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Audrey Lyons McQuaig
Audrey Lyons McQuaig

Lives Lived: Audrey Lyons McQuaig, 89 Add to ...

Underappreciated mother, wartime intelligence operator, creative travel agent. Born on June 23, 1924, in Toronto; died on Jan. 25, 2014, in Toronto, of heart failure, aged 89.

My mother always seemed to be in my father’s shadow.

My father, Jack McQuaig, was outgoing and dynamic, and largely set the tone in the family. He presided over lively debates at the dinner table in our Toronto home. And, as the decibel level rose, my mother disappeared into the background, hating the noise.

My mother was a very private person, as well as sincere, thoughtful and gracious. She was also underappreciated in the family.

Her own upbringing had left her with a strong sense of duty. Her father, Sigmund Lyons, volunteered for the Canadian Army in the First World War, serving overseas in the trenches and returning home as a lieutenant-colonel at the age of 21.

Inspired by his example, Audrey, at the age of 18, dropped out of University of Toronto during the Second World War to serve in the Canadian Navy, as part of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service – the Wrens. Working in operational intelligence in Ottawa, she monitored radio transmissions from German submarines to help plot their movements in the North Atlantic, and transmit warning signals to Canadian and Allied convoys.

This was clearly a useful contribution to the war effort, but my mother was modest and didn’t talk much about it. (I only learned the details recently from Athol Hughes, her lifelong friend and sister Wren, who now lives in Britain.)

So while my father might have been good at debates at the family dinner table, my mother was apparently good at tracking down Nazis in the North Atlantic.

After the war, my mother earned a master’s degree in child psychology at the University of Toronto, married my father and had five children – Peter, Don, John, Wendy and me.

She worked very hard to raise us, with little help. Typically, after a day of child care, cleaning and cooking, she would settle into an evening of sewing and ironing. Recently, I was trying to recall what all that ironing was about, when it hit me – much of it was for me! She was often ironing shirts that were part of my school uniform.

Eventually, my school introduced a ready-to-wear shirt that involved no ironing. This should have spared my mother a lot of trouble. But I preferred the crisp, starched feeling of a cotton shirt. So, without the slightest complaint, my mother just kept quietly ironing to provide me with a fresh cotton shirt each day. Oddly, it never occurred to either of us that I could have ironed my own shirts. Worse, it never occurred to me to thank her for all that ironing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, she wasn’t very happy as a housewife.

She loved travelling and eventually became a travel agent. No vacation was too small to garner her full attention. If I asked her to book me an overnight trip to Sudbury, the next day I would receive a detailed itinerary, complete with a list of the 10 best restaurants in Sudbury.

According to family lore, my mother was a detail person, while my father was focused on the big picture. But now that she’s gone, I have come to appreciate a lot about her, including the importance of paying attention to detail.

After all, my father would have figured out that there were German submarines in the North Atlantic, but my mother would have figured out exactly where they were.

Linda McQuaig is Audrey’s daughter.

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