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Thank you, Drs. Morgentaler and Frum, and Jane Purves

Three major deaths this week, two elderly Jewish citizens of Canada, major philanthropists in their own very different ways – Dr. Henry Morgentaler and Dr. Murray Frum – and Jane Purves, a journalist and former politician in Nova Scotia.

When my ex-husband was a theatre professional in this country, he was courted several times by Stratford. One night, we were invited to dinner by Barbara Frum and Murray Frum, who was on the Stratford board. It was a thrilling experience. Their home was startlingly ultra-modern in design, and, of course, filled with art, art everywhere, jammed onto the walls and every living space – overwhelming, so much to look at. We had a wonderful meal and much lively discussion, just the four of us; they both were – or pretended they were – interested in my work on my great-grandfather the Yiddish Shakespeare, and of course in Ed’s thoughts on theatre. We both felt privileged they’d invited us into their incredibly busy lives.

I ran into Barbara years later in the Tarragon Theatre lobby, and assumed that this woman, one of the most important journalists in Canada who was constantly meeting new people, would have no memory of our evening or even of my face. Instead, she greeted me like a friend. Barbara and Murray Frum were great Canadians, generous, gracious and brilliant. I can’t wait to go to the AGO to see the new wing filled with their donated collection.

I never knew Dr. Morgentaler, this country’s courageous abortion activist, one of the main reasons Canadian women have access to safe, legal abortions, but I did shake his hand once. A friend asked me to accompany her to his Harbord Street clinic (before it was bombed by an anti-abortion activist, obviously), and while there with her, I thanked him for his work. My friend was a single mother who’d just lost her job and could barely afford the tiny one bedroom apartment she shared with her son. She had an occasional lover who was married; just once, they’d been careless. We lost touch, but I ran into her years later, her son in university and she with a good job. We didn’t mention that difficult time.

I know from my own experience that the decision to have an abortion is not taken lightly. In 1976, I was a 25-year old Vancouver actress with almost no money, no stability, living in a communal house and having an affair with the handsome, crazy carpenter/cocaine dealer who lived across the hall. (Well, you can’t even call it an affair – I walked across the hall to sleep with him sometimes.) This was the lowest, most frantic and lost point of my young life, and in the middle of it, I discovered that my IUD had failed and I was pregnant.

Thanks to the work of Morgentaler and his colleagues, I was able to have an abortion and get on with my life, which meant immediately moving out of that house and into my own attic apartment. A few years later, I met the man I’d marry, and under the best possible circumstances, we raised two adored children. My beloved Uncle Edgar in New York knew this story and liked to challenge me mercilessly, reminding me that Johann Sebastien Bach was the eighth child in his family, that his mother would probably have aborted him if she could. I know that for my Catholic friends, this is a very difficult subject, and I’m going into it no further here.

I just want to say that I am grateful, always, that the Canadian medical system has come to the assistance of many a frightened, confused young woman, including me.

Jane Purves went to the Halifax Ladies College in the early Sixties, and so did I; that’s the extent of our bond, because she was exactly a year older, which to our young selves was like a decade. And yet I knew who she was at school, because even then she had heft and gravitas; she seemed older and wiser than 14. I respect enormously the fact that when she became a public figure in Nova Scotia, she opened up about her years of drug addiction. Our mutual lifelong friend Ian Thompson, publisher of the Halifax Chronicle Herald, just sent me her obit. So young, Jane; only 63.

R.I.P.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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