Family Friend

I received the sad news that Mrs. Glenna Foster passed away last week. This name doesn’t mean anything to you, but for me, growing up, it was a name synonymous with adventure, style and fun.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me start again.

Glenna, and her husband Jack, (always known as Jack and Glenna to us), were born and bred Montrealers who had the opportunity to move to Winnipeg in the early 1960s because of work. (Jack was a chemist for ESSO, or “Imperial Oil” as he always called it), and they moved in behind my Aunt Audrey and Uncle Roy. Not knowing anyone in Winnipeg, Jack and Glenna were soon taken under the kind and loving wings of my uncle and aunt. When Glenna took ill, Aunt Audrey made meals for them and looked after their two kids when they had to suddenly return to Montreal for Jack’s father’s funeral. It wasn’t long before Jack and Glenna became friends. Lifelong friends, as it turned out.

My Mom was always over at her Uncle and Aunt’s, so it wasn’t long before she got to know Jack and Glenna too. While Jack could be on the gruff side at times (he was still great, though), Glenna was the sweetest, most stylish, soft-spoken, kind lady you could ever hope to meet and befriend. Jack and Glenna were about 10 years older than my Mom, but they all found things in common.

Before long, Jack was transferred back to Montreal, but the friendship bonds had already been established. This wasn’t just any ordinary friendship. It became intergenerational. A few years later, my Mom and her two besties, Val and Christine, took an epic road trip out to Montreal to see Expo ’67 (the ONLY Expo worth mentioning, according to some), and they stayed with Jack and Glenna. Although Jack went to bed early on those nights (he had to work early the next day), Glenna would wait up for my mom, Val and Christine to get home from their daily adventures and couldn’t wait to hear all of their fun stories and descriptions of the things and people they saw. Much later, Jack told Glenna that he often wasn’t sleeping yet when “the girls” got home, and he had never heard Glenna laugh as much as on those summer nights in 1967.

A few years later, in the early 1970’s, my parents lived in Toronto when they were first married. On more than one occasion they would take the train to Montreal to see an Expos game. At that time, the Expos were the only Major League Baseball team in Canada. The Jays were still 5 years in the future. Often on those getaway weekends, they would meet up with the Fosters.

Of course, all of these stories were well established before I was even born. I wasn’t even AROUND in the ’60s, you guys. My first memories of Jack and Glenna were as they passed through Winnipeg on the way to Vancouver to visit their daughter. We would always have them over for supper at least once, and my brother and I took an instant shine to them, especially Jack. “What are you boys studying at school, other than GIRLS?” was one of his opening lines, and my brother TO THIS DAY will do a pretty accurate impression of Jack Foster when prompted. They were the kind of “older people” who were really fun and interested in what you were up to, and I always looked forward to their visits. They seemed like they were always coming back from some adventure somewhere, or off on some new adventure somewhere else, and as a kid I loved listening to their stories.

One time, we stayed with them when we visited Toronto (they had moved to Toronto at this point, again for work. Who knew an oil chemist was in such demand?) I didn’t know this word at this time, but they were the most cosmopolitan couple I have ever met. They had that easy Montrealer’s way of switching from French to English effortlessly (and with no accents!) that I still find impressive. It was at their place that I first saw people eat bagels and cream cheese for breakfast. (Montrealers, of course!). I thought that was so gross at the time, but I was just a kid. There were always playbills lying around from trips they took down to Stratford to see Shakespeare plays, and I believe the first time I ever visited the McMichael gallery in Kleinberg, the spiritual home of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, it was with the Fosters. They also took us to Blue Jays games, back when they played in the old Exhibition Stadium. They were the type of couple that wouldn’t think twice of taking the train to Montreal for an overnight, or to pop down to New York or Boston to catch a show or gallery opening. They were the type of people who would eat fondue unironically, and Mr. Foster’s habit of wearing turtlenecks is a style choice I’ve happily adopted. Wouldn’t we all like to be a little bit like Jack and Glenna?

In the summer between grades 8 and 9, we arranged a “house swap”. They were driving out to Vancouver again, and they stayed in our house a couple of nights going and coming, but we got the better end of the deal: we got to stay in THEIR home for 2 whole weeks when we took the train down east. We used their Thornhill home as a base of operations as we explored so much of southern Ontario, revisiting many of the places and scenes that my parents remembers from their newlywed days. I remember finding a bunch of Helen MacInnes thrillers on their living room bookshelf, and being astonished that Glenna and I liked the same authors. I even read a couple of them while I was there. (Making sure I didn’t bend the covers).

The friendship didn’t end with Jack and Glenna. On one of our trips east, we went as far as Montreal, and we met up with Glenna’s mom, Mrs. Shefford. She lived in one of those cool Montreal-style homes that have the spiral staircase out front. You know the kind? She seemed to speak more French than English, but in typical Montreal style, so took both English and French language newspapers at her home. I was attracted to the Montreal Gazette’s Sunday comics. They came as their own little comic book, not just as additional newsprint, and I remember reading it at her house. She let me take the comic book with me, and then a few months after we got home, a package arrived in the mail from Mrs. Shefford. She had collected a few month’s worth of the comic books and mailed them out, especially for me! My parents made me write a “thank you” note back to her, and a few months later, another batch arrived! I had this ongoing correspondence with this elderly exotic Montreal lady for YEARS, and I loved it. I was able to get to see Mrs. Shefford again a decade later, in 1993, the next time I was in Montreal. By the time I got to Montreal again, in 2009 for a library conference, she had passed away.

