When 94-year-old George Calder gathered his things to head to Kitchener’s Victoria Park Commons on a Saturday in early June, he figured he was heading to a picnic with some of the team members from his home at The Village of Winston Park.
When he saw the seven-foot tall drag queen upon a stage and the plethora of rainbow colours adorning the countless other people who’d gathered in the park that day, he realized this was a pride event, celebrating LGBTQ inclusivity in the Kitchener-Waterloo region. George had come as part of the #ElderWisdom campaign, organized by Schlegel Villages to place residents upon the now iconic green bench in prominent locations where community members can sit, chat and be reminded of the wealth of wisdom seniors collectively hold. Little did the team know when they asked him to participate that George had a fitting life experience to share centred on the idea of inclusion, diversity and respect for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
“The idea is to familiarize yourself with these folks and realize you don’t write them off any more than you would write anybody else off,” George says, recalling the purpose behind the tri-Pride festival, “and when they referred to me I said ‘I can certainly attest to that.’ ”
He then shared his story.
It goes back decades to when George travelled to Vermont to visit his new wife Betty’s sister. There he met his two nieces for the first time, and he instantly fell in love with them. His heart is kind and he has a soft spot for the innocence of youth, and Bonnie, especially, quickly found a place in his heart – a place she’s held ever since.
Fast forward maybe 15 years or so to the time Bonnie decided she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and study in Montreal to be a minister in the United Church. George figures it was around this time that she also realized the young men who’d courted her, while kind and nice, would never fulfill her true desires for she was gay.
She could’ve kept her secret as so many did in that era, for the fight for the rights and understandings known today had barely even begun and many were forced to deny who they really were. But Bonnie was open and told her parents. George said they were horrified, mostly because of the prominent position they held within the church and the congregation would never accept them again should they discover Bonnie’s true nature.
George and Betty, however, had a different perspective.
“I’ve known her since she was a baby and I’ve loved her all the same,” George says. “We didn’t care at all; we loved her and it didn’t seem to make any difference to us.” Bonnie’s capacity for love for all her neighbours and her sincere desire to help them in any way she can as a guide and a minister has carried her through all of life; this is the person George knows and loves today, just as he did when he met her in Vermont. As he relates the story, he shares a card she’d written to him after he moved to Winston Park in one of his life’s greatest transitions, and her kindness clearly shines.
“I know how terribly hard it is to let go of the old and embrace the new,” she wrote. “It seems change and love are the only constants in life.”
George’s love is constant and race, religion or the choice of whom another loves makes no difference in his mind and soul. His advice to another person who may be confronted with the same situation he, Betty and Bonnie’s parents faced those many years ago is simple:
“If you love the person, just continue loving them,” he says. “If this is a situation where you don’t know them, then get to know them.” They seek the same thing as any other person in life – to love and be loved and to find community, connection and belonging. When society realizes this, George says it will be a much better world to live in.
Note: Since 2017, The Village of Winston Park has made a concerted effort to honour diversity and inclusion especially in the LGBTQ community. “At the end of the day our goal is to provide a safe environment for the LGBTQ community,” says General Manager Brad Lawrence. “George’s words are perfect and really they are all we could hope for from the other residents at the village.”