Kathryn Missen: A Biography

Kathryn Margaret Missen: September 19, 1959, to September 1, 2014

Early Years  •  Allergies  •  Church Life  •  University Years and After  •  Marriage and Family Life
Life After Marriage  •  A Devoted Mother  •  Kathryn as Herself  •  Spirituality  •  Missen Family Time


Early Years

Kathryn was born on September 19, 1959, in the north Toronto neighbourhood of Leaside into what she described in a short autobiography she wrote in 2005 as “a very straight-laced, properly church-going, Anglican family.”

She was “Number 2” of four daughters: Nancy was 2 ½ years older, Brenda 21 months younger and Lynne 5 ½ years younger.

Her father, Ron Missen, was a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Toronto. Her mother, Bobbie Missen, who had a degree in chemistry from McMaster University, was a stay-at-home mom who through her life also did a remarkable amount of community volunteering.

Her parents discouraged nicknames, so her name was never shortened to Kathy or Kath, though as an adult she became Kate to her friends. To her family she will always be Kathryn.

Since there were no girls her age on the block, her first friends were boys, and she liked being, and being labelled, a tomboy. She described her child self as “adventurous” if somewhat sickly (bronchitis came on often).

And she loved to laugh. It was an infectious trait that she inherited from her mother and shared with her sisters and that she carried with her through her life, and passed on to her daughter Harriet, along with a quick wit and love of word play.

A predominant memory of her childhood was of being expected to “behave”—to be polite, quiet, obedient and cheerful. She found the strict standards, which extended to what she was allowed to wear, relentless and unnecessary, even as a small child.

In her teen years she openly rebelled, and ridiculed her parents for their strictness and what she perceived as their rigidness and old-fashioned rules and attitudes that seemed to come from a bygone era.

In 1967, her father took a year’s sabbatical, and the family drove across the continent to Berkeley, California. The trip itself was a month-long family holiday to see the sights across Canada and down the coast. They stopped every day at two o’clock to find a motel with a pool—all important for four kids between the ages of 10 and 2.

Kathryn did grade three at Thousand Oaks Elementary School, Berkeley. The late 1960s were the early days of integration in the schools in California, and Kathryn met Black people for the first time, including her teacher, whom she greatly admired. She was amazed to meet people from so many different cultures and to witness a much more “laid-back” way of life among her friends’ families than in her own.

After driving back across the U.S. to Toronto in the summer of 1968, the family rented a house for a year in Victoria Village, near Scarborough. At school, Kathryn was accelerated a grade, into grade 5. The next year, the family moved more permanently to Willowdale, where Kathryn attended her last year of elementary school, then junior high and high school.

At school, she always felt like an outsider. She discovered, though, that her humour worked for her. She could make the other kids laugh and that was her ticket to being accepted.


Allergies

As an infant, Kathryn developed severe and extensive food and environmental allergies, with reactions ranging from eczema to asthma. In the days before food labelling, it was a challenge for her mother to find or prepare foods that she (and Brenda, who had similar allergies) could safely eat, foods containing no wheat, eggs, milk or milk products (cheese, butter), corn, peanuts, soya beans or oranges—i.e., the staples of the North American diet. Her earliest memories were of having things to eat that other children didn’t eat and not being able to eat what they did. When she secretly experimented with these “forbidden” foods (which looked and tasted so much more delicious than what she could eat), she suffered the consequences of eczema and her mother’s frustration and disapproval.

Her first serious asthma attack came in grade 8 when she accidentally ingested peanuts in a store-bought cookie that wasn’t properly labelled. The school could not reach her mother, and by the time her mother did come and get her to the hospital, she was blue and fainting. She was given adrenalin and shook for hours afterward.

In her teens, milk and wheat were gradually introduced into her diet, and initially she seemed to build a certain tolerance. But never to peanuts: in her 20s there were two or three other emergency trips to hospital after unknowingly eating them, which were scares for both herself and her family.

For several years in the 1990s she participated in a herbal apprenticeship program where she learned to identify plants and their properties and to make medicinal preparations. She discovered that through a combination of herbal tinctures, teas and strict diet (avoiding all the wheat-, corn- and cow-dairy-based foods she had been allergic as a child), she could manage her allergic reactions. And she did, until her 55th year.


Church Life

Church was a centre of family activity. The family went to church every Sunday, and as a child Kathryn enjoyed Sunday school at St. Clement’s Anglican Church in North Toronto.

As a teenager, she came to love the service and what she later described as “its magnificent words that rolled around the church,” and she learned to listen attentively to the sermon. By this time the family lived in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale and attended St. John’s Anglican Church, where Kathryn and her sisters sang in the junior choir.

