Barbara was born in 1921 in Manchester, the daughter of a lawyer and a strong and long-lived mother. She met Jack Grove in 1949 at an interfaculty meeting where he spied her across the proverbial crowded room … she was eating cake and spilling crumbs across her lovely bosom. Jack found this so charming and endearing that he had to meet her. (I must add that the spilling of food on her lovely bosom was a trait Barbara carried forward throughout her life.) They were married in 1950. In the early 1950’s, they spent some time in the States where Elizabeth was born. Christopher was born three years later back in England. Almost exactly 45 years ago, thankfully for all of us at AWARE, Jack was offered a teaching position in the Department of Political Science at Queen’s and off they came to Kingston. The children were growing up and Barbara decided to do her MSW at McGill, graduating in 1974. As Liz says, thus ended the Margaret Drabble period of Barbara’s life.
Barbara came into her own, now in her early 50’s, first as a psychiatric social worker at KPH and then as a family therapist in private practice. Her commitment to social justice causes and women’s issues, always an active force in her life, flourished in the 1980’s and beyond. She devoted her prodigious talents and energies to the Elizabeth Fry Society, to AWARE as a founding member, to CCADAOW (the Coordinating Committee Against Domestic Assault on Women), to Alternatives (which was a counselling service for abusive men), and to Dawn House Women’s Shelter, among many, many others.
Still going strong into her early 80’s, Barbara tended her beautiful garden and read a copious number of novels, and biographies, and murder mysteries, and feminist literature and theory. She was very well and widely read. She maintained her avid interest in politics – local, national, and international – by reading magazines of the more learned variety and daily newspapers (the Globe and Mail and the Kingston Whig Standard) plus the Sunday New York Times. This was in addition to nightly doses of the PBS McNeil Lehrer Report and the TVO evening political discussion program. In the last moments of Barbara’s life, Chris, Liz and I somehow began talking about Canadian politicians, I guess as a distraction from the enormity of the situation. It would please Barbara immensely to know that, as she was leaving this mortal coil, we were trash talking Stephen Harper. Barbara had no use for him: “He’s a cold, unfeeling little man. I can’t stand him.”
Family and Friends
Family was intensely important to Barbara and her love for Liz and Cliff, Chris and Janet, her three lively and intelligent grandchildren – James, Katie and Maya – was steady, strong and unfailing, as was her love for Jack. Barbara’s beloved husband died on January 26, 2006 and Barbara tried to stay on in the Hill Street home, but found fairly quickly that it was too much for her to manage, even with the help that Nick Delva and Elaine Berman and I tried to provide for her on an organized basis and the support that others provided more informally. So she moved into a retirement home. She made new friends, kept on reading, and engaged with the world in her sharp sighted and interested way. Somewhere in the midst of all of this she also became a financial whiz kid. As her body began to let her down a bit, with arthritis and poor mobility, she felt somewhat confined and constricted, and was often in some amount of pain, but her grit, strength and determination kept her going most days, even when she didn’t much feel like leaving her bed, let alone her room. “I must keep going” she’d say.
An extremely unfortunate fall on November 11, 2010 snapped Barbara’s right ankle in two places; once in KGH, her lungs were found to be in serious condition, so the lung issue overtook the leg issue for a time. The leg surgery was finally undertaken, but a series of infections followed and Barbara didn’t leave the hospital. She died February 6, 2011. And a light, as they say, went out in our lives.
I have known Barbara for 30 years, having first met her through work. Somehow, as always happens with Barbara and her friendships, we quickly became very close. Despite our age difference, we shared a lot of interests – gardening, novels and murder mysteries, feminism, left-leaning politics, and an inability to master the art of baking home made bread – although Barbara ultimately left me in the dust with that one. I’ve tried to find the word to describe our relationship but haven’t ever found the right one. She was sort of a mother figure, but I have a mother whom I adore and Barbara has a daughter to whom she is devoted. She was a friend, of course, but that lacks something of the intimacy we shared. She was definitely a mentor, who gave me many gifts in her wisdom. Whatever it was we had, it feels irreplaceable.
In 1992, my former partner and I separated, not in any way acrimoniously, but with all the emotional pain that is entailed when a long-term relationship ends. I left our home and moved into a new house, on my own, which I hated … the living alone part, I mean. So on top of the emotional turmoil, I had to walk into an empty house every night.
That was in the days of the answering machine as a separate box-like attachment to the telephone – remember those? Barbara decided that, to support me, she would phone me each and every afternoon and leave a message on my answering machine, so that when I walked through the door each night, the message light would be blinking, telling me that she was thinking of me and caring for me. She in no way expected me to call back; she just left a message each day so I would know I wasn’t alone. This continued for many months until I had adjusted to my new life circumstances. It also signaled the beginning of our almost daily phone calls to each other that continued for the almost 20 years that have ensued. Just quick little calls, mostly, to check in on each other’s day. Maybe three days at most would go by at times when one of us wouldn’t have been in touch; then I’d get a message from Barbara “I thought it time we spoke again.”
