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The skull removed from Tom Thomson's Canoe Lake grave in 1956. (Courtesy of the Statten family)
The skull removed from Tom Thomson's Canoe Lake grave in 1956. (Courtesy of the Statten family)

Focus

A break in the mysterious case of Tom Thomson, Canada's Van Gogh Add to ...

DEEP CONNECTIONS

It was impossible to grow up in such an atmosphere and not fall under the spell of such a tale. The connections went deeper than passing daily under a large print of Thomson's Northern River that had been hung in the Huntsville Public School hallway as prominently as the photograph of a young Queen Elizabeth II.

Jimmy Stringer and his multiple siblings were close to my mother's family, the McCormicks. She had been born in the park and married a park logger; her father had been chief ranger. Chief Ranger Tom McCormick's brother, Roy, had married Marie Trainor, the only sister of Thomson's fiancée, Miss Trainor.

I knew her only in her elderly years. The neighbourhood children called her a "witch" and played nicky nicky nine doors on her. We once filled a grocery bag with dog dung, lit it and hid giggling in nearby bushes while she came out to stomp out the fire.

In winter, in the years before salted roads, we used to "hitch" rides on car bumpers by sliding along behind them as the vehicles pulled away from her corner and headed up the hill, tire chains jingling and growling. She caught me one evening and lambasted me with both umbrella and threat: " Your mother is going to hear about this, young man!"

I was smarter than she was, though, I thought. I raced home in tears, immediately confessing everything and blaming most of the sorry episode on my friends.

But Miss Trainor proved to be even smarter: The telephone never rang.

She rented out the bottom floor of her brown clapboard house on the proviso that no paint be applied to the living room, a work Tom Thomson never signed. When she grew too old and stout to stoop, she gave a discount to one renter who agreed to trim her toenails each month.

As a youngster in 1963, I helped the cousin who inherited her estate to clear out the house in town and her cottage at Canoe Lake. She had been a hoarder, with newspapers and magazines piled around paths that twisted like rabbit runs. Though she owned a dozen or more original Tom Thomson sketches - usually kept wrapped in newspaper and stashed in a six-quart basket - she had refused herself the luxury of running hot water.

I have spent half a century trying to square the Winnie I knew with the Winnie in the few photographs taken of her as a young woman. The pictures show her tall and square-shouldered, slim of waist, with a lovely, round face, eyes hinting at mischief and unruly hair that couldn't be held down with tent pegs. She seems so full of life, with no hint of the sadness to come.

Almost nothing has ever been said before about her role in the great mystery of Tom Thomson. Her name did not even appear in the first biographies, though over time it would be speculated that she played a role in his fate by demanding he live up to a promise of marriage - a commitment that some believe involved an unexpected pregnancy.

Winnie Trainor was a silent presence at the forlorn backwoods funeral held at Canoe Lake.

The coroner, who arrived after the burial, held a quick inquest without even seeing the body, and concluded that the death was by drowning.

It was Winnie who informed the Thomson family about the hasty burial and Winnie who acted as the Thomsons' intermediary in getting the body exhumed and taken to Leith, where a coffin was buried on July 21, 1917 - supposedly after witnesses, including Tom's father, had checked inside.

All her life, Winnie insisted that the undertaker had done as she had instructed and that Tom was at rest where his family wished.

When romance-struck Canoe Lake campers placed wildflowers where they thought he had been buried, she would travel up the twisting path from her cottage and clear away the ground.

Unknown and unrecognized as part of the Tom Thomson legend in her lifetime, she would be astonished to know that today she features in a song by the Tragically Hip, the "bride of the northern woods" who "waits in the shadows 'til after dark/ To sweep them all away."

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