In the orbit of Lorna Toolis – 1952-2021

Lorna Toolis, July 2021, in Temagami, Ontario – Photography by Do-Ming Lum/Tiger Mountain Creative Services

Does the Moon understand itself to be orbiting the Earth? Leaving aside the point that it almost certainly hasn’t the wit to even wonder, I can imagine that it would not. It would have no idea how much its course in the universe depends on the gravitational presence of its companion.

But take that companion away … well, the Moon would have to be some kind of non-sentient ball of rock and dust and ice, not to suddenly realize how lucky it had been all those millennia.

In that spirit, I am coming to realize my good luck, to have lived so many years in orbit of Lorna Toolis. She died on Wednesday afternoon (Aug. 11).

Lorna was the long-serving head of the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy – a world-class collection of science fiction and fantasy materials at the Toronto Public Library. The birth of that collection preceded Lorna, but by only a few years; when she started, it was still known as the Spaced Out Library, seeded by a donation of science fiction writer and editor Judith Merril’s personal collection of books in 1970.

In the late 1980s when I first met Lorna, the Spaced Out Library was on the second floor of the Boys and Girls House at Beverly and College Streets. Not climate-controlled. Not accessible. As ad-hoc a library as its name might suggest.

I’d come in as a journalist, ostensibly working with another writer on an article about the Canadian science fiction community for a local alternative paper – but really, dipping my toe into a world that I very much wanted to enter.

Lorna helped me do both. First, she gave me a who’s-who rundown of sources I might speak to, suggested I hit Ad Astra, the local science fiction convention to find those sources in one place.

Those sources included Judith Merril herself, who after a very professional interview, told me very candidly, about a writer’s workshop that might be looking for members – and introduced me to one of the founding members, Michael Skeet. Lorna’s husband.

I and my collaborator Shlomo Schwartzberg wrote our article, and I think it was pretty good. After a bit of to-and-fro-ing, I took my seat at the Cecil Street Community Centre, where the workshop met in those days, and became a not-quite-founding-member of the Cecil Street Irregulars workshop. I learned to write. I started to publish. I found a community, like I’d never had before, in that corner of the local SF scene. In the course of all that, I entered orbit.

Lorna’s orbit.

I’ve written elsewhere that Lorna was one of my dearest friends; that I would not be who I am without her.

I’ll say here that I’m not unique; Lorna had many moons circling her when we met, and many more still by the time that she died. Part of that may have been due to her role as collection head of the library that she helped push to rename the Merril Collection, and move to the more suitable Lillian H. Smith branch on College. The library is a comprehensive collection of sf material and an invaluable research institution. Lorna made it into a hub, for a community of readers and creators not only in Toronto, but across the country and around the world.

If Lorna had only applied her dedication, hard work and passion for the genre, as considerable as all those qualities were, I don’t know that she would have been able to pull it off. It was Lorna’s not-so-secret weapon – a combination of kindness, generosity and when required, absolute steel – that brought it all together.

As she helped me enter the world of SF and F in very particular ways, so I think she did with almost everyone else who came in.

So the SF community is lucky to have had Lorna Toolis for a singularity.

I am luckier than that.

From those early days until just a few days ago, I saw Lorna and Michael almost every week, and sometimes more often than that. We were neighbours in Toronto’s east end – part of a small community of friends who early on made a decision never to stray too far from one another. We eat together, celebrate together, gather every few weeks to play pencil-and-paper role-playing games (Lorna was a master at refereeing Call of Cthulhu and after her retirement went at it with a gleeful vengeance; there is probably another blog post memorializing her meticulously-researched home-brew scenarios and campaigns).

And we grieve together.

When Lorna died, she was in the midst of an against-the-odds battle with cancer. It was a battle similar to ones she’d witnessed before, fought and lost by too many other dear friends. As she faced it herself, she did so with courage and good humour, to an extent that should not have surprised anyone who knew her, but struck me nevertheless.

I miss Lorna terribly. But just a few days outside her orbit now, I am so grateful to have known her, and to have been shaped by her kindness and example. Any moon should be so lucky.

4 thoughts on “In the orbit of Lorna Toolis – 1952-2021”

  1. A beautiful and moving orbituary (pun intended, for Lorna’s benefit). Thank you for saying all that so eloquently.

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 8/25/21 Helen O’Loy And The Scrollcrank Redemption | File 770

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