Mother, grandmother, activist, funny lady. Born Dec. 8, 1929, in Windsor, Ont., died Dec. 22, 2011, in Montreal of natural causes, aged 82.
As a child, Gracie, with her red plaited hair, was the spit of Anne of Green Gables and a complete chatterbox.
Born in Windsor in 1929 to Irish-descended parents, Nora and Jack Keenan, she had two siblings: Catherine, who entered the convent, and John, an artist and customs officer.
Grace fled Windsor as soon as she could. She got her first job as a librarian in London, Ont. There, she crashed a party thrown by a young psychiatrist, Raymond Prince, who ran a rooming house full of painters, musicians, other psychiatrists and eccentrics.
The party was to unveil Persephone, a nude Ray had modelled in clay of his then-girlfriend. This was the fifties and, unaware he intended it for public display, she’d given him the ultimatum: “It’s the sculpture or me.”
So Ray was single again, and Mum seized her chance.
Married for 20 years, they travelled to Nigeria (where two of her children were born) and Jamaica, finally settling in Montreal. Gracie didn’t like travelling, tropical climates or eating weird things. She preferred home, and they had seven children.
There was always a pot of tea on our table and friends would gather to chat, Mum doling out pearls of wisdom like, “Why bother putting the vacuum away when you’ll just have to take it out again.”
We always had a houseful of critters and also helped raise orphaned baby wild animals (an SPCA program). Mum was happy to share her kitchen with Sweetheart squirrel and Rackety Coon Child. We kids were less thrilled with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – our skunks.
We had some great parties, featuring Gracie as teetotalling bartender, with punks, skinheads, hippies dancing under the disco ball. Inevitably the doorbell rang with police requesting that we lower the music.
Grace later became the Marianopolis College reference librarian. Students loved her unorthodox ways, and once, after smoking indoors became prohibited, she climbed onto the roof of the college and lit up, ignoring cries of, “You’ll break your neck in those rubber flip flops!”
Mum was an NDPer and we always marched in demonstrations: anti-pornography, pro-Cesar Chavez, anti-racism. Even last year, braving icy conditions, my 81-year-old mother hobbled with her walker, amid cheers, into the polling station to vote.
She opened our doors to many refugees, including a Laotian family who lived two years with us, and two Vietnamese boys who become family.
After retiring, when not playing bridge or going to garage sales, Gracie wrote articles for newspapers and did broadcasting for CBC Radio. Her finest accomplishment was to edit and publish her great-uncle John Teahan’s First World War diaries.
Grace was frail during her last years. So we got her a flat-mate. On the night she woke up unwell, he called 911. The paramedics loaded an ancient Gracie, grey and still, onto the gurney. Turning to the young, strapping, black roommate, Zack, they asked if he were a relative.
Gracie’s eyes snapped open and she said, “He lives with me! He's my man.”
Grace was funny to the end.
Susannah Prince is Grace’s daughter.
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