Flying from East to West is our Book Fairy, but the truth is, she really didn’t look quite like this. And the other truth is, she began by travelling from West to East.
Our Book Fairy’s real name was Barbara. She was born in Kelliher, Saskatchewan in 1919. She gradually began to move East, beginning with University of Manitoba in Winnipeg where she trained as an architect, and eventually settling in Manotick, Ontario where she designed her family’s beautiful home and practiced architecture. I had the great fortune to grow up a few houses down the river from her. Once grown, I travelled from East to West where I eventually married and raised a family just 80 kms away from her birth place in Kelliher. For over two decades, our Book Fairy and her husband Doug sent parcels of books to our four daughters from East to West three times a year – every Hallowe’en, Easter and Christmas. Sometimes they even came to visit. Almost every second year, we packed into the family van, heading in the opposite direction with tents and sleeping bags, books and swimsuits, and great excitement to visit the Book Fairies. The collage above remembers Barbara the Book Fairy, who died this past February after 97 rich and marvellous years, many in the lovely home she designed. Here are some additional memories.
Barbara the Book Fairy was not a lone operator. Her husband, Douglas, is pictured flying a small plane on the right, in honour of his time as a navigator in WW2. He did not like to be called a “Book Fairy” but he was fully involved in sharing a love for books with our daughters. Our various thank you letters were addressed to “the Book Fairies,” “the Book Fairy and Hus(band),” and “the Book Fairy and Navigator.” Just below the plane is a parcel reminiscent of the many, many parcels we received over the years.
Look below the flying frog and see the four girls eagerly awaiting the parcel of books falling from the sky. There was such tremendous excitement in our home when a parcel from the Book Fairies arrived. It was an “Occasion.” I used this opportunity to bribe my children – the Book Fairy’s parcel could not be opened until the living room was perfectly clean. Everybody had to be present. In each parcel there were specially picked books ( books about Egypt or Russia, books by favourite authors, books that were a complete surprise, books from their personal collection), an individual card for each girl, and candies or chocolates as befit the season.
Visiting them at their home in Manotick was another wonderful treat. Their home was filled with beautiful objects and art, including a large statue of the Buddha in their basement. We enjoyed a tour of Mr. Humphrey’s garden followed by tea or ginger ale. Lunch out at a restaurant followed by shopping at Chapters was greatly anticipated by our daughters. On one such expedition, one of my children timidly asked if it was possible to have dessert. I was appalled at such cheek and immediately said no, but Mr. Humphreys interjected. “Absolutely! You can have any dessert on the menu.” (Note the large piece of cake with a cherry on top in the collage.) Shopping at Chapters was equally wonderful – the girls could select any book in the store. Imagine such a treat!
In later years, our lunches took place at Miller’s Oven in Manotick with mile high lemon meringue pie, and our book shopping happened at a used bookstore run by Watson’s Mill – both places very dear to our Book Fairy and her husband.
Seven years ago, when the Book Fairy and her husband turned 90, they travelled to Saskatchewan to attend Kelliher’s 100th birthday. I have many memories of that trip – amongst them, watching an endless parade of farm tractors and other vehicles on a day that was so hot “you could fry an egg on the sidewalk” – the only non-mechanical object in the parade was a Canada Post mailbox with two legs. The Book Fairies endured the parade and the heat with their usual grace and wry humour.
Barb and Doug had a special place in our home as Book Fairies, they were like parents and grandparents to many others as well. A love of books was central in our friendship, but they gave us much much more than books and chocolates and lunches out. They offered their genuine and keen interest in each girl. They offered glimpses into worlds far beyond the Saskatchewan prairies. They also loved and celebrated our farm world. They encouraged Shane and I as parents. They laughed at their foibles as they got older. They loved telling stories on themselves. They took such tremendous pleasure and delight in each other. Their many talents and accomplishments were only exceeded by their modesty. They made each of us feel special and interesting. They not only gave us a lifelong love of books and quest for knowledge, they brought magic and possibility and enchantment to our lives.
It is almost impossible to write about Barbara the Book Fairy without including the Book Fairy’s Husband because they were such a unit. The Book Fairy’s Husband, Doug, is still very much alive, and we will continue to share stories with him as well as enjoy his company.
To learn more about Barbara Humphrey’s contribution to architecture and heritage conservation in Canada, please read this tribute.