As the decades passed following her death in 1962, Winnifred Trainor became increasingly "a person of interest" in a mystery in which, at first, her role had barely registered. Today, screenplays, musicals and works of fiction have been written about her. She's even featured in the Tragically Hip song Three Pistols as the woman who hides in the shadows as young girls come to place flowers on the original Canoe Lake grave of Tom Thomson, sweeping the flowers away once they've gone. And yet her name doesn't even appear in the well-known story of Tom Thomson's tragic death until 1969, when Ottelyn Addison, Ranger Mark Robinson's daughter, joined with Elizabeth Harwood to produce a slim volume called Tom Thomson: The Algonquin Years. Addison, accepting the identification provided to the National Gallery by Jessie Fisk, the painter's niece, printed the misidentified photograph of Winnifred Trainor in that book, and the photograph of the mystery woman - taken by Tom Thomson during his first trip north in 1912 - has been "Winnie Trainor" ever since. "Winnifred," the authors wrote, "comely elder daughter of Hugh Trainor, took a great interest in Thomson and his work. Tom visited her at Huntsville and gave her some of his sketches. One or more of these are reportedly of houses on the street in Huntsville where the Trainors lived."
There was no suggestion that there might have been more to this relationship than friendship. The authors used only a back-of-book footnote to add: "It was rumoured around Mowat Lodge in 1916-17 … that Tom Thomson and Winnifred Trainor were to be married. A letter left carelessly lying on a dresser gave some substance to this rumour."
And yet, in the four decades since this first small mention, Winnie Trainor has increasingly emerged as a character of tremendous intrigue. Dr. Sherrill Grace of the University of British Columbia, author of the 2004 study Inventing Tom Thomson, sent an e-mail to me in 2009 after I'd suggested to her that Winnie Trainor's life might represent a greater heartbreak than Tom Thomson's death. "I absolutely agree," she said, "Winnie is the real tragedy. Tom Thomson's death is a tragedy for our art, but the human pain, surely, is Winnie."
Part of the tragedy was that Winnie did not enjoy much sympathy in her lifetime. As Winnie grew older, she became known as "an opinionated woman." Joe Cookson was a local Huntsville historian whose family owned Grandview Farms on Fairy Lake, a tourist lodge where, in her later years, Winnie worked in the laundry. He wrote to me in the fall of 1976 and said, "I was acquainted with this lady, so much so that I avoided like the plague any verbal controversy with her. Anyone who dared cross her trail, especially in money matters … [was]subjected to her caustic tongue, be it ditch digger or mayor."
"Winnie was A-No. 1 as far as we were concerned," countered long-time neighbour Minnie Carson. "No one had a better character. When it came to writing letters or filing for pensions or finding out about anything, she was always there. This was the Winnie Trainor that we knew. She was very outspoken, didn't mince words and didn't bother to go behind your back. I never thought of her as being odd."
Minnie remembered her old neighbour as being capable of great charm, when she wished to show it, and as a very attractive woman when she took the time to look her best. "Winnie was a very, very good-looking girl - good-looking until she died," Minnie said.
"She could be a fine-looking woman when she wanted to be, but she just looked like a hobo most of the time," said Jean McEown, Winnie's downstairs tenant. "She'd have her socks rolled just about to her knees. But she was a good-looking woman, even when she was older. She dyed her hair as blue as the sky sometimes."
We youngsters had our own thoughts about who Winnie Trainor was, and they differed sharply from those who befriended and defended her. For months around the time of Winnie's death in the summer of 1962, a large brown squirrel had been frozen between two wires leading into the green hydro box that sat on a pole directly in front of her bedroom window. It had been zapped and mummified in a crucifixion position until, eventually, time and the elements caused the carcass to rot to a point where the animal's remains finally fell to the curb and vanished in the runoff headed for the river. Because of this bizarre coincidence, neighbourhood children considered her a bit of a witch and avoided her house.
She had been the bane of my existence when I was younger. My mother would often cringe when she looked out and saw "Miss Trainor" making her way up Lorne Street to our house a block higher along Huntsville's Reservoir Hill. She was a sight never to be forgotten: a large, dark, sullen figure moving slowly and deliberately, black hat over dark, scowling eyes, her black stockings slipping and rolling down thick legs under a dark dress, an umbrella held in one hand to deal with wandering dogs or teasing children as much as the possibility of rain. She seemed to have no smile in her, thin lips set in permanent disapproval. That darkness permeates my memory of her is no surprise, for she almost always wore black or various shades of grey and her deep-set eyes were quick, judgmental - missing nothing.
She would climb the steps and plunk herself down in the best porch chair or, in colder weather a chair in the kitchen, and spend several cups of tea complaining to my mother about everything from the altar decorations at the Anglican church they both faithfully attended to the near-criminal behaviour of certain children she had seen in the recent company of my mother's children. The visits were never relaxed.
