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“Home Before Dark” by Rosemary Sexton

When most of us see a headline about the rich and famous, or a column about "Society", we often read it. In Rosemary Sexton’s case, the content of those columns became the foundation for her first book in 1993, The Glitter Girls. Her second, Confessions of a Society Columnist, was published in 1995.

In the spring of 2013, she decided to transcribe five years of diary entries into a book, Home Before Dark: Ottawa Diaries, 1998-2002. The book’s launch will take place this month in Brockville.

Who is Rosemary Sexton?   Why a diary and those dates?

Many Canadians will recognize her as the Globe and Mail's society columnist from 1988 to 1993. Rosemary grew up in the Northern Ontario town of Haileybury. She taught high school for five years before entering Osgoode Hall Law School. She was called to the bar in 1976 and worked as a tax lawyer. Then, she stayed home to raise her family and volunteer with several charity and arts organizations.

Rosemary and her husband, Edgar Sexton, now live in Brockville’s Thornton Cliff, overlooking the eastern gateway to the Thousand Islands just across from Morristown, NY. The house was built in the mid-1800s by Reuben P. Colton. At the turn of the century Senator George T. Fulford bought the property for his daughter and her lawyer-husband, Arthur Hardy. The answer to the last question, “Why a diary and those dates?” forms the basis for the book.

Unlike some books, where the going gets tough, this one I savored. Most entries describe people and places that are familiar to me, and I must admit, I kept turning the page wanting more.

In 1998, Edward Sexton retired from his Toronto law practice and the chairmanship of Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt. In June 1998, he was appointed a Justice of the Federal Court of Appeal. They moved to Ottawa. Only an hour from their home in Brockville and also close to their summer cottage on Charleston Lake, the new appointment meant that the Sextons could easily live in both Ottawa and Brockville.

For the next five years, Rosemary kept her diary on her laptop. They spent a week in Ottawa on court business, or a week at home in the Castle or on an exotic trip to Bermuda, Fishers Island in Florida, or Europe. All the glitter and glamour was captured on paper, complete with menu suggestions and descriptions of trendy restaurants.

Rosemary was successful in writing her newspaper columns as she followed her maxim, “write what you know – no matter how trivial or unimportant it may seem at the time. That way you are giving your present reader a glimpse into your world and your future reader in a past slice-of-life, which may prove illuminating…”

In the preface, there is a numbered list of the threads that form the basis of her diary including aging and health, family, travel, court politics, and literature.   Throughout the book Rosemary introduces dozens of books.  In fact there is “Rosemary’s Reading List” in the appendix.    In addition, although the book was written a decade ago, there are footnote postscripts to bring the reader right up to 2014.

So let’s open the cover and see some entries…

Health issues: Tuesday, February 23, 1999. [After falling while skating on the Rideau Canal] “This has been an interesting past few days, to say the least.  Last week Ellen and I went skating along the canal.  Our little jaunt had whetted my appetite… [The diary goes on to describe how she skated on her own]… The last thing I remember before my fall was skating under a bridge and the next thing I knew a crowd gathered around me and a girl was asking me if I was all right.  [As it turned out she was not alright, the results of visits to two hospitals were revisited a column written for the National Post in March 2000.] 

Literature:  Thursday, January 21, 1999 “This morning over breakfast, I dug into volume IV of L.M. Montgomery’s diaries which I’ve been itching to get at.  I enjoy reading about her daily life.  She is a marvelous writer with a wonderful turn of phrase, such as ‘As I sit here writing, with a lapful of silken cat.”

Politics in the court: November 5, 1998  “Margaret Buchan is a real live wire. I just saw her from the back at first and she looked very young and hip in a short kilt and scarf. She comes from Scotland yet is completely bilingual. I think she speaks about four languages and worked as a translator. It’s hard to believe but she told me that she is in her sixties and that her partner Marc Nadon, A Federal Court of Appeal judge, is younger than she. [Postscript: In 2013 Marc Nadon was plucked from the supernumerary ranks by Stephen Harper to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. A reference was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in January 2014. On March 19, 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada, in a 6-1 decision, nullified Nadon’s appointment to the top court, saying he did not qualify for the Quebec vacancy.]

Current events: September 11, 2001. “Two planes plowed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. It happened round nine this morning. Edgar had left for court and I was sitting on my bed in our hotel room at the Sutton Place reading the paper when my sister Judy called. “Turn on the Television” she instructed.

Family life: January 23, 2002. [In the aftermath of the Enron scandal]  “I still have Robin’s [son] 800 number and can reach him in London via Houston. For some unexplained reason, Enron has forgotten to cut off his phone. In one day last December he lost his job, his friends, his computer, his phone, his e-mail, his health club, his US $100,000 salary, his stock options and his US $33,000 annual bonus which he had ploughed back into company stock… “

Social life: February 16, 2002: We are having a dinner party for ten tonight in Brockville, but I’ve shut myself in my study on the castle’s third floor because Edgar is interviewing a law student to article for him in two years from now… (skip down the page) … the law student turns out to be a daughter of friends of ours. Her name Susie Lindsay and her parents are Anne and Bob Lindsay. Anne has written several bestselling cookbooks and Bob was the head tax lawyer at Osler Hosking when Edgar was there…

In fact the topic of the hectic life led to the title of the book. Today the Sextons only accept social engagements with the stipulation that they will be home before dark.

Back on page 280, mid-way through the book, Rosemary writes, “I have just come to the end of the diaries of Dawn Powell which I bought in Miami. The diaries ended when she died so I feel like I have lost a friend or, if not a friend, a person I came to know fairly well.

Well Rosemary, I feel the same way.  As summer 2014 is fast approaching, I strongly recommend her Home Before Dark.

By Susan W. Smith. Editor,  Thousand Islands Life Magazine.

Posted in: Book Review
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