Artist Tells the Story of Her Life in nearly 10-metre mural

Linda Crabtree’s disability just incidental, she says

Posted By Cheryl Clock Standard Staff
June 11, 2009

The tragedy isn’t the disability.

The real tragedy occurs when a person does not use what abilities they have to their fullest.

Linda Crabtree appreciates life.

All her life, the 67-year-old St. Catharines woman has lived with a disability. Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease. CMT. A neuromuscular disease that steals muscle mass and gets progressively worse.

She cannot walk. She uses a motorized scooter and drives a van with hand controls. Muscles in her hands are so weak, she has trouble cutting her own food. She types by weaving a pencil between her fingers.

Yet, her life has been full of joy. Happiness. Fulfilment.

She is a wife, married nearly 30 years to Ron Book. She is an artist. A woman. A writer who once worked as assistant editor of The Standard’s family section and who still writes the Access Niagara column for The Standard. She is an advocate. Linda and Ron ran a charity that helped people with the same disease
she lives with.

She is a university graduate, who earned a degree in psychology. She’s won awards. The Order of Canada. Order of Ontario. Finally, Linda is a person with a disability.

It’s a part of her life that some might assume consumes her when in fact, it does not define her at all.

While it’s likely made her who she is today, she considers it an underlying theme in her life.

“The fact I can’t walk is just incidental,” she says.

She hopes people can appreciate her message through a 9.15-metre (30-ft.) collage she has created that tells the story of her life. Her artwork — From Good Stock: A Family. A Woman. A Disability — is on display at the Niagara Artists Centre on St. Paul Street until June 18.

Two years ago, she came and measured the wall. And despite weak hands, she did it pretty much all herself. She had some help photocopying pictures. And a friend helped her apply double-sided tape tabs.

The top half of the mural is a collage of photos, documents, some of Linda’s own drawings, and other memorabilia she’s collected over the years. The bottom is made up of 11-by-17 paper panels on which she’s written the story of her life. Each panel tells its own tale, so that visitors don’t have to read it all to understand her message.

“When I look at it, it’s been a good, full life,” she says.

The first 1.5 metres begin with old family photos. The oldest is of her great great grandparents in 1884.

Her mother, Dorothy, ran an antique store, Crabtree’s Antiques, from the garage of their Ontario Street home. Her father, Floyd, worked at McKinnon Industries (General Motors) and played sax and clarinet with the big bands.

At age 10, Linda was diagnosed with CMT. Her parents were told she likely wouldn’t live much past 12. Without ankle control, her feet flopped and she had to pick up her entire leg to walk.

She was fitted with metal leg braces that immobilized her ankles and made it easier to walk.

They’d frequently break, leaving her stranded. One day in Grade 6, while she was walking home for lunch, a brace snapped. She had to ask a man passing by to go to her house and tell her parents she was stranded along Ontario Street.

Her father came to her rescue and carried her home.

“I was never so proud,” says Linda.

In her teens, she threw the braces away for moccasins. School was a struggle.

On her mural, she writes:

At age 15, Linda discovered boys. Life changed. A boyfriend with two cars and a motorcycle was a heck of a lot more fun than school. She dropped Latin and French for business classes. She learned to smoke and inhale and how much fun could be had in the backseat of a ’49 Meteor. Her disability was still there
but it didn’t matter all that much riding behind her first love on a Harley.

She failed Grade 10. “I was having too much fun,” she says. “And I failed.”

She transferred to St. Catharines Collegiate. The principal informed her there were no lockers on the first floor for her to use. She had to use ones on the second floor.

Her hands were too weak to hold the stair railings. And she couldn’t carry her books upstairs. So, she’d put the books two steps up, then climb. She’d move them two more steps up, then climb. All the way to the top.

Then she was assigned a football player to carry her books to her classes. She had to get from class to class by herself.

She frequently fell down the stairs. She broke toes. And was often covered in bruises.

