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The Girls in the Front Row

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On a cold Alberta morning, this Ontario “Front Row Girl” met some of McMurray’s warmest hearts.

In response to my new book “The Girls in the Front Row”, stories of early mother loss and its impact, a small group of McMurray’s leading ladies joined me in a session hosted by the Ft. McMurray United Way to explore approaches to finding and supporting “McMurray Front Row Girls.”

For young girls who lose young mothers, this seminal event instantly changes the course and direction of a daughter’s life, often before her identity and sense of self are formed. For most young girls, the experience of early mother loss and what happens next remains private, quiet, unspoken while its impact influences her experiences and decisions forever.

Meet Elsie Hutton and Rita Makey, two courageous “McMurray Front Row Girls” as they share some of their experiences of early mother loss and father loss in hopes of encouraging others to speak out, find each other and connect.

Elsie Hutton may have be only around the tender age of four when her mother died of breast cancer in 1970, but she can recall certain memories, and it’s those memories that have given her a more rounded picture of her mother.

“I’ve got memories of her doing the wash on a washboard at the farm and I have memories of her being so beautifully dressed up with beautiful shoes going out dancing with my dad. Little tidbits like that.”

She even remembers going to visit her mother at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.

“I can remember the kind of candy she had; those little pink chicken bone kind of candies … and the fact that I was just happy wearing these little black dress shoes and I was making little black marks in the hallways of the hospital.”

She chuckles at the memory of the cleaning staff trying to find the culprit who was leaving those marks and “you’re hiding behind your mom’s bed hoping the cleaning staff don’t find you.”

Hutton admits that at that point “I don’t recall having this feeling that she was sick, she was leaving; none of that. It was all childlike kind of memories. And I think I have a recollection of the funeral, but I’m trying to piece together how much was I even there for it.”

Being so small, she acknowledges it was a sea of legs - “You’re holding your dad’s hand and people are just around him.”

In talking with older cousins growing up who would share stories of her from the big family gatherings in days gone by, stories Hutton had no recollection of. “They would say things like she couldn’t communicate well because she didn’t speak a lot of English, but she was drawn to the kids. If there was a room where all the kids were, she was with them.”

And that is Hutton’s most cherished memory of her mother.

When Hutton became a mom to three daughters, her thoughts turned to empathy for the emotional heartache she suspects her mother endured in leaving behind young children.

“My mom had to part with us when we were young. How could I possibly be able to leave behind a child? You can think about it in broad terms, but until you have your own kids, then something does change. You see the world completely different.”

Then, admits Hutton, “you really start to appreciate what she was going through not just ‘Oh yeah. I was running around the hospital making black marks on the floor.”

Rita Makey may be around the same age as her dad Roger when he unexpectedly passed in 1986 from a heart attack, but she prefers to linger on her loving memories of her dad rather than the sudden parting, the funeral or sadness associated with the anniversary of his death.

“I don’t go negative. I don’t remember him in those moments. I remember him on the fishing boat and when I would get a fishing hook stuck in my finger, he’d get emotionally gruff and in his strong French-Canadian accent, he’d say ‘Don’t cry. Girls don’t cry in the boats.’ Memories like that will pop in my head and I can’t help but laugh.”

Makey does admit, however, that an observance from the funeral still makes her laugh to this day, some 30 years later. Only 17 at the time, she recalls giggling at the funeral while her father’s casket was being lowered into the ground.

“He used to always tease his sisters-in-law that ‘One of these days, I’m going to lower your noses.’ And all of them there in their high heels and fur coats, and standing in the mud, all the while looking down. And I’m laughing, thinking ‘You finally did it. You lowered their noses.’”

Some of Makey’s most treasured memories are of early morning fishing trips with her dad that unbeknownst to her, were becoming earlier and earlier.

On the family’s many camping trips, her dad would quietly get up to go fishing and the self-confessed tomboy would hear him. The whispered conversation went something like: “Dad, where you going? I’m going fishing. Can I come with you? Yup.’ And off we’d go, just him and I.”

Too young to realize that her dad had been getting up earlier to go by himself, he never refused his young daughter.

She still clearly remembers the values he instilled in her; values still held dear.

“I can remember him saying repeatedly: ‘You do not know the world until you travel it, so travel, learn explore, appreciate and learn tolerance.”

Taking care of family is another lesson learned and she tells the tale of her dad returning home for his sister’s wedding and buying her a wedding dress on her wedding day when he learned she didn’t have one.

“As an entrepreneur in his own rights, not knowing the language, he had four master trades, he was a locksmith glass smith, engineer, designer and artisan. He used to make handmade canoes for fun.”

He was also a Canadian archery champion in the early 1970s.

“I admired the pants off that man. I really, really did. My father and I were really close,” she admits.

Even though her own children – two boys and a girl - never met their granddad, Makey firmly believes there is a connection. All her children were born in Fort McMurray and “out of the blue I spoke of him as a big hockey player, and he was this and he was that, and how he loved hunting and fishing and camping and doing all those family things. Then our oldest son who was quite young at the time … all of a sudden comes out and says “I want to do archery.’

“I’m like ‘What?’ Still to this day, he’s the one with the long bow. There are those little moments that I go ‘How is that passed down or how is that passed on when he wasn’t there?’ Amazing.”

Cover image: The Girls in the Front Row is a collection of true stories of the experiences of fourteen girls/women aged sixteen to ninety who all lost their mothers before the age of 30. Girls is the result of four years of recorded interviews, group discovery sessions, email, telephone and skype conversations. Filled with remarkable photography and original art, in 2012 Girls proudly captured a prestigious print and design award. To view the book’s trailer and purchase the book visit

IMG_1390.JPG: Elsie is looking at her late mother, Julia’s, engagement ring, which she wears.

IMG_1512.JPG: Rita holds a photo of her parents.


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