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Lives Lived: Mary Estella Myrtle Howey, 78 Add to ...

Sister, aunt, friend, caregiver, spinster. Born July 25, 1934, near Beamsville, Ont., died Feb. 18, 2013, London, Ont., of leukemia, aged 78.

Born when her mother was 45 (her 62-year-old father would die the following year), Myrtle grew up among siblings noted for their extroverted accomplishments – her sister Joyce a highly valued employee of the CIBC, her brother Raymond a colonel in the RCAF, and her brother Melville a distinguished journalist with the London Free Press. Myrtle was equally gifted, but shy. School and social life were painful for her, and after Grade 11 she took odd jobs to help her mother with household expenses.

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Fettered by a first name horribly out of fashion in the 1950s, she opened a hair salon and styled herself Estella. Her clients were mostly older ladies, some in their coffins, and she eventually turned to secretarial work. But when her mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, Estella stayed home and looked after her until she died.

With much to give from that experience, she enrolled at a community college to qualify for work in a seniors home, but was denied a diploma because she lacked self-confidence.

But weakness can mask strength, and the shyness that made life difficult for Estella gave her a life of extraordinary richness. What other people might put into their work, she poured into a detailed exploration of her own interests. Her enthusiasms were eclectic: Canadian first editions, penguin figurines, the stars in the night sky, new inventions, hybrid seeds for the garden.

She went to live with her sister in London, where she was surrounded by an extended family of nieces and nephews. She had an almost magical ability to connect with children. Her insatiable curiosity about the world put her ahead of her time and redefined the term spinster-aunt. She gave the children The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to read before they became mainstream. She complained about light pollution before the media picked it up. She had carefully researched reasons, often environmental ones, for investing in a particular stocks.

She was unfailingly generous. At garage sales and church auctions, she made purchases to give away. She could not eat raspberries but grew an ever-expanding berry patch and took them in pints to all the neighbours.

From shy and retiring she blossomed into the life of her sister’s parties. She could pick up any instrument and make music, lead a bell choir at seniors residences, and had an amazing sense of humour. Her way of relating an anecdote was unpredictable, and the listener would wind up some place very unexpected. She made one think of Emily Dickinson, who wrote: “Tell all the truth,/But tell it slant/Success in circuit lies.”

Hers was an unassuming but sharp-edged presence. When dying, she was surrounded day and night by those who loved her and felt achingly that something particularly rich and textured was being taken from their lives. It was hard for the family to accept that an auntie so full of remarkable life had left them.

Mauralea Austin is Estella’s niece. Mary-Ann and David Stouck are Estella’s cousins.

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