Now and Then – Audrey ‘Toots’ McDermid

Audrey ‘Toots’ McDermid

Toots spent much of her working life involved in Manitoulin’s friendly hometown retail business, McDermid’s Home Hardware in Providence Bay. She started the first figure skating club on the Island, was Citizen of the Year, a Red-Hatter, wrote community news from Prov for The Expositor and fundraised for the Manitoulin Health Centre Auxiliary. “I have always enjoyed meeting and helping people from all walks of life. So many visitors came to our family hardware store in Providence Bay. I thoroughly enjoyed finding out what part of the Canada or the world they had come from. That was usually ascertained before we found out what they actually needed in the store.”

A seventeen-year old Toots McDermid in Little Current.

McDermid’s Home Hardware Store became the unofficial gathering place for Providence Bay. The store boasted everything from boards to butter. Nails, nick-knacks and birthday gifts were available too. You could find stuff you wouldn’t find anyplace else in the world, and you might be assisted by the patriarch, Murray’s dad (the late J.F. McDermid). Neighbours ran into neighbours as well as a few strangers each summer. You were taken back to a gentler, more nostalgic time.

McDermid’s and Buie’s Grocery in Spring Bay became anchors for the writer’s family each summer, arriving from either Windsor at first and later from Edmonton to build a little more of a cottage. It was a place to catch up on local happenings. The writer recalls browsing through the gift isles while hubby was in the back ordering important stuff from the lumber yard.

When the McDermids retired in 2006, three generations of their family had been in the hardware business. Murray had taken over his dad’s store at 17. At that time, all items arrived by boat. A lot of hard work over the next five decades had Toots declare “Glory Halleluiah, I won’t have to do this again.” when she locked up the store for that last time in 2006.

A young Toots Lockyere in the late 1940s.
A young Toots Lockyere in the late 1940s.

“My maternal grandparents were Pennsylvania Dutch. My mother was just two-and-a-half-years-old when her mother died. Audrey Leola Lockyear was born to Anne May (Cockle) and Clifford Lockyear on October 13, 1927. “My grandfather spoiled me. He lovingly called me ‘Toots,’ which he could recall eminently better than ‘Audrey.’ Nobody knew me as Audrey. Grandfather remarried and, later, I used to visit my grandmother and help her with little tasks, like watering her plants.”

“Going back, my first memory is struggling to get up and move on the ice wearing my dad’s hockey skates. My foot was lost in the cavernous boot. Remaining upright enough to propel myself forward was a challenge. Thankfully Santa brought me some skates that Christmas.” Toots shares the story of her brother Floyd who decided to find his father at the skating arena. Confusion reigned when he encountered a team of fathers, all dressed alike in hockey gear. “Which one of you is my dad?” he blurted out. Laughter was the response until the ‘real dad’ skated forward.

“I really didn’t want to go to school on my first day and this fear was compounded when mother threw a broom at me. ‘This is for good luck,’ she insisted. It turned out that school was not as bad as I thought. I liked handwriting the best.” However, her enthusiasm may have waned when the teacher declared, “You are a wonderful writer, but your sister Betty is smarter.”

Little Toots was slapped once by her teacher when she tried to answer another student’s question.  “Both he and I got the strap but he cried and I didn’t.” Toots and a friend managed to hide the strap twice but the teacher always found it again and seemed to suspect, correctly, the identity of the guilty parties.

“I really wanted to be outside to play sports.” Gymnastics and baseball were favourites. “I was good at running and hitting the ball but not so good at catching. One day, in Grade 8, I was asked to be an extra for a softball game in Mindemoya. They put me out in center field and in no time a hit ball was coming straight for me. I panicked, ‘I can’t do this,’ I thought, but I held out my glove and closed my eyes.” Somehow the ball hit the glove which led to tumultuous cheering and hugging from the team.

Murray with the Dodgers in 1949.

Dad Clifford was the supervisor at Morley Richie’s Grocery store in Little Current. The TD Bank is located in the same spot today. “My dad would come home and tell us the day’s events. I just loved to hear those tales. At 15, I decided to quit school and follow in my father’s footsteps, but mother adamantly refused.” In the early 1940s, some of Toots friends left to serve the country. “I was too young for that too and neither of my parents would sign a paper saying I was 18,” Toots shared. “My dad told me he had lost a brother in the war and he didn’t want to lose his daughter too.”

At 16, Toots got her wish. She was hired as a clerk for Elmer Vincent’s Fairway Store in downtown Little Current for a dollar a day. At 14 she had gone into his store and asked for work. He told her to come back at 16; she did and was hired. “I loved being a jack of all trades, meeting customers, stocking shelves and running the cash.”

