Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, early feminist. Born Feb. 2, 1922, Winnipeg. Died March 13, 2012, in Cambridge, Ont., of pneumonia, aged 90.
Rita grew up outside Winnipeg, the 11th of 12 surviving children of Irish immigrants. Her parents farmed and ran a dry-goods store. She attended a country school, leaving after grade 10 to follow her sister, first to Port Arthur, Ont. (now Thunder Bay), then on to Toronto where positions had opened for women in the war industries.
There she met and married Ken McCuaig, a handsome guy working in a soup factory. But joy ended when Ken died of heart failure; Rita became a widow at 24. At Ken’s funeral she met his younger brother, Larry. They married in 1947. A job brought the growing family to Hespeler (now Cambridge, Ont.), where they settled on Puslinch Lake and their fourth child, Ken, was born.
There were four kids under 6 in a cold-water cottage, but their childhood was amazing. There was the lake to swim in in summer, to skate on in winter; country roads to roam and hordes of kids to do it with. At home Rita would share her views with her children over post-dinner cups of milky tea. And it wasn’t neighbourhood gossip. At Rita’s table you would hear about the burgeoning civil-rights movement, Russia’s Sputnik or the significance of Canada adopting its own flag.
Rita was a feminist long before its second wave hit in the sixties. In her small community she was the first woman to drive, and then to own her own car. She was the first mother to work outside the home. She campaigned door-to-door during elections.
Domestic violence was a private matter except in Rita’s home, where neighbourhood women found shelter from abuse. If a girl she knew got “in trouble,” Rita hosted a baby shower. When some of her nieces and nephews were coming to terms with their sexuality, it was Rita who offered them comfort and courage, even if their own parents couldn’t.
Rita was a practising Catholic but when her daughter Kerry thought she had a religious calling, Rita left a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the coffee table. After reading the book, Kerry’s fantasies of the nunnery disappeared. Rita stopped going to church when she felt the congregation wasn’t accommodating enough to people with disabilities.
Intolerance in any form was non-negotiable. Her kids could count on a flick across the head if they repeated a schoolyard slur. Such talk made you appear “ignorant,” and there was no greater inadequacy in Rita’s book than ignorance.
There were allowable exceptions. Anglo-Irish history left her less than fond of the English – although she made an exception for her British-born son-in-law. Declaring her Irish-Catholic loyalties, Rita would wear a green dress once a year to walk up and down the streets of Hespeler during the Orange Lodge parade.
Rita was no Madonna. She was feisty and her wit could be hard-edged. In her final years she made her home with her daughter Patricia and son-in-law Frank, who provided compassionate care even though they were often targets of her feistiness.
Living to 90 brings its share of heartbreak. She lost her precious daughter Marine to cancer last May. She outlived all her beloved siblings but one. To the next generations she leaves her common farewell: “I love you. Now go do something to make me proud.”
Kerry McCuaig is Rita’s daughter.