A Memorial Event To Remember

 In News

Joanna Ostrow MacDonald left a remarkable legacy. She wrote a best-selling novel, In the Highlands since Time Immemorial. She knew Ken Kesey at school, and went to some of his  “electric Kool-Aid acid test” parties in the 1960s. She has smart and accomplished children: both her daughters work at universities – Jenny and her husband work at the University of Regina, Sara and her husband are professors at Laurentian University in Sudbury.

But Joanna’s greatest legacy is the remarkable number of people she touched throughout her life. She grew up in New York City, and spent some years living in California and Scotland before starting her horse farm Spiritwood in North Gower. And when her daughter Sara organized a memorial service in Richmond, people traveled from great distances to be there May 11th, just after the Walk for Dementia.

When Joanna was first showing signs of dementia in the fall of 2013, Sara was already living in Sudbury. She traveled to Ottawa when her mom’s friends told her that Joanna was not doing well, and that they feared for her safety. Through several medical appointments and tests, Sara says she found The Dementia Society extremely helpful. She would call, and was always met with a friendly and caring voice that provided the information she needed.

Throughout Joanna’s dementia journey, Sara appreciated the support of The Dementia Society. Joanna lived with Sara in Sudbury when she first left her farm, and then she got her mom into the Richmond Care Home, and from there got her moved to the Courtyards on Eagleson in Kanata. All this time Sara was trying to find a bed in a long-term care home in Sudbury, so she could bring her mom back to live close by again. Finally, she was able to find one in February of 2018. Sara continued to call The Dementia Society from Sudbury and tells us,

“The Dementia Society was so great. I used Dementia Link at first, then I was in touch by email and by phone – what really impressed me was that you’d keep calling every few months. Each time she’d be at a different stage, and each time you’d be helpful with it all over again. There are fewer resources in Sudbury and The Dementia Society in Ottawa was a great source of support.”

And so when Sara heard about the Walk for Dementia last year, she made the trip to Ottawa to walk with Team Joanna. People her mom knew here in Ottawa joined her, and they raised money for The Dementia Society in the name of the woman who had had such a profound effect on their lives. Then, in October, Joanna passed away.

This year’s Walk for Dementia was different. It was the second year for Team Joanna, but the first without Joanna herself. Sara and her sister Jenny turned the whole day into a celebration of her mom, so she could be remembered by her friends in Ottawa. Jenny traveled with her husband from Regina to participate, and Joanna’s cousins Asher, Patty, and Meher Kaur traveled from Maine and Arizona, making them (we think) the people who traveled furthest this year to participate in the Walk. And when it was over, they held the memorial service in Richmond.

More than 60 people attended, to share their memories of this splendid woman. It is unlikely that anything we write can truly capture the remarkable life of Joanna Ostrow MacDonald, but Sara has managed to do so with her heartfelt and evocative eulogy. So we will close with Sara’s words, remembering her mom Joanna.

Joanna’s eulogy, by Sara MacDonald

I think the word that comes to mind first when I think about my mom is “inimitable.”  When you look it up, it means, “very unusual or of very high quality and therefore impossible to copy.”  Joanna was an extraordinary person:  funny, irreverent, kind, resolutely independent, creative and keenly intelligent.  She was also very contradictory:  sweet tempered but sharply satirical, terrified of travel, weather, and electricity, but truly courageous when anything mattered.  She faced her devastating illness with characteristic strength; first struggling against it, and then confronting it head-on with heart-breaking stoicism and dignity. 

Right to the end, she maintained her sense of self and her unique perspective on everything around her.  When we were moving her last year back to Sudbury, I went into her room at the Courtyards in Kanata early in the morning.  The bed was completely surrounded by caregivers and paramedics and they were transferring her to a wheelchair.  I couldn’t see her at all, and I remember thinking, how do I know they have even got the right resident?  Then, from the midst of everything, I hear, “Brrrrrrr!”

Most of you know about Joanna’s work in the dressage world and her devotion to horses at Spiritwood Farm.  So I want to speak about a different, earlier part of her life; her childhood, family, and first career as a writer.

