THE END

A feisty Swede, she collected owls to cheat death: ‘No way did she want an owl to call her name’

1912-2005

NICHOLAS KÖHLER December 19 2005
THE END

A feisty Swede, she collected owls to cheat death: ‘No way did she want an owl to call her name’

1912-2005

NICHOLAS KÖHLER December 19 2005

A feisty Swede, she collected owls to cheat death: ‘No way did she want an owl to call her name’

THE END

LAURA ALBANY

1912-2005

Laura Albany, née Lindholm, was born to a Swedish couple on Jan. 14, 1912, in Red Deer, Alta., the second of four daughters. Her father Andrew, a postmaster, had been a Mountie before marrying Hannah Brita, and the couple still spoke Swedish at home. Laura and her sister Irene were very small—Edna and Aileen weren’t yet born—when the family left Alberta for Revelstoke, B. C., the small mountain railroad town where Laura grew up.

She was a spirited girl. Aileen Paun, Laura’s youngest sister, recalled picking fruit on the Lindholm farm one day when they came across a baby bear up an apple tree. Laura slapped a ladder against the trunk and, using a stick, poked at the cub until it scampered down, fleeing up a tree nearby. The girls followed, repeating the game from tree to tree as they gathered fruit.

Some among the townsfolk called them the “dirty Swedes.” Still, the girls attended a one-room school, where Laura, with her five-foot-eight height and brown hair, matured into a beautiful woman. In 1932, when she was 20, she bore her only child, Dorothy, whose paternity is still unknown.

“Families have secrets,” said Mike Strong, her grandson. A year later,

Laura married Jack Popplewell, an engineer 18 years her senior, and left for Victoria, working as a seamstress and at a fish cannery, where she lost a finger at the knuckle.

In the late 1940s, Laura announced she would leave her husband. “She was quite a feisty lady,” said Aileen. “She had a mind of her own.” Dorothy—called Bunty at home and still in her teens—remained with Jack and, for a time, eschewed her mother. Laura stayed at the cannery, where one evening a man named Frank noticed her leaving with Joyce Albany, his sister-in-law. “He thought she looked very likeable” Joyce said. Frank Albany, a status Indian, was over six feet tall and worked sorting timber on Plumper Bay, skipping from log to log out on the water. He had Greek and Scottish blood but grew up on the Songhees reserve, near Victoria, playing baseball. “It never looked like he was running quickly but he was,” said Joyce. Frank was shy but smitten. “He wondered if she liked candy,” said Joyce, who asked her. Laura confessed a fondness for jelly beans. One day Joyce pulled out a brown paper bag filled with jelly beans. “You have an admirer,” she said.

Laura and Frank married in 1952 after a courtship that involved old-time waltzes and fox trots (Frank’s workouts on the waters gave

him a light step). The couple moved onto the Songhees reserve, where electricity arrived only in 1953 and where Laura was one of just a few white women. She kept their two-storey home clean, polishing every surface, a vegetable garden in the back. Frank hunted and fished and Laura, who liked to drive, joined him on camping trips, often bringing along her grandsons—Dorothy’s children, Mike, Brad and Darren. In 1972, a woman who had been drinking plowed into their Ford Econoline, throwing Laura from the vehicle. She walked away with broken ribs. Frank lost a leg and an eye. Ten years later, at their home, someone called an ambulance for Frank, who

had developed lung cancer. As he waited in his bed he pointed to the nature paintings on his wall: “I hate those damn owls,” he said—a reference to the Coast Salish belief that at death the owl calls one’s name. Frank died that day. A year later, Dorothy, Laura’s daughter, died of breast cancer, aged 51.

In the years that followed, Laura began collecting owls—figurines, photographs, calendars—to exert control over the birds. “No way did she want an owl to call her name,” said Mike. Laura smoked Export A cigarettes until the age of 80 and drove until the age of 93 (neighbours got off the road when they saw her coming). When the provincial government threatened recently to remove her licence due to old age, Laura tested to hold on to it, even submitting to lessons. Then she threw the licence away. She would not drive, but not because others said she couldn’t. Laura pickled and jammed everything— including beets and onions—that grew in her garden. Faced with an infestation of grey squirrels, she set traps that would not kill, then held the squirrels down in a bucket of water with a hockey stick, drowning them. A volunteer with the Rebekahs—a lodge for women—she paid visits to the aged well into her 80s. “She called them ‘the old people,’ ” said Mike. Many were younger than she.

Eight months ago, Laura fell on the step where she tied her laces, slipping on the wood she still polished to a shine. Later, in hospital, she suffered a heart attack, then a stroke. She remained in hospital for months. “At the end, she thought they were conspiring to keep her there forever,” said Mike. In July, she returned to the home she had shared with her husband Frank. Laura Albany died on Nov. 23 at age 93BY NICHOLAS KÖHLER

NICHOLAS KÖHLER