Murray McDermid had accompanied his friend Walter Frank to Little Current. The Frank family had just bought the old McDougall Hotel and Walter wanted to visit the site. Murray spotted Toots and Donna McDougall, whom he knew. He asked the girls if they wanted to go for a ride. While the boys were trying to figure out who would sit in the back and who would sit in the front, Donna and Toots both got in the back. The foursome drove to the docks where they had fun chatting and getting to know each other. Toots and Murray soon paired off and Murray would visit Little Current weekly to see his sweetheart.

Murray thought Toots was cute and very compatible. “I thought he was really nice and very polite,” Toots holds. There was another young man interested in Toots but Murray won her heart. “I remember the day he proposed. We were under the willow tree at home on Vankoughnet St. I hesitated a little with my response because I had wanted to wait.  Murray nervously asked again, “Well?” Toots knew in her heart that she wanted to be his bride, so she said yes, much to Murray’s relief. The ring would come later.

Toots was an excellent figure skater and several girls asked her to teach them. She happily agreed and the first Manitoulin Figure Skating Club was begun. “We put on quite a show in Gore Bay. Tommy Porter helped set up the event.” As more students came on board, clubs were spread to other communities. Several communities began to put on shows and Toots was in heaven with the success of her protégées. In 1949-1950, a new rink went up in Providence Bay with Murray’s father J.F. McDermid the driving force behind the new facility.

That same summer of 1949, Murray was asked by a Brooklyn Dodgers scout to come to Fort Erie for a try-out. He travelled to the Dodgers farm team camp and spent an exciting time, mixing with the big wigs of baseball. Later he was sent to New York to play with the Dodgers. He was the first person from Manitoulin to do so.

Toots was still working for Elmer Vincent. After six years of employment, Elmer decided she could help with the window displays. He offered to send her to Toronto to take a display course, all expenses paid. Toots was flattered but she had to decline. She told Elmer that Murray was coming home from baseball camp and they were to be married. The girls in the store began to tease her about marrying the ball player from Providence Bay.

That September, just before the wedding, there was an exhibition game between Copper Cliff and Little Current. Uncle Stanley Bailey, an old ball player living at Murray’s family home, had asked to come. He had taught his nephew a lot and wanted to see Murray pitch the game. Up at bat, Murray hit a home run that brought in three runners: Larry Frank, Lyle Chemsley and Murray himself. Uncle Stanley Bailey got so excited he suffered a sudden heart attack and died. Murray, deeply saddened and upset, could not continue with the winning game despite appeals that insisted his uncle would have wanted him to finish the game.

The September wedding was postponed to October out of respect for Uncle Stanley. Soon an aunt on Toots’ side passed away and the wedding was rescheduled again, this time for November 16, 1949. “The boys all wanted to know why I would schedule a wedding during hunting season,” Murray recalls. “I told them I could always get a four-legged deer but I didn’t want to lose my two-legged deer.” The wedding was kept small out of respect for the recent deaths. Although only a few were invited, the couple found that the whole church was packed with people, both upstairs and downstairs. A dinner for family was held in the Little Current United Church hall.

Murray took his new bride to New York to show her where he was playing ball. The couple moved state-side to Hornell, New York in 1950. They made lots of friends there. Ball players seemed to attract acquaintances so Murray got to know two catchers quite well.

On March 8, 1950, Murray found out his dad’s store had burned down. It was not clear how the fire had started but it could have been an electrical issue or it might have been a chimney that had only a single wall of cement board between it and the building. The wall could have cracked and spewed hot timbers into the building. Mike Smith rushed to bring the portable water pump to the site, but it was too late to save the store. To make matters worse, Murray’s dad had accidentally insured one of his two sites twice but this confusion meant there was no insurance on the building that burned. An appeal was made to the insurance company and eventually they paid the claim which was used to build an addition to the existing store.

In 1951 Murray’s dad began to have a lot of migraine headaches so Murray felt he should stay home that fall. A terrible accident ensued. “I fell off the back of our delivery pick-up truck, in transit, and hit my shoulder and my head on the hard road surface.” A float plane took him from Mindemoya to Sudbury and then he was transported to Toronto. “I was in a coma for two weeks,” he shared. He smiled, adding, “I was told that young Art Oakes had come along with his dad, also named Art, had taken a look at me lying on the road and declared, ‘I think the b—- is dead’ and he was nearly right.” Art shared this light moment with Murray after his recovery.

Toots recalls walking into his Toronto hospital room, afraid of what she might see. As the door opened and Toots tentatively peeked in, she heard a resounding “hello Hon.” Murray was smiling and sitting up, watching the Grey Cup parade on television. Toots was terribly relieved as she wiped a tear from her eye. “The doctor asked me if Murray was an athlete and I told him yes.” He responded, “He must have been or he would not have survived.”

Murray’s baseball career was over but his career in merchandising was about to kick up a notch. He and his father expanded the business to include building materials and lumber. Toots began to work in the store as well. In 1953, daughter Sally Denise was born. She was a big baby. Her size and the forceps used for her birth resulted in a broken tail bone.  Dr. McQuay was assisted by Dr. Bailey. Murray recalls his first magic look at his daughter. “I remember Maude Galbraithe, the nurse, holding her up for me to see.” It had been such a challenging birth that Dr. Bailey told Toots he hoped he wouldn’t see her for another 10 years!