Joanna Ostrow was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 20, 1938, the only child of Benjamin and Dora Ostrow.  Her father, Ben, died suddenly of complications from tuberculosis when she was only two.  Joanna never knew her dad, but she was a person who had weirdly early memories.  She wrote:  “I remember my father giving me a strawberry ice-cream cone (I dropped it on him) in Monroe; and then a blank until I found myself wading in slush in the gutter in Fort Apache, the Bronx.”   After Ben’s death, Dora lost touch with the Ostrows, and Joanna grew up as part of her mother’s large, close family, the Lubins.  The Lubins were Jewish immigrants from Russia who had settled in New Jersey.   For several years, Joanna and her mother lived with her grandmother, aunts, and uncles in a fifth-floor walk-up tenement building in the South Bronx.  She had happy memories of being with her grandmother, Rosa, who looked after her during the day, and of having picnics with the whole family in nearby Crotona Park.

Her grandmother later moved to a garden apartment in Queen’s, and the family would get together for meals every Sunday.  Joanna loved this garden – she remembered a fig tree, an apricot tree, apple and pear trees, and climbing roses – and she dated her later decision to live in the country from those Sunday visits.  She always felt a strong connection to country life, in spite of her horror of spiders and coyotes, and all forms of weather.

When she was about six, Joanna moved with her mother and her much-loved Aunt Mary to an apartment in New York City, at 114 West 84th Street.  Dora worked as a free-lance fashion artist, drawing pen and ink advertisements for shoes and clothes, and Mary had a job as a secretary.  The brightly coloured oil paintings in the kitchen and front room at Spiritwood were painted by Joanna’s mother.  Like other city kids, Joanna would play on the fire escape and the roof of the tenement building.  She also loved to play in Central Park, on the swings and slides in the playground, or climb on the rocks near the West 85th Street entrance.  I think her love of Curious George, with whom she closely identified, came from memories of her childhood, most of them wicked, if she is to be believed.

Joanna walked to her public school in the neighbourhood, but later had to take the subway to get to her high school.  While she was in elementary school, her Aunt Mary would meet her at lunch time and take her home or out to a restaurant for lunch.  On Saturdays, she would go with her mother to the farmers’ market to get fresh fruit, flowers, and vegetables.  Dora and Mary lived together in the upper west side of Manhattan for the next forty years, first at West 84th Street, and then later at West 87th Street.  As she grew up, Joanna was also very close to her younger cousins, Asher and Meher Kaur.

Joanna has always loved being outdoors, and her happiest memories growing up were of her grandmother’s garden or of exploring Central Park near her apartment.  When she was ten, her mother scraped together enough money to send her to Timbertrails Camp in Vermont.  As Joanna put it, “I was extravagantly happy, cried when I had to go back to the city, realized my correct place in the world was chewing grass stems on a country road.”  After that, she went to Timbertrails every summer for the next four years.  Most importantly, Joanna first discovered horses at Timbertrails, and she learned to ride on a paint pony named Ginger.

At the age of sixteen, Joanna graduated from high school, and then did her B.A. in English at Queen’s College in the nearby borough of Queen’s.  She continued to live at home with her mom and aunt in New York, and commuted out to Queen’s to attend classes.  Perhaps most astonishingly for those of us who knew her here, Joanna also worked part-time at the big New York department store Bloomingdales, in the accessories department, demonstrating how to wear ladies’ scarves.

Early on, it became clear that Joanna was an extremely talented writer, and her professors at college encouraged her to write fiction.  In 1959, she won the prestigious Stegner Writing Fellowship to attend Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program in Palo Alto, California.  Apart from summer camp, Joanna had never been away from home before.  She was terrified when she got on the train to California.  She told me she spent the first day surviving on dried apricots because she was too frightened to go to the dining car.  Once at Stanford, Joanna met Robin MacDonald, a student from Scotland who was also in the Creative Writing class, and they were married later that year.

At Stanford, Joanna and Robin were part of a remarkable class of students.  Many of their classmates became well-known American writers in the 1970s and 1980s, including:  Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Larry McMurtry, of Lonesome Dove series; Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn.  Joanna was beautiful and smart, and the only woman in the class.  In 2002, Larry McMurty reminisced about this class in The New York Times Review of Books, and remembered her:  “Except for the lovely Joanna Ostrow, protected by her elegant Afghan dog, we were all young males.”  The dog getting a shout-out here in the New York Times was actually a saluki named Phoebe, who would later make the trek across the Atlantic to Canada and live at Spiritwood.  Ken Kesey would soon become a counterculture icon of the Sixties, infamous for his “Merry Pranksters” bus, and “electric coolaid acid test parties” (which Joanna went to!) where he slipped LSD into the drinks.

