Parkdale, my neighbourhood since 1993, is known for its many characters. People who make the place unique and colourful, people who definitely dance to their own drummer. For 90 some-odd years, one of those characters was Annie Ross. Born in the building that stands on the south-west corner of Queen and Dunn in 1913, she lived there her entire life until her death in 2004. Miss Ross never married, instead running her family’s flower shop at the front of the building, and spending her retirement years in a small apartment at the back where she was known for feeding the local pigeons; thus her nickname, The Bird Lady.
Miss Ross could tell you stories of how Parkdale had changed and grown. She could remember when the lot directly across the street from her on Dunn was a field for horses. She could tell about how the buildings went up along Queen, or how the mansions along Jameson came down to make way for apartment buildings. And she could tell you about books. In a 4-minute short documentary filmed before her death, she talks about how she began keeping track of all the books she read in her lifetime, some 8,600 different titles.
Since she never married and never had children, upon Miss Ross’ death, a niece took possession of the building. The century-old brick structure was in a poor state of repair and many renovations were done, including to the rooms where Ross herself had lived, as well as to the shop in the front, and the apartments on the second and third floors (formerly the family home) that had been rented out to tenants.
People who lived in the building referred to the niece as hard and mercenary, caring only for the profit that could be made on raised rents.
Most of Miss Ross’ belongings were taken away, many valuable antiques and family heirlooms. But the niece was overwhelmed by the books. Miss Ross was a bit of a packrat and there were so many books. So the niece held a “yard” sale one weekend in the empty storefront. There, bits of furniture, knickknacks, old sewing patterns from the 60s (Miss Ross had been known for being quite the style-setter in her day) and stacks upon stacks of books were all laid out for people to sort through.
It felt tawdry to go in there and poke through a dead lady’s possessions. In the same way when, after my husband’s uncle died, many of his belongings were boxed up and taken to the funeral for his friends and acquaintances to take if they wanted to, it felt almost as if we were stealing that sweet old lady’s favourite things.
We definitely weren’t stealing, though, and when I came across a pair of first edition Adubon books and the Edgar T. Wherry wildflower guide and asked the price, the niece tried to pull them from my hands saying, “Oh, those shouldn’t be there, they’re worth some money! Those are not for sale!”
I insisted. Not because I thought them to be of any value (they’re not really, despite being first editions) but because if I was going to take away a memory of the sweet old bird lady, books about birds seemed like a fitting choice.
We haggled a bit and finally settled on a price for the three books, and I brought them home and put them on a shelf, planning on flipping through them at some point, but then forgetting, as is often the case with such things.
Then, last week, some 7 years after bringing home Miss Ross’ books, I had occasion to need to look up something in the wildflower guide. I flipped through the pages and suddenly little bits of yellowed petals fluttered to the floor.
Carefully, ever so carefully, I flipped each page until I found it. A small strip of yellowed wax paper, maybe 3 inches high, containing the pressed remains of 4 flowers. I can make out a daisy, a sprig of Queen Anne’s lace, something that might be a white iris, and possibly a pale yellow Johnny jump-up. Unfortunately some of the petals have been crushed to a fine dust, the stems have come off the others, and the whole thing is perilously fragile.
For all of her love of books, the spine of this wildflower guide seems to not have been cracked. The standard pages have yellowed with age, but the glossy colour plates are as good and fresh as new, making me think that Miss Ross maybe didn’t use this book very much since its printing in 1948. She did, however, use it to press a few flowers. This packet is the only one in the book, and I cannot tell its age; it may have been there for six years, or for sixty.
Did she forget they were there, hidden among her 8000+ books? Did she plan on using them for something? Or did she place them there, figuring she’d forget them completely and would have a small burst of joy when she finally opened the book at some point in the future and found them again?
Annie Ross never got to enjoy her flowers again. But on a dreary winter day, I was given a splendid gift and reminder… of her, of beauty, of nature and of the importance of remembering.
I’ve put the flowers back in the book. Some day, when I have passed, my own niece will likely have to go through my things and sort what will be kept and what will be sold off. I hope she opens the cover, looks at the little sticker bearing Annie Ross’ name and address, watches the slip of waxed paper and crushed flower petals fall to the floor, and wonders who she was and what she meant to me and the people who knew her.