June Callwood

A Tribute

A Tribute

The public memorial for June Callwood was a candlelight procession on the evening of April 17, 2007, through the streets of Toronto. It began at Jessie’s, a centre for teenage mothers on Parliament St, and went north, then west, for two and half kilometres, ending up at Casey House, a hospice for people with HIV/AIDS. These were two of the fifty organizations June helped launch—not institutions, not corporations, but surrogate homes for people in desperate need of one.

Before she died, June made her memorial wishes clear: no long, boring speeches, no formal public service. She was, herself, the least boring of speakers, witty, gently scathing, and never, ever over the time limit. No meeting was ever too short for June’s taste. Even posthumously, it just wouldn’t do to impose rambling eulogies on her friends and families—and for someone who truly walked the walk, a memorial on the move made a lot of sense.

It happened to be the first springish evening of the year, after a weekend of raw, grey weather, the last lash of winter. The crowd that came out to pay tribute to June—one or two thousand, depending on which paper you read—couldn’t repress a certain giddiness, despite the occasion. We were outside, without coats or cars, in our shirt sleeves. June’s daughters and granddaughters headed up the procession, holding candles in glass cylinders. Traffic was temporarily banished, the moon was new, the night air felt benign. Friends ran into old friends and fell in step. There were politicians, of course — Toronto mayor David Miller, MP Jack Layton, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, whose recent initiatives against child poverty had come as welcome news to June in her final weeks of life. But there were also mothers with kids in strollers who had never met June who had come out to express their thanks for the support they had found at Jessie’s, or Nellie’s, or other refuges June had helped launch. There were writers who had benefited from June’s cultural initiatives—she helped launch PEN Canada, the Writers’ Development Trust, and the Writers’ Union of Canada. The crowd ran the gamut from the most powerful to the least. Everyone ended up milling around the street in front of Casey House, where people lined up to sign the condolence books. It was an almost carefree, casual event that, for a few hours, showed the city in a different light, and buoyed the spirit—a combination that would have tickled June.

The tributes that poured in after her death have amply covered the long list of her remarkable public achievements. I’ll just single out two qualities: June was first and last a writer, a journalist who, mostly in the hours before 9 a.m. each day, managed to write over fifteen hundred magazine articles, innumerable columns, and thirty books. Not three, not thirteen: thirty. Okay, some of them were ghostwriting jobs, for the likes of Otto Preminger or Barbara Walters. But still. She also wrote risky non-fiction books on challenging subjects — AIDS, caring for the dying, investigating an athlete’s loss of memory. (At my current pace, I have calculated that I must live to two hundred-and-twenty-four to even get in that ballpark.)

June also did something quite remarkable for a woman of her generation in the workforce: she earned her living as a freelance writer, from the age of eighteen to eighty-two. (“Forgiveness,” in the June issue of The Walrus, is her last published story.) She met and married sportswriter Trent Frayne when they were both young reporters at the Globe and Mail, and since then every shingle and shrub in their Etobicoke home has been paid for by the two of them sitting at their respective typewriters. This was not exactly a popular career path in the middle of the last century, when Canadian culture was fledgling and few publishers thought to publish our own writers.

I got to know June through my friendship with her daughters, Jill and Jesse, and through the writing community in Toronto. A couple years ago, when June was eighty, I was a member of the Authors’ Committee of the Writers’ Trust; we had the bright idea to invite June to join our committee. “That sounds like fun,” she emailed back, neglecting to point out that she had, more or less, invented the Writers’ Trust herself, years before. This connection allowed us to get together before the meetings for the odd glass of wine. From time to time, we would meet for lunch. Which brings me to my second point: the pleasure of June’s company. Despite navigating days that resembled a week on anybody else’s calendar, she was always light as a feather. She never seemed rushed, or even terribly busy. She was hilarious too—in some ways I think a sense of humor was her bedrock. It’s a lucky thing she was kindhearted, because she had a killer wit.

And—this may be key—June was consistently, unswervingly punctual. Recently I’ve been reflecting on the fact that the people I have most admired in my life have always made a point of punctuality. It sounds picayune, but it isn’t; the message of showing up on time is: my commitment to our time together means something to me, and I’ve arranged my day accordingly. One feels valued. It is one of those ordinary gestures of respect between people—like forgiveness, kindness, or making an effort on behalf of others—that I will always associate with June.

Marni Jackson
Marni Jackson is the author of four books, including Don't I Know You and The Mother Zone.