Spinning a Yarn

By Candice Schultz

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When Mary Hargreaves Norbury moved from Vancouver to northern India in 1948, she felt as though she was living in a fairytale. Shortly after arriving there, she married an English carpet manufacturer and led a privileged life as a post-Raj Memsahib. When her eldest daughter, Judy, contracted polio at the age of four, the family moved back to Canada, and Mary wrote her memoir. When she sent the manuscript away to potential publishers, they rejected her because the ending to her fairytale was so tragic.

Judy, now 59, lives in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island and is well-known in the community as a singer-songwriter, both solo and as part of the folk duo Norbury & Finch. In 1998, Judy travelled to India for the first time since she left her birthplace almost 50 years earlier. When she returned from her trip, she realized that her account of India was the perfect ending to her mother's unpublished memoir. She began working on the manuscript for *Come Back, Judy Baba*, a fusion of her story with her mother's. With the book now in publication, the story is finally complete.

"All the stories in my mother's manuscript were familiar stories that I grew up hearing," says Judy. "My mother was a great storyteller and loved to reminisce about the things she'd done and the people she knew."

Mary now suffers from dementia and resides in a long-term care facility in Vancouver. In February, Judy did a presentation and reading from *Come Back, Judy Baba* at Mary's residence.

"She was totally focused on the stories and laughed at the funny parts but had no memory of having written them. She did enjoy the attention and the party, though. And it gave me a real feeling of satisfaction and completion to give it to her," says Judy.

During her first trip to India, Judy saw the places where she played as a child, and visited the home in which she spent her first four years, now dilapidated and run down. The experience in her birthplace made her thankful that she grew up in Canada, with the privileges that people are afforded in North American society.

In *Come Back, Judy Baba*, Judy recounts several challenges that she experienced while travelling in a wheelchair, including doors that displayed the international wheelchair symbol but had no washrooms behind them. 

On another occasion, Judy's daughter carried her onto a train, then left to get their luggage. Almost immediately, the train started moving, and for a few panicked minutes, Judy thought that she had left her daughter and partner behind. She was soon reunited with them, and found out that the pair had pushed through a crowd of people and swung onto the moving train.

"I have always been quite comfortable with my disability," Judy says. "But being in India as a disabled adult made me accept myself in a new way and be thankful for how I was raised and the privileges of being a Canadian. Disabled folks in Canada have it easy. There is disability everywhere in India; it's not easy for them, but it's all part of the varied stream of life."

Mary was born at her parents' Vancouver home in 1922. When she was 11, her family moved to England so her father could find work. Mary received a scholarship to attend art school for a year, and during this time, began modelling. When she was 15, she moved back to Vancouver and worked at Woodward's as a window dresser.

In the 1940s, she appeared in the pages of the *Province* on a regular basis and was considered to be one of the top fashion models of the time.

"We grew up with the scrapbook with the newspaper clippings in it," says Judy.

In 1948, while working at Suzette's, a high-end women's sportswear shop, Mary met Mike Norbury, an English carpet manufacturer. He became a family friend, and they went out on one dinner date the night before he left for India.

Shortly afterwards, Mike wrote to Mary, asking her to join him in India. That summer, she boarded a boat to Bombay. They were married shortly afterwards. Mary gave birth to Judy and Rosamond in India and, when Judy fell ill in 1953, the family travelled back to Canada. In 1963, a third daughter, Amanda was born.

Shortly afterwards, Mary utilized her passion for colour, texture and design by learning to spin and weave.

"My sister, Amanda, was about five and [Mom] realized that all of her kids were going to grow up and she would need something to occupy her time," says Judy. "That's when she started taking a spinning and weaving course... She really took to it and became very proficient. She made gorgeous rugs, and knitted beautiful sweaters with wonderful colours."

The sweaters Mary made were hand-spun, bulky and cozy. Every year, she donated a sweater to the St. Stephen's United Church raffle.

"They always had pockets and nice, big buttons. They did well in the ski shops. She used a lot of natural dyes," says Judy.

Judy can still smell the lichen Mary used to dye wool. Right up until the point that Mary began to lose her memory, she attended dye-pots with her friends. Dye-pots were parties at each other's homes in which they dyed wool together. After Mike passed away in 1995, Mary continued to attend the dye-pots until she broke her hip in 2003 and moved to her current residence. The family knew she wasn't quite the same because she no longer finished her knitting projects.

At her peak, Mary was an influential member of the community, and taught spinning and weaving out of the home as well as the West Vancouver shop, The Handcraft Shop. She influenced many of her students and her daughters' friends to pursue careers in art and design. Heather Ross, a local artist and photographer remembers the effect that Mary had on her.

"There was something soothing and satisfying about what she did," says Heather. "If I hadn't come across her, I might not have gone into that aspect of design."

Today, Judy admits to talking about her mother in the past tense because of her dementia, but is glad that Mary has retained her sense of humour. While she doesn't knit anymore, Mary still puts on her lipstick every morning.

"The best things about her have remained," says Judy, who has been busy promoting *Come Back, Judy Baba*. Judy is proud to have brought the book to publication during her mother's lifetime.

"It's immensely satisfying to me, even though she can't appreciate it the way she would have 15 years ago. My story goes with her, and that makes it complete."

Come Back Judy Baba is available at Munro's and Ivy's bookstores in Victoria, Mulberry's Books in Qualicum, the North Vancouver Save-On-Foods, Hagar Books at 41st and West Boulevard in Kerrisdale, and can be ordered from any Chapters outlet.


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Showing 1 to 1 of 1 comments.

I have to read your book. My father worked for the government of India and my siblings and I were born, raised and educated in India. We left when India got independence. Now in my 80s, I have been writing short essays as memoirs for my children who know little of my childhood and life in India - so different (and at times very difficult ) from their lives in Canada. I would love to read "Come back Judy Baba" and compare.

Posted by cynthia | August 24, 2009 Report Violation

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