By Liz Carroll

“How would you like to live on an island?”

When Anne Milroy’s son, Ian, posed the question visions of

 Photo of Anne Milroy

“swaying palms, white sands, blue water” danced in her head. After all, career cyclist Ian and his wife Lori were world travellers. She’d already visited them in Bali before they set up a cycle shop in Golden, BC. “Yes!” she enthused.

In no time her house in Golden was sold, her belongings packed. By then, of course, she knew that the island in question was not exotic. (Although, she would discover, there were a few palm trees defying the odds.) Her destination? James Bay. That was almost a dozen years ago.

Ian and Lori, after running a successful cycle shop in Victoria, have moved on. Which means that Anne gets to visit them. She’s been to Italy. Twice. Their current home base in France is on her travel agenda. That calendar includes a visit to older son Peter, grandsons Andreas and Donovan and baby great-grand Avery Grace in California.

She’ll have to squeeze her travels into a very busy volunteer schedule at New Horizons where, according to a blurb in a recent newsletter, she “…bakes cookies on Saturday morning, organizes the Saints and Singers choir, is Special Events Co-ordinator, member of Board of Directors, chief decorator, set and costume designer. Her talents are many, her heart is bigger than big and she is a constant source of inspiration”.

Whew! No wonder she doesn’t have time for a garden on her hi-rise balcony! “Artificial flowers,” she laughs, “pretty ones”.

She shrugs off the accolades, is quick to say “we” not “I” in reference to her activities, and to emphasize that: “It’s all fun! I love what we do.”

She credits her early life in Spennymoor, County Durham, with her upbeat attitude. “I had such a happy family, my Mum and Dad were always singing, laughing, enjoying life and my two older sisters and I were very close.”

Their father, Tom Drake, was a coal miner. “It was a dangerous, dirty job that he did into his sixties. He did blasting, crawled into narrow spaces, lit the blasts and hurried out. The mines were open 24 hours and he worked shifts. Our greyhound, Lady, would not let him in at two in the morning,” she laughs, “so Mum would have to trudge downstairs. Even then Dad was always in good humour. He spread joy.” That’s a trait that Anne inherited. Big time!

Mother, Eleanor Drake, in addition to being a great cook and homemaker, worked in the local butcher shop. “She thought worrying was a waste of time. And she loved to laugh.”

Right out of school, Anne joined sister Jessie at the local factory. “We made fluorescent light bulbs and then electric stoves. I was on the line and knew that job from first bolt to packing case.” At noon they would run home where the aroma of bread baking in the “big black stove” filled the cottage. “Mum would have a meal waiting, bacon and egg pie, or soup, or rabbit pie. And vegetables. We grew our own on an allotment at the edge of the village. Because we all loved rabbit pie and stew my dad decided to raise rabbits.” She laughs at the memory. “He chose angoras and when they grew into white, fluffy bunnies there was no way that we would eat them.” The ‘livestock’ became pets.

Eldest sister Eleanor, who died last year, was “so artistic. She tested and created knitting patterns for Paton-Baldwin wool company. She danced (in later years with husband Ernie) and had a shelf full of trophies and another with her awards for photography”.

As for Anne’s prowess with crafts? Not so much. “I knit and crochet if the mood strikes, which is not often. Although, I did crochet the pink blanket that’s in the NH library.” She sees it when she picks up her favourite mysteries, the fun ones like Janet Evanovich’s.

In the sixties, grown up Anne, with her husband and two boys, moved to Canada. After a couple of years in Edmonton they were off to Darwin, Australia for two years “where we did a lot of traveling to places like Kowloon, Hong Kong”.

Back in Edmonton the marriage collapsed. Anne began a fifteen year career with a gift shop chain that took her to Banff Hot Springs Hotel, Kananaskis, Lake Louise. “Those were wonderful, busy days.” By the time she retired to Golden BC her engineer son Peter was raising his own family in Glendale, California and Ian and Lori had opened a cycle shop in Golden.

There was a lot of family travel to and from County Durham. Her parents visited, so did her sisters, their spouses and children. Anne recalls one camping trip with her parents who were enthralled with the whole ‘nature’ idea. “We were driving along when my Mum suddenly looked up and said ‘does the sky never stop?’ She loved Canada.”

Settling in to her James Bay life Anne’s first venture was New Horizons. “It’s a wonderful place, welcoming.” She’s participated in almost every activity: ukulele lessons; Zumba dance exercise and Line Dancing (until her knees said ‘no!’); Book Club; Crafts; Art lessons (her Acrylics of a Wolf’s head and of Australian Aboriginals, grace her wall. Ian has her rendering of his German Shepherd Mitzi).

“I got roped into helping in the kitchen early on.” Her smile indicates that she did not need much urging. In addition to the aforementioned weekly supply of cookies (“they come frozen, I just bake them”) she helps plan refreshments for the entire year’s Special Events then, as they occur, sets up tables, serves. She omits the latter tasks when there’s a fashion show. She’s too busy modelling. And during the sold-out Saints and Singers Concerts.

“I always loved music, singing, school pantomimes.” That and her superb organizational skills make Anne a natural to produce those shows. (She’s already working on the Christmas special.) She co-ordinates all aspects of the program. “With help,” she emphasizes. “Once we have a theme I choose songs that the audience can relate to, even sing along with and that fit our abilities. Our goal is to entertain and have fun while we’re doing it. I help come up with the fun stuff, the one-liners.” Of course, she also performs. “Rehearsals can be hilarious. We’re a light-hearted group. At at our weekly choir practice the focus is on fun. I love the stage. I wish I’d been able to do it as a career. I love doing it now. It’s all good.”

And then there’s Karaoke. With a few friends she entertains at local nursing homes. “We don’t have a screen with a bouncing ball. We want to make eye contact with our audience, to touch a shoulder or hold a hand. To interact. It’s very rewarding to see their faces brighten up.”

A lot of faces brighten up at the mention of Anne Milroy’s name. Compliments about her fun loving good nature, generosity, kindness, happy outlook abound. The coal miner’s daughter is a real James Bay Gem.