It’s hard to believe that someone so vital and adventurous as writer friend, Gunda Lambton, could be gone from amongst us.
Over her exceptionally long life of ninety-nine years, Gunda was proud to be the mother of four children, two daughters with her American husband, famous illustrator Garth Williams, and two sons from her second marriage to Bill Lambton, with whom she lived happily for sixty-four years. But she would have been quick to tell you that she also was an artist, illustrator and craftsperson, as well as a teacher, docent at the National Gallery in Ottawa, television presenter, local historian, linguist, adventurous traveler, community organizer, member of a craft cooperative in Wakefield, keen supporter of Canadian authors and artists, environmentalist, and a committed organic gardener.
I first met Gunda and her editor and farmer husband Bill when she offered me their splendid Gatineau Hills home as a writers’ retreat while they were visiting family in Europe. On my first visit to meet them, as she was taking me for a brief introductory walk around their farm, she sketched in some of the details of how, in 1974, she and Bill had restored their log home, which originally had been built more than a century before from the trees on their farm. Savoring the massive, hand-squared logs during breaks from drafting my first novel and prowling the beautiful fields and forested hills after I finished my day’s writing work, I felt I got to know my absent hosts.
The Lambtons were passionate about appropriate farming. Gunda, in particular, kept to the traditions she had learned in Germany from her German father and English mother. Until very close to her final years, she was proud of her apple and pear trees and the vegetable garden which supplied much of the winter food she preserved. As well, she preferred to make meals on the old cook stove in her big kitchen, using some of the firewood selectively harvested from their land. My guess would be that her simple, frugal ways, learned during lean early days, contributed to her very long life.
Along with Bill, she firmly believed that their home and land should be open for all to enjoy. It was not unusual to see neighborhood friends sauntering across the fields for a swim in the little lake at the back of the property. In fact, when native friends needed a refuge from urban Gatineau they offered them a secluded place there to build a teepee.
Everywhere in the house there were photos of happy family gatherings on the farm. It was easy to see that Gunda enjoyed her children. And yet, in some ways, as she confided to me, her life began in her late fifties, when she was at liberty to explore her other interests. She was immensely proud to earn her BA at the age of 69, followed by an MA when she was 74, both from Carleton University. Her studies there refined her thinking, she said, and made her believe that anything was possible.
In 1994, in her eightieth year, she published a full-length book, Stealing the Show: Seven Women Artists in Canadian Public Art (McGill-Queen’s University Press). By now, Gunda was a serious professional, and other books followed, which hint at the range of her experience. As co-author and illustrator of The Wildest Rivers, the Oldest Hills she preserved and retold some of the stories of the Gatineau and the Pontiac regions.
From this first stay in the log house, a rich and inspiring writers’ friendship developed between me and Gunda. Over the following years, I was fortunate to return many times, either to house-sit or to visit. During this time, Gunda eagerly discussed the manuscripts which were important to her.
A keen follower of politics, in 2000 she published The Frankenstein Room, Growing Up in Germany Between the Wars, (Voyageur) a memoir written from her unusual perspective as a child of mixed English-German parentage growing up in a turbulent Germany. From here, she went on to write Sun in Winter: A Toronto Wartime Journal, 1942 to 1945 (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). This was a reminiscence about her struggle as an evacuee from England to make a life for her and her two little daughters in Toronto during the Second World War. Although this memoir has the drama of an adventure story, it is also significant for its carefully-sketched tribute to some notable Torontonians who helped her to survive.
As recently as her early nineties, it seemed there would be no stopping my friend. When she broke her shoulder skiing, her children insisted that it was time to put her skis aside. “All that means is that I’m learning to snowshoe,” she said, with a wicked, determined gleam. Even glaucoma, hampering as it was, was another country for her to explore. She adapted her computer to her handicap and told me excitedly about the fine audio books she was discovering.
Eager, brisk as she was, there were so many ways she wanted to fill her days that it’s hard to believe she won’t be here to tell me she’s found the year’s first fiddleheads down by the fast-running brook, or that she won’t be handing me the manuscript of another book to enjoy.
**In fact, two of Gunda’s books remain, which would be well worth publishing. The first is her vivid memoir of her year in Catalonia, Spain, in 1934-3, just before the outbreak of the civil war. The second retells the Lambtons’ adventures discovering and restoring their farm and log house near Farrelton, Quebec.