Bonita Frances Dewey was born in Perth, N.B., on Aug. 28, 1948, the second of seven girls born to Francis Paterson, a farmer, and Alta Marguerite Webster, a schoolteacher. Money was often short, but living in close quarters made for a tight-knit family. While her sisters would get up to youthful hijinks, Bonita was the good child, staying above the fray, helping around the house and offering support to her siblings. “When she hugged you,” says her sister Cathy, “it was like you were wrapped in your favourite blanket.”
The family was religious, taking after Alta’s Pentecostal parents. (Her father was a minister.) But it was Bonita who really took to it the most and she became the spiritual leader of the family. The family shuttled back and forth between New Brunswick and Ontario, where Francis worked at a General Motors plant but was regularly lured back to the Maritimes by his love of farming. After Bonita’s father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1966, the family eventually moved permanently to Ontario, and Bonita enrolled at Trent University to study philosophy. Once, while walking back from class at Trent, a slow-moving car passed by. Bonita noticed that the driver was slumped over, having suffered a seizure. She ran up and managed to apply the brakes before the car rolled into a ditch, saving the man’s life. When the Peterborough Examiner reported the story, a humble Bonita requested that she remain anonymous.
Through their back-and-forth moves, the Patersons remained close friends with the Conroy family, and Bonita caught the eye of their son, David. The two married in 1969 and, a few years later, had a son, Mark. After 10 years of marriage, they separated, and Mark lived with Bonita in a number of houses in the Peterborough area until he was about seven (when he went to live with his father). One place, Mark recalls, was an apartment owned by an elderly woman who lived downstairs and often hassled him for making too much noise. Nevertheless, Bonita would help when the landlady, battling dementia, clogged her toilet with scraps of newspaper or confused a pile of clothes with a person.
Bonita got a job at an auto parts factory in Whitby, and she became best friends with a co-worker, Gloria Dewey. “She was different from other people,” says Gloria. “She loved everybody, she talked to everybody.” One day, Gloria introduced Bonita to her husband’s brother, Jerry, a quiet father of two who had also just gone through a divorce, and shared Bonita’s faith. On their first date, Jerry took Bonita to a movie and for a drive. Ten years later, they drove through a snowstorm to get married in a private ceremony in Fenelon Falls, Ont. Jerry had to convince Bonita that the weather wasn’t some kind of ominous sign. “