two returned to both cities for years. Continuing with her practice of public service, Thelma work as a hospital volunteer, visited seniors, and volunteered in the Cambridge Library System, where she established an Art Rental Program.
When, almost a decade after they arrived in Cambridge, Donald and Thelma returned to Toronto, to the perfect grandparents' house in North Toronto, she could delight in the full-time role as Grammie, as she participated in raising a new generation. Her beloved grandchildren, her dogs, music and travels, baking the distinctive cookies and cakes that seduced everyone at family celebrations, enjoying the company of her husband in conversation and in long daily walks, sharing their garden and their reading - these things filled her life after sixty-five.
As busy as she was as a young mother, Thelma never missed the opportunity to read, and devoured newspapers and news magazines, even if that news would almost inevitably dismay and frustrate her. She was never without an educated opinion, or the reading to support it. In her middle years, this reading proceeded at a more sedate pace, and took on a serious tone. She recognized her own failing memory, and was the first to remark on it, on the day, almost ten years before her death, when she was asked what she was reading and, without anger or regret, she answered, ''I don't read any more. If it's a newspaper, I've lost track of the story half way down the column. In a book, I don't remember what was at the top of the page by the time I get to the bottom. My memory is going missing.''
Throughout much of the time after that first self-diagnosis, she and Donald held back the disease with long daily walks, and with conversations, games, and engagements in the world. Her pleasure in flowers never ended, but other pastimes faded, and by degrees the memories of the fourteen year old girl from the photograph became stronger than the memory of the moment. At a lunch table, she would relive the exciting days of her adolescence at Saturday matinees with friends, and the anxious days of the depression, when the young men in her neighbourhood who could not find work in Winnipeg would simply leave one night, going on the road, and nothing more would be said of them.
And she told the story of how she first met Donald's sister, Jean Nevile, through the play of a very little boy, Jean's son, also a Donald, named for his uncle. It was Jean who introduced Thelma and her future husband. Almost sixty-eight years later, that circle closes, when the Reverend Donald Nevile presides at her memorial.
When true dementia set in, and robbed her of reason, she was settled at Cummer Lodge, where Donald would spend his afternoons with her, where they walked together, took coffee, watched favorite television reruns, told stories, and read the newspaper. Until the last months of her disease, she still read the newspaper, often passionately. This attention held back the memory thief as long as possible, but not for good.
And when it came time to find the photograph of a solemn, beautiful school girl, we found another, a young woman, only a very few years older. And the gaze remained. Sixty years later, shorn of memory, unable to walk, often unable to lift her arms, she still communicated with those eyes. No one who looked into her face will ever forget how she looked back. As long as there are people to remember it, Thelma's intellectual force and her love of life will be there.
We know, she is at peace.
Friends may call at the Trull North Toronto Funeral Home, at 2704 Yonge Street (five blocks south of Laurence Avenue) on Saturday, January 19, 2013, for a memorial service to be held at 2:30 pm. Cremation has taken place.
In memoriam donations should be made to the charity of your choice.

Back to top