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A Wonderful Life Truly Lived—Mary Langstone
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale

email: art@artdrysdale.com

Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at http://www.artdrysdale.com


July 29, 2012







Four photos of Mary Langstone, top to bottom: from a group photo in 1988 aboard the Ocean Pearl cruise ship; in 2004 during a March party at mutual friend Janet Peaker’s Nesbitt Drive home in Toronto; in 2005, also in March and also at Janet Peaker’s home; and finally in August 2011, at a party at Janet Peaker’s new condo in Rosedale. Author photos.

Mary Langstone passed away last Saturday, at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. We had known each other since the late 60s and I think I should tell just a little bit of her story.

I’ll start with the fairly lengthy obituary that appeared in the Toronto Star: “Mary Margaret Langstone (nee Murphy) passed away peacefully in Toronto on Saturday, July 21, 2012 at the age of 97 years. Predeceased by her loving husband Thomas Langstone (1983). Beloved mother of David (Shari Cunningham) of Windsor and John of Ottawa. Dear grandmother of Jean-Alexis, Edward and Rebecca. Predeceased by her brother Alex Murphy (1973), his wife Ida (later Ida Siddall, 1996) and by her parents Esther Murphy (1964) and Milford Murphy (1917). Born in a farmhouse west of Alliston, Ontario on March 16th, 1915 Mary Margaret Murphy arrived just one day short of St. Patrick's Day. Her early life was spent in Parkdale where she graduated from Parkdale Collegiate two years early despite long hours of chores in her widowed mother's boarding house.

“Higher education was not an option so after a brief business college course she worked in her uncle's insurance office until marriage and children put her career on hold. Returning to the insurance business in her forties she seized the opportunity to acquire the higher education unavailable to her in her youth, ultimately acquiring her FIIC (Fellow of the Insurance Institute of Canada) at Seneca College at the age of 63. This paid off more than one would expect when she retired from the Tomensen-Saunders insurance agency two years later. Canadian International Reinsurance Brokers, a company dealing with large, complicated insurance risks, decided to cash in on her up-to-date knowledge and depression-era work ethic and gave her a responsible position working three days a week, postponing her final retirement until she was seventy-eight.

“She then had more time for pursuits like travel and taking Living and Learning in Retirement courses at York University. However, her big passion in later life was duplicate bridge, where she was still reeling in master points at age ninety-six. She missed out on becoming a Life Master only because she lacked points given at major tournaments. Even as her energy and agility declined she put as much into life as she could, but to our sorrow the ravages of old age won out last Saturday.

“The quality of Mary's last years was enhanced enormously by those who enabled her to stay till the end of her life in the home she lived in for 67 years. For this the family would like to thank Frances Banks, Tasha Salas, Yani Molina and Gina Frades. Mary's appreciation for their care was evident to all of us. In addition we are grateful for the services of Dr. Nowaczynski and his house calls team that brought expert medical attention to her home when she was no longer able to go out to receive it. Finally our thanks go out to the friends and neighbours whose visits brought her joy and stimulation in later life.”

For the next portion of this obituary I’ll quote generously from the Eulogy delivered by her oldest son David at the funeral service last Wednesday.

“Mary’s mother, born Esther Shook, grew up on a farm on the northeast corner of what is now the Queen Elizabeth Way and Erin Mills Parkway. Her ancestors included United Empire Loyalist families granted farms in the area. The two nearby communities were Clarkson, which you may have heard of although it’s now part of Mississauga, and Sheridan, which you’ve probably never heard of even though you’ve likely heard of Sheridan Nurseries and Sheridan College which owe their names to the community.