When the family were all together in the pew, there were inevitably moments that would get the sisters and their mother giggling (giggling being a Missen female tradition). The stifled laughter would prompt her father, at the end of the pew, to sternly elbow her mother, who would obligingly elbow whichever daughter was next to her, and so the elbow would be passed down the pew, which only caused more stifled giggles—and the pew to shake.

As a teenager, Kathryn joined the church youth group, where she met Kevin, who became her first and long-time boyfriend.

It was the 1970s, a time of folk masses and teen-centred worship, and she loved attending the Sunday evening folk mass with Kevin.

As a result of these formative experiences, she became steeped in the Anglican tradition, and it became the basis for her outlook on all things spiritual. After being raised in a very “low church” environment (what she called the “colourless and grim” Protestant style of worship), she was introduced by Kevin to the high church (Anglo-Catholic) style of worship, and came to prefer the “colour, the pomp, the ritual and especially the rich musical heritage.” When she began attending the University of Toronto to do a general arts degree, Kevin introduced her to an Anglo-Catholic church downtown—The Church of St. Mary Magdalene—and she auditioned for and sang in its very accomplished choir for several years.


University Years and After

During her first year at the University of Toronto, Kathryn lived in residence at University College and studied English literature, Biblical Greek, music history, history and religion.

But, as she later admitted, there was not much studying going on. Living in residence was a time of “total freedom” after her “strait-laced upbringing.” She “let go in all directions and found the freedom to be dissipated and promiscuous, and to fail.” In residence, she also made a close-knit group of life-long friends who specialized in witty repartee. She could quote from Monty Python, Star Trek and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with ease.

When Kevin broke up with her in her third year, she realized that by not applying herself to her studies she was wasting her time. She left university several courses short of a three-year degree, and found a job in a music store, filling orders for schools and choirs. Her plan was to have a menial job so that she would have the creative energy to write poetry and to sing and perform. By this time she was living in a three-storey row house in the Kensington Market area, which she shared with three others, including two close university friends and, for one year, her sister Brenda. While money was tight, she was quite happy. “House dinners” were famous on Major Street, as was Kathryn and Brenda’s “Missenterpretive dancing.”

In 1981, Kathryn’s father went on a second sabbatical, this time back to Cambridge, England, where he had completed his PhD. Lynne, still in high school, went with them, but Kathryn flew over for a visit the following summer—her first trip overseas. During her visit the family toured Wales, where Kathryn and Lynne climbed every turret of every castle ruin, and Kathryn dubbed them the “turreteers.”

While still at university she met David Clunie, who was studying for the Anglican priesthood at Trinity College. The two shared many common interests, especially a love of classical and liturgical music. When he finished his studies and was about to be ordained and return to Ottawa, David proposed. The two were married in the fall of 1982, after Kathryn came back from Cambridge: she was 23 and David 35.


Marriage and Family Life

Kathryn and David’s early years together were filled with music and food and wine—and lots of visits from friends and family. They were warm and welcoming hosts and famous for their dinner parties. Kathryn’s sisters have wonderful memories of their visits to the vicarage, first in Aylmer, Quebec, then in Eganville west of Ottawa, where the wine and conversation and laughter flowed.

Kathryn was, however, unprepared for married life. She was not domestically inclined (except in the kitchen) and found it a challenge to play the role of “vicar’s wife.” After a year without employment, she got work doing computer coding and telephone surveys for a friend in the government.

In 1985 Kathryn gave birth to Harriet May Michelle, who, as she put it later, “was—and is—a fabulous being.”

Initially struggling in her new parental role, Kathryn learned how to let Harriet be herself in a way she herself had never felt she had been allowed to be.

Soon after Harriet’s birth, Kathryn got pregnant again. Tragically, the baby had anencephaly (a disorder involving the incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord or their protective coverings), and Kathryn had to be induced at 32 weeks to give birth to a baby she knew would be stillborn. The baby, Madeleine Joy Gabriel, was immediately baptized by her father, and there was a subsequent funeral and interment, both of which were very sad occasions that brought family and friends to Eganville. Kathryn grieved her daughter’s death with a depth of feeling she had never imagined.

She became angry with David, who was grieving in a different way and seemed to get on with life in a way she could not. She later recognized that he did so because someone had to—particularly to look after Harriet, who was still a toddler.

Five years after moving to Eganville, David was transferred to a parish in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata (South March), and the family lived in the vicarage next door to the church.

