Freda Laurence, 1906-96

By Charlotte McWilliam

(The North Renfrew Times.)

Freda Laurence was a lady --- gracious, gentle, elegant, courageous, and supremely feminine.

Born on Sept. 14, 1906, Elfreda Blois spent her early years in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where her father was a juvenile court judge. Vividly she remembered the Halifax Explosion of 1917 when her brother was ill with diphtheria and the family was turned out into the snow.

She met her husband, nuclear physicist George Craig Laurence, when she was an undergraduate and he a graduate student at Dalhousie University.

While George was working on his doctorate at Cambridge, Freda received her B.A. and began teaching primary school. In 1930, Dr. Laurence returned from the U.K. to a position at the National Research Council, and during the Christmas holidays of 1931, Freda and he eloped. At the beginning of January, however, the new bride dutifully returned to Nova Scotia to complete her third year of teaching.

For the next decade, the Laurences lived in Ottawa where daughters Janet Patricia and Judith Elizabeth were born.

Then, in 1942, Dr. Laurence was recruited for the "The Montreal Project". The family moved from the capital in a blinding, December snowstorm, losing their luggage for several days en route. Two years later, isolated Chalk River was chosen as "The Site" for the Montreal Lab scientists to build reactors. In due course, the Laurences moved again, this time as pioneers in a newly established town.

During those first years in Deep River, Freda was recovering from tuberculosis, but soon she was involved in many activities in the burgeoning town.

The Deep River Players was probably her most all-consuming interest outside her home. For 30 years, she worked backstage, took her turn on the executive, acted, and created costumes.

It is as a director, however, that Freda was best known. In 1954, she directed he first play, Rise and Shine, and in December of 1976, her last, Come into The Garden, Maud. In the intervening years, as well as being involved with children’s theatre through the Community Centre, she directed around 20 others.

People always enjoyed being at Freda’s plays. Not only were the plays fun because they were audience-pleasers, but Freda was an excellent cook. At coffee-break during rehearsals, there was always a plate of her delicious homemade goodies --- an impossible act for most to follow. Freda’s theatrical involvement did lead to a recurring family problem though: "Where’s my …? Oh, it’s in the play."

Her final contribution to the Deep River Players occurred in 1983 when she was looking after an ailing husband as well as providing a home for her teenage grandson after the death from cancer of her beloved daughter Judy. In the midst of sadness and worry, she still found time to design and sew a regal gown for Princess Alexandra in the Player’s EODL entry, The Elephant Man. The actress who played the beautiful and compassionate wife of Edward VII used Freda as a model for her character.

One of Freda’s lesser known enthusiasms in the early days was baseball. She was a regular attendant at the games in Cedar Park when her favorite boys played. One of those boys was Stu Buchanan, later her son-in-law.

Freda was also a potter. Guild members recall an immaculately garbed Freda arriving to throw a few pots. She would seat herself at the wheel, place a towel over her lap, and for a couple of hours, work with the messy clay. Then she would fold her towel neatly, wash her hands, and leave, still looking as if she had just dressed for a Birthday Club luncheon.

Though Freda could throw a casserole with the best of them, and a number of glazes she developed are still being used by the Guild, her real forte was miniatures --- tiny teapots that really poured and doll-sized cups and saucers.

Perhaps this interest in miniatures was associated with her delight in dolls. Freda has over 150 dolls attractively displayed in glass cabinets. Her collection began with English costume dolls including bobbies and beefeaters. Then, as Dr. Laurence attended conferences farther and farther afield, each time bringing his wife another treasure, the collection became more exotic and eclectic.

Often dolls’ clothes were used as model for drama club costumes. As well, Freda created her own special dolls’ wardrobes, which included Red River coats like those Tricia and Judy had work as children and a doll-sized CGIT uniform.

In the ‘60s, Freda and May Robertson led a Canadian Girls in Training group at the Community Church. Freda, May recalls, always had her priorities right. Once Dr. Laurence and his wife her bidden to a banquet in honour of the Shah of Iran. Freda said she couldn’t go because the banquet was the same night her CGIT girls were putting on a play. "Of course", she said to May with a twinkle in her eye, "if it had been Princess Grace of Monaco, I might have reconsidered."

A quiet humour was another of Freda’s characteristics. Wryly, she told the story of the vet who had forgotten to remove the thermometer after examining one of her cats. That vet must have been permanently blacklisted, as Freda was devoted to her cats.

But much more important was her devotion to and her pride in her cherished family which includes two granddaughters, four grandsons, three great-granddaughters and one great grandson.

After spending the summer in her home of nearly half a century, lovingly cared for by Tricia and Stu, Freda died of a stroke in Bonnechere Manor in Renfrew on Dec. 30, 1995. With her passing, Deep River has lost a page of its history.

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