Elegant, intimidating, a great beauty and an opinionated broad. Born on Jan. 22, 1925, in Treherne, Man.; died on Jan. 7, 2014, in Winnipeg, of a brain hemorrhage, aged 88.
Thelma Clark was born on a prairie farm, the eldest of five children. She left home in her teens and worked at Eaton’s mail order in Winnipeg, where she learned to wrap packages within an inch of their life. In 1949, at the age of 24, she graduated in a class of nine from the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital School of Nursing.
In her first nursing job, at what was then the Brandon Mental Hospital, she met a dashing medical student, Bernie Fast. She followed him to Vancouver where he completed a residency program and she worked at Vancouver General Hospital. At the end of his residency Thelma casually announced that she and a friend were heading off to work in Scotland. She later admitted she did this to “focus Bernie’s thinking,” and he promptly proposed. They married in 1953 and lived in Montreal, London, England, Edmonton and Boston before settling in Winnipeg.
After bearing four children (Catherine, Arthur, Carol and Frances) in seven years, Thelma busied herself in the home while Bernie worked as an internal medicine specialist and taught medicine at the University of Manitoba. Motherhood and domesticity were not an easy fit for her. She preferred a good novel and a cup of tea to cooking and cleaning. Her parenting style could best be described as benign neglect – keep them fed and watered and out of traffic, and hope for the best.
She encouraged independence. She sent my brother by himself to the store to buy bread at age four, and routinely put us on the bus alone to visit her parents in rural Manitoba. She allowed me to live by myself in an apartment for several months at age 14. She did not regard our self-esteem as her responsibility; we learned early on we were the authors of our own life stories. She came to grandmotherhood more enthusiastically and adored all seven children and two “steps.”
Thelma was probably born a generation or two too early, but exercised her natural leadership skills as the first woman to serve as board chair of St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church, among a number of other roles previously held only by men. A great believer in hats and gloves, she would head out suitably dressed, armed with Robert’s Rules of Order and skills acquired in Toastmistress. She took pride in running an efficient meeting.
She had an opinion about almost everything, from South Africa to recycling, to the speed at which other people ate (far too quickly). She embraced stillness and was disdainful of people who engaged in unnecessary physical exertion. She followed the philosophy that a tidy home is a sign of a wasted life. “Occasionally I look around and think I should clean up, so I just sit quietly until the feeling passes,” was one of her many famous “Thelmaisms.”
Married for more than 50 years, she cared diligently for our father as he succumbed to dementia and Parkinson’s, visiting the nursing home daily to feed him lunch and dinner. When he died in 2006, she relished her freedom and independence, enjoying the view from the window of her condo and, in the final few years, her assisted living facility.
On her last day she was well in the morning, had a massive stroke in the afternoon, and died peacefully that evening. It was exactly how she would have wanted it – no fuss, no muss, no bother.
Catherine Fast is Thelma’s daughter.