Perhaps the greatest tribute to a life well-lived is how many people take the time make sure you’re doing OK.
At the end of a long narrow driveway near Tyhee Lake, past an old workshop and a pickup truck that has become part of the landscape, sits a modest off-the-grid cabin cobbled together over the years with materials salvaged from various construction sites and landfills.
On any given day, in a small, front yard wire enclosure with bright blue wooden gates, Brenda Mallory can be found holding court. Various friends and neighbours come by to check in, shoot the breeze and make sure she has enough firewood, etc., a tribute to 78 well-lived years, indeed.
The six-acre property, a veritable bird sanctuary, is crisscrossed with numerous trails, a playground for Brenda and the many dogs and cats she has rescued over the decades.
Brenda has been rambling around this little piece of Telkwa heaven for close to 40 years since she and her second husband Al Burrows landed in the Bulkley Valley from Atlin.
“We came here and some people who lived next door, they were also from Cassiar, said this property was for sale, so we had a big jar of gold that was flopping around under the front seat of the truck,” Brenda recalled. “Al worked in a gold mine up north and that’s what he was paid in. So, Al took the gold in and bought the property.”
Brenda doesn’t get around very well anymore, and failing coordination ultimately led her to give up writing Spice of Life, the column she wrote for this newspaper for well over 30 years. But she’s as sharp-witted, (and as sharp-tongued) as ever.
Since her last column was published two weeks ago, the well-wishes have been pouring in from her dedicated readers.
Brenda was born and raised in Port Alberni where her father had a barbershop. After he was tragically killed in a car accident, she stuck around through her first year of university to be with her mom, then moved on to the University of British Columbia pursuing a Bachelor of Arts.
During her early adulthood, she did a variety of things including working in a bank and modelling for magazines, catalogues, and the like.
“I looked different then, obviously, I had the other body,” she quipped.
After earning her teaching certificate and marrying a lawyer, she taught Grades 1 and 2.
“I like those little kids, you can tell them what to do,” she said. “I was telling them one day not to smoke when they got older because it would stunt their growth and I remember this little kid, I can still remember him until this day, Jeffrey Anderson was his name, and he stood up and said, ‘you should have smoked, teacher.’ Isn’t that sweet?”
Ultimately that life wasn’t working for her, though, and change was in the wind.
“I ran away from my husband, the lawyer, and moved in with Al,” she said.
Brenda and Al knocked around various places in the south such as Lantzville, Qualicum and Cobble Hill for a while, scratching out a living doing various things. Brenda wrote, painted, played violin and did stand-up comedy. Al worked in carpentry and played saxophone in bands.
“Then one day we were sitting around thinking about sourdough bread and we said, ‘well, why don’t we head north?’ So we did,” she said.
Again, they plied various trades and pursued a number of enterprises. While in Cassiar Brenda went back to teaching for a while.
In Whitehorse, Brenda started community reporting for the CBC, which she would continue in Atlin and eventually in the Bulkley Valley.
“It wasn’t that often, but if there was a major event or something, they would phone,” she said. “They paid me pretty good for two or three minutes.”
She also kept up the music.
“I played music all the time when we were in the North because that’s how you got free drinkies,” she said.
“I’d always take my violin to the bar and there’d always be someone else who would have some sort of instrument … and we’d play and someone would say ‘buy her another round of drinks’.”
Brenda was classically trained on the violin starting at the age of four. By seven, she was playing in a symphony orchestra and had acquired a Stradivarius copy her parents bought for $50.
That instrument, which originated in France, turned out to be very old and very valuable.
But when Brenda stopped playing, she didn’t go after the cash. Rather she bequeathed it to Anaise Labonte, a local young musician who is currently studying music at university and recording with the violin.
“My violin plays on, I just love that story,” Brenda said. “I could have done with the money, but I’d rather see what’s happening to it now, it’s beautiful. Wasn’t that the neatest thing that I was able to pass that on to someone who is still using it?”
After moving to Telkwa, Brenda continued all of her artistic endeavours. In addition to writing her column, initially under the title Slices of Life, she published a book by the same name.
She painted and did art exhibitions, taught watercolours and writing and played her violin.
But, perhaps most interestingly, she was a professional stand-up comedian doing festivals and other private gigs across the north.
Stand-up comedy has been hailed as perhaps the most difficult of the performing arts, but it came naturally to the quick-witted and brazenly transparent Mallory.
“I didn’t find it (tough) because my life was kind of strange anyway,” she explained. “I don’t do jokes; I don’t even know any jokes; I just talk about me.”
“Like I’d talk about getting a mammogram and how they fed me through and then decided to do the other breast at the same time so I was out in the hallway by then because it’s so long and I’m so old. Or getting a looky-loo from the doctor. You know, you go in that tent thingy, you’ve got that cloth over your legs, then he disappears and he has a light like he’s going camping or something.”
Although she was still in demand, that too would come to an end.
“It got to be quite a bit, going two or three times a week to do local stuff for Christmas and somebody’s birthday and I said, ‘booger this, I’m not doing this anymore,” she said.
She did continue to do an occasional motivational speaking gig, however.
“I went to Edmonton at one time, I was supposed to be doing a speech for some educational organization, but when I was in the hotel I got into the wrong room and it was for doctors, but I did a routine anyway and they didn’t know where I had come from or why I was there in the room,” she laughed.
These days, Brenda doesn’t get out much, content to hopefully live out her days quietly in her little patch of forest.
She certainly has not lost the irreverent sense of humour that anyone familiar with her writing is sure to recognize, though.
“I’ve told everybody if I die up there (in her second-floor bedroom), don’t let the ambulance people come up, you just throw me off of there and they can pick me up down below because if I’m already dead, they don’t have to come up and fart around where my pee pot is and all that stuff,” she said.
“I don’t think anybody has figured that out, but I’m a big person, so, just roll me out, flip me over and phone the people.”
While Brenda no longer writes Spice of Life, calls are still welcome at 250 846 5095 and notes can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.