Wife, mother, grandmother, adventurer. Born on Aug. 31, 1921, in Bath, England; died on April 7, 2016, in Ottawa, of natural causes, aged 94.
If anyone ever saw the glass as more than half full, it was my grandmother. Born a few years after the end of the First World War, Sheila Williams and her younger sister, Grace, grew up poor but loved in Fishponds, near Bristol. Although Sheila excelled in math and was encouraged to go to university, she finished high school at 16 and went to work to help support her family.
She enjoyed sports and when she was 17 she met Douglas Wren while swimming with friends. They were smitten with each other, and married in 1942 once he had finished his pilot training with the Royal Air Force. Within eight weeks, Sheila found herself pregnant, and Douglas had been badly injured when his plane was attacked while returning to England from a bombing raid in France. He didn’t fly in combat again; by war’s end he was training other pilots.
Sheila’s tales of living through the war sounded like an adventure. What could be more glamorous than performing your duties taking telephone damage reports from air raid wardens, with your hair in curlers under a tin hat? She knitted, gardened, baked bread, made jam. During the war, and the period immediately after, she quickly made a home out of each place they lived with their two daughters, Janice and Diana.
Douglas earned a degree in architecture in 1950 and a few years later was offered a job with Canada’s Department of Public Works. In 1956, Sheila and the girls joined him in Ottawa, where they started a new life. Sheila found administrative work and sold insurance door-to-door, while Douglas eventually became a lecturer at Carleton University.
In 1970, the two of them went to Quebec City, where Douglas was interviewed at Laval University. Meeting up later, he said he thought it had gone well, and asked what she had been up to: Sheila had optimistically bought their first house. He got the position, as a professor of architecture, and Sheila became immersed in her new community. She took French lessons, joined a badminton group, and donated her time and money to good causes.
After the struggles of war and their early years in Canada, she and Douglas were thrilled in later life to be able to travel to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Russia. They were equally happy to share money with family and friends; it was never lent, but given freely, with love. Sheila’s grandchildren were frequent visitors to Quebec City, where they were special recipients of Nana’s time and affection – swimming, baking, learning to knit and sew, and playing gin rummy. When they went out to lunch, they were reminded, “Have whatever you’d like – money’s no object,” which quickly became abbreviated to “M’s no O.”
Douglas died in 2009, knocking the wind out of Sheila’s sails. Although she struggled with dementia, family visitors were always welcomed with, “Darling, I knew something wonderful was going to happen today!” Accepting a kiss from a 20-year-old great-grandson, she giggled and said, “It’s been ages since I’ve been kissed by a man with stubble.”
Her graveside funeral service was interrupted by a cow mooing loudly from a neighbouring field, which would have amused her greatly. At the lunch afterward, when the youngest great-grandchildren were told, “Nana says, have whatever you’d like,” they responded in unison and with big smiles, “M’s no O!”
Sarah Harrison is Sheila’s granddaughter.Report Typo/Error
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