2004-08-16 01:47:15 UTC
Mary Ellen Swan, 112: A life well lived
Mary Ellen Swan's life spanned monumental change
Her five-generation family remembers a woman full of life
FROM: The Toronto Star ~
Mary Ellen Swan was born into a world without televisions, without
glossy colour magazines and without advertising billboards.
But by the time she passed away on Tuesday, 112 years after her birth,
she was intimately familiar with the media she predated, having
starred in her own half-hour television documentary and modelled in
multiple ads as a nonagenarian.
In 1984, just after her 92nd birthday, she could be seen in a magazine
ad for Erin Mills Auto Centre, brandishing a threatening umbrella at
the photographer, demanding to know, "Where's the deal?"
A few years later she was on a billboard overlooking the Gardiner
Expressway, herding her family into a modern Volkswagen. "Pack more
Volks in your Wagen," was the tagline, her granddaughter Lindy Swan
A life in pictures
She could never land the arthritis commercials, though. "Her hands
were too nice. They didn't shake and they weren't gnarly enough,"
Born Mary Ellen Sysum in Gateshead, northeast England, on June 24,
1892, she was a woman who never let Father Time outpace her.
She lived through two world wars, a cold war and countless smaller
conflicts; was already old enough to vote when Canadian women were
granted the right to do so; saw the Middle East in the 1950s; lunched
with the Queen at the Royal York; starred in those advertisements;
fleeced dozens of poor euchre players for their small change and still
found the time to lovingly preside over a family that spanned five
generations by the time she died.
"She never lost her memories," her daughter, 84-year-old Margaret
Cahoon, said yesterday. "Right up to the last, she could tell you
dates and names and everything in her life."
After leaving Gateshead and going to work as a scullery maid at the
Bank of England at 13, Swan suffered through floor-scrubbing,
pen-polishing and occasional "bum pinches" from the aristocracy, who
met at the bank for a dinner every month. After five years, Swan had
had enough and she signed on to take a domestic job in Canada at age
She needed her father's permission to apply, but the hard-working
miner wasn't happy at the thought of sending his second child, and
first daughter, off to the new world.
So Swan did what any quick thinking working-class British girl with
dreams of a fresh start would do.
"She forged her father's name," Cahoon said with a laugh.
"I know my mom was never a bad girl, but to think of her forging a
parent's signature," Cahoon sighed. "Even at my age, I don't have the
audacity to forge her signature."
Arriving in Canada in 1910, Swan was met at the docks by the
Harcourts, her new employers. She worked as a maid, first for the
Harcourts and later for the Milbournes and other Toronto families. She
loved cleaning throughout her life, her family said, and kept her
house, and those of her employers, immaculate.
She met her husband, Herbert Swan, at a church gathering, and the two
were married in 1912.
"It was love at first sight," she told a local Collingwood newspaper
in 2001. Swan was able to meet her great-great-grandchildren before
she died. Herbert Swan died in 1944, but every night before bed, Swan
would plant a kiss on a picture of him in his army uniform.
"She was a one-man woman," said Lindy Swan. "But she flirted until the
day she died."
Never one to turn away a soul in need, Swan was notorious for bringing
everyone she met, even complete strangers, home for dinner to her home
near Lansdowne Ave. and Bloor St. W. If they needed it, she would let
them stay the night.
"She never met somebody she didn't want to help," Cahoon recalled.
In 1959, she was rewarded for it, invited to a luncheon hosted by the
Queen and Prince Philip in appreciation of volunteers doing work for
She also never met an adventure she turned down.
"Fearless," said Lindy. "She'd go over to the shopping centre by
herself, at 100 years old, and start talking to people."
In the 1950s, when her son Herbert was living in Saudi Arabia, Swan
travelled through the Middle East with two female friends before
meeting her family in Bahrain.
"I mean, Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, as a woman, for heaven's sake,"
Lindy laughed. "That's pretty adventurous."
It's likely that Swan was the oldest woman living in Ontario at the
time of her death, according to research by Robert Young, senior
claims investigator for the Gerontology Research Group based in
The oldest living Canadian is Sister Anne Samson, who lives in a
convent in Moncton, N.B. She will turn 114 next Feb. 5.
Although Swan was full of life until the very end, one of her
grandchildren reflected on an odd conversation she'd had with the
family matriarch two weeks ago.
"She told me, `I have to find a new place to live,'" Marcia House
said. "I said, `Why would you need a new place?' She just looked at me
and said, `My time here is just about up.' I don't know whether she
knew or not, but she was ready to leave."
Her family gathered yesterday at the cottage Swan had shared with
Cahoon on Georgian Bay, sharing tears, swapping memories and trying to
imagine a life that touched the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Mostly, they laughed, remembering Mary Ellen the way she would have
wanted them to.
"You always smile when you think of her," Lindy said. "You always
laugh. She was always laughing. For 112 years she kept it up."