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facts & arguments

Audrey MacDonald

Adventurer, wife, mother. Born on May 29, 1915, in Ottawa; died on May 9, 2015, in Ottawa, of natural causes, aged 99.

When my son Jonathan was about 6, my older cousin, Bill Rowley, dropped by our home for an afternoon visit. The subject of discussion between them that day was a memory of Bill's from his boyhood: the feeding of toast triangles with marmalade to a baby rhinoceros. Such a tale would strain credulity had not Bill's mother been Audrey MacDonald (née Fellowes), the wife of British diplomat Malcolm MacDonald, then governor of Kenya.

Born and raised in Ottawa, Auntie Audrey (she was the older sister of my mother, Elizabeth Nichol, and of Barbara Ross) was someone who could not only engineer such an exotic encounter with ease, but also instill a capacity for enchantment that Bill, as raconteur, demonstrated so brilliantly to my son. People live on in the intonations of their descendants, in this case a kind of sublime gaiety that has been transmitted through the bloodlines as surely as her DNA. By this measure, Auntie Audrey may well prove to be immortal. Feeding toast triangles to a baby rhinoceros? Absolutely.

There were other stories. Rented houseboats on Nagin Lake, in Kashmir province, during the years of Malcolm's posting to India; dining with sultans in Singapore; visiting naturalist Joy Adamson at her bush camp in Kenya (where Audrey was photographed, Hepburnesque, holding a lion cub); and paying her final, affectionate respects at Jawaharlal Nehru's bedside in his dying days in New Delhi.

Everywhere, she took a kind of luxuriant pleasure in life, a pleasure seemingly made keener by the losses she had known. The years spent in young motherhood and war work (she drove Red Cross supply trucks in England) while her first husband, John Rowley, fought across the channel in the Second World War, were among her happiest – until he was killed in the crossing of the Rhine in the final weeks of the conflict, an event that changed her life indelibly. A few years ago I asked her if she still found it painful to remember that brief and passionate marriage. She gave me a pitying look. "Why would I think about it that way?" she replied. "I was so lucky to have had that. Some women never do."

Auntie Audrey had two children by John Rowley during those war years, Bill and Jane, and a third, Fiona, with Malcolm. They, in turn, produced six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. With her affirmative, forward-facing attitude, Audrey set a standard for them and everyone else who knew her.

Taking up French in her mid-80s, she was always up for a chance to parlez-vous (as she would say), even if that opportunity came in the back of an ambulance with a young French-Canadian attendant. "The doctors there were terribly attractive," she would exult after her hospitalizations, "and I was able to practice my French!" Once moved from her Ottawa apartment to the Rockcliffe Retirement Residence, in her 90s, she inquired if they had considered highland dancing as a possible recreational offering. (Not enough takers.)

Pleasure – the taking of it, the valuing of it, the savouring of it. A fresh vase of flowers. A sticky slice of ginger cake. An ice-cold gin and tonic. "Heaven," she would say, purring with contentment after that first sip. "Pure heaven."

Sarah Milroy is Audrey's niece.