Her name was Raffaelina, but everyone called her Ralf. And she was my mom.
In her 90th year, after graceful acceptance and a short bout with a rare leukemia, Ralf passed peacefully in January as the worst blizzard in decades paralyzed Toronto, the city she spent her life in. No fan of urban snowfalls, she voiced appreciation for the poetry of checking out just in time.
I haven’t said much about losing her these past few months, maybe because it happened in a whirlwind, maybe because ruminating is my way of processing. But Mother’s Day sparked the inevitable introspection; my life as a child, her several inspirations, and the respect I eventually grew for the job she did raising four boys, of which I am the eldest. From my recollection on the ground, it was hellacious for her and Leslie Sr.—like waking up every day for a decade to break up a bench-clearing brawl.
Despite the endless refereeing, mediation and triage involved, Ralf kept her cool. She didn’t get mad too often, and it was always a flash in the pan. More importantly, through the tumult she managed to instil in each of us a little of her own character and many talents, whether for art, writing, appreciation of the natural world, business, tenaciousness or even faith. Those who know me recognize the bits I glommed onto—and the ones I didn’t.
Although she often faced chaos incarnate with her children, Ralf was pretty lighthearted about it, which is perhaps why it was always easy to sit around and have a chuckle with her. This became a crucial part of our relationship: in later years, calling from Whistler, I could always make her laugh, and, as if my sarcasm were a surprise, she’d always sigh “Oh, Les.”
As fumbling adolescents and young men seeking their paths, she was eternally helpful to each and proud of where we all ended up. Like many (most?) parents, she never really understood her enormous role in it. But I’ll get to that.
Born in Toronto to Sicilian immigrants, Ralf was the youngest of four, and spent her first years in the west end before the family moved east to the Upper Beaches (considered suburbs at the time) where her father ran a small variety store. Such were the habits and mobility of the day that her parents weren’t entirely aware Lake Ontario was but a short bike ride away, which Ralf, always a micro-adventurer, discovered in due wide-eyed course, beginning a romance with a part of the city that would centre her social life. Tragically for someone with her intellect and curiosity, she was booted from Grade 9 for being late to class after bullies tied her shoelaces together. There was no arguing or mercy in those days, so she took several clerical jobs before joining her two older sisters at a customs brokerage.
As a teen, she attended dances at the Balmy Beach Canoe Club, where she met many lifelong friends. She met Leslie Sr. while he was playing baseball at Kew Gardens. He proposed to her outside the Canoe Club and they were married in 1951. She joined her husband at his advertising company where they’d work side-by-side for decades, Ralf eventually becoming president, with Leslie as CEO, before selling the business and starting several others. They enjoyed travelling, and were particularly fond of Florida, opening new worlds for their four rambunctious boys. As our quartet breached the terrible teens, they bought a cottage in the near-north of Haliburton, a welcome distraction that became the centre of the family universe, a place for Ralf to pass on her love of reading, writing, art and nature-gazing. But she had already done more than she could imagine in that area.
Though I always remember her drawing, I distinctly recall coming downstairs one morning when I was five and seeing an unusual drawing on the easel set-up in the dining room. It was a beetle, and Ralf was filling in the thick, wavy bands on its back with electric blue and bright orange. I was captivated by this rendering—a radical departure from her typical still-life and portraiture—but more so by the beetle. I wanted to know everything about it and mom obliged, explaining it was a Sexton Beetle and that groups of them buried dead animals (birds, mice) on which they laid their eggs to hatch and feed. This might have been a gross story but it was real-life—the first I’d heard of the actual machinations of nature beyond talking bunny rabbits and other anthropomorphized creatures in children’s books and on TV. I suddenly wanted to know more about other animals so mom trundled me off on weekly visits to the library to peruse books on insects and other critters. I was hooked.
A parallel thread emerged in which I became interested in several of mom’s interests. I took up drawing, mostly based on observation. I took up writing after reading her work in literary journals and being impressed to see her name printed neatly beneath each piece. She never instructed me in these things but was happy I’d found my way to them, as if the apple now leaning on the trunk of the tree were a natural, expected thing. And perhaps that’s the way it is; without pushing me in any way, Ralf opened doors of perception that I literally ran through.
Fortunately, I got to spend more quality time with Ralf in the last months of her life than the past three decades, and it was great to learn more about her life and to be able to thank her for her role in mine. Who I might have been without her is not for me to say, only that I’m indebted and grateful for what I know to be her significant legacy. And that I already miss picking up the phone to have a laugh with her.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn’t like.