My Story

(Such as it is)

Susan, aka Susie, at two

While I was born in Montreal, I never thought of it as home. I left there when I was four after the disintegration of my parents’ marriage. I would not see my blood father (I prefer “blood” to “birth” because it is his blood that runs through my veins) again for thirty-five years but that is another story for another time. Home was always Ottawa for me. My grandmother built a house there for my mother, older brother and I.

We lived there for two years before my mother met the man I called dad and always thought of as my father. It is Floyd Caza that The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History 1945-1953 was written for and so I owe his life (and death) a great deal. They had three children, two girls and a boy. They were my siblings and I never thought of them any differently than my older brother even though we had different fathers.

First and foremost dad was an army man and only six months after their marriage we moved to England where we remained for four years. Following a year back in Canada, dad was stationed in Germany and so we were off again. It was then, at thirteen, one of the best things that ever happened to me took place. Unhappy with the school system in an army base, my grandmother paid for me to go to boarding school in England. The country will always hold a special place in my heart. Except for one year, I lived in England from the age of eight to the age of sixteen, and those years had a huge role in shaping who I would become. I could, and probably will at some point, write a book about my three years at the school, Tortington Park, in Arundel, Sussex. For the most part, people who go to boarding schools fall into two camps. They either really love it or they really hate it. For me they were, without exaggeration, among the very best years of my life. Home life was difficult for many reasons, so being away at school was not a hardship. People gave me the attention every young person craves. They worried about me if I was sick, they celebrated my accomplishments. When I cried, it mattered.

In addition to that, almost all the things I love as an adult started at boarding school – sports (especially tennis), singing, acting, public speaking. I learned the value of friendships and, I can only hope, how to be a good friend. At least I try. If you were not good at friendship at boarding school you were pretty much an outcast. I admit I was a trouble-maker, so I spent most of my three years in hot water. However, I prefer to think of myself as a good trouble-maker. I occasionally destroyed myself but I always left the school intact and I never did anything illegal, just broke the rules. Repeatedly.

Sue at 15 heading back to boarding school

They were three really good years not only because was I accepted at boarding school but for a couple of years I was also part of a group of kids that hung out together on the Canadian Army camp in Soest, Germany. Throughout every vacation I just fitted in with them. At thirteen, a week after my arrival in Germany, I kissed my first boy and four months later had my first boyfriend. I was popular with all the kids in Germany and was certainly accepted at boarding school in spite of my penchant for mischief. If I had realized it was the last time in my life I would really feel I fitted in anywhere, I don’t know what I would have done.

I came home with a heavy heart when I was 16 and struggled through the next three years of high school. I had a couple of boyfriends and I fell in love for the first time. In school, I believed I was not intelligent and my grades reflected that. Somehow, and I have always suspected either dad or my grandmother had some role in this, I got early acceptance to York University in Toronto, a university that had previously rejected me. I did not care. By having early acceptance it meant that it did not matter if I passed Grade Thirteen or not. This was a good thing because I didn’t – pass Grade Thirteen I mean. So I have the distinction of not having a high school diploma and yet having a Bachelor of Arts degree; I did very well at university and it was a shock in some ways to find out I was very intelligent. I also almost acquired a husband. I probably came as close to getting married as I ever did afterwards. Jim was a great guy but I knew a white picket fence and 1.6 children were not in the cards for me.

Hans and Sue in Graz, Austria, 1972

I spent a year selling clothes to “old women” who were actually younger than I am now! I had a plan from day one. I worked in a store for a whole year in order to save money and spend four months in Europe, travelling with a girlfriend. One of my responses in the Questions & Answers page tells you how much that trip meant to me. What is not mentioned there is that I fell deeply in love and I would never, ever love that way again. Hans was an Austrian God to me. He touched my soul in a way no one has ever come close to since. I almost stayed with him but it was the road not taken and I came home to Canada instead. I try never to have regrets in life because it serves no purpose but I still have one regret and that is that Hans and I never got the chance to see if we could have made a life together. We had a plan to be together but distance and lack of money (and no internet!!) conspired to end the relationship a year and a half later.

Because of my revelation in the youth hostel that I was going to be a writer (see Questions & Answers), I set about getting a job at a newspaper and it took me only five weeks before I started working at the Ottawa Journal, doing a column called Be Heard. People wrote in questions on every topic and we found the answers. Within a year I was a reporter covering the news and spent most of the rest of my years at the paper working the night shift, 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. I became restless, though, and wanted to try acting so I gave up my job and moved to Toronto. Although unsuccessful in my attempts to knock on theatre’s door, it was still fun trying.

Suddenly dad died while I was in Ottawa for a visit and the direction of my life changed forever as I quickly decided to write this theatre history. I applied for, and received, a Canada Council grant for the project and I spent six of the next eleven years of my life working on the book. I also spent a number of those years dealing with medical problems that have left me with chronic pain. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (read some journal entries about my experience), or fibrositis as it was called back then, and I also had two major operations on my back, including a fusion a week before my 40th birthday. It was actually a fun birthday because everyone phoned or came to the hospital to see me and I spent the whole day surrounded by love and laughter. Following the fusion I had to wear a body brace from my chin down to my hips. After three months they took the top half off but I still had essentially a large, heavy and tight corset from halfway up my chest down to the bottom of my hips.

