This story begins only a few weeks after I first arrived in Ontario from the Yukon in the fall of 1995. Responding to an ad in the program for the Fall Fair, I wound up as a member of the bass section for the Uxbridge Chamber Choir. And soon after that, Donna Van Veghel persuaded me to step in for a season as conductor of her justifiably famed youth choir.
Thus it was that in late September, I held placement auditions for kids interested in joining the group. A seven-year-old pixie from Scott Central got up, sang “Colours of the Wind” from “Pocahontas”, and my jaw dropped. I had never heard someone so young sing with such strength, such confidence. Leah Speers (whom you might know as Leah Daniels) sang for me for many years after that, in various choirs and plays, and I never thought to ask her where that confidence, that power, came from. Now I know. It’s in her blood.
This past Sunday, my wife Lisa and I were happy to attend, at the community hall in Goodwood, a celebration of life for an 89-year-old woman named Rosemarie Herrell. And what a celebration it was. It’s probably safe to say that of all the people in the packed hall, we probably knew Rosemarie least. There were friends and neighbours, and all of them, including her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, considered themselves to be part of Rosemarie’s extended family. Her loving arms were that big.
I’m not sure I ever even knew Rosemarie’s real name. To us she was just Leah’s Nana, her beaming smile a constant presence whenever a concert or a play was happening. And it didn’t even have to include Leah. She was one of OnStage Uxbridge’s biggest supporters, always there. When we heard she’d passed away, we had to be there. And wow, did we learn a lot about a woman whose abundant and busy life had only intersected with ours in the narrowest of ways.
Rosemarie Herrell, as speaker after speaker testified, was a dynamo. Born and raised in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward, she spent her youth roller-skating down Yonge Street or playing on apartment rooftops. A big-city girl. So her family and friends were astounded when she and her husband Edgar announced they were moving to a ten-acre spread in the wilderness, though actually less than an hour north of her childhood home.
The eulogists at Sunday’s celebration referred to the Herrell place on the Second Concession as simply The Farm, and to friends and family, it was a place of almost mythic attraction. One woman, who said she was proud to call Rosemarie her aunt, even though she was no actual relative, recalled that when her family made a trip to The Farm on a holiday Saturday, the kids would count the number of hills remaining till they arrived at the Herrell’s gate, and the car would barely roll to a stop before the doors flew open and the fun began. There would be games outdoor and indoor (Sunday’s celebration included a scavenger hunt, a frequent occurrence at The Farm), walks in the woods, great food, and always music. And Rosemarie, or Rose as many called her, was at the centre of it all.
Though born in 1932, Rose was definitely a child of the 60s. At the celebration, two of her nephews sang (accompanied by us) one of her favourite songs, the anti-war folk anthem “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream” (did you know that song was composed in Canada?). It seems that whatever time she didn’t dedicate to her family, Mrs. Herrell spent on the picket line, protesting against apartheid, raising her voice for gay rights, or native rights. And it wasn’t a token voice, she did her research and passionately believed in the cause. It was a crucial part of who she was, wanting to make her world a better place.
Closest to home, Rosemarie was one of the founding members of People or Planes, formed in 1972 to protest the expropriation of farm land by the federal government to make way for a proposed Pickering Airport. The organization is now called Land Over Landings, and to its immense credit, that airport is no closer to being built today, a half century later, than it was back when it first got Rosemarie riled up. At the celebration, among the dozens of photos and artifacts collected by the family to trace the progress of her life, there was a large black and white poster designed to accompany the anti-airport protests. It features a solitary woman holding a picket sign, and the woman is Rosemarie Herrell.
Rose was an inspiration, in so many ways. Even after her death. One of her daughters told a recent story of being asked by her granddaughter to attend an art class.
“I do stick people,” she said, “but I went along. Then I thought of my mom, and I did this.” There was an audible gasp through the hall as her husband showed us all a beautiful portrait of Rose, featuring that radiant smile.
Rosemarie Herrell was that kind of woman. A force for everything good, and warm, and nourishing. One of her neighbours said he was proud to have lived in her world. Everyone around me nodded in agreement, and I realized in that moment where Leah the seven-year-old singing prodigy came from. And why “Colours in the Wind”, a song about making the world a better place, was always a tribute to her Nana.