“The community of Sheridan was a big thing in Mary’s life as well as the lives of her mother, her brother, and her children. Most of us lived there at one time or another. Today while all of Sheridan is covered by the inter-change at the Queen Elizabeth Way and Winston Churchill Boulevard, it can be found in some of Mary’s slide show photos. Sheridan was named after Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an Irish playwright, by Mary’s great-grandfather Richard Oughtred in the mid-1800s. Previously it was Hammondville or Hammondsville—the family have heard both. The Hammonds were another of Mary’s ancestor families, but the community name had to be changed because there was another Hammondville in Manitoba. Now if by some chance I’ve stimulated you to dig deeper into Sheridan, there is a lovely cairn commemorating it on the southwest corner of the QEW South Service Road and Winston Churchill Boulevard. It has brass plaques giving a map and a history of Sheridan as well as a list of families associated with it. Five of those families were Mary’s ancestors.

“One first has to say something about the hard life her mother was fated to live. She married in 1914, had Mary in 1915, had her brother Alex in 1916, and then had her husband die of appendicitis in 1917. In 1920, when Mary was 5, her mother bought a house in Parkdale (part of the west side of the City of Toronto) where she supported and raised her family by taking in boarders for almost 20 years. Mary was an excellent student, finishing high school at Parkdale Collegiate two years early despite long hours of boarding house chores. Higher education was not an option so after a brief business college course she worked in her uncle’s insurance office until her marriage to our father Tom Langstone, one of the boarders, in 1939.

“It was obvious to all, and most importantly to my mother, that Tom realized what a gem he had. He adored her. Even over the last few years, when her husband’s name came up in conversation, Mary would usually mention how she always felt loved. Tom was sixteen years older than Mary. Even early in the marriage he realized he’d likely be gone well before she was and did things to make life without him easier. He started off by insisting that she learn to drive, which she did at age 39. I’m sure no one at the time was figuring that she’d be driving for over fifty years but that’s what happened. Then in the years shortly before his death Tom felt Mary’s frugal ways might keep her behind the times in the world of advancing technology. He addressed this by buying a top-of-the-line microwave oven (micro-waves weren’t common then), a top-of-the-line Sony TV and a state-of-the-art sound system. The microwave and the TV are long gone but the sound system still sounds pretty good.

“When one reflects on Mary’s life, it becomes apparent that her marriage probably marked the start of an upward trend in the quality of her life that just went on and on. There were no dramatic or identifiable events associated with this. The process was slow and subtle and can really only be identified when one looks back. I don’t think anyone realized it was going on but it culminated in her living for many years with financial security in a nice house in one of the nicest areas of one of the world’s nicest cities in the company of nice people with enough resources to do pretty much anything she wanted.

“In her forties, after raising her children, Mary returned to the insurance business. Shortly after she seized the opportunity to acquire the higher education unavailable to her in her youth, ultimately acquiring her FIIC (Fellow of the Insurance Institute of Canada) at Seneca College at the age of 63. This paid off better than one would expect when she retired from the Tomensen-Saunders insurance agency two years later. Canadian International Reinsurance Brokers, a company dealing with large, complicated insurance risks, decided to cash in on her up-to-date knowledge and depression-era work ethic and gave her a responsible position working three days a week, postponing her final retirement until she was 78. Her big passion in later life was duplicate bridge, where she was still reeling in master points at age 96.

“Mary enjoyed good health well into her nineties. She was proud to say she still had all her teeth and until she was ninety she was able to say she never broke a bone. ‘Good genes’ are typically credited for long healthy lives, but this doesn’t seem to apply in Mary’s case. She lived 19 years longer than her mother, 40 years longer than her brother and 60 years longer than her father. She had an enormous number of aunts, uncles and cousins. As close as the family can tell only one got to 90.

One has to look elsewhere for possible explanations for her living to 97, enjoying good health for most of that time and when one does, the conclusion that she herself might have been responsible becomes hard to escape. She was doing the things we now hear contribute to long, healthy lives long before they appeared in the newspaper columns. She never smoked. Alcohol almost never crossed her lips. She was never overweight. She was physically active. She continued to cut her lawn until she no longer had the strength. She ate lots of vegetables.

