Mary Ganong was far more than Miss December
We get hope and inspiration from the women who have gone before us, our foremothers. They had visions of a better community and a more compassionate and equitable society. They strove mightily while acting on those visions and beliefs.
On International Women’s Day I want to salute Mary (Potashner) Ganong, a socialist, an AIDS activist and a wise woman among the Women of Wolfville. Here she is in her own words:
I come from good peasant genes – Eastern European – Romania, actually. We were poor. I remember my mother taking in boarders. My first job was in a candy store at the age of 10. Then I used to work in the schmata business, the rag trade, for $5 a week. I’ve seen signs: No Jews or dogs allowed.
School night torture was doing up of your hair. Bobby pins cut into your scalp while you slept so my preference was for rags, which came from old sheets. You'd take each lock of hair, enclose the end with a strip of cloth, roll it tightly against your head and tie a knot in it. I would have done anything. Coke bottle glasses, hand-me down clothes, terrible shyness. These were my teenage years.
What saved me was politics and love...My grandma loved me. She hugged me and she admired me and she made me laugh. We shared a bed.
Some people said that she was a bit of a tart. I think it was because her breasts were enormous. They came to rest on her waist. She complained about them a lot, but she displayed them too in a tight red cardigan that she buttoned down the back. She taught me boldness. And atheism - the only church is the natural world, she’d say. My mother would say that’s because your grandmother is too lazy to get up on a Sunday morning.
I learned from her that our poverty was because of the capitalist bastards and that it was good to be noisy about it. That pottery was better than china because you didn’t have to worry yourself to death about dropping the good dishes. In fact she’d thrown all her old family china out the window. Once. Out of rage.
Her second husband, my step grandfather called her Honey Blossom, Begonia, Sweetheart, etcetera, but he was completely unfaithful and she knew it. I think it partially explained her tight red sweaters. Big breasts just aren’t enough I used to say to myself. Maybe they attract the wrong kind of man. Perhaps that was the refrain of a small-breasted girl.
Mary was an avid member of the Communist Party in Montreal during the Duplessis era. She helped organize socials and what started with one dance turned into many happy years of marriage in 1946.
Well, long story short I was lucky. I met my future husband just before he was sent to war and in our letters back and forth we poured out our hearts and souls to one other for over three years, and I never stopped trusting him. When he returned and we married, we were both still virgins. On our wedding night we lay out the how-to book on the bed and we laughed and we hugged and we tried it out everywhere -on the bed, on the floor, against the wall… and it went on and on. We were a very sexual pair. He loved me and he loved every bit of my body. It was a revelation to me. And with all the changes over the years - our three children, my sagging belly, falling breasts, wrinkling bottom, it was still a body precious to him. As his was to me, right until the end. He’s gone now but see these love handles? My body remembers. I slept in his arms and every night the last words I heard were I love you... Even when the light fades in my old age I’ll remember...
For Mary there were no virtues in getting old:
Your handwriting has become a scrawl and you end up printing. “How wonderful! You’re ninety-six?” Haw! Wait until you get there yourself! Your peers are gone. You have outlived them – or they have deteriorated – in a nursing home or assisted living facility. Don’t misunderstand me I am just stating facts. Not complaining. I still have opinions. Anger is an exercise in futility. Being angry only hurts YOU!
Sadly, Reid died in 1991 not long after they retired to Nova Scotia from Montreal. He was the recipient of tainted blood following a heart attack. Reid became HIV positive and later died of AIDS. Mary, who was always an activist, focused her energies on AIDS education and activism after her husband’s untimely death to public awareness of the disease. I will never forget a talk she gave to junior high students about sex. She was so positive and real about the scourge that was AIDS.
Mary enjoyed taking courses at Acadia University. And she took to the stage. She performed in five or six WOW productions. In 2006 she enthusiastically participated in the WOW charity fundraising calendar, Bodies Without Borders. She was Miss December.
Mary the matriarch died at 97 in 2014. We miss her.