A loyal employee celebrated her big day at 24 Sussex
One of the mourners invited to Pierre Trudeaus funeral was a woman who sat a few pews behind his family, her husband and three children beside her. From time to time, her gaze would float from the coffin and the altar to rest solicitously on Margaret, Justin and Sacha. She could remember another church 22 months before, another funeral that, she believes, hastened this one. First Michel and now Pierre. But for this woman, once a trusted family employee, the two deaths were still a call to service. Later, she would gather Justin and Sacha into her arms, just as she did when they were infants. She and Margaret would hug tightly, just as they did when they were both young. This was her passage, too.
Her name is Maryalice Conlon Mullally and she is my sister. From 1972 to 1982, on and off, she was a member of Trudeau’s household staff. In the years since, she has remained a friend and a confidante.
In the summer of 1972, she drifted to Ottawa after attending Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, trying to find a teaching job. But one morning she paused over a vaguely worded newspaper ad seeking help at an official government residence. She responded more out of curiosity than anything else and soon discovered that the country’s most prominent home had a job opening.
She was hired as a downstairs maid at 24 Sussex Drive in September, with supplementary responsibilities for nine-monthold Justin’s care, and she rose to be household coordinator. That placed her in charge of official receptions and dinners at the prime minister’s residence and she was often the first person ambassadors and heads of state met at the big front door. And for years she provided Trudeau with the iconic rose he wore in his lapel when he left for Parliament Hill every morning.
Less than two years after signing on, Maryalice informed the Trudeaus that she planned to marry a young man from Prince Edward Island named Joe Mullally. The Trudeaus responded by offering their home for the wedding and reception. It was to be their gift, and it grew.
After an Aug. 3 date was set, Margaret announced she wanted to make Maryalice’s wedding dress herself, a project that set a tumbling sequence of events into motion. She and Maryalice—pals by now because they were about the same age and even looked alike—fussed over just the right spot in the
garden for the ceremony. They debated the choice of a caterer and then agreed that Lester Pearson’s two granddaughters were right for the job because, after all, they knew their way around the kitchen. Every now and then, the prime minister asked for a report, nodding with approval at the progress. The list of guests was trimmed to about 40. Archbishop James Hayes of Halifax, a friend of Maryalice, agreed to marry the couple. Two-year-old Justin Trudeau was to be the ring bearer. The prime minister had called an election for early July that year and Margaret and Maryalice had to come up with a Plan B in case the country decided to turf the Trudeaus out of their home. The Liberals won; Plan A was on.
So on a Friday afternoon, the eve of the wedding, I drove from Toronto to Ottawa. Turning into the driveway at 24 Sussex, I was met not by security guards but by Margaret herself,
who led me to her third-floor sewing
room where she was finishing Maryalice’s dress. My parents had already arrived from our home town of Montreal and were enjoying their first look. Things began to speed up. Word came from the Prime Ministers Office that he was leaving for home; was in the limousine; was five minutes away, then two; at the front door, and then—all of this duly noted in someone’s security log—at the entrance to the sewing room. He strolled in with that uncanny ability to clear space before him, then closed it with a warmth that he saved for places in which he was most comfortable.
Houseguests had tasks that night. Dad shined shoes. Mom frosted the cake Maryalice and Margaret had baked. My sister handed me a stack of LPs and told me the Trudeaus had offered the use of their own stereo system to tape selections for the reception. At 11 p.m., I was toiling in their private second-floor lounge, a serene suede-and-chrome escape from the mandatory Group of Seven/Quebec-pine/Ontario-cherry-wood look that
dominated the house’s public areas. Margaret called it the “freedom room.”
I was trying to be conscientious about a boring and mundane chore, when I felt a tap on my shoulder that nearly sent a rack of expensive Braun equipment toppling. “My, that’s fascinating,” said the country’s most famous voice from the gloom behind me. “How do you do that?” My first impulse was to laugh because I thought he was kidding, but I’m glad I didn’t. It took me a moment to realize his keen curiosity was in full play. And he was also struggling to be sociable, something that didn’t come easily to a man whose awkward shyness was cleverly concealed. It was a touching glimpse behind the public mask.
It rained the following morning but even that risk had been covered. Gabrielle Léger, the wife of Gov. Gen. Jules Léger, had offered Margaret the chapel at Rideau Hall as a backup. So the Trudeaus, Conlons, Mullallys and friends went across, led by the prime minister in his black bulletproof Cadillac. Halfway through mass, I glanced over my shoulder. The Légers were standing at the chapel entrance, wanting to connect with the celebration, not wanting to intrude.
Afterward, the sun broke through for the reception back at 24 Sussex and Trudeau finally relaxed, sipping white wine and chatting with the guests. It didn’t hurt that the Mullallys are a large clan of loyal Liberals and most of them were there. Trudeau stayed until the end, something he rarely did, and cheerfully posed for snapshots with everyone. He uncorked his own champagne for the toast. He made some affectionate remarks about the bride and beamed like a pleased uncle. Everyone drank a little too much and laughed a little too loudly. Jackets came off, brows were mopped. Faces got red. It was a wedding.
All these years later, Maryalice’s fierce personal allegiance to the Trudeaus, both of them, still prevails. Protective of that memorable weekend until now, she has also ducked questions from aggressive reporters about their marital turbulence, about his later affairs, about Margaret’s emotional problems, about his profound loneliness without his wife. It has something to do with discretion, yes, but more to do with her fixed awareness that these two extraordinarily generous people were simply out of step with each other. Their marriage didn’t hold. Their love for each other did. This, she realizes, is their real wedding gift to her and it endures.
Patrick Conlon is a Toronto journalist and broadcaster.
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