My sister, Paula Fairbairn passed away this week. For those of you that hadn’t met Paula or thought you knew her, this is my interpretation of her remarkable life.
Paula and I grew up in Esquimalt, BC in a comfortable middle class family home. Our Dad was a machinist at HMC Dockyard and our mother worked part time as a classified advertising supervisor at the Daily Colonist newspaper. I was pretty sure that we were parented by Ward and June Cleaver; Paula was positive they were Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
This difference of opinion was one of many differences that existed between us, but in the most basic sense, we loved and appreciated each other and we shared many common traits. Traits like not keeping in touch with each other or anyone else for that matter. We went literally years at a time without speaking to each other. When Paula moved to Australia in 1972, she dropped out of sight for long enough that our parents contemplated going there to look for her dead body or at least some evidence of what happened to her.
Usually, Paula would re-appear and have many stories of her adventures to tell; stories that our parents were sure not to be true. On one such occasion the story was that she had been a squatter in the Sydney inner city with many others reclaiming homes that had been left empty after a failed government plan to expropriate land. That adventure was chronicled in a book that Paula sent me a copy of titled “A Self Help Community, The Darlinghurst-Woolloomooloo Squatters”. Her picture is in the book — she was definitely there. She learned building trades and began to understand the plight of the homeless.
Paula drove a taxi and a truck and eventually discovered a business that at the time, no one was doing — recycling! In Sydney, each area has a semi annual “clean up” and she saw opportunity in all the great stuff that people were throwing out. This started small with an ancient Datsun pickup and a lot of hard work. Eventually she had multiple sheds in her yard for sorting scrap metal, refinishing furniture and operating a bi-weekly garage sale. She had two new Toyota flatdeck trucks with hand operated cranes for lifting heavy objects. Paula lived well from the bounty left out for her. If you were to visit her home, you would eat off beautiful china and drink from crystal stemware, she would be dressed well, and if you were staying overnight, your bed would have high thread count sheets and designer comforters. If she didn’t tell you, you would never know that everything was picked up off the side of the road. Her home was filled with artwork and antiques and she was adorned with designer clothing and exotic jewellery.
Just to make her life more difficult, most everything that she achieved in Australia was done after suffering 2 Aneurysms in the late 1970’s from which she had to learn how to move and communicate again. This caused her continual grief through her life, suffering from numbness and lack of strength at times and in recent years her symptoms were quite bad. Through all of this she continued to work and in later years had to literally battle groups of unemployed youth fighting for the goods left out for the recyclers. With her usual style, she made friends with many regular “customers” who would call her to come and get things directly. She was charming.
One of the best things she ever did, was when she came across an abandoned baby from a drug addicted mother on an inner city street, she scooped him up and looked after him, without ever thinking that this could be a problem. A single Canadian woman that had simply “taken” a child was not well received by the authorities, but she persisted and her son Scott was there for her in her last days. Scott grew up in a unique and remarkable environment, far from the Cleaver (or Crawford) household that we had grown up in.
Paula was 7 years older than I was, and she left home as soon as she possibly could, desperate to be on her own and making her own way in the world. Even so, she always included her little brother in whatever she was doing including taking me on dates with some really disappointed young men. Although Paula and I had different opinions of almost every issue and after a couple of weeks of any visit, we were ready to go back to not communicating again, I always felt loved and today I feel alone for the first time in my life.
The world is a far less interesting place than it was last week.