“In her younger days she drank enormous amounts of coffee. Recent newspaper articles say high coffee consumption correlates with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. This jumped out at us because Mary’s mother, who didn’t drink much coffee, suffered from dementia, likely Alzheimer’s, in her early 70s, while Mary was still playing bridge pretty well at 96. She ate oatmeal, which we hear correlates with reduced incidence of heart attacks, for breakfast almost every day during her later years. She did the Stars crossword puzzle almost every day and played duplicate bridge almost every week until well into her nineties. We read that people engaging in these mentally stimulating activities have reduced incidence of dementia. So to sum up, it looks like she had herself to thank for her many healthy years. Even as her energy and agility declined she put as much into life as she could, but to our sorrow the ravages of old age won out last Saturday.”

One aspect of Mary Langstone's life that was not mentioned in her wonderful obituary or Eulogy was her relationship with Sheridan Nurseries and the 'Sheridan Family'. It was there I met her in the late 1960s but saw her only occasionally—mostly at company and family parties.

She worked at Sheridan Nurseries, out at the Oakville Nursery Office, roughly from 1942 the family thinks. She got pressed into service when Chris Stensson (one of the four Stensson brothers whose job was all the book keeping etc. at the nursery office) made it known that he wanted to spend the summer playing in the band on a cruise ship. She stayed more-or-less permanently until shortly before John, her youngest son was born on May 8, 1945. When she started a Miss Brown was the office manager, but she abruptly left and was replaced by Miss Stong. Mary used to say that while Elma Stong had managerial skills she really had no idea what was going on in the office when she started and was pretty dependent on Mary. She did tell me that personally on more than one occasion!

Elma Stong wanted Mary to stay after John's birth but Mary wasn't up for that.  However, she helped out during the busy season over many years after that. Her eldest son, David, remembers picking her up at the home of Betty Stewart (Betty was the sole Stensson family daughter) in the late 1950s.  Betty would drive her out to the nursery in the morning. However, Mary would have given that up when she went back into the insurance business (initially working in her brother Alex’s agency) in the early 1960s.

Then in 1986 I moved to a new home only a two minute walk from Mary’s. One of the first kindnesses she offered was the donation of a large standard Euonymus tree, which we dug and moved to our new front garden. In those days I was conducting gardening/horticultural tours at least every year and Mary travelled to Korea and China (aboard the Ocean Pearl) with a group of mine in 1988, and was the hit of the group!

Before we left, she said she would like to room with someone and so our agency got her a roommate. Neither Mary nor I knew how this pairing would work out, even though the two ladies got together for a luncheon before agreeing to the deal. Well, it did not work out well, but not as bad as some other pairings I had seen during other tours!

On one occasion, first thing in the morning Mary came down to the dining room for breakfast, telling us that her roommate had almost lit the hotel room on fire over night. She had apparently hung some wet underwear to dry over a lamp, and it fell onto the bulb. Mary was incredulous but didn’t want me to do anything about getting her a new (less fire-prone) roommate.

Later in the tour, we were going into a large area of underground caves, and our guide warned us that anyone who had uncertain footing, should either not come in, or walk extremely carefully because the stone floors’ were covered with wet brown clay that was very slippery. I was concerned about Mary’s roommate and walked behind or in front of her the entire time to try and save her if she slipped. Well, part way through, she did; while trying to save her, she pushed me down, and fell on top of me!

She was OK, and we made our way out of the caves as quickly as we could. My light-blue shorts were about 90 percent wet brown! The worst was that when we got back to the bus, I changed into some other pants from my luggage, and she was busy telling everyone that I fell and had dragged her down as well. That was where Mary Langstone came in, as she had seen the entire happening. She went around the entire bus telling each tour participant that the fault was not mine, but rather “that roommate of mine whom Art had tried to save!”

That is only two of many stories from that trip, which we used to joke about even years later.

I always heard from Mary with a card on my birthday, and at Christmas.

She was a truly a Great and Fine Lady! Hail and Farewell Mary Langstone!

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