You can’t help but love Minnie on sight.
So much so that calling the petite lady by her full name, Minnie McCurdy, sounds too formal, so at odds with the almost impish character who spends two hours laughing and talking about her life.
Sitting sipping a martini — gin and vermouth, with three olives — in her charming eighth-level suite at The Dunfield Retirement Residence, and with longtime friend Steven Bickerstaffe looking on, Minnie isn’t what you’d expect of one who’s just celebrated her 104th birthday, either.
With a face smoother than those of most women half her age and a ladylike yet sprightly spirit, Minnie is a living testament to the fact that you’re only as old as you act and feel.
Though she says she doesn’t see what’s so interesting about her life, she regales her audience with her story. Her pluck is almost infectious.
The first resident at The Dunfield in October, 2009 — they literally rolled out the red carpet for her as she arrived — Minnie says she never intended to come to a retirement home, but Bickerstaffe tricked her into attending a BBQ at the residence.
On the way home from the event, she made him turn the car around so she could put down a deposit on a suite.
“I said to myself, ‘Gee whiz, this is different.’”
The oldest resident at The Dunfield, Minnie’s clearly a star around the place. The story goes that residents half her age look up to her as a role model. And who wouldn’t?
That propensity towards stardom came early. Born in Fredericton, N.B., Minnie started playing the piano at age seven, and by the time she was 17 had moved to Halifax to attend the Halifax Conservatory of Music — not because she was especially interested in the program there, mind, but because she says she was madly in love with a lawyer who lived there.
It didn’t work out with the lawyer, but Minnie stayed on with the conservatory for two years, earning her Licentiate of Music diploma from Dalhousie, the HCM’s partner school. She put her foot down when it came to studying for two more years to get a Bachelor’s degree because in order to graduate she had to write a fugue, a style of music she says she hates.
A funny musical interlude that best shows her determined bent happened one summer in Truro, N.S., where she played the piano to accompany silent movies in the theatre. She says she’ll never forget the time when she was playing several different styles of music to match the shifting moods of the movie — and her sheet music kept falling down.
“Hells bells and firecrackers!” she yelled at one point.
That was the equivalent of swear words back then, she says, the kind of phrase they’d be fined for at the conservatory.
“The whole audience cracked up,” she says. “Meanwhile, the guy (in the movie) was dying.”
The adventures kept rolling in. One summer, she sailed overseas to see her fiancé in Scotland — but not before being wooed by a well-off gentleman passenger on the way over (she won’t admit the gentleman may have had ulterior motives) and playing in the ship captain’s fundraiser performance.
Once she got to Scotland, she found her chaperones were on vacation and she had no choice but to elope with her husband. Even if you were engaged, girls didn’t stay overnight back then, she says.
The couple settled in Victoria, but her husband died young, at 37. It was 1944 and times were tough. Minnie sold her beautiful home for $9,000, way under market value at the time. Only six years later the house would sell for a quarter of a million dollars.
She moved to Toronto after that. “I had to make a living.”
Once here she studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music with renowned Canadian composer and pianist Ernest Joseph Seitz, who wrote the famous wartime song, “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”.
Between studying and teaching voice lessons at the conservatory, Minnie took whatever piano gigs she could find. One such gig, at a Yorkville bar called the Gaslight, saw her replacing London-born pianist Rex Battle when he was unable to play. It paid $20 a night, and that money went a long way, she says. Seven bucks could keep her in lunch money for a week.
Minnie taught piano and voice at the conservatory until she was 89.
Though she doesn’t play the piano anymore — she can’t read the music because of macular degeneration — the Mason and Hamlin Grand piano she bought in 1936 has been residing at Bickerstaffe’s house since she moved to The Dunfield, and is currently being restored. He vows to take lessons to learn how to play it.
Minnie and Bickerstaffe met as neighbours more than 30 years ago. They see each other frequently, attending performances at the Canadian Opera Company and other venues twice a week.
Minnie says she can’t comment on the secret of her longevity, but Bickerstaffe has a theory:
“It’s all to do with attitude with Minnie,” he says, citing the fact that she’s already renewed her subscription for next year’s season at the COC.
Sheer determination must account for something, but so too must a sense of humour. Minnie tells of a recent outing at a production of Puccini’s Tosca:
Tosca had thrown herself off the parapet at the end of the opera and it was all very dramatic, she says. People were standing and clapping and cheering, and she and Bickerstaffe did the same. But then she felt a draught. She soon discovered the long skirt she was wearing with an elastic waistband was around her feet.
Even in the midst of an embarrassing situation, Minnie says her black nylon-clad legs looked pretty good.
About this article: