Gwendoline Pah: Mother. Veteran. Best friend. Adventurer. Born Oct. 26, 1924, in Montreal; died Jan. 11, 2021, in Montreal, from COVID-19 pneumonia; aged 96.
If it sounded fun and interesting, Gwen was up for it. Life was an adventure and she always found a reason to laugh and be grateful – even in calamity. In Gwen’s world, there was always tomorrow to look forward to.
At 17, Gwen Gibbs joined the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division. In 1942, she worked at Uplands Air Force base. New pilots took Gwen on plane rides showing off with barrel rolls and nose dives over Ottawa’s landscape. As a member of the Air Force Women’s basketball team and a jitterbug champ, Gwen’s Second World War stories were full of fun. She was lucky and never forgot that, nor her cousins in the Black Watch Regiment who never came home.
Years later, Gwen marched in veterans parades in Ottawa and helped organize the 60th RCAF-WD reunion in Montreal. Meeting the ultimate Canadian airwoman Roberta Bondar was a highlight in her life.
After the war, Gwen met Bill Pah on a blind date. Bill claimed to be the better dancer (he wasn’t), but he also loved to ski and hike and introduced Gwen to canoeing. He was the man for her and they married in 1950. White-water canoeing became their summer passion; they often ran the Lachine rapids, although, if it got too wild Gwen would lie down flat in the canoe and not look.
The couple settled in Montreal and welcomed Jennifer and Graham a few years later. As a mother, Gwen’s advice was always carefully given to allow you to reason it out for yourself. She believed everyone deserves a second, third and even a fourth chance. But when Gwen’s limit was reached there was no way to win her back.
She was quick to take charge of a situation. Once, she jumped on her son’s banana-seat bicycle to chase down a thief. “Call the police!” she yelled as she tore off in hot pursuit. In her mid-70s, a pickpocket lifted Gwen’s wallet in New York. She gave chase. Thankfully, the police kept pace as Gwen caught up with the pickpocket. She even made the New York Daily News: “Lachine woman apprehends pickpocket and retrieves wallet.”
When Bill broke his leg skiing in 1963, Gwen’s single year of driving experience was put to the test. She learned to battle Montreal traffic (and Bill’s backseat driving) to get him to and from the office. This helped Gwen develop driving nerves of steel, which came in handy a few years later on a trip with her daughter when she learned how to drive a stick shift in the mountains near Chamonix, France. They subdued the Alps together: When Gwen yelled “Go!” she released the clutch and gunned the gas, while Jennifer worked the handbrake.
When she retired from her job at Bell Canada, Gwen travelled but also took up tap dancing, something she had always wanted to do. She became a serious quilter and loved volunteering at the veterans’ hospital.
As a grandmother, Gwen was still up for an adventure. In her 80s, she showed off her hoops skills to her grandson and his friends, who were suitably impressed. She also went parasailing in the Caribbean (after her daughter chickened out) and loved snorkelling.
When Bill died in 2019, Gwen missed him badly; they had been married for almost 70 years. They were the yin and yang of each other lives.
Earlier this year, as the diagnosis of COVID-19 sunk in, Gwen insisted her family accept whatever happened. She said she’d had a wonderful life. Even when the infection progressed, she remained positive. Through video calls with her grandchildren and family, she wanted them to know she was okay behind the oxygen mask.
Gwen was the co-conspirator in many of her family’s adventures; she was always in their corner, and there were still adventures to be had.
Jennifer Pah is Gwen’s daughter.
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