For the love of music and travelling

Reporter: Aleksandra Sharova

f you want to go fast – go alone. If you want to go far – go together. And far she went – to different countries and continents – together. Together with music. Music became a part of her, forming an inseparable bond similar to the one that unites atoms into matter in chemistry.
Joan Fontaine got the talent and passion for music from her father who could pick up any string instrument and play it. He played saxophone in a dance band when he first proposed to her mother. But she said, “No, I won’t marry you.”
“Because all musicians are bums.”
So, her father got another job and they got married in 1924. Two years later they had a daughter who was named Joan.
Now, she’s 87 and lives in Oshawa seniors residence. Fontaine’s life story would make for an astonishing book or even books.
Together with her second husband she moved a lot – Montreal, Québec, New Brunswick, Pennsylvania, Calcutta and Bombay. And suddenly, Tim Horton’s where I met with her, felt small and condensed.
She met Mother Teresa during her stay in India. “That was in 1980. I was in my forties… We were invited to the ceremony that they gave for her after she was awarded the Nobel Prize. She was a very busy little lady. Very tiny,” Fontaine recalled.
The first three weeks there were “terrible,” because she was nervous and uncertain about going out on the streets by herself. “I had to wait for my husband to finish work, and then we went for a walk,” Fontaine said. “He hated walking, because it was so crowded he’d been bumped into all the time. It didn’t bother me. When I got used to it, I did so much walking. I discovered places that our Indian friends didn’t know existed.”
No matter where Fontaine travelled one thing always accompanied her – music. “I have sung in five different quartets and I have directed different choruses wherever I moved. I have competed in quartets,” she said.
Fontaine’s father taught her how to harmonize. Later on, joined by her brother and sister-in-law, Fontaine together with her father got involved in barbershop harmony. It is a style of four-part a cappella, where each of the four parts has a role of its own – the lead, the tenor, the bass, and the baritone. “We had a family quartet,” she told. “And mother would make us sing for supper if we all were there in the evening, which was lovely.”
Her voice deteriorated with age – she lost her upper range and can no longer sing lead or tenor. So playing became her musical escape. “I didn’t have any other outlet at the time, because I had stopped singing except singing in church and to myself. When I was invited to start chiming, I was thrilled. It meant I could get my music out again.”
For almost five years, Fontaine climbed 56 steps, four flights of stairs up the St. George’s Memorial church tower. She continued chiming until her knees gave out. “Climbing up wasn’t hard, but coming down was very painful,” Fontaine said with a smile.
Thom Park, the head of the worship committee and a former elementary school principal, met Fontaine at the parish. “[She is] charming, intelligent, bilingual. I was very impressed. For her age, she is very impressive lady,” he said.
Musical talent, loyalty, and honesty are Fontaine’s best qualities in Park’s opinion. She directs the senior citizens’ choir.
“She works with people who cannot read music, and still teaches them how to sing. I’m also musical, and I know how hard that is, and for a woman her age to give up that time for free,” Park said.
He looked out of the window, noticing someone trying to park in a no-parking zone. “What are you doing, idiot? You can’t park there,” Park said in a school principal-y way. He mentioned how amazing it is that a person Fontaine’s age drives a car and travels around. “I look at myself and think in 15 years will I be as sharp as she is? I don’t know, maybe.”
Fontaine’s second husband hated driving, so she would be behind the wheel wherever they went.
She remembers being in Pennsylvania when there was a gas shortage. “We’d have to be careful not to go any further than half a tank, so we’d have enough gas to go back. You become very resourceful when things got difficult,” Fontaine said.
She also was a volunteer driver for community care, taking old people to doctors’ appointments. Fontaine drove a minibus to the methadone clinic and delivered Meals on Wheels.
Choo-choo, choo-choo, ch’boogie, woo-woo

Woo-woo, ch’boogie, choo-choo, choo-choo, ch’boogie

Take me right back to the track, jack
Fontaine tapped her fingers on the steering wheel in time with Louis Jordan’s voice coming from a car player. “That was popular when I was a teenager. I was able to play it, but I can’t anymore,” she said sadly.
Regardless of her musical aptitude, Fontaine wanted to become a nurse ever since she could remember. “As a child I was always rescuing cats and dogs that were hurt. I had a little hospital out on the balcony,” she said. Fontaine trained to be a nurse, and in 1949 she went to work at the ER at Montreal General Hospital.
She then married her first husband and had two children. Unfortunately, for her it wasn’t a happy marriage. “I think it was my singing that saved my life, saved my sanity when I separated, because I was brought up the old fashioned way – when you got married you stayed married whether things were good or bad.”
It’s amazing how something that’s a part of you can help make you whole again.
In one way or another, music was always there for Fontaine, always with her. It was her travel companion, friend in need and not-at-all-silent partner.