Holly Down on the Fryes

Letter from Holly Down, Toronto, Ontario, 25 September 1994.  In response to questions about Frye’s diary entry of 15 May.

Dairy entry:

15 May 1949.  Isabel’s [Isabelle’s] baby was christened today, & her father, the bishop, did a much smoother job than Woodcock did on Nancy.  No howls from Hilary, only a pleasant succession of burps.  The bishop has revised the service, cutting out the “conceived in sin” passage.  Then a tea party, at which I met archdeacon Marsh & wife, a pleasant example of muscular Christianity, also a girl named [Jessie] Day, who was Vic 37 & teaching English at Danforth Tech, engaged to a man—a friend of Harold’s [Harold Whitley’s], who was godfather. The Bretts were there, & asked us to dinner.  Hilary is a lovely baby.  In the evening we asked Marjorie [King] in—she looks dreadfully tired.  Margaret [Newton] also came in with Mary & Wilf Hamilton—they’re very pleasant people.  The day wasn’t quite as inane as it sounds.

[Isabel’s baby = Holly Down (née Hilary Hallam Whitley).  Nancy = Frye’s godchild, the daughter of a woman named Edna who rented the attic of the Fryes’ Clifton Road home in the early 1940s.  The bishop = Bishop William Thomas Hallam, father of Isabel Whitley and a friend of Archdeacon Marsh from their Wycliffe College days.  The “girl named Day” = Jessie Adams (née Day); her husband Douglas, a long-time friend of the Whitleys, was the god-father of baby Hilary, and Helen Frye was the god-mother. The Bretts = Katherine Beatrice (Betty) Brett was a friend of Isabelle Whitley from their school days.  Isabelle and Harold Whitley were the Fryes’ neighbors.]

Dear Robert Denham,

I am writing in reply to your enquiries about Northrop Frye’s diary entry for May 15, 1949.

[. . .] My Mother’s friendship with Aunt Helen originated in their study of and interest in the History of Art and involvement in the Adult Education Department of the then Art Gallery of Toronto.  As you know Helen graduated from Victoria College in 1933.  Mother was in the first graduating class of the new Department o1 Art and Archaeology at the University of Toronto in 1938.  My parents [Isabelle and Harold Whitley] lived around the corner from the Fryes at 226 Heath St. East for over forty years.  The Haddows were next door to the Fryes with the shared the driveway, but I don’t remember the people at the corner house.  When my Father became ill in the Spring of 1980, my husband Barrie and I and our two children aged ten and seven moved in with Mother to care for him until his death in December of that year.  We stayed on with Mother and cared for her until her death in 1988.

My chief remembrances of Helen and Norrie are scattered.  I remember them coming over for Sunday afternoon tea at our house and Helen talking animatedly about all sorts of things, always with her marvellous ready laugh.  Norrie was quiet and every so often added something to the proceedings.  He was more at ease when we visited their house, punctuating the conversation with humorous remarks.  Norrie and his living room chair created a safe zone where I sat on the carpet as a child, looking at books and listening to the adult conversation.  I was a bookish child and ended up taking Fine Art at U of T and am presently completing my Masters in Fine Art there.

Helen was a thoughtful and generous person.  She was careful to bring back some little treasure for me from their various trips: a little scented Indian grass box; a cloth doll dressed in bright red peasant gypsy skirt edged with gold sequins and black fringed shawl; a jewel-coloured, folding silk wastepaper basket with embroidered Japanese designs; a box of watercolours from England and an ivory necklace of little hearts which I still have.  These gifts carried a sense of romance with them.  Helen was a masterful story teller.  She created picturesque worlds replete with colourful characters and details of travel.  She demonstrated a sailor’s gait much to my Mother’s delight and related stories of various sleeping arrangements and menus on trains and of course of the collections of museums and galleries. It seemed to me that teaching adults was a huge and wonderful adventure.

I remember sitting at the top of the landing at home listening to the evening conversation of my parents and their friends.  People like Norrie and Helen who were passionately interested in education and the quality of life for the individual in Canadian society.  I’d sit very quietly, breathing carefully so I could hear as much as possible.  Then I would go back to my room to sort out what it meant, piecing it together with my surreptitious reading of my Father’s books on education and psychology.  He was the first Mental Health Consultant for the Toronto Board of Education as a result of his innovative studies in the forties and fifties.  It was at my Father’s insistence that I was nicknamed “Holly” because he was concerned that I would be teased with “Hilly” in the schoolyard.

I know that some people found Norrie a bit daunting, but I always found him to be quite accessible.  I guess because silences in the conversation were comfortable places.

When we lived with Mother after Father’s death, my children attended the same local schools as I had.  My son Jeremy (now an artist-musician) had a grade seven project to interview someone who had made a significant contribution to Canadian life.  He interviewed another neighbour, a doctor who had made advances in burn therapy in North America and Norrie.  Jeremy and I went over one afternoon armed with his questions and tape recorder.  He remembers that Norrie’s responses were broad (perhaps the presence of the tape recorder, although it is more likely that Norrie geared the answers more to Jeremy’s age level), but his predominant impression was of Norrie’s great kindness.  Unfortunately the tape has been lost over the years.

We saw less of the Fryes as Norrie’s travelling increased and Helen’s illness progressed.  His concern for her was evident when I met him at the bus stop on Mt. Pleasant Road.  He aged dramatically over the next six years, walking slowly and deliberately but brightening at having a visit on the sidewalk.  I was caught up at this point with Mother’s illness and care which began just shortly after Helen’s death.  The last time I saw Norrie was the Fall before he died.  He asked about Barrie and the kids and chatted, but his demeanor was even more professorial and other‑wordly than usual and his pallor was not good.  It was a dreadful shock when I heard on the CBC in the car that he had just died.  It felt like it was the end of a whole generation of people with an old-fashioned Methodist commitment to society.  People who really didn’t fit the multiplicity and self-conscious irony of Post-Modernism.  (Although Norrie’s analyses of recent changes and their significance in Canadian society in some of his last addresses are characteristically astoundingly cogent).  One after another of their generation and orbit died in the late eighties and early nineties. We had seven die in our family circle in eight months.

I attended Norrie’s memorial service at Convocation Hall at U of T with my daughter Adrienne who is now in her final year of Honours English at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.  Adrienne said that her memory of the service is summed in Timothy Findley’s comment as he left the Hall: “The world is emptying.”  She subsequently wrote a school paper in which she talked about the impact of Norrie in her life and her fear of going on in the academic world without having people of his calibre who had the magical quality of doing what they were doing because it was intrinsic to their nature and character and who consequently gave a sense of permanence and inspiration to young people in academic life.  She cited the instability of working under professors whose primary interest was research and career advancement, leaving the teaching and mentoring of students a dismal third.

Norrie typified the best of the mentor, an academic whose national and international achievements were based in the reality of his own personality.  When I was entering university, my marks weren’t high enough to get into Honours Fine Art at U of T and I took first year at Glendon College, York University.  But my great passion was Art History and I transferred to Victoria College in second year, where Norrie played a benign avuncular role of encouragement.

Helen and Norrie affected the lives of my family and me in delightfully prosaic and yet remarkable ways.  What an oxymoron.  Real and yet eminently remarkable.

[. . .] I hope some of this information will be useful to you. This has been an interesting exercise for me to put down some of my thoughts about these two dear people whom it was a delight and privilege to know. . . .

Sincerely,

Holly Down

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