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Robert Kelly Remembers His Mother, Freda Kelly

November 15, 2022

Freda Kelly

For 100 years Freda Kelly lived an unusually good life. Everyone who knew her could see that there was something especially kind about Freda, “she had gratitude,” explains Robert. “It was just in her, it was just her character. She was always thankful, and life is a lot easier if you are thankful, than if you are resentful.”

Whenever anyone visited, Freda would always smile and welcome them, and was great at telling stories. She became known as the living repository of the community’s history. Freda was especially kind to anyone who was lonely in the community. “She was forever visiting nursing homes and constantly delivering biscuits and muffins around town… For many older people in town she was a connection. For younger people she was their connection to their grandparents’ generation, when their own ancestors were gone.” For so many people in town, regardless of their age or walk of life, Freda was a special friend.

“Her engagement and genuine interest in people and how they lived was one of the secrets of her longevity…. She was nourished by her kindness, she knew that people appreciated her.” Every time she delivered baked goods around town, it gave her a lift. “People just wanted to be with her because she was so welcoming, and so genuinely interested in them. If anyone ever told her something about themselves, she would always remember it, and would refer back to it. Everybody knew Freda, not just in Fenelon Falls, all over the countryside.”

Freda Kelly’s remarkable life goes well beyond the kindness she exhibited towards everyone she met. Not many other Fenelon Falls residents have carried their groceries across the bridge on their walker at the age of 98. “She never stopped moving and always said sometimes you have to push yourself.” Right up to the pandemic lockdowns, she walked to the bank and post office. But once she could not leave home, she really lost mobility. She gardened on the ground until she was 97, then in a raised bed, where she got in her lettuce and onions this past spring, at the age of 100.

Freda knew how to live a joyous life. Her friends fondly remembered her telling of the excitement of tobogganing down the big hill on Clifton Street. Her son, Robert would relive the experience in a red wagon made by her father, the legendary local blacksmith Dick Bulmer. Some others couldn’t help but think of the cliffs at the foot of Clifton Street, but the Kellys made sure that the wild ride was a safe one.

“We spent hundreds of evenings fishing together, just out in a boat putting along. It was always extremely pleasant. She fished a lot when she was younger and she could really handle a line. She must have caught a million fish in her life, and some of them were great fish. I had her out in her 70s, she got a 18lb musky on Cameron Lake.”

As a youngster, Freda spent a lot of time fishing with her dad, who loved trolling for muskies. After she married Milburn Kelly, they often travelled to Maple Island on the Magnetawan River—they shared a love of outdoor recreation.  Milburn’s father (Foster Kelly, whose business introduced many locals to indoor plumbing) was not really into outdoor recreation, being so busy tending the business. But Milburn had the opportunity to be free for a time from some of the pressure that came with business ownership, and loved hunting, fishing, natural history, canoeing and camping.

Freda and Milburn married late in life. Milburn had been widowed for many years, and Freda had been through the ordeal of being married to someone who was gay (back then many people thought that gay people should just marry someone of the opposite gender and make the best of things), leading to the marriage being annulled. Freda was 40 when they got married and her new husband was 17 years older. In keeping with social expectations of the times, Freda retired from teaching and went to work keeping the books at Foster Kelly’s plumbing and heating business.

Foster Kelly had a tin fabricating shop where they made ducts, sold plumbing supplies and installed plumbing and heating systems in thousands of homes and cottages in the area. Each fall they were busy draining the plumbing systems at many local cottages. One year, a young boy named Kevin Tamblyn, came and asked Freda if he might have a job working for Mr. Kelly. He started working on evenings and weekends, as he apprenticed with Milburn, then went on to have his own independent business.

By the 1960s, Foster Kelly’s felt like an old business. Milburn had changed little since his father had run the shop. The old wooden shelves were worn smooth as countless customers had patronized the store over the years. With its concrete walls, it felt like a drafty old factory, and was filled with boxes and boxes of plumbing supplies. A big wood furnace in the basement heated the building, fed with massive stacks of firewood kept outside. In addition to plumbing and heating supplies, they sold a litany of other products, including, for a time, televisions, having the first RCA licence to sell in Fenelon Falls. A generation earlier they had also sold farm implements. Milburn was not particularly inspired by the business, he had simply carried it on, being the dutiful son. When she wasn’t helping haul around plumbing supplies and furnaces, Freda became the bookkeeper, and would also go around to collect on accounts. Kevin would say that Milburn was not a businessman, and he did not want to be the boss, hence his reluctance to collect on overdue accounts.

When Milburn married Freda, “he was gobsmacked. It really was a fresh start because he was widowed and had been living alone so long.” Milburn inherited his father’s short temper, and was quick to take offence. But Freda stood up for herself, and they developed a very respectful relationship. They loved to go blueberry picking, or picking leeks and watercress. Milburn and Freda had a lot of friends in common and, like so many other locals, played Pedro or Euchre with her parents Dick and Bertha Bulmer. Two years after they got together, Robert was born.

Freda was almost 43 when she became a mom. Back then it was a concerning age for a first time mom, so the delivery was treated like a medical emergency. The doctor never even considered a natural birth, it had to be a C-section, which left her with a terrible infection that lasted for weeks. People thought that having kids at that age was the craziest thing, and would ask “Aren’t you afraid there will be something wrong with it?” Back in 1964, it would have been seen as her fault and bad judgement if something had gone wrong. “But she wasn’t fazed by any of it, she was overjoyed, because she had never thought that she would have a child.”

