Blog Post: Judith Merril at the Spaced Out Library

We were asked to contribute stories about Judith Merril for a project at The Merril Collection in Toronto, where I haven’t lived in some decades. Nevertheless the library is walking distance from my sister’s house, and I have gone there for events, book and anthology launches, either my own or others’ over the years. I was sad to miss head librarian Lorna Toolis’s retirement gathering; it wasn’t a good week for me to travel.

It sometimes feels as though this time is almost entirely without context. I’m in my sixties now, and I find that what I have to contribute that younger people seem to appreciate most is context. I won’t say it was better in the old days, for the seventies were wonderful in many ways, and terrible in ways I won’t ever miss, but if we have some understanding of what and why, it may help us gain perspective on this almost unbearably complex time.

I used to see Judy walking through the market, or on the Spadina bus. Kensington was still magic then, and a wet market as we unfortunately say now; it was pre-gentrification. Although she was striking, I didn’t know who she was until a friend told me. I’d feel humble and awed as she walked past me, carrying groceries, smiling, encircled by her halo of grey hair. The workshop in Peterborough was submissions based and I felt honoured (and a little nervous) to be selected. She wrote me a sweet postcard to let me know I’d been accepted and when I wrote back to say we lived in the same neighbourhood, she suggested I drop by the Spaced Out Library and say hi. We went for lunch to the first Ali Baba Shawarma on College, just east of Huron Street where she lived in the Epitome Apartments, and where my art student sister also lived. I was visibly pregnant; we talked writing and babies and she was equally willing to do both. I was smitten; Judy was unique: tough, smart, motherly, unapologetic — and very American. I’d lived in the US, in the outer islands of Hawai’i and the East Village in NYC, and sometimes missed the forthrightness of my American friends.

In Peterborough we stayed in the Peter Robinson residences, part of the downtown campus of Trent U.; my partner Doug Back had come along to look after his baby son when we were in session on the lawns in the back. It was an oddly prophetic series of events. Doug had been hired based on his technical expertise and experience at artist run centres to advise the board at the newly formed Artspace, so he made solo trips to Peterborough that year as well. My father owned a ramshackle farm on a back road half an hour outside of town, and when gentrification came to Queen West and our rent doubled overnight, we thought of Peterborough, and how gemütlich it had felt.

Judy and Doug got along like a house on fire, and while I was putting the baby to bed in the evening they would go off together to the Hangman, the Trent U pub at that time. After our return to Toronto she’d come for dinner occasionally, or she and I would go for lunch, and once she suggested we all get a house together, including another artist friend of hers. Doug and I ended up leaving the city instead, and babies and writing took up most of my waking (and non-waking!) life for the next several years, so we didn’t see as much of each other. But she liked me, and she liked my work, and those things made a difference. She didn’t point me toward gigs, nor did I expect her to, but her kindness was validation to a baby writer. Having lost my mother too young, I made her into a bit of a mother, and she was overall I think ok with that. In addition to books and babies, we also discussed men, sex and drugs. She once asked me if I wanted to do LSD with her, and while I declined I know it would have been memorable.

Later I wondered why she had considered us as roommates, for she was after all a legend, and realized it was partly because we were bohemian in a way that resonated for her. Bohemian is one of those words that has lost almost all meaning, but I don’t know one that is better — certainly not alternative. We had a friend among the founders of Rochdale College, her library’s first home, and even though they and the Rochdale scene generally preceded us, we understood the gestalt of Rochdale, the anti-Vietnam movement (my parents had hosted a family of Algonquin draft dodgers from New York State), the times that had shaped us all in one way or another. My friend the novelist Ruth Clarke knew her well back in the day, and tells not entirely kosher Judy stories that make us both laugh in appreciation. There hasn’t been another like her.


Blog Post: Judith Merril at the Spaced Out Library — 2 Comments

  1. A wonderfully sentimental and personal recount of a meeting and relationship between Ursula and Judith. A nice slice of Toronto culture too. Very vivid.
    Well written. I love Ursula’s work.

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