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Teacher, gracious hostess, mother, grandma, great-grandma, awesome Scrabble player, harmonizer. Born July 21, 1921, in Mather, Man., died April 13, 2013, in Winnipeg, of heart failure, aged 91.

Zilpha Smith loved gathering folks together, so she thoroughly enjoyed the tea that was held at Calvary Place Personal Care Home in Winnipeg on the day before she passed.

The fourth of six children born to Margaret and Frederick Wray, a humble farm family who lived near Mather, and later near Treherne, Man., Zel grew up during the Depression. She was a child of her time. A typical day included building forts with her siblings and singing round the piano in their modest frame house. There were also enormous challenges, hard work and disappointments.

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When Zel's mom was afflicted with a progressive debilitating illness, what carried the family through was their faith, their community and their capacity to roll with the punches. Their love of music and sense of humour also sustained them. This was a family who made their own fun – like the time Zel's brother put her high up the tree and threatened to leave her there while she and her sister shrieked their heads off.

Zel "pitched in" by age 10, cooking for the harvest and helping look after her younger sisters. She was a conscientious student, and made it to the enviable position of becoming a "permit teacher" – a chance to earn her way to "normal school" by teaching for a year in an outpost, when teachers were scarce during the war. She talked about how she overcame her jitters, and took the bus into Winnipeg, marched up the steps to the legislative building, and signed up.

By the time she was placed in her permit-teaching post, she'd already met Lloyd. She was just 17. She told the story of walking 12 miles shivering through dark woods, tears streaming down her cheeks, to get to the train station – and home to family, and Lloyd. They married in 1944. Together they raised Myrna and Joan-Dianne.

Back then it was their habit to sing together in the car – It's Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town and Down by the Old Mill Stream were favourites. They had a full 61 years together, living in Winnipeg, Montreal, Florida, Victoria Beach, and Winnipeg again.

Zel had a kind of grit – a no-nonsense, get-the-job-done perseverance. Like others of her generation, she felt a culture shock when confronted with the next generation's luxury of self-actualization. Joan-Dianne's broadening worldview was foreign to her. Why not be a home economics teacher? What was this thing – psychotherapy? But Zel was gradually able to understand seemingly strange new ways. And in the end, she "got" her daughter.

Some seniors grow more set in their ways. Not Zel. She became increasingly curious about life and people. She developed a generosity of spirit that could tolerate and accept differences.

Grateful to have kept her so long, her family feels a deep empty space at her passing.

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Joan-Dianne Smith is Zel's daughter.

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