Mother, seamstress, crossword whiz. Born on Jan. 26, 1928, in St. John’s; died on March 5, 2014, in St. John’s, following a stroke, aged 86.
“Is my fur showing?” On the wintry day of her 83rd birthday, Tess was wrapped in a new fur-lined cape as she left the Hotel Newfoundland after lunch. Onlookers would see a woman in a wheelchair, with paralysis on her left side. But the ever-stylish Tess, with her cape artfully draped around her, did not define herself in those terms.
She was born Theresa Margaret Connors, the seventh of nine children of Patrick and Isabelle Connors. She grew up in St. John’s during the Great Depression and the turbulence of the Second World War. By age 17, she had lost two family members to war, leaving three nephews fatherless. By her 19th birthday, her beloved sister Monica was dead of tuberculosis. These events instilled in Tess a lifelong tendency to draw a tight circle around those she loved, to be vigilant against possible danger.
Vivacious, smart and pretty, she became known as “Tess” in her late teens at the Catholic Youth Club where she met Max Martin, the youngest of four entrepreneurial brothers. They married in August, 1950, and over the next decade they had five children: Anne, Paul, Susan, Greg and Jennifer.
Tess was happiest when the house was full of kids, and she enthusiastically welcomed our friends. One way of expressing her love was through sewing: clothes for us all for special trips such as Expo 67, costumes for school concerts and dances, graduation gowns, nightgowns, sleepwear. New pyjamas from Nana became a Christmas tradition for her four grandchildren.
Tess described herself as “a scaredy cat” in comparison to Max’s confident self-assurance, but together they had a great sense of adventure – driving to New York in the 1950s, a decade before the paved highway across Newfoundland was completed; camping around the province with the kids (and towing the island’s first camper trailer); clearing the land and building a family cabin at Salmonier.
She could be fiercely determined. In the 1960s, she took up yoga, to minimize the effect of a limp resulting from the birth of her first child. During our teenage years, it was quite common to find her in the living room corner doing a shoulder or head stand. She took adult education classes to gain credits toward the high school diploma that the war had deprived her of.
She chafed under the physical limitations of a stroke at age 71. “I miss me around here,” she lamented, surveying the garden or bemoaning the sewing or baking not done. But she remained a voracious reader, a lover of poetry and history, and her mind was sharp as a tack until the day before her final illness, when she finished the crossword “jumble” in her typical quick speed.
Max adored her. During their 57-year marriage, a defining phrase of his was, “Whatever you want, doll.” In their last decade together before his death in 2008, they were inseparable, companionably sitting side by side on the sofa as he turned the pages of her newspaper or brought her cups of tea. Among her last words were, “I want to be with Max.” And now she is.
Anne Martin-Matthews is the eldest daughter of Tess and Max.