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Iris Doris Furgiuele: Mother. Singer. Friend. Reader. Born July 16, 1927, in Scarborough, Ont.; died June 13, 2021, in Toronto, of dementia; age 93.

Iris Doris Furgiuele.Courtesy of family

Iris lived a life that was like that of a character in one of the stories she was so fond of reading. Born an unwanted child, she was raised by loving adoptive parents, with an evil stepsister, then orphaned at 15 and turned out into a world of hard times torn apart by the Second World War. But her naturally optimistic nature and her innate honesty helped her find her way.

Iris was 15 when her mother died. She had to quit school, find work and live with her English aunties, Lily and Hettie. She found work at the University of Toronto bookstore and boarded with the Dollack family, becoming friends for life with their teenaged kids, Dorothy, Bobby, Charlotte and Malvern. They all went dancing at the Sunnyside Pavilion and that’s where Iris met Sam Furgiuele. Photographs show them both tall, slim and very taken with each other. They married in 1950, and children Nicky and Cathy came soon after.

The couple bought a house downtown and Iris would eventually become an Avon lady. In the late 1950s, Sam was struck by multiple sclerosis, which would gradually disable him despite his unflagging determination. Iris found full-time secretarial work and enjoyed being employed and useful. She welcomed her stepbrother Jim and her aunt Hettie into her home when they were in need.

Iris taught her children to sing and perform for their grandparents’ Sunday dinners. Her family sang while washing and drying the dishes, in the car on long drives to the cottage, after a glass of Baileys on Christmas morning, and after the full turkey dinner the songs continued. When Iris sang You Are My Sunshine, she’d turn to her family when she reached the line, “You’ll always know dear, how much I love you.” Sam loved the music, but his foghorn just didn’t harmonize, and he knew it.

Iris separated from Sam in 1973 at the age of 46 and remained on good terms with him and her many in-laws for the rest of her life.

She met Ed, an older, cultured man, at work and embarked on her next chapter. They shared a love of literature, theatre, music, the outdoors and wine, and lived in Thunder Bay and Kitsilano, B.C. When they split in 1978, Iris bought her own home in Toronto.

Iris was a dogged investigator of the secrets that began her life in an era when adoption records were sealed. That didn’t stop her. With the help of Parent Finders, she tracked down her birth mother, Marnie, in California and heard the sad story of betrayal and shame before Marnie succumbed to dementia. Iris became a volunteer at Parent Finders to help others discover their history.

Iris made friends because she was a good friend and dedicated correspondent. She was a favourite aunt to Ghislana, Mark and Tyler. She was an avid reader and once met her favourite authors, Michael Ondaatje and Michael Ignatieff. She loved hiking, cycling and swimming outdoors – whether it was the cold waters of Lake Ontario or Georgian Bay.

After a well-earned retirement from her last job as a legal assistant to a Bay Street litigation lawyer, she moved back to her beloved Scarborough Bluffs and became close with her neighbour Eric, who shared her love of music, literature and wine.

When Iris’s short-term memory started to go, her son brought her a dog. Iris doted on little Bella until she could no longer stay safely in the house she loved. She moved to long-term care, where she was sometimes called “Irish” for her forthright manners.

At her funeral, Iris’s loved ones sang one of her favourite songs as a final goodbye; “If happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow why, oh why can’t I?”

Nick Furgiuele and Cathy Furgiuele are Iris’s children.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide