Monday, 28 October 2013

Merlin Andrew: 1915 – 2013

By:  Barry Kent MacKay, Director

It was wartime, during the Blitz, and each morning the young woman would find a flower on her pillow, left there by Oscar, thereafter always referred to by her as “the love of my life”.  She drove an ambulance, as did he, different shifts, both dedicated to saving others.   Oscar did not survive the Blitz and died in the streets of London.  Merlin did survive the war to lead a life rich in experience.   She died October 19, 2013.

In 1945, Merlin Andrew was the first civilian liberator at Bergen-Belsen, in Germany.  It had originally been built as a prisoner-of-war camp but in 1943 it became a Nazi concentration camp where some 50,000 prisoners died, mostly from typhus that ravaged the camp just before Merlin’s arrival on the heels of the British 11th Armoured Division.

Following the war Merlin headed for South Africa, where she sank everything into a new enterprise: growing oranges.   Alas, the enterprise failed and she lost everything.  Always resilient, Merlin spent a very miserable year working under terrible conditions at a restaurant, earning enough of a nest egg to allow her to return to England.  She spent some time in India, working with Mother Teresa.  But she thought the nun put appearances ahead of efficacy by maintaining an unnecessary degree of squalor.  In spite of her negative memories of South Africa, and her loyalty to Britain, she decided to immigrate yet again, this time to Canada.

An only child, Merlin was a fearless adventurer who toured all of North America, including Mexico and Alaska, on a scooter, her sole companion a cat.  Merlin never again developed a relationship with men, whom, indeed, she often seemed to hold in fairly low regard.   Her intimate relationships were, thereafter, always lesbian.   Oscar had been the only man she ever loved.

She was a dedicated worker, politically on the left, mostly, but also fond of British pomp and tradition.  She worked as a proof reader for The Toronto Star.  She later boasted, “There were never any mistakes while I was there!”  Her love of animals led her to found a grassroots group of animal protectionists, Action Volunteers for Animals, at a time when an extremely hostile strike, complete with a mysterious car-bombing, was underway at the Toronto Humane Society.   She and her band of volunteers would cross the picket line to feed and clean the animals.

At one point she owned a horse, boarded out as she was very much an urbanite.   She was often seen driving about town, as well as far from the city, on her scooter, a figure small of stature, helmet and goggles in place.  She was particularly passionate about cats, rescued many stray pets, and was a regular at the Toronto Humane Society.  There she was most effective as a critic, known for her booming voice, formidable vocabulary and sonorously delivered sarcasms needing no microphone to be heard from the floor at countless meetings.  When, in the mid-1980s, she joined the Society’s board, she would still complain about “them”, the decision-makers, until it was explained that she was now one of “them”.

Known to everyone in the Toronto region who helped animals, the rest of Toronto got to know her a little when, a couple of years ago, CBC radio featured her talking quietly, eloquently as usual, about how the elderly were so invisible to so many, their life experiences counting for so little.   She emphasized her love of animals and her dedication to their welfare.  Many listeners requested that she be made a regular feature.

Merlin lived in a small house near the Don Jail, close to the Don Valley, with various rescued cats and kittens.  She remained a pillar of the city’s animal protection community until the end.  Always tough, when she broke her arm a few years ago, she demanded a stiff Scotch, first, but then, at the hospital, refused morphine.  Recently she suffered a broken hip and mild stroke, and again refused the morphine.   She fought against hospitalization and died after only two days in palliative care.

Many of us, even when on her side, tasted at least the odd splinter of her sarcastic scorn, but no one who had the privilege of knowing her doubted her dedication to the animals, especially the cats and kittens, she so loved.