What a thrill it was to learn that Judge Edra Sanders Ferguson has been appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. Turning 104 this week, she’ll be the oldest person ever to receive the honour, and it’s richly deserved.
Judge Ferguson is best known for being the first female alderman in St. Thomas, Ontario. Later, she became a judge, and campaigned for the rights of women throughout her long career. Here’s an article about it in the Toronto Star.
It was Judge Ferguson who, back in 1999, gave me the necessary push to start writing a biography of my grandmother, Mona Gould. In a matter of weeks, this enormous project will come to fruition and the book will be out.
A month or so after Mona’s death, Judge Ferguson summoned me – I don’t think there’s another way to say it – to meet her for lunch at the University Women’s Club. That day, she began to help me research a book I hadn’t yet admitted to myself I would write.
She had only met my grandmother once or twice, when Mona was a young reporter in St. Thomas, but she knew she could provide me with a vital link to the past. St. Thomas was where Mona first ventured away from home, where she cut her professional teeth, and where she fell in love and married. It was also home to a girls’ school called Alma College, which graduated many accomplished women through the years. Judge Ferguson made a point of introducing me to some of them, even though Mona wasn’t herself an alumna. I felt like I was tapping into a deep well of female strength and creativity.
I needed it. By that time I had, with deep ambivalence, started sorting through the many chaotic boxes of papers Mona left to the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. Back then, the task seeemed insurmountable, but Judge Ferguson’s combination of severity and encouragement helped me get over my reluctance and commit to the project.
She had no qualms about cautioning me that Mona’s peers were all dying, and that I had to interview them while I still could. Steeped as I was in my grandmother’s stories about the past, I did not grasp the poignancy of what Judge Ferguson was saying. At least, not for a long while. What struck me instead was that this vital woman was over ninety years old, and had clearly done lots of insurmountable things in her life. Not only had she survived, she’d thrived on the challenges and was still looking for more. Something about the way she simply assumed I would – and could – complete this project seeped in. And I have.
Some five years later and deep into the research I had the feeling – as I often did – that I was missing a whole dimension in looking back at my grandmother’s life from my present-day vantage point. I needed to talk to someone who’d grown up at the same time as Mona and in similar circumstances. I wondered what might have been on her mind from day to day, what she expected in life and what was expected of her. By that time, I’d seen enough loss that I was deeply grateful to find Judge Ferguson still alive and willing to spend a whole afternoon talking to me.
Something tells me that I’m not the only one Judge Ferguson has encouraged with a daunting task over the years.