09 May Deb Svanefelt’s story of Rosemary
Feminist psychotherapist; passionate advocate for human and animal rights; Nature lover and avid reader; good food and tai chi enthusiast. Rosemary adored all her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was a spunky (and sometimes opinionated), ardent trail-blazer looking deeply into life, ceaselessly exploring the human shadow-lands as well as the bright and beautiful – she just loved the adventure of traveling, both on the planet and inside the human experience. She passed away peacefully in her home.”
So, who was this amazing woman, who embodied all these aspects, yet who’s life also contained so much more of human experience?
Born in Toronto Ontario, Canada, on the day that Canada celebrates it’s birthday too, Rosemary was the first born daughter, with a younger sister born 5 years later. It was in the middle of the Great Depression.
Rosemary’s father was a loner, who’d emigrated from England, and who spent much of Rosemary’s childhood away… away in northern Ontario, doing something connected to mining and geology… and then away in the Air Force, during the war years. She later described having developed a rich imaginary relationship with her absentee father – the kind which no human could ever possibly live up to, in real life. This proved to be a powerful warp thread in the tapestry of Rosemary’s life.
Both her parents wanted a son. And as a ‘prank’ when she’d been born, one of her mum’s sisters told Rosemary’s dad (who was away in the North), that she was a boy. He returned to find instead a
beautiful, healthy daughter.
This deep knowing about her parents’ preference for a son contributed to Rosemary trying her best to oblige. She told me in her later years that, as a 4 year old, she’d spent the better part of a year
praying each night to wake up in the morning with a penis… only to be disappointed, day after day. So, she did the next-best that she could, by becoming what was labeled a ‘tomboy’ – she loved
running, climbing trees, riding the neighbor’s horse when she could, and playing sports.
Although her mother would have preferred a son too, since she had a daughter, she fancied dressing Rosemary in frilly, very short dresses, and brushing Rosemary’s wayward, wild hair into ringlets, just like Shirley Temple’s.
This did not go over well with Rosemary at all… although she looked like Shirley Temple, she wanted nothing to do with that character. And, of course, it contributed to her feeling misunderstood and unaccepted for who she was. And that contributed to what today would be labeled anxiety and depression, along with a deep sense of self-doubt which would endure for her entire life, right up until the moment before her death.
Rosemary’s mother had emigrated as a teenager with her family, from Newfoundland, long before the Rock became part of Canada – in the years when it was still firmly connected by an umbilical cord to England. They’d moved from a tiny island community in Newfoundland, where Rosemary’s grandfather had held a position of prestige in the community… directly to Toronto.
You might say, this move symbolized a big fish in a very small pond, moving to a massive pond where the family became very small fish indeed. As an immigrant, her mother would continue to look, for the duration of Rosemary’s childhood (and beyond), for a place in southern Ontario to call ‘home’. This resulted in moves from one small community to another, every year or two… and multiple school changes for Rosemary, who needed to start making friends anew , each time.
As a painfully shy child, who felt like she didn’t ‘fit’ with her mother’s expectations, these moves also created an enduring sense of homelessness in Rosemary. It was never to be overcome, even after 26 years or so living as an elder in the community she loved, which she had first experienced at age 7 or 8.
It doesn’t sound like a happy childhood, thus far – and that’s likely true. But the saving grace for Rosemary came in the form of her beloved Gran (maternal) and her aunties. As the only child in their extended family (until the birth of Rosemary’s younger sister Lainie 5 years later) they all adored Rosemary.
Somewhere during Rosemary’s 7th or 8th year, her Gran bought a cottage on South Lake, near Minden. Every summer, Rosemary took the train and a taxi up, to spend the entire summer with her doting, adoring grandmother and aunts, where she had space to run wild. Later, her mother bought the cottage next door and came north too, with Rosemary’s younger sister.
Rosemary in her pre-teen and early teenage years was young and unworldly. Her dreams were to raise a kennel of dogs (like her dad) and to be a writer. Neither were to come to pass.
Instead, she met a boy and fell in love. At 16, after they’d broken up, she discovered she was pregnant. Both sets of parents encouraged them to marry. It was, after all, the ‘right thing to do’.
In fact, the ‘right thing to do’ also included having 2 wedding anniversaries – their private ceremony… and the one that supposedly pre-dated it, allowing more than 9 months for her first child to be born after the wedding.
By the age of 20, Rosemary’s dreams of raising dogs and becoming a writer had been displaced by the demanding daily reality of raising 3 young girls, all under the age of 4. She still had bouts of
depression, anxiety, and overwhelm. Rosemary’s writing had morphed into what became a lifetime pattern of journaling (and writing Easter Bunny poems for her children, to help them hunt for their annual Easter treats).
