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obituary

Mary Raymont, who died on Feb. 13, was predeceased by her husband, infant son John and daughter-in-law Lindalee Tracey.MICHELLE VALBERG

In her long life, Mary Ward Raymont, survived one pandemic – the Spanish flu – and died quietly of heart failure in her own bed, shortly after her 104th birthday, as a second one, COVID-19, raged a century later. Her earliest memory, as a tiny child in her crib, was hearing one of her aunts saying, “her fever is breaking.” She lived through two world wars, witnessed stunning innovations – trans-Atlantic passenger planes, the moon landing, the internet – and saw huge political and social movements, such as the rise and fall of the Soviet empire, first- and second-wave feminism, the decline of colonialism, the beginnings of progress toward gender and racial equality, and reconciliation efforts with Indigenous peoples.

As a cherished child of privilege, the daughter of industrialist Sir Ashley Skelton Ward and his wife, Hilda Lewis Ward, she grew up in Sheffield, England, on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, in a close family that included her younger brother, Philip, and her mother’s sisters, a quintet of accomplished, ambitious women from Cardiff, who were known as “the Welsh aunts.”

What she didn’t know, as she wandered the family gardens, trained as an equestrian, practised the piano and took voice lessons, was the true story of her birth. In fact, she was born in London, on Jan. 17, 1917, to Sarah (Sadie) Jackson, an unmarried nurse from Southern Ontario. Ms. Jackson, who was serving as a nurse in France during the First World War, was sent back across the Channel to England when she was heavily pregnant. Some months after giving birth and placing her baby for adoption, Ms. Jackson arranged passage back to Canada where she subsequently married a clergyman and had three more children.

“I feel even more Canadian now,” Ms. Raymont told her family decades later, after learning her birth mother’s nationality.

Ms. Raymont had only discovered in 1939 that she and her brother had been adopted as infants from different families. She was 22 and living in London when she wrote to the man she knew as her father and asked for her birth certificate. She needed it to apply to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the same branch of the military in which then-princess Elizabeth served during the Second World War.

Near the end of her life, Ms. Raymont said that it had come as “a shock” to learn she and her brother were not biologically related to each other or to their beloved parents. “It was terrible not to have known.”

Her story, including her military service, her wedding to a Canadian army officer, who was her adoptive mother’s nephew, and her subsequent arrival in Canada as a war bride with a small child, is a romantic tale of secrets, coincidences and family connections.

A few years ago, Ms. Raymont’s son Peter, a documentary filmmaker, made a 35-minute video to celebrate her 101st birthday. As it opens, we see her sitting in her retirement home with a picture of her late husband in uniform on a table beside her. Her face is lined, her thick, wavy hair is grey, but her memory is richly detailed, and she is bright of eye and clear of mind. She has a knowing look and a mood of nuanced indulgence as her son prompts her to reminisce for the camera by leafing through books of family pictures, many of which she had taken as a talented amateur photographer. After living in Canada for more than 70 years, her voice has barely a trace of an English accent.

Following the English custom for upper-middle-class families, she and her brother were sent to boarding school. Families who could afford it sent their children south, she explains in the video, so they wouldn’t grow up sounding as though they hailed from Yorkshire. After St. John’s School in Sussex, she spent a year studying in Neuchatel, Switzerland, followed by sojourns in Paris and South America.

There’s a photograph of her in a cashmere sweater and pearls taken by Dorothy Wilding, a society photographer best remembered for her portrait of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth. Mary Ward, as she was then known, appears as a serious young woman on the cusp of adulthood, while another Wilding photograph, taken only a few years later, shows her in military uniform. Together, the photographs indicate how much and how quickly her world had changed.

During the war, she served as a chauffeur in the south of England, driving senior military personnel from one location to another, often during blackout, and learning, among other skills, how to repair motorcycles in the dark. Clearly capable, she was sent to Edinburgh in 1942 on an officer training course and ended up “one pip below a captain,” in the women’s division, with six women reporting to her.

She also renewed a childhood friendship with Robert (Rob) Lewis Raymont, the third son of her mother’s favourite sister, the former Gwendoline Lewis. Rob, who was nine years older than Ms. Raymont, had immigrated to Canada in 1929 seeking adventure, which he found working on a ranch in Alberta, owned by his mother’s sister Maude.

After war was declared, he enlisted in a Canadian regiment and was sent back to England to run a training organization for the Canadian Army in Aldershot, Hampshire, near where Ms. Raymont was stationed in Reading. Romance blossomed, and the young couple married on Feb. 7, 1944. They settled in Putney.

Unlike many her age, including the future Queen and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, Ms. Raymont didn’t join the revellers in the streets of the capital to celebrate victory in Europe on May 8, 1945.

Instead, as she observed in the video, “a lot of people wondered what they were going to do,” after the danger and responsibility of important jobs in the war effort ended. That was as close as she came to speculating publicly on career opportunities other than wife and mother.

The Raymonts’ first child, Elizabeth (Liz), was born in November, 1946. Two years later, the family sailed on the Empress of France to Canada and settled in Ottawa. Their second child, Peter, was born in 1950. Three years after that, the Raymonts had a third child, who died shortly after birth. Their fourth and final child, David, was born in 1955.

A stalwart member of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, Ms. Raymont was known for her work supporting secondary education in the North, and a pillar of her local Anglican church, St. Bartholomew’s, where, among other activities, she worked for more than 70 years on its annual bazaar. Meanwhile, her husband rose to the rank of colonel. He served as executive staff officer to four consecutive chiefs of defence staff from 1951 to 1972, and later wrote governmental defence policy histories.

Although Ms. Raymont loved walking and family holidays at the seashore in Maine, she wasn’t a traveller. She never went to see where her husband lived as a young man and she returned to England only twice after settling in Canada. Instead, she put her family first, always supporting and protecting them, which is why her children like to remember her as their “umbrella in the sky.”

Ms. Raymont, who died on Feb. 13, was predeceased by her husband, infant son John and daughter-in-law Lindalee Tracey. She leaves her three other children, their partners and two grandsons.

Editor’s note: The Raymonts’ first child, Elizabeth (Liz), was born in November, 1946, not 1947, as was stated previously. This version has been corrected.