I could rhyme off what feels like a million adjectives to describe Barbara – loving, intelligent, quick witted, compassionate, anxious, sometimes depressed, caring, supportive, kind, worried, fun-loving, thoughtful, mischievous, generous – but Barbara’s true magic was in her ability to form relationships. Everyone she crossed paths with – her gardener, her former therapy clients, her accountant, her dentist, her real estate agent, the nurses in the ECU, my cranky little dog who doesn’t much like anyone, and the legion of women who regard her as a mentor – everyone immediately loved her. She could listen like nobody’s business and see through to your core with laser-like acuity. Barbara always claimed that she learned this skill from the professor at McGill whom she thought of as her guru, Larry Shulman – he taught his students, she said, the art of “tuning in” – but I always felt that Barbara’s skill was so natural and intuitive that she must have been born with it. In any case, her ability to “tune in” never failed her, not even in the last weeks of her life. During one of my daily visits a couple of weeks before she died, I walked into a completely dark hospital room. Stumbling around and dropping things, I managed to step on my eye glasses and crush them to bits, which was an annoyingly stupid thing to do. When I finally found the switch and turned on the light, Barbara said “You’re looking very fierce tonight”. I didn’t want to worry her with my stupid story of breaking glasses so I muttered something about having had a long day. Now bear in mind Barbara herself was not wearing her glasses, had been in a hospital bed for almost three months, and had been having terrifying periods of deep confusion. Barbara said to me: “That’s not it. That’s the look you get when you don’t want to answer a question I’ve asked”. Which of course was exactly what it was.
And Then There's This!
Lest you think there were no ups and downs in our relationship, let me assure you that the most blazing row I ever had with anyone was with Barbara. It was in the mid-80’s, she was on the AWARE Board of Directors, and we two had driven to Ottawa for a day of meetings with a funder. It was an aggravating and frustrating day, so we each responded typically on the drive back to Kingston, me with a pounding migraine and Barbara trying to sort out the day’s events by asking repetitive questions. Somehow, we ended up screeching at each other, me to her “stop asking me that question”, she to me “stop bossing me around”. I’d say we acted like teenagers but I wouldn’t want to besmirch the good name of teenagers with our undignified behaviour. As I mentioned, this was a car ride back from Ottawa to Kingston. Unfortunately, the row was at the beginning of the drive, so we endured the remainder in frosty silence. I distinctly remember dropping her off at her home, she slamming the car door and stomping off, me flying home and flinging myself on my bed in tears. A couple of days of no contact ensued until I couldn’t stand it and phoned her, sobbing, to apologize for my appalling behaviour. Her response was, of course, perfect: “That’s just what happens between two people who love each other. Let’s never think of it again.” And we didn’t.
Barbara also never learned the art of the quiet whisper, although she had mastered the art of the stage whisper down pat. I could give so many examples, but here is one. Once, in the 90’s, we went to a very well attended poetry reading in a very large room chock-a-block with avid supporters. For some reason, Barbara had an immediate and visceral reaction to the poetry; she turned to me and hissed in her so-called “whisper” which I’m sure was louder than her normal speaking voice: “This is terrible! It’s self-important drivel!” I could see the necks craning and the heads turning, so I did the only thing I could think of to do … I pretended I couldn’t hear her. Big mistake. “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hear me? I said, this is self-important drivel!” We beat a hasty retreat.
Our Irreplacable Relationship
Barbara and I have been a part of each other’s lives in all its moments big and small, its exigencies and mundanities, its sorrows and joys … my wedding when she turned up with a “good for luck and love” loaf of her famous olive bread; following the ambulance to Kingston General Hospital the day Jack had his stroke and the interminable wait in the Emergency Department and the ICU; our annual visits to Maple Lane Gardens to pick out pansies and perennials; our weekly Saturday outings from the retirement home where she sat in my car – with my cranky little dog - while I did errands; other trips to take Barbara to local emergency departments; sitting with tea in my garden or hers; sitting beside her bed in hospital rooms until either Chris or Liz could arrive from Chicago and Los Angeles; Barbara and Jack staying at our house during the Ice Storm; and those daily phone calls … but one of Barbara’s greatest gifts to me was to include me as part of her family. Barbara may not have been precisely a mother figure to me, but Liz and Chris are the sister and brother I never had. And I need to say this to them: I can never thank you enough for the generosity and acceptance you have shown me, whether it was during private family ceremonies for both Jack and Barbara, or for allowing me to fulfill my covenant with Barbara during especially these last years, the last three months, the last week, and especially the last second of Barbara’s life. You have hearts that are as big as this room, as generous, as loving and as kind as the heart that beat within our beloved Barbara and your beloved mother.
Barbara entered hospital on November 11, 2010 and never left it. She died, surrounded by the love she gave, with the three of us stroking her face and holding her hands. At the very, very end, Barbara hung on rather longer than might have been expected. “She has a very strong heart” said the doctors. Everyone who knows Barbara knows this to be true.
Wendy Reynolds for everyone at AWARE