Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney has died. She passed away Feb. 6. You may not know the name. Some say she was the most under-appreciated poet. Her son says she was London’s greatest poet. But the fact is that poets all across this country knew this gentle and funny and sensitive writer from London, Ontario. And they got letters from her. They got cards, and broadsheets, and sometimes she might telephone … And if you haven’t heard of Colleen, then you should go and find her books. Colleen was a poet, a storyteller, a mother to writers everywhere. She worried about others and sent remedies through the mail. She also dispatched poems and Christmas cards. And she readily welcomed you to her house on Huron Street in London, Ont. I first went there in 1967 or 1968 after a reading I done with a number of other poets. We were all just starting out as writers. Young, brash and arrogant we all were, and we figured we knew everything about the world. Then we stepped into this colourful house one summer night for some wine and cheese. Colleen was effusive, engaging, the living, breathing “real” poet. The words she spoke were exciting, different, tinged with an edge that told me this woman wasn’t someone who scratched out the occasional line, but was someone whose life was lived with that deep lyrical impulse. That’s also when I met her husband, James Reaney, one of Canada’s greatest playwrights and greatest poets. I didn’t realize then I would get to know both of them much better. James and I worked on a play together, and we collaborated on other projects, and in the midst of all this, Colleen once came down to stay with us at this one-room schoolhouse we owned near Coatsworth. She had an amazing presence in our lives. Always encouraging. Always insightful. She talked a hundred miles an hour, the stories brimming with bizarre characters, down-to-earth details that sometimes would baffle and confound, but always entertained. She was a gem. She was a poet right to her fingertips.
What follows here is her son’s blog. It says it all:
BY JAMES REANEY, LONDON FREE PRESS
Once again, I have sad but not tragic news about our family. My beloved mother, Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney, died this morning at University Hospital. Mom was 86 & recovering from a stroke.
Her last hours were peaceful & quiet with a beautiful morning unfolding behind her. Thanks to everyone for their love & support. Mom knew you were there for her.
Mom would never agree when I called her “London’s greatest poet” — but she never told me to stop repeating the phrase. She had said to stopstopstop about some other details of her life, such as her gallant charge up to Irving Layton. The Montreal sage had sneered at academic poets (ie. my late father) just once too often at some reading in the 1960s. If that story of poet v. poet vs. poet isn’t quite true, it should be.
My sister in Vancouver remembered mom as the great one while we shared the news this morning. We thought of mom’s many greatnesses . . .poet, story-writer, soulmate, sister, daughter, in-law, community leader, NDP lifetime member, Acadian exile, wit, raconteur, letter-writer & much more.
Mom was/is London’s greatest poet (my dad always said so, too) & I am grateful to so many of her champions like Jean McKay, Stan Dragland, Richard Stingle & Peggy Roffey for helping me see her greatness.
Toward the end of her life, mom came to resemble both her parents . . . her scholarly, reserved & distinguished Markdale father Stewart and her dynamic, distinguished and extroverted Belfast mother Alice. She was born on Stewart’s birthday (Dec. 29) & he always said she was his best birthday present. (My parents were also married on Dec. 29, 1951.) Her mother was a brilliant bridge player & Elgin County’s most ferocious Liberal. Mom inherited neither passion. Mom & her mother argued about politics over the decades, CCF-NDP vs. Liberal, without truce or either asking for quarter . . . until they found a common foe, Brian Mulroney. Mom & grandma were delighted to discover they both detested the PM. They would still disagree . . . about which of the two worthies detested Mulroney more. Alice & Colleen, we miss you both!
The shock will have to wear off a bit more before I can recall Mom in truer detail. She was remarkably generous . . . here’s an anecdote from 2007 I complete forgot until this morning when our friend Mr. Google showed me how Mom’s generosity made her instantly identifiable, even if she were only being misidentified to her amusement as “an elderly lady.”
There was a v. sweet letter to the editor in Saturday’s Free Press (April 2007) from Gloria Williams, who had just returned to Sydney after being here with Team Australia for the world synchronized skating championships.
Gloria’s letter thanked the John Labatt Centre for its sympathy and kindness to the team following a boating tragedy in which skaters, judges and friends had died.
She also wrote this: “Another gesture from an elderly lady who approached us in the street confirmed my thoughts that the people of London have warm hearts.
“As the event was about to commence, we did not have time to get her name or address, so are unable to thank her for the thoughtfulness she showed. This lady had purchased postcards for each of the girls and also stamps for as many as she could afford.
“This gesture, along with that of the John Labatt Centre management, only confirms the caring nature of the people of London, Ontario.”
At least two people instantly recognized this “lady” (quotation marks necessary, in my view) as the giver of the postcards and the stamps: my mother, London’s greatest poet Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney (age undisclosed, mom has been counting backwards in recent years), and me, her loving son.
Yes, it was she . . . the Acadian exile on Huron Street . . . and someone who has made acts of spontaneous generosity a life work.
For the record, mom was v. touched to be remembered in this way and somewhat amused & bemused at being described as) elderly and b) a “lady” – she is truly a woman of the people.
She also stresses that the skaters were far more generous than she & gave her a wonderful pin & brooch (kangaroo and koala bear respectively, I think) as keepsakes. She is a little embarrassed that she only rounded up two stamps to go with the postcards
But there is no denying it. Mom, you are a beauty.
Gloria Williams, thank you. And best wishes to Team Australia, a truly classy and brave band of sisters.