Wife. Mother. Nana. Force of nature. Born June 27, 1941, in Toronto; died Dec. 31, 2016, in Toronto, of cancer; aged 75.
In an amusing twist of irony, Penny Lawson, a respected addictions therapist and counsellor, was a big fan of Keith Richards. Never mind that the Rolling Stones guitarist is the universal symbol for rock ’n’ roll excess – Penny loved his cheerfully strung-out persona and would laugh as she recalled how, at a concert she’d attended, Richards had warned the audience that if he toppled over he might not get up again.
Maybe he reminded her of the fun side to getting high – for Penny had been hooked on booze and pills herself long ago. It was a testament to her strength, empathy and innate joie de vivre that she not only beat her addictions, but went on to help hundreds of other addicts, while retaining a sparkling enthusiasm – a natural high – that never failed to impress her family, friends and colleagues.
Penny was the second child and only daughter of Elizabeth and Gordon Peace. She grew up in Toronto’s West End and attended Havergal College. A brief marriage in her early 20s took her to London, England, where she remained after the breakup, working at a financial firm in the city. She would later fondly recall living in the Swinging London of the 1960s, when she modelled her look after Emma Peel of The Avengers TV series, right down to the black-leather catsuit.
Back in Toronto, Penny landed a job at Dominion Securities and a husband in dashing stockbroker Hugh Lawson, a friend of her big brother Don. The couple were married in 1969 and two children followed: Rosemary, born in 1969, and Andrea, in 1971. The early years were happy, but soon alcohol and drugs took their toll. Penny left the marriage, sought recovery and began to rebuild her life with a new purpose. Motivated by her successful treatment at the Donwood Institute, she was determined to do the same for others, earning a diploma in addictions studies at George Brown College and eventually becoming part of the team that created Bellwood Health Services, the dream project of Donwood founder Dr. Gordon Bell.
Along the way, Penny found her true soulmate in fellow therapist Dennis James. They became a couple in 1982 and were officially married in 1985. At Bellwood, Penny designed and implemented a family program, then later became a specialist in the new field of sex addiction. A tireless traveller, she also helped bring addictions counselling to remote indigenous communities in northern Alberta and Nunavut.
Penny played as hard as she worked. She loved to host dinner parties, cultivate her gorgeous backyard garden, read voraciously and, in her later years, spoil rotten her much-adored granddaughter, Phoebe. A firm believer in living life to the fullest, she was compulsively generous with her money, her time and her wisdom. She and Dennis kept a home that was always filled with warmth, high spirits, intense conversations, many laughs and oodles of love.
Penny’s formidable strength was put to the test in recent years by various health problems, but they failed to slow her down. In early 2016, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she battled it with her customary resilience and good humour. She has left a huge void in the lives of those she loved and who loved her – Dennis, Andrea, Phoebe, her nieces Liz and Tori, stepson Nick and the rest of us who remain forever grateful to have known such a remarkable and inspiring woman.
Martin Morrow is Penny’s son-in-law.
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