Freda and Milburn were much older, with much more life experience than other first time parents. Because of the twists their own lives had taken, they knew that life wasn’t a straight path, and as a mom Freda wanted to make sure her son had the space he needed to develop his own personality. They had clear expectations, which made it easy for Robert. “Other kids thought that it would be weird to have old parents, that they would be uptight, but it was the opposite. They were laid back, because they knew themselves.”

At the age of 67 Milburn decided to retire. His younger wife was only 50 years old, so she could later say that she was retired for 50 years. Because they both loved outdoor recreation, they bought a camper and a 4-door Dodge pickup and started travelling the country. Everywhere they went, they were very engaged, as they journeyed to every province and both territories, staying at campgrounds, roadsides and gravel pits.

Even in her retirement Freda kept active. In her younger years she loved the Presbyterian Church. She fondly remembered the Reverend Walter Jackson, his wife and children. She was always involved in the women’s group, and had a clear, unquestioned faith. Freda was the bookkeeper at Immanuel Baptist for 48 years, until she was nearly 90 years old. She kept the records by hand in tall ledger books. With her blue, black and red pens, she did it all manually, and wouldn’t touch a calculator, “because it would slow her down…. And she never lost a penny.” Freda’s bookkeeping was of course perfect. Her successor, who was using Excel and an accounting program complained about how much work it was!

Freda was very athletic and participated in many sports in her younger years. She loved to listen to Blue Jays games, and enjoyed curling. In her 80s, she was skating on Cameron Lake, her last trip was to Cranberry Bay. She loved to work in her vegetable garden. “She liked flowers, but she wasn’t going to devote any energy to them.” Many neighbours remembered her for her hollyhocks, “she loved them because they were there, and they had been since the time she moved into the house. She would mow around them, then Jerry Abbott always mowed around her hollyhocks for her, Bless him.”

When she was married, Freda moved into a house that had a lot of history. Like her own father, Foster Kelly was a local legend, and she cared for all the things that were in the house when she arrived. One remarkable fern, like Freda, survived 100 years and now lives on at Maryboro Lodge Museum. In many ways the home became a second museum for the village, and she even kept the personal effects of her husband’s late wife.

Milburn was instrumental in setting up Maryboro Lodge as the community’s museum. Freda always took an interest in the organization, and was there for the Abbott sisters, Milburn’s aunts, who formerly occupied the building as they aged. She generously supported museum programming, and attended teas right up to the pandemic.

When someone came to visit her, Freda would make the effort to put on a full meal, even when her guest had showed up unannounced. She always had something on hand, especially her muffins, biscuits and cookies. Freda enjoyed baking but wasn’t into other crafts. “She would explain that she didn’t have time to do crafts or read.” As the oldest of the Bulmer children, she was looking after her younger siblings by the age of 8, and was sometimes caring for them by herself at 12. Having graduated high school in 1939, just as the war was beginning, she was teaching the next year. She instructed through the Second World War and the baby boom that followed. One year, while teaching in Scarborough she had 49 pupils in a portable, including many Dutch families that fled Europe after the war.

Freda was always close to her family and spent a lot of time supporting her parents as they aged. “My mother would bake something, then send me up the hill to Grandma and Grandpa. Then Grandma would say, ‘she shouldn’t have done that.’ Then Bertha would root around, and prepare something to send back. For years, I was carrying food back and forth.”

Freda had the unusual experience of living to 100, and being mentally sharp and living in her own home to the end. She was well aware of how much had changed over the century that she witnessed. Her realization of how much things had improved, was part of her gratitude for what she had. As a youngster she could recall that a lot of people lived their lives a little short on food, coping with hunger on a daily basis. Without modern medicine and vaccines, few families had all their children survive to adulthood. She lost her brother Derwood, to whooping cough. His twin Doreen survived, after Dr. Graham advised Bertha and Richard that the child was weak and you need to toughen her up—take her camping, let her get her feet wet, let her get cold and have the sun on her. So, for the whole summer, while Dick worked in the shop, the family camped by Balsam Lake as Bertha canned wild strawberries. Freda remembered that before there was Medicare, things that would set you back 3 days today, might end your life.

Freda often talked about how the countryside had changed. The first generations of farmers had worked tirelessly to clear the forests, and when she was young there were not nearly so many trees. She appreciated seeing the countryside regrow. She was also very aware of the gains that women made over her lifetime. When she was young, women had few options for employment beyond clerical work, teaching (if unmarried) or nursing. She often referred to the burden of labour that was required of people to live when she was younger. Most people had little choice but to work very hard, but she went on to have the privilege of 50 years of retirement.

Freda remembered when the Kawarthas were a farming district, and Fenelon Falls was a regional centre for farmers from the surrounding communities. Her own family, were namesakes of Bulmer’s Road in North Verulam and been part of these close-knit agricultural communities. When her parents eloped, it was with horse and wagon. Even as an adult she could remember the farmers coming into Fenelon Falls on Saturday night to walk around town. From everything that Freda experienced over the years, she knew that life was complicated—that it was important to know when to let go. She knew how to make the best of life.

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