Sister, aunt, public servant, family historian. Born July 7, 1914, in Toronto, Ont.; died on Nov. 3, 2016, in Markham, Ont., of natural causes, aged 102.
Alyce was a raconteur of family and life in Toronto throughout her 102 years.
Alyce was also an independent woman – a necessity given she was the second oldest of 11 children, born three weeks before the outbreak of the First World War and raised during a time in Canadian history marked by war, influenza, religious prejudice and the Depression. She even had to register her own birth when she got her first job at the age of 15, as her father had forgotten to do so. But it also allowed her to choose the special spelling of her name, an indulgence that was rare for her.
Her father met the Ontario Premier at an event at the onset of the Depression, and he arranged a job at the Department of Education for Alyce. She became the sole income earner for the large family. Alyce worked for almost 50 years for that department, advancing into management positions and retiring "early" at age 64 so she could look after her widowed mother.
Alyce never married, her fiancé was killed during the Second World War. But she was the one who nurtured connections among her 10 siblings, and who became the defacto matriarch for 30-plus nieces and nephews, and their children and grandchildren.
Her agile memory meant that new generations were entertained with family lore and history until her final days. She talked about banging pans in the street and waving Union Jacks to celebrate the end of the First World War. Alyce would recall the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918/19, when her baby sister Catharine (my mother) was sick. Despite the doctor advising the family that Catharine would not survive, Alyce would describe her mother sitting by an open window in the mid of winter nursing the baby back to full health. She remembered being bemused that her best friend, a Protestant (it was unusual for a Catholic family in Toronto of the 1920s to have Protestant friends), shunned her during the city's annual Orange parade, while she and her sisters sang mild insults from the curb.
Alyce recalled the visits of Brother Andre from Montreal – already famous in the 1920s for his acts of faith and healing, which would lead to his canonization as a saint in 2010. He would come to see her father, and end up enjoying her mother's homemade macaroni and cheese, as well as the attention of half the neighbourhood.
She adored her handsome father who sang in the church choir, wrote poetry and enjoyed gambling (they awoke one Sunday morning to find a horse tethered to the front porch, won in a poker game the night before). She admired her stoic mother who scrimped to ensure 11 children were clothed and fed during the most difficult years.
Alyce loved her family and was faithful to her God. She was witty, thoughtful, caring and had an eye for good fashion. Even when she reluctantly moved into an assisted-care residence, Alyce would insist on wearing fully matched outfits and having her hair and nails properly done.
Alyce was near blind and deaf during her later years and that impaired the independence she treasured. But her desire was never to be a burden and she would always say, "I'm not complaining, just informing." Her family of four generations will continue to enjoy her legacy of informing.
Virginia West is Alyce's niece.