They decided to try to get pregnant a third time and again were successful. But after 16 weeks, the fetus died. Kathryn found this death almost more devastating than the first. On the suggestion of a friend, she began to see a psychiatrist, and later described the therapy as a turning point. She recognized that her real issue was her unhappiness in her marriage. That realization led to couples therapy with David, and eventually to group therapy that Kathryn participated in for at least 15 years, and where she learned to speak in an open and honest way about her feelings, as she had never done before.

In 1990 Kathryn got a job as editor and production manager for an environmental consulting firm, where she worked for seven years before the company downsized. After that she received ongoing contracts doing production and layout for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, as well as freelance work with other clients.

In 1997, her marriage came to an end after 15 years. She described it as “as amicable an ending as one could hope for because of the therapeutic work we had done together.”


 

Life After Marriage

Kathryn moved to the first-floor apartment of a big house owned by a friend in the Ottawa neighbourhood the Glebe. Harriet was now in her wild(ish) teen years, and Kathryn, who had principal care of her daughter, gave her free reign to do the things she wanted—as long as Harriet told her exactly where she was.

In 1999 she fell in love with Madeline Dietrich, and the two had a relationship for two years, which Kathryn later described as “turbulent.” Even though the relationship ended, the friendship endured. (Read Madeline’s tribute to Kathryn here.)

Kathryn’s government contract work began to dry up and she struggled financially. In 2004, she got a full-time job at the Canadian Aviation Maintenance Council (CAMC), where she became editor of its quarterly publication AviNation.

In 2010, the building on Powell Ave. was sold, and Kathryn, forced to move out, bought a house—her first—in Casselman, a town 40 minutes east of Ottawa. She chose Casselman not only for its affordability but also to be near her close friends Steve Dick and Lisa Brazeau, who lived on a farm in the area. She enjoyed working in their gardens and looking after their pets and farm animals whenever they were away.

A year after she bought the house, Kathryn lost her job at CAMC due to structural changes within the council. She returned to freelancing, making the decision to take on only work that she enjoyed, whether layout or editing or photography. This decision led to only sporadic work. Despite her financial stresses and difficulties, she seemed to be much more at peace within herself. Her mother’s generous financial assistance allowed her to keep her home.

A Devoted Mother

Through all Harriet’s growing up years and into adulthood, Kathryn supported, protected and encouraged her daughter with a mother’s fierce love. She came to be a surrogate mom to Harriet’s friends as well.

Both Harriet and her friends could count on Kathryn’s wisdom and guidance in emotional and relationship matters. Even after she moved to Casselman, she drove in to Ottawa for work and church and saw her daughter often. She would drop everything to help Harriet with anything she needed, and they met for dim sum in Chinatown every Sunday after Kathryn’s church service. Harriet considered her mother one of her best friends.

Kathryn was particularly supportive of her daughter’s ambitions and efforts to become a chef, and saw her move up the ranks in different Ottawa restaurant kitchens until Harriet did attain that goal. The two had many conversations about Harriet’s longer-term career plan, to open her own restaurant. Kathryn intended to help her go back to school to take a business management course and to provide any other support she needed. In turn, Harriet, thinking of employment for her mother into older age, was going to hire her to tend the restaurant’s gardens. It is sad that Kathryn did not live to see this longer-term career plan come to fruition: Harriet is now co-owner of the Beechwood Gastropub, where she has been Chef since February 2015. Her mother would be so proud.


 

Kathryn as Herself

A lover of language, inspired by her Greek and Latin studies, Kathryn was especially passionate about the language of music. She once told a friend she was happiest when she was singing. She sang Christmas carols and old-time hymns with her sisters. She sang in various choirs, including the choir at St. Barnabas, Apostle and Martyr, the Anglo-Catholic church she joined after moving to the Glebe.

She took singing lessons when she could afford them, and she also created a small women’s choir, holding the practices in her home.

She was invited to sing at friends’ weddings, and put on impromptu performances with friends.

Kathryn loved to be in the kitchen, whether at home or in the portable kitchen she transported to the Blue Skies Folk Festival every August long weekend. Her Blue Skies years began with David when they were first married, and continued, with barely a year missed, with Harriet and a group of Harriet’s close friends, until her last one, in 2014. Kathryn, renowned for her healthy and delicious culinary offerings, would cook for the girls and anyone else who happened by with a bowl in hand.

She was not one to rough it or travel lightly. Her camping gear filled half a garage, and she was known for taking everything, including the (improvised) kitchen sink—and not only to Blue Skies but also to paddle-in campsites in such places as Schooner Lake (North Frontenac Park Lands). She enjoyed hanging out with close friends in the natural environment, usually from the comfort of her hammock and with a game of Chinese checkers not far away.

Kathryn was self-admittedly plagued by procrastination and clutter, not to mention a perpetual habit of being late. She also had a tendency, which she came to recognize and tried to heal, to disconnect from her family and friends when she was emotionally unable to cope. She would retreat into the world of books and movies.

