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Stevenson, Florence Louisa Maude "Nonie" (Russell) & Dr James


Florence Louisa Maude “Nonie” Russell and Dr. James Scarth Stevenson
(1877-1940) (1878-1957)

Florence Louisa Maude Russell (b. 1877) was born in Quebec, the daughter of William Edward Russell and Fanny Eliza Pope and granddaughter of Willis Russell. When she was sixteen, she went to Montreal, ostensibly to visit Trevor Evans' family (he was an old beau from Tadoussac days) but instead falsified her age and enrolled as a student nurse at the Montreal General Hospital. By her own admission, her course marks were never very good, but she was tops when it came to work on the wards. Tall, strong, and energetic, she did twelve hour shifts and often twenty-four. It was while she was at the M.G.H. that she met her future husband, James Stevenson, who was at McGill University studying medicine. Upon graduation she returned to Quebec as Night Supervisor at the Jeffrey Hale Hospital, and James Stevenson followed her there as Surgical Resident. They married in the summer of 1905.
As Ann Stevenson describes her father, “Dr. Stevenson was born in Montreal in February 1878, youngest son of Pillans Scarth Stevenson and Annie Story Harris. The Stevensons had come out from Leith, Scotland, where they were ship owners, settling near Ottawa after the Napoleonic wars. They were a large family but we have lost touch with all except the Scarth connection. Dad's mother was a Harris from a Boston family who had married into the LeBrun de Duplessis-Charles family and settled in Montreal. According to Dad's own account he looked like a bad orange when he was born and was not expected to live, so they baptized him in water from the Jordan and gave him the name of his older half-brother. I guess being Scots, they didn't see any point in wasting a good name on someone who was going to die anyway. He fooled them all and lived to be eighty. People would say, ‘Dear Dr. Stevenson, he looks so thin,’ and they would load him down with fresh vegetables and jam. This treatment always annoyed Mum, who with her fresh complexion looked the picture of health, but ached all over.
Mum [‘Nonie’ Russell] was a completely uninhibited person, especially for a Victorian woman. Her father had taught them all that it was far better to talk about a thing or do it than to keep it inside and stew about it. The old Montreal General Hospital bordered the red light district, and Mum used to lean out the window of the nurses' residence and jeer at the men going in and out of the brothels. Yet one of her cherished possessions was a silver thermometer case, a gift from a sick prostitute she had nursed. Another time at her class banquet, she appeared nude with a chamber pot in one hand filled with roses from which, much to the surprise of her classmates, she danced about the room distributing them to each. She loved double entendres and dirty jokes. Life to her was full of ridiculous situations. She loved laughter, bright lights, sweet music, fine furniture and silver, and good food. Reading, other than light novels, was beyond her interest, nor did she do any handiwork or sewing, having lost the sight of one eye during a pregnancy, although as a girl she had shown considerable talent with oils. When she hated, she hated with every fiber of her being. When she loved, it was total. There were no half measures in anything she did. If a project didn't turn out, she kept at it until it did. In spite of her love of life, she was subject to frequent bouts of depression. She once bought a gloomy-looking Scottie, because she wanted a pet that looked worse than she felt. Dark days depressed her, death frightened her, and thunderstorms terrified her. Then she would pace the floor wringing her hands and shrieking at every bolt. (The house at Tadoussac had been struck when she was a child, and she had been knocked unconscious).
She attended church at the Cathedral quite regularly until she took issue with the Dean over a sermon he preached on the text, ‘Think well of thyself,’ and we all transferred to St. Matthew's. She didn't return to the Cathedral until the Dean moved on up the line and became Bishop somewhere. Her Anglicanism didn't prevent her from having a few miraculous medals or making offerings to St. Anthony to help her find lost trinkets. She loved to shock the clergy with her outspoken comments. Once when the Rector who had been invited to lunch was a bit slow in coming downstairs from washing his hands, she called up to him, ‘Brother Jones, have you fallen down the W.C. ?’ A faint cry came from the upper floor, ‘No, but I've locked myself in and can't get out!’ Dad [Dr. Stevenson] had to stand on the bathtub and help the poor man out through the ventilator window. Later, Mum became converted by the Oxford Group evangelists, and, for a few months, there was marital peace because Dad also joined — for a time. However, Mum had no interest in theology. Compassion was her religion. We were taught to pick flowers and take them to the old people at St. Bridget's Home across the street, as we, too, might be old and lonely someday. As a child, I would be sent on the streetcar to take a hot casserole to a destitute widow. Unfortunately, I was also sent on the same streetcar to bring home a bottle of straight alcohol which she kept hidden in her bureau drawer and imbibed secretly at bedtime. (This was before the days of sleeping pills and tranquilizers.) It was also my task to dispose of the empties over the fence of the nearest vacant lot. During this time she was very unhappy, and she and Dad fought bitterly until the small hours of the morning. Everything Dad did annoyed her, and she didn't hesitate to tell him so. He, in turn, retreated more and more into his books. It was an unhappy time for all of us.

Mum [‘Nonie’ Russell] was a fabulous cook and fed anyone and everyone who came in her door. Her strong, beautifully shaped hands with their turned back-thumbs were quick and sure with her baking. We never had anything but puff pastry - tender, golden, flaky puffs filled with wild- strawberry jam or lemon meringue. She fought a continuous, losing battle with her weight, because she had to sample everything to see if it was up to standard. She would hold a piece of cake to her ear and press it lightly to ‘hear if it had enough eggs in it.’ The farmer was urged to set the centrifuge on the cream separator so that the cream would be thick enough to spoon, not pour. Crusty bread, rich cakes, suet puddings, sucre à la crème , and huge roasts issued from the kitchen with joyous profusion, to be devoured by our boy-friends, who enjoyed her company as much as ours. Because of her weight problem, she walked miles each day in all weather and for a while took up curling when walking in the winter was too difficult.

In later years Mum's [Nonie’s]health began to deteriorate. The long hours on her feet, cooking, walking, and working collapsed her arches and she suffered from prolonged and frequent bouts of phlebitis and varicose veins, and probably arthritis. Once a month, Toby Berridge, the gentle West Indian foot doctor, came to tend her painful feet with his velvety black hands. Together they would discuss the vicissitudes of life. ‘What do you do, Toby, when life gets hard?’ ‘I goes to bed and I covers my head.’ At her funeral Toby stood on the steps of the Cathedral, tears pouring down his face. He had sensed her real interest in him and his problems and mourned the passing of a compassionate friend. Her heart, worn out by work and the intensity of her emotions, began to fibrillate, and for three years she was too weak to leave her bed. Late in January, 1940, I arrived unexpectedly in Quebec to visit her in the hospital. Though no one had told her I was coming, she said to the nurse, ‘Is Ann here yet? Will Elizabeth get here in time?’ They thought her mind was wandering, as it so often had during her illness. While I was with her, she saw the Methodist pastor pass her door and wanted to have him come in, but I was too embarrassed to go after him, and so I delayed until he was out of sight. Somehow, she who had seen so many people die, knew when her own time had come. She died that night.

As the years pass, I can begin to see Mummy [‘Nonie’ Russell] in better perspective. For a person such as she was, one needs this distance to appreciate her personality. I owe her my life twice over. She not only bore me, but when the doctors despaired of my life and wanted to let me slip into oblivion, she importuned the Lord on my behalf and shamed the doctors into trying to revive me. Much to their surprise, but not hers, I lived. Having won me back at such cost, preserving that life became her major concern, and finally an obsession. She never did anything by halves.”

Brian Dewart (with excerpts from Ann Stevenson Dewart’s writings)

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