At 17, exhausted, she quit school. Her father approved, as long as she found a job.

Wearing a green shirtwaist dress with two crinolines under the skirt, her auburn hair freshly curled, Linda marched into Larry Smith’s office. He was the managing editor of the St. Catharines Standard. She had found a request for help in the library at the Standard on the bulletin board at the Collegiate. She could spell, file and type (with two fingers but she didn’t tell him that).

She got the job working in the newspaper library also known as the morgue.

Linda endured five major foot and ankle operations in her late teens. And for 21/2 years, until age 21, she lived with leg casts. The surgery improved her ability to walk.

In September 1963, life took on new excitement. Still on crutches, she left on a train for art school in Montreal.

“I really came into my own because I was on my own,” she says.

Big city life was wonderful. Linda found art galleries, Montreal smoked meat, extra rare steak at Joe’s, beautiful clothes at Ogilvy’s and jazz in Little Burgundy.

She loved the city. The only problem was it’s hilly terrain. Walking uphill was OK. Going down, she’d have to grip telephone poles for balance.

School friends often escorted her to school, helping her over curbs. In their absence, she had to throw her body at parking meters then pull herself over the street curb.

She once fell in the middle of the road while crossing a street. A man picked her up and carried her to the curb.

“I sat on the curb, shaking, then got up,” she says. “That’s all you could do.”

After school, she returned to The Standard. She started by pounding out obituaries on an Underwood and was eventually promoted to art page editor, then assistant editor of the family section.

She married. Lived in a little house in Port Dalhousie. But they’d often fight. During one last fight, they threw pots and pans at each other. Then, after nine years of marriage, they divorced.

All was not well. The marriage needed two people contributing and it wasn’t happening. As beautiful as Port Dalhousie was, the little house held a great deal of frustration and sadness.

She met Ron after taking the advice of a local undertaker and placing an ad in the personals.

Of the many replies received, one seemed very special. She called him. They met for coffee and then hours of talk. He said he’d call and he did. His name was Ron. They developed a mutual love for canoeing and spent all their spare time on the Welland River. Life was good again…and fun.

And life was good. Until 1982 when her body became so weak, she was forced to quit the job she loved.

Her hands couldn’t turn on her car’s ignition. She kept falling down stairs.

Early one dark, snowy morning, Linda drove into the newspaper parking lot, opened the door and fell out of the car. While staring up at the underbody of the car, melted snow running down her back, she looked heavenward and thought to herself, ‘There has to be a better way for me to make a living. I just can’t do this any longer.’

In six months she retired from the job she loved, the job she thought she’d never leave.

She continued her artwork but grieved her identity. Who was she now? What was she going to do with the rest of her life? Depression set in.

She became suicidal. She once smashed in a closet door mirror with her hands.

She was angry at her disability.

But she managed to make two good decisions. She saw a psychiatrist. And signed up for a psychology course at Brock University.

Then, in 1984, Linda and Ron started the charity, CMT International. They’d get bundles of mail from all over the world. They funded research. Gave out scholarships. And connected people.

Once again, Linda had purpose.

And while her mural is on display for just a few more days, she has plans to share it beyond St. Catharines.

She’s looking for sponsors to fund having all nine metres photographed, then made into a banner that could be rolled up and easily shipped around the country.

It could be put on display by other groups who also want to promote understanding of people with disabilities.

Last Saturday, people gathered at NAC to celebrate the opening of Linda’s show.

She laughs as she remembers a comment made by one of the guests: “Let’s hope you have another five or 10 feet in you.”

What: From Good Stock: A Family. A Woman. A Disability. A 30-foot collage by Linda Crabtree. 125 years of living. One year in the making.

WHERE: Niagara Artists Centre, 354 St. Paul St.

WHEN: Now until June 18. Gallery hours: Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., or by chance.

INFORMATION: 905-641-0331

Article ID# 1609123

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