I was terrified of Winnie myself. My friends loved to play tricks on her - nicky-nicky-nine-doors usually - and I nervously went along with whatever was proposed. Once we filled a brown-paper bag with dog excrement, doused the bag with lighter fluid, then set it on her porch, lighted the bag, pounded on her door and ran. We then dived into a bush on the far side of the street and tried to stifle our snorts and hysterical giggles as she came out in her heavy black shoes, stomped out the fire quickly realized what we had done to her. I spent that entire evening back home, waiting in dread for the phone to ring.
There was never any doubt that Winnie was watching. Once, while walking home from the Huntsville Memorial Arena, which stood on flat ground near the river - stick slung over shoulder, skates tied and hung over stick, duffel bag full of sweaty hockey equipment hanging off the stick like a hobo's belongings - I saw her hobbling in her slightly arthritic way along Centre Street. Our trajectories were in line for a confrontation, so I slowed down, the way someone on a portage might slacken their pace on sighting a bear in the distance, but she saw me and called me over.
She was smiling, her rather yellowed teeth surprising in their welcome, and she asked me if I'd just come from a game. I had. Since it was Saturday morning, the squirts on the town all-star team had been allowed to play with the peewee house league, even though we were one age level below - eight- and nine-year-olds playing up against 10-, 11- and even some 12-year-olds.
"You're doing well with your hockey," she said.
I mumbled something, surprised she would even recognize me, let alone know that I was on the travelling squirt team that was sponsored by the town doctors and went by a sports moniker you could never even imagine in later years: "The Pill Rollers."
She removed a glove, unclasped her large, black purse and fumbled about inside until she pulled free a roll of clippings from the weekly Huntsville Forester.
"You're quite the little goal scorer, aren't you," she said, unfolding the clippings in her hands so I could see they were the same weekly sports roundups I so carefully pasted into a red scrapbook each Thursday after the Forester came out. (One entire page of that scrapbook was devoted to my practising a spectacular variety of autographs that no one would ever seek.)
"Thanks," I mumbled.
"One day you'll be in the NHL," she predicted, quite inaccurately. Still, it was the nicest moment I ever recall having with her. As I remember it, she reached out and tousled my head, but surely imagination has pasted that one into the scrapbook too.
We used to "hitch" outside her home. It had nothing to do with her but everything to do with the intersection of Minerva and Centre streets. In winter, cars had to come to a full halt at the stop signs on Minerva before pulling out onto Centre and gunning the engine to make it up the steep hill heading toward the town line. In winter, this meant spinning tires, even if they had chains on, and since this was in the days before the streets were salted, a fresh snowfall would leave the backstreets smooth, hard and slippery until the sander got around to them.
My two best friends, Eric Ruby and Brent Munroe - my accomplices in the paper bag caper - would hide with me in the bushes and wait until a car slowed at the corner. Fresh snow also meant snow-covered windows, something that drivers rarely bothered to brush off apart from a large enough peephole in the windshield. We would hurry to the back of the car and crouch down, holding fast to the back bumpers. We wore mukluks (grey leather winter moccasins with no tread), and they slipped effortlessly over the smooth surface as the cars - especially those with jangling chains wrapped around the rear tires - picked up speed. We'd hitch up the hill to Florence Street and then catch rides back down on cars that had to slow for the stop signs on Florence. Halfway down the hill, we'd let go and see who could skid the farthest, sometimes covering several blocks on the long hill - three kids sitting happily back on their heels as they flew down the hill at 40 kilometres an hour or more. If another car was coming fast up the hill, the wise thing to do was bail out into the opposite snowbank.
Brent and I bailed just this way one dark evening, and when I crawled back out of the snowbank I was struck right across the side of my head by Winnie Trainor's umbrella. She'd been watching from her kitchen window and had dressed and come out to put an end to such "nonsense." She hit me once, twice, and as I crouched, continued to beat on my back with the big, black, still-furled umbrella, pausing only to whack Brent a couple of times as he dived and slid on his mukluks out of reach and quickly slipped away into the dark night. "Your mother is going to hear about this, young man!"
But I was smarter than Winnie. I raced home, in tears, and immediately confessed everything before Miss Winnifred Trainor could call, naturally blaming most of the sorry episode on Brent.
But Miss Trainor proved to be even smarter.
The phone never rang.
I have spent half a century trying to square the Winnie I knew slightly with the Winnie I could know even less - the young Winnie who fell in love with Tom Thomson and, I have to believe, with whom Tom Thomson fell in love. That the two Winnies seem so different should come as no surprise, as I myself am much different from who I was as a boy, when she died. I carry this image of her as dark, large, sharp-tongued eccentric, to be feared, yet capable of great charm and surprising humour when she chose to deploy those characteristics. I have sought out the few available photographs of her as a young woman: tall, slim of waist; perfectly erect; a smile teasing her lips; high cheekbones; soft, dark eyes that seem to challenge and welcome the world at the same time, the barely tamed dark hair.
There is no hurt yet in those eyes: These photographs were all taken before the summer of 1917. Yet in knowing what was to come, it is impossible look at the pictures of young Winnie and not feel great sadness for her.
Adapted from Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson. Copyright © 2010 Roy MacGregor. Published by Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.