Sometimes the personal gets lost when things are politicized, with everything reduced to a hashtag. Dec. 6 is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women. To go beyond 140 characters, here is one personal story about two women I lost.
I was 13 when my dad came home from church one Sunday and announced that he’d gotten me a part-time job there.
I did not want a job. It was 1984 and I was in grade nine; I wanted to sit in my room and mope to Depeche Mode songs. But my dad had eight kids to feed so you can guess what his motive was.
I got paid about $50 per week to answer the phone and do typing in the church office every Saturday. Sheila also worked there part-time, singing during masses, weddings and funerals.
A tall, athletic blonde with high cheekbones and rod-like posture (for better vocal projection, I’m guessing), she had a regal air about her. Sheila was smart and confident but also very funny. She knew I knew nothing about life, yet never talked down to me.
She would lean over my desk to chat conspiratorially about things that would be considered scandalous (hell, blasphemous) in any church office, imparting her adult wisdom (she was in her twenties) to my grade nine ears. She would subtly mention subversive ideas questioning the authority of the Catholic Church, which just happened to employ both of us.
I didn’t really understand exactly why I liked Sheila. We didn’t have that much in common. Looking back now, I know instantly what it was: she was truly comfortable in her own skin.
Me? Not so much. As a half-Asian girl in a very white high school in St. Catharines, (and the second youngest in a family of eight kids), I was anything but comfortable in my own pale yellow skin. Throughout most of my high school years, Sheila was a strong female voice who helped me begin to find a voice of my own.
We had our best chats in the rectory kitchen. She would often help the cook, chopping vegetables in her altar robe while practicing songs for weddings and funerals.
I didn’t go to Sheila’s funeral. It was too late by then.
After working with Sheila for three years, I went off to university in Ottawa, taking all my insecurities with me. During a visit home to St. Catharines, I passed an old newspaper lying on the dining room table, and there was a story about Sheila’s murder.
Sheila’s sister was trying to get away from her abusive partner. The only way she felt safe was to pack up and move her entire life to a tiny remote town, somewhere he would never find her. Sheila being Sheila, she was helping her sister move on the day it happened.
He found them, somehow, tracked them down. He drove for hours. He had a shotgun with him.
When he burst through the door of the house, the one where they finally felt safe, Sheila jumped in front of her sister. I know it was a reflex, an instinct. She wouldn’t have thought; just felt, then acted.
After he shot them, he went back outside, got into his car and blew his own head off. Sheila’s sister survived. Sheila did not.
I don’t know who sang at Sheila’s funeral. But I hope it was beautiful.
She was murdered in 1991, the same year girls in my hometown started vanishing into thin air, first Leslie Mahaffy, then Kristen French.
A few years later, working part-time at the Ottawa Sun, I found out exactly where those two girls had gone, all the things they had endured.
When I got to The Sun newsroom one afternoon in 1995, an editor looked ashen as he handed me pages to proofread. The publication ban had just been lifted at the Bernardo trial in Toronto and reporters were finally filing the first full accounts of what really happened.
It took me forever to proofread those pages, the horror story that none of us could believe.
I met Mandy in the mid-1990s when I lived in Ottawa and she was dating my friend Jeff.
An Aussie redhead with a huge laugh that always sounded dirty, she swept through Ottawa and into our lives on her globetrotting quest for adventure.
Jeff introduced me to Mandy at a party in one of those huge old drafty houses you share with too many roommates during your twenties. But why did I feel so nervous?
Jealously. I enjoyed holding court as Jeff’s Female Friend, and here was another girl stealing some of that away from me. My stomach churned. This could all go very badly.
But it didn’t. Mandy made a surprisingly witty dick joke to me immediately after we met. How could we not hit it off after that?
After Mandy and Jeff broke up, they both left Ottawa. I heard she’d gone back to Oz and got married. It all seemed to happen pretty fast but I was happy that Mandy was happy.
She wasn’t, though. She was terrified for her life.
A few years after we all went our separate ways, Jeff came back to Ottawa for a visit. I think we were one drink in when he finally got up the nerve to tell me.
Mandy had fallen hard for a guy she met while travelling (that girl could never stay in one place for too long) in Turkey. They got hitched, settled down in Australia and had a daughter.
Then it all went wrong. I don’t know why or how.
What I do know is that on Aug. 18, 2001, Mandy went to her estranged husband’s house to talk to him. She brought two-year-old Olivia with her. At some point, for some reason, Mandy put Olivia back in the car. It must have been mother’s intuition.
After Mandy went back in the house, he stabbed her 48 times. She was only 31.
I hope Olivia, sitting in a car nearby, didn’t see or hear her mum dying.
I got pretty drunk the night Jeff told me all of this. When I got home, I did what no one should ever do: email while intoxicated. Weeping, I wrote a long, drunken email to all five of my sisters, telling them that Mandy (who they’d never met or even heard of) was dead. Murdered by her own husband, in front of her own daughter.
During the trial in Australia, they played a recording of Mandy predicting her death. Just three months before she died, she’d given a taped statement to a magistrate while applying for a restraining order.
“I can sit here and tell you he will kill me. He will kill me,” Mandy pleaded on the tape. “He said he was going to slash my throat … He said he will only get 16 years (in jail) and he will have his life back.”
Mandy got that restraining order but still lost her life. His prediction about jail time turned out to be dead on, though. He was sentenced to serve a minimum of 14 years and a maximum of 18 years.
It’s been 14 years since his conviction. So he might be out of jail now, having done the minimum time. Or maybe he’s been deported back to Turkey; there was talk of that during the court case. I don’t know because after the trial coverage dried up, so did all traces of him, at least on the Internet.
Olivia would be about 17 now. I wonder if she remembers her mum at all.
Oddly, one of the things I remember most vividly is typing that drunken email to my sisters. Good thing there was no texting back then, drunken or otherwise. It was 1:30 a.m. and I kept asking them over and over again in that rambling email, “How did this happen? Why does this keep happening?”
I’m still waiting for them to tell me. I still haven’t got any answers.