Toots in her 60s.
Toots in her 60s.

“I waited eight years for my son Jamey to be born, so we came close to that goal.” Jamey was a smaller baby and both Dr. McQuay and Dr. Strain from Gore Bay helped with the delivery. The morning he was to be born, Toots was scheduled for a C-section. At the same time, a terrible accident happened just outside Providence Bay. A German couple had rolled their car. Their Volkswagen was upside down in the ditch and the lady was trapped inside, unconscious. Murray drove to the scene and saw Dr. McQuay arriving. He quietly asked if he had started the C-section yet and Dr. McQuay said no, he hadn’t, much to Murray’s relief. Murray helped to get the lady out and they loaded her into a station wagon heading for Sudbury, but she died on the way. Later, the husband remarried and he is now buried in the local cemetery between his two wives.

“My favourite season is winter, when we married and when we visited the Barbados. We must have been there at least 40 times. One time, walking down the beach, we saw one of the Tenors of the ‘Four Tenors.’ Luciano Pavarotti, I think. I actually said hello to him and chatted for a few minutes. The following year when I ran into him again, he remembered I was from Canada. I like summer too because it’s warm outside and I love the beach.”

“Murray was a member of the board of directors for all Home Hardware Stores in Canada for 29 years. Every summer, we went to Home Hardware meetings. We visited all the provinces in Canada. We have been to Scotland four times and Ireland three times. Our daughter and son-in-law loved the bagpipes. In the Isle of Islay, we met a neighbour from Spring Bay. We couldn’t believe it. ‘Toots,’ he called to me. It is amazing how small the world can be.”

“I spent 19 days in Europe with Margaret Cranston, Lois Cooper and Betty Lawrence. We had been talking about going for ever. One day I said to them, ‘If we don’t go now we may as well shut up about it’.” They all decided to go, so the trip was arranged and they had a glorious time. The girls saw the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican. A lot of fish was on the menu and the girls noticed that Toots wasn’t eating much. “I finally confessed I didn’t like fish and they found me alternatives. I found the bedding was crisp and white in Europe. The glass was so clean I nearly broke my nose when I tried to walk through a closed door.” The girls laughed and teased her about it for several days.

Accomplishments for Toots include writing Little Current stories and later Providence Bay happenings for The Expositor for more than 30 years. She was on the CNIB board for 30 years, on the hospital board for the Manitoulin Health Centre for 16 years and also served on the Manitoulin Family Resources (Haven House) board. “I loved the board work.” Toots was president of the Mindemoya Hospital Auxiliary for nine years and she worked for the local church, also singing in the choir. She has been a Red Hatter since the inception of that group and a Central Lions’ Citizen of the Year in 1999. Toots was awarded an Eastwing golden hammer, which sits next to Murray’s and his father’s golden hammers, for 50 years of work in the hardware business.

Strengths include meeting people, friendliness and collecting stuff: plates, cups and spoons. “I have over 500 plates, 150 cups and about 200 spoons. They fill two rooms. I finally had to ask people to stop buying them.” Murray adds, “She is a darn good cook too and she loves to cut the lawn despite the fact that she will be 88 in October.”

Murray and Toots in 1949.
Murray and Toots in 1949.

“We have two grandchildren from Jamie: Jesse, 29 now, and Morgan Elizabeth Mae. Morgan has a daughter, Maya Lynn, four months old, and Jesse has a son named Hunter, 12. Jamie worked at the store for many years and he is a day trader today. Sally had government jobs, through the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Provincial Auditor, the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Health.”

“If I could go back in time, I would prevent the accident that changed Murray’s life, but I don’t have regrets about the life I did lead. I am relatively healthy and very happy to live with Murray on Manitoulin. Macular degeneration is my biggest problem. Recently, I stopped using many of my medicines because I found I was drowsy much of the time. I am also trying to adhere to a new diet that eliminates sugar, citrus and other acidic foods. I take more Vitamin D, C, and B12 as well as anti-inflammatory agents. It seems to be helping because I am mobile now whereas I was bed-bound much of the time last fall.”

“Our recipe for happiness is being together and travelling together; sharing things with one another. We have been a couple for 65 years; that’s a long time for sharing happiness. Murray is smart. When he wants something done he says ‘Don’t you do that’ knowing I will try hard to do it. Reverse psychology works on me. I am most proud of my family. What do I fear the most? It’s the big snake I heard about that was seen recently in Providence Bay.”

“Manitoulin is a place to love. Both of us are genuine Haweaters. There is an ease of life here, less pressure, fresh air, down-to-earth people and usually no big snakes. I have always loved to go swimming here surrounded by beautiful scenery. Manitoulin is and always will be our home and that makes it special for us.”