After a few years in California, Joanna moved with Robin back to Scotland.  They lived first in a cottage out in the country in East Lothian.  Joanna, always a Tolkien fan, named the cottage “Bag End.”  Then we lived in a row house in the city of Edinburgh.  Jenny and I were both born in Scotland during this period.  In 1968, we immigrated to Canada (by boat, of course, because Joanna was terrified of flying – it’s quite ironic, really, that for her final journal she will shortly be flying out to Saskatchewan with Jenny) with our Siamese cats and two Saluki dogs.  They bought an old farm near North Gower, Ontario, which Joanna named Spiritwood Farm, after a place she’d heard about in Saskatchewan.

The years in California and Scotland were a time of great creativity for Joanna, and she had a short but brilliant career as a writer.  In 1970, she published a novel about Scotland, In the Highlands Since Time Immemorial.  This book became a best-seller, and was republished as a Book of the Month Club selection.  Joanna also published short stories, including two in the prestigious The New Yorker magazine.  She got rave reviews.

I have a scrapbook of these reviews collected by my super-proud grandmother.  Here is a typical review, from the Christian Science Monitor in August 1970:  “Miss Ostrow is perhaps at her best in creating the ambience in which her people exist. … It is probably the best hunting scene in American fiction since Hemingway and Faulkner. … First novels come and go.  This one will be around for a while.”

Or another, from Time Magazine, June 1970:  “Joanna Ostrow is one of those writers who seem to have been born with every insight, every comma in place.  Her book lies far beyond such usual first-novel adjectives as ‘promising.’ A classically perfect little story, it polarizes an encounter between the frantic present and an almost still-life past.”

To give you a sense of her writing, I want to read you a paragraph from one of Joanna’s short stories.  This is entitled “Penguin,” and is about a stuffed toy I got when I was a toddler.  It was published in a Scottish women’s magazine.

“All this is everyday stuff – most children have the teddy-bear, the unspeakable old blanket.  But with us things went on from there.  I think what first shook me out of my adult indifference was the fact that Penguin had no eyes.  His face was a smooth, knitted black hood, with just a stub of yellow beak (or nose) and a dingy white throat below.  This eyelessness was not, strangely, blank:  it was inarticulate.  Perhaps I identified him with Sally because she was a baby then, inarticulate too.  But it was more than that.  Along with eyelessness went a kind of benevolence, exceedingly meek: a silent wisdom, the aura of a little saint.  I can see that small black shape, for instance, trodden face down, flat on the floor, the essence of suffering.  But when I turned him over, there would be that eyeless face, secret and wise.”

I think that passage shows exactly what Time Magazine meant about Joanna being born with “every insight, every comma in place.”

Joanna was pleased to have her work acknowledged, and she knew it was good.  But to a certain extent, I think she found all the attention overwhelming.  She hated flying, and was very traumatized by the insistence of her publisher that she attend book launch events in New York.  The Canadian press also made a fuss over her; newspaper stories, a documentary for the CBC show, Take Thirty, and invitations from prominent Canadian writers like Margaret Laurence. 

At the same time, Joanna’s divorce from Robin knocked the wind out of her, and she lost the heart to keep writing.  Although she started another novel, she never finished it, and increasingly became absorbed in her life on the farm.  When I asked her once about it, she said to me that she thought creativity could be expressed in many different ways.  Her work with horses, she believed, was just as meaningful a channel for her creativity as writing fiction. So I think of her there, at Spiritwood with her horses, dogs, and cats, walking in the cedars and roaming around the fields.  Or sitting in her chair in the kitchen, cats on the table in front her, geraniums blooming on the window sill, and everywhere, books, books, and more books.  Joanna did not see herself as a writer who stopped writing; instead she had faith that the very best part of herself was fully realized in the world she created at Spiritwood.  She was utterly original and impossible to copy.  I’ll miss her always, and feel her influence in my own life in a thousand ways.  When my girls were little, I realized you couldn’t explain why a visit to Spritiwood would be the way it was.  Instead, I would just say, “There isn’t anybody else like Granny.”  And there isn’t.”

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