I have a strong vision of myself from that time because it was the summer I finished, and then typed (no computers then), my one clean copy of my theatre history, The Opening Act, which at that time had the working title of Everyman Had Its Day. I lived in downtown Toronto and the temperature stayed at over 38 C (100 F) for more than a month. I did not have air conditioning. I sat in underwear, t-shirt and the damn brace while using this electric typewriter that gave off so much heat it felt like I was sitting in front of a burning fire. The sweat poured off me onto the typewriter keys as successive t-shirts became soaked. I don’t ever remember being so hot but I do remember the day (July 21) I finished typing the last page of the 604-page manuscript. It was a Friday and I had promised myself that when I finished the book I would treat myself to a day watching (oh, and betting on!) the horse races at Woodbine Racetrack. I went to the track the next day and managed to win $1,000 on a $6 bet. A win-win as it turned out!

Scattered throughout the years and the surgeries and the pain were various jobs to put food on the table. During one of these jobs I went back to school at night and became a bookkeeper.

I moved to Vancouver in 1992 and found a job fairly quickly. I was not happy working for other people, however, and after another accounting course, I started my own bookkeeping and taxes business and I have been doing that since 1998. I continue to battle medical problems and in addition to the fibromyalgia and back issues I was diagnosed with Chronic Regional Pain Disorder and it has been given a couple of other names too. Whatever it is called, it is incredibly painful. I am being treated and have improved over the last two years and hope that eventually I will go back to my old level of pain. But it has played havoc with my life. The one bright light in the middle of the worst of it was that Jay, my beautiful cat, found his way to me and helps me cope with the pain much more easily.

My writing throughout the years is talked about elsewhere on this site but it went into full swing in 2003 and I have never looked back. I still have a number of books in me to write.

Photograph by Caitlin Mellor Photography
Susan, during an autograph session at her book launch for The Opening Act: Canadian Theatre History, 1945-1953, on June 17, 2012

10 Comments

  1. Trevor Lautens
    Oct 19, 2012

    I was in Jerry Wasserman’s class the other day and want to buy a copy of The Opening Act.
    I winced with pain when I heard about your labours, the rejection slips (from an industry in drastic decline from not all that robust in the first place – somehow the days of Lorne Pierce at the Ryerson Press and certainly M&S sound healthier and more hopeful in a smaller pond, to suffocate half a metaphor) and much worse your personal costs to see the project through.
    Regards,
    Trevor Lautens

    • Susan McNicoll
      Nov 30, 2012

      Hi Trevor
      My apologies for the length of time it has taken me to respond. I try to reply immediately to any comment left on my site. It was great to talk to the class and it is gratifying to know that at least one person truly understands what the journey can be like. I really hope you enjoy the book. For all the struggles I did enjoy writing it. All the best, Susan

      • Fairlie Golesworthy
        Apr 9, 2016

        Just found your website. Wanted to know if you remember me as Fairlie Kepple at Tortington Park. You spent part of one the school holidays with us in Storringon and I often wondered what happened to you. If you do remember me I would love to hear from you. Best wishes, Fairlie

        • Susan McNicoll
          Apr 15, 2016

          I do indeed remember you and just sent you an email. Hard to believe it is half a century since we were those fresh-faced youngsters.

  2. Chris Mattocks
    Apr 11, 2013

    You know, today I had a second and thought I’d Google a variation of your name. I had done it before but to no avail. I probably was incorrectly using the French version. But today? PAYDIRT! I am so very happy that you are now published (to say the least). We really should catch up. You now know how to find me. Hope to hear from you, when you can.

    • Susan McNicoll
      Apr 11, 2013

      Chris, I am very glad you Googled the name and spelled it right this time (!). Thanks for being so happy I am published. Who would have thought it all those decades ago in Toronto. Talk to you soon I hope.

  3. Clarissa Saywell
    Jan 10, 2014

    You may remember me at tortington park, I remember you as a great friend and so full of fun!

    • Susan McNicoll
      Jan 11, 2014

      If you are the Clarissa I hung out with so much in fifth form then I remember you very well. We did have so much fun together and you were also a great friend. Send me an e-mail through the contact form if you want to communicate further. Good to hear from you.

  4. Ines Jewell
    Mar 6, 2016

    Hi Susan – I remember you and totally agree with your comment that you have to be a good friend in order to survive – and thrive – at boarding school. In the past couple of years I’ve been to stay with old TP friends in S. Africa and the UK and my partner says it amazes him how ‘similar’ we all are in a sort of British “roll up your sleeves and get on with it” way. He’s Dutch! Cheers

    • Susan McNicoll
      Mar 7, 2016

      Hi Inez. Thanks for stopping by. Learning to be a good friend was one of the greatest gifts I got from the school. And I had to smile as your “roll up your sleeves and get on with it” comment because it is so very true. I hope your time at T.P. was a good one. How long were you there for?

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