She was a voracious reader. In subject matter, her ceiling-high bookshelves rivalled a library’s: food, health, plants and herbs, gardening, medieval mysteries, women’s studies, literature, biographies and more—all reflecting her wide-ranging interests.

She loved to travel, a love perhaps spawned by all the family summer road trips when she was growing up. It was on one such family trip to the east coast, in the 1970s, that she fell in love with the beauty of Cape Breton, and she promised the very stones she would return one day. She fulfilled that promise in the late 2000s, when she drove to Nova Scotia, her first road trip on her own. She enjoyed walking the beaches and brought home many rock souvenirs. After a second trip in 2012 or 2013, she hatched a plan with Harriet to drive to Nova Scotia together in 2016—a mother-daughter trip that, sadly, was never to take place.


 

Spirituality

After many years steeped in the male-dominated Church, Kathryn discovered Earth-based spirituality, and came to appreciate both the female and male aspects of the Divine. She came to feel a deep connection to the Earth, and always honoured the Solstice and took part in other Earth-honouring ceremonies with friends.

From the herbal apprenticeship program she took part in, she developed an encyclopedic knowledge of plants, and kept herself and her friends and family in good health with her homemade tinctures and teas.

She learned to listen to the plants and to work cooperatively with them, as well as to photograph them: “The lens focused my seeing and my seeing focused my listening.” She described working with and photographing plants as one of her great joys, and this lasted the rest of her life.

She was also the unofficial family photographer, which meant, unfortunately, that in later years she was more often behind the camera than in the pictures.

Kathryn joined the Ottawa community of Pathwork, a body of practical spiritual wisdom that lays out a step-by-step journey into personal transformation and wholeness, and she participated in it for many years.

She was a devoted member of St. Barnabas. As well as singing in the choir, she generously volunteered her time in many capacities, including taking care of the garden, producing the church newsletter and photographing parish events. She befriended several older parishioners and looked out for them and visited them in their homes.

After her death, the church honoured her devotion as a parishioner by installing a bench in the garden area. A special dedication of the bench, attended by her immediate and extended family and friends, took place in the fall of 2016.

The bench is located beside the church on the James Street side (just off Kent Street) if you are passing by and would like a rest.

The St. Barnabas choirmaster also arranged for a motet to be commissioned in Kathryn’s memory. The motet, Salvator Mundi, by Andre Smith, had its premier by the choir at the Feast of St. Barnabas, Sunday, June 12, June 2016.

 

Missen Family Time

Kathryn was part of a close-knit family that gets together for all the usual holidays as well as birthdays and other special occasions.

Whenever she could, Kathryn would make the trip with Harriet by car from Ottawa to Toronto for these gatherings: they, and family, were important to her. She especially enjoyed her four nieces and her nephew.

In the early 2000s, Kathryn and her three sisters instituted an annual “sisters weekend,” which usually took place at Brenda’s home on the Madawaska River. After their father died in 2007, the sisters included their mother in these annual weekend gatherings and redubbed them “girls weekends.”

They were special times for Kathryn, her sisters and her mother to be together without the extended family (which by this time included husbands and children, nieces and a nephew). The weekends brought Kathryn a little closer to her mother and sisters, as did the regular five-way email communication that their mother initiated after she learned to use a computer at age 75 and that continued for a decade.

For the 2014 girls weekend, the Missen women opted to gather for three nights instead of the usual two, at a cottage in Prince Edward County, and it was unanimously voted the best girls weekend ever—an astonishingly harmonious time, with no “fraught” moments as had previously and understandably sometimes happened with five women in close quarters for two or three days.

That June 2014 weekend turned out to be the last one the five Missen “girls” would have together. Just three weeks later, Kathryn’s mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and given three months to live. Round-the-clock care was arranged for her in her home during the week, and Kathryn and her sisters created a roster of weekend care to be divided among them. On a number of occasions the hired caregiver wasn’t available during the week, and Kathryn willingly came to Toronto, providing gentle, patient and loving care that her mother greatly appreciated. Their time together helped heal the never-before-spoken misunderstandings and rifts between them.

On September 1, 2014, Kathryn had an asthma attack in her home and died after calling 911. (You can read more about that call and the aftermath, in installments, in Beyond Blame: Kate’s Story). More than 300 people attended her funeral at St. Barnabas—family, countless friends and most if not all of the congregation. The sheer number who came to mourn her loss is testament to the impact Kathryn made on so many lives.

She was greatly loved and is sorely missed.

© 2017 BRENDA MISSEN | ALL RIGHTS RESERVED