My most memorable time with Jack and Glenna, though, was in the summer of 1994. I had (maybe foolishly?) agreed to a 26 hour Greyhound bus ride from Winnipeg to North Bay with my then girlfriend to spend some time with her parents. (Right? DUMB). Well, I was completely squirrelly by the second day there, and I could tell that I was not really needed or wanted there either. When I suggested that I might, um, take off to Toronto for a week, it was met with agreement by all. I knew the Fosters were still in the Toronto area, but had retired to Oakville. Still, though, I thought it would be fun to meet up with them for supper one night. I didn’t really have a plan, except to GET THE HELL AWAY FROM NORTH BAY. (Now, come on. North Bay is a lovely little town, and I DID enjoy the couple of days I spent there. I met some interesting people and enjoyed the lake, but the big city was calling.)

So, before I hopped on the Ontario Northland train, I called the Fosters to see if we could meet up, and before the phone call was done, Jack had invited me to stay with them, and that they would actually drive into Toronto from Oakville and meet me at Union Station. I was delighted, especially since I did NOT expect this kind of reception. Hanging out with the Fosters is like no time has passed between visits. There was Mr. Foster, frantically scanning the crowd of arrivals. He looked the same to me, but I bet as a 20 year old, I looked a bit different than I did the last time he saw me as a gangly 15 year old. I ran up to him and shook his hand. He smiled in recognition but the first thing out of his mouth was:

“Do you want to go out for supper?”

“Uh, sure.”

“Do you like Olive Garden? Glenna’s in the car.”

“Sounds great.”

I did think it a little odd that this couple, whom epitomized style, sophistication and culture to me in the 1980’s would want to eat at The Olive Garden in the ’90s, but I loved them like family and we were soon trading stories and making each other laugh over all-you-can eat-salad and breadsticks. More tellingly, it was the first time I saw them since my Dad died three years before, and the way they lovingly recalled stories about my Dad that night made me feel to proud to be his son. My dad, I should mention, was a big “Jack and Glenna” fan too.

So, it doesn’t even need to be said, those few days in Toronto were so much fun. Although Jack was retired, he and Glenna had an active life, so just my Mom did a generation before, I would go out for the day, exploring, and take the GO train back to Oakville each night and tell them about all the fun stuff I did. I saw a Jays game (my first one in the Skydome), I took a feeder bus up to Kleinberg to see the Group of Seven. I visited museums and gallerys and bookstores and pretty much had the best time. On one of the evenings, Jack and Glenna were out with friends, but they gave me a key to their place, and when I came in Glenna had left me supper to heat up in the microwave! I truly was sorry to say goodbye to them and head on home via North Bay. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time I’d see Jack.

In the next couple of years, Jack would be diagnosed with cancer and eventually die from it. “Jack and Glenna” were no more. It was around this time that I stopped calling Glenna, “Glenna”, and started calling her “Mrs. Foster”.

I was delighted that she accepted our invitation to our wedding a few years later, and it was an “Expo ’67” mini-reunion, 35 years later, as Mrs.Foster stayed with Val, and Christine came in from Halifax and stayed with Val too. My Aunt Audrey flew in from Calgary. She had been ill before our wedding, but she was DETERMINED to come and “dance up a storm”, and boy she sure did. Aunt Audrey danced, Mrs. Foster laughed, and it was wonderful to see all these old friends, family really, gather one last time. There’s a lovely painting of a villa overlooking an ocean that hangs in our bedroom to this day. It was a wedding gift from Mrs. Foster.

After that, we kept in touch through Christmas cards, and Mrs. Foster would come for a visit now and again. After our daughter, Audrey, was born, Mrs. Foster sent out a cute little raincoat for her, for the little girl who was named after the first person that showed Mrs. Foster kindness and friendship when she didn’t know anyone when she first moved to Winnipeg a half century before. To call her “a friend of the family” doesn’t seem to do the relationship justice, does it? Sometimes the love you feel for someone cannot easily be put into words, can’t be easily quantified. Mrs. Foster, Glenna, will always be remembered by me as a kind and lovely sweet woman, with a laugh like a songbird, who wasn’t afraid to wear a scarf like a kerchief and who always insisted on “cocktails” before supper, someone who wanted to know what you were into, and would thrill in a good descriptive story about something ridiculous. She’d probably enjoy a good chunk of these blog posts, actually. Well, this one’s for you, Mrs. Foster. You too, Jack.

One last time: let’s hear it for Jack and Glenna, everybody. Raise you cocktail glass and join me in one last toast. You were loved and you will be missed.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Family Friend

  1. Beautiful memorial. That story about the comics is so sweet. I’m sorry for your loss.

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