Mildred Renzetti: Storyteller. Matriarch. Nurse. Bon vivant. Born Feb. 12, 1931, in Toronto; died Jan. 13, 2020, in Toronto, of pneumonia; aged 88.
You never knew, eavesdropping on Mildred’s stories, what you might hear, but it was guaranteed to be good. She might be telling one of her eight beloved grandchildren what a human brain actually looked like (“a bag of grey sausages”). Or it might be the story of how she hand-pumped a woman in an iron lung during Hurricane Hazel, when she was a student nurse. She might be telling a story about riding a camel in Tunisia, or how the Holy Spirit had reminded her to buy butter. She contained multitudes, and all of them were entertaining.
There were stories that sprang from happiness (work, family, travel). The unhappiness in her life, including a troubled marriage, she buried deeply. The daughter of a homemaker and a mine accountant, she was raised in mining communities and towns across Ontario and Quebec. The stories she told of her early life in remote areas – seeing bears on the train tracks as she walked to school, waking to a thermometer that had frozen solid – enthralled her children and grandchildren.
In 1956, Mildred graduated from nursing school at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where she learned from the nuns both life-saving skills and precisely how many sheets of newspaper to put on a boy’s lap if she was required to sit on it during a car ride home. For the next 30 years she worked in many departments at St. Mike’s, forging affectionate relationships with the patients she cared for, and the doctors whose tee times she booked. She loved the human connection provided by nursing, although the job could be exhausting, demeaning (a senior doctor demanded the nurses shave his back) and dangerous (on one shift, a prisoner hurled glass IV bottles at her as she ducked under a table).
Mildred left her marriage after more than 20 years, and this is, in many ways, when her life really began. She discovered a taste for red lipstick that she maintained until her last days, and an even stronger love for travelling that took her around the globe, often with her brother Joe. A devout Catholic who believed she got three wishes for every new church she visited, she also had a secular devotion to news and current affairs, and considered CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and Christiane Amanpour to be living oracles. She adored her grandchildren, reading, old movies, music, discussing politics and drinking large tumblers of white wine, not necessarily in that order. She was almost always the last person to leave a party.
Some of the sadness in her life she was able to overcome through sheer determination, but some, such as the death of her son Steven in 2017, she could not. Her spark never fully returned after that. Until the end, though, she had maintained a gift for friendship, whether it was with the nursing-school friends she’d had for 60 years or the young people who gravitated to her stories at social events.
Her most enduring gift was for kindness and generosity. Mildred was incapable of saying a negative word about anyone, except Donald Trump. At the end, in the intensive care unit at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, pneumonia had robbed her of her voice and so her family gathered around and told old stories, but never quite as well as she did.
Elizabeth Renzetti is Mildred’s daughter.
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