In her later years, she told me she had grown up by having children. We were her portal to adulthood. It was a bumpy road. By the age of 27, she finally had the son she too had wanted.
Rosemary continued to yearn for more… and after living for about 10 years under-housed in a small 2 bedroom apartment with 4 children, as well as her husband and herself, she inadvertently discovered the world of social activism.
The landlord of the apartment complex/community had unilaterally decided to use a milkman who the community didn’t like. Rosemary and a neighbor decided to start a petition. This resulted in the ‘ringleaders’ and all those who’d signed it, being evicted.
Although her husband was a diligent hard-worker, dedicated to being the sole provider for his family, finding a house that was big enough and affordable proved very difficult indeed. They ended up in a social housing community not far away from where they’d been evicted. The rent was geared to income, so that was easier.
But Rosemary discovered it was one of the few easy things about living there. The community was racked by all the traumatic social ills which accompany being marginalized by poverty.
Unhappy with the way people in the community were being treated, and feeling their helplessness/hopelessness, Rosemary and her husband started a tenant’s association, complete with a
They advocated for social programming, which resulted in a space where children’s social groups were held, and reel-to-reel movie nights (complete with a snack bar) were played during the winter months. In the summer months, movies were an outdoor event.
The YWCA was invited in, and applications for summer grants to create enriching social programming, via day camps for the community youth, were successfully obtained.
Half a century later, there are still many ‘alumni’ from that community who fondly remember the movies, and the programs she initiated.
Still unsatisfied with the way tenants had so few rights, she began campaigning at Toronto’s City Hall – to eventually help co-create the first Landlord Tenant Act in Toronto.
With her ongoing thirst for knowledge, Rosemary returned to complete her high school diploma, followed by her college degree in social services. She then began to work in the city’s homeless
Significantly, Rosemary began to attend the ‘first wave’ of feminist consciousness-raising groups which were beginning to emerge in the late 1960s/early 1970s. Meeting with other women, feeling deeply witnessed by others, was a potent, exhilarating, liberating experience for Rosemary. She fell in love with one of the other women and decided to end her 25 year marriage, to see what else life might hold for her.
Eventually, after a year or two, this meant leaving Canada to pursue her Masters degree in clinical psychology in the United States. She continued to live in New Hampshire for a few years, before her partner and she moved to Seattle, where she provided counseling for the gay/lesbian community.
Although she’d continued to return to Ontario to visit her family, Rosemary began to pine for more contact with them. After buying a small house in rural Missouri with her partner didn’t work out, the couple separated. And Rosemary returned to Toronto.
She continued to offer counseling to the LGBTQ community in Toronto. Eventually, Rosemary took on a job as a counselor for City employees at City Hall.
In her early 50s, she met Nanci, her third partner. They moved in together, and welcomed Rosemary’s grandchildren for weekend visits, much as Rosemary’s Gran had done for her.
Eventually, they retired to a small village near where her Gran’s cottage had been. It felt close to ‘home’ I suppose… though in the last months of her life, when I asked her of all the many places she’d lived, where felt the most like home to her (expecting her to say that community, where she’d lived for 26 years, and had happy ties weaving all the way back to her childhood), her answer surprised me. She said “nowhere’.
This was the home where her beloved partner Nanci eventually died, peacefully and at home, from her 2nd round of cancer… leaving Rosemary to live on her own for the last 20 years of her life.
In her middle and elder years, people really felt Rosemary’s brilliance and eloquence, her empathy and compassion. And these were all powerful parts of Rosemary. What they didn’t see was the cost to her – a lifetime of self-doubt, of consciously and obsessively struggling with her weight, of bouts with depression and anxiety, of feeling she was ‘slightly borderline’ in her close relationships with her family and partners.
She did her best, always. But her life, particularly as a teenager and young adult, was very tumultuous and challenging for Rosemary. The warp and weft of Rosemary’s inner struggles affected her
relationships with all her children, and her husband/ex-husband (with whom she had a lifelong close friendship). How could they not?
So, as much as she appeared to be an extroverted elder with a powerful way with words, positively transforming whatever communities she was a part of… Rosemary was also a human who continued to struggle with self-doubt, with feeling unwelcomed and unwanted by those she loved most, prone to depression and anxiety about her place in the world.
Rosemary’s favorite poem [‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver], ends thus:
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
In the last moment of Rosemary’s life, just before she left for new adventures unbounded by the physical, her final words were “Oh, I just can’t do this any more.” Her voice rang with a new-found
conviction. I hope it meant she finally found her own trust in the certainty of her place in the family of things.
Rosemary, may you walk in Beauty, no matter where your travels take you next. You are dearly missed by so many. I love you forever. Happy Mother’s Day, May 10, 2020