She was born on October 8, 1921 in North Croydon, near London, England, of Arthur Henry Ashwell and Victoria Maude Ashwell (nee Eveleigh).
In her 20s, she worked as a switchboard operator for various establishments including the Savoy Hotel in London where she once connected a call from Frank Sinatra to Ava Gardner. She was in London during World War II, where she survived several close calls. In one such close call, Gran was walking down the street when a Messerschmitt flew low and began strafing the boulevard. Someone in a doorway grabbed my Gran and pulled her into the building as the bullets went whizzing by. Another time, my Gran was in the middle of heavy bombing when a building near her blew up and a man in a bathtub landed in the street. The bathtub saved his life and decades later my Gran would tell my sister and I that story and laugh.
In 1948, when my dad was just three months old, my Gran, Grampa and father immigrated to Canada from England on the Queen Elizabeth. They landed in Toronto and moved to Destruction Bay, Yukon Territory, where my grandfather worked communications on the Alaska Highway. My Gran had her hands full with my father, who was just a baby, but she made time to learn and live off the land. She learned how to shoot and won medals in target shooting. She learned how to make bread and other food from the Native people. She meet and befriended Babe Southwick who was a pioneer for women dog mushers. She would ride in Babe’s sled while Babe trained for the Rendezvous races. My uncle was born in Whitehorse and still my Gran embraced the adventures that the wild Northwest had to offer. She was the one they would call when a man was cut up in a bar fight and needed to be stitched up as there was no doctor there.
Sadly, my grandfather fell out of love with Gran and moved away with his new love. Gran followed him with the two boys to Brockville, Ontario. When Gran, my father and my uncle got there, they had nothing. They lived in the Capital Hotel. Gran hired a lawyer to help with the divorce. His name was John Matheson. The same John Matheson who is now known as the Father of the Flag in Canada as he designed the Canadian Flag which was adopted in 1964 soon after Matheson was elected as a Member of Parliament.
Soon after arriving in Brockville, my Gran met Josef Sidorowicz. He became uncle Joe to us and he my Gran were together for nearly 50 years.
By the time I came around, Gran worked the switchboard at Brockville General Hospital. I can remember going in to visit her in her little booth. I also remember her house on Pearl Street in Brockville: a red brick, two-story duplex with a raised garden behind the garage where Gran grew cherry tomatoes. I remember that house and her old cat Frisky who was just plain mean. Gran used to have little cans of apple juice in the fridge for us and sometimes we’d get to stay overnight. Each December, my sister and I would perch on the stoop outside Gran’s house waiting for the Santa Claus parade to pass. It was a primo spot to watch because it was near the launching point of the parade so none of the people in the parade were bored or tired yet. She moved to a smaller house on Park Street when I was a teenager and that was great for us because Cowan’s Dairy was right across the street whenever we needed an ice cream fix.
Though over the past dozen years or so, her body had started to fail, she was as sharp as a tack. She spoke her mind freely and had a wit that I like to think I inherited. Before I left for the Yukon after college I helped take care of Gran when she was unable to care for herself. She confided in me then about her life and I saw her cry for the first time. By the time she moved into a room at Sherwood Park Manor, she had lost the lower half of a leg after an infection caused by an injured ankle. It didn’t stop Gran. Though she was in her 80s, she learned how to walk with a prosthetic leg. She also learned how to use a computer and would regularly read my blog to see how I was doing. We talked via Skype every Thursday morning until November when Gran had a stroke that robbed her of some of her functions, although if you really looked in her eyes, you could see she was still there. I went to visit her in November after her stroke and that was the last time I saw her in person.
Gran loved my parents’ dog Buddy and she loved being British. She had a Union Jack on the back of her electric wheel chair. She loved me and loved that I am doing what I’m doing way up North. She loved that I named Hazel after her and that my kennel is Spitfire Kennels. The Spitfire was a small British fighter plane in WWII.
My father, my sister and her best friend Inger were with her when she died. I wish I would have been, but I’m sure she knows that I was always with her even though we were so far apart.
I love you, Gran.
Me and my Gran.
Here's Gran in the Yukon.