Missing Nanny Whyte

It’s ten years today since my maternal grandmother, Mary Hayden Whyte, passed away at age 84. I miss her often, and wish so much that she’d lived to meet Jonathan and be at our wedding. I don’t remember her as clearly as I used to, so I thought I’d write out a few bits and pieces I’ve had on my mind today, as I’ve concentrated on remembering how much she gave me.

Nanny, about 2001

Nanny, about 2001

Nanny, Mary Hayden, was born in Toronto in 1920. Her mother died giving birth to her sixth brother in 1927. She grew up hard.

She married my grandfather, Martin Whyte, in the late 1940s, though I don’t know when, and had four children between 1950 and 1956. The family lived in Toronto, Weston, and Cobourgh. After being widowed in 1981 she moved back to Toronto, where she spent the rest of her life.

Starting at around age five, I was allowed to sleep over at her apartment at Dufferin and Eglinton some Saturdays. I’d eat what I thought was junk cereal and stay up til what I thought was a late hour watching TV on the pull-out couch. When I fell asleep, she’d carry me in to her room, then she’d sleep on the couch.

When I was six she took me on the train to Montreal to visit my aunt. What an adventure! The most exciting part was when she got up to visit the smoking car every few hours, and I could pretend I was travelling alone like the older girls sitting across from me.

Some halloweens she’d come to our house to help hand out candy. Some years she worked the front hall candy hand-out in her building on Lavinia Avenue in Swansea.

She loved Christmas and would always come by my parent’s house a few weeks before the big day with boxes stuffed with presents to put under our tree–she knew we liked to feast on the visual bounty all through December. There were always so many packages.

Just before school started, Nanny would take my brother and I to Zellers or Staples. Another bounty: though I had plenty of pens, duotangs, and paper at home, I needed new stuff for my new year. The fresh binders! The newly sharpened pencils! Glorious 88 cent packages of Hilroy! Oh, the glorious hours spent combing the racks of stationary. It’s a chicken and egg question, whether this was an early sign of my “but I have to own this notebook” mental block on rational purchasing, or whether Nanny was the one to instigate it.

She was one of very few women in her circle of friends who knew how to drive, and she was always taking friends places. She had a little Toyota Tercel we called the Red Rocket, and she drove it to all the worst malls in the city: Honeydale Mall, Cloverdale Mall, Lawrence Square. We made the bargain shop rounds frequently, and then every once in awhile she’d take me to McDonald’s.

She watched Murder She Wrote and Star Trek, shows I couldn’t quite follow but liked having on. She knit slippers for residents of the seniors centre at Jane & Dundas. She read crime fiction and made the greatest butter tart there ever was.

Us together, December 2003

Christmas 2003

Nanny lived through almost all of the 20th century. She was a child during the depression, she watched her husband go to war. She raised four children, she worked in a department store, she helped run a taxi company. What was that like? What had she wanted, when she was newly married? I wish I’d known to ask her more questions. Ten years ago, I had so little sense of my family history, had no idea that I might ever care. Ten years later, there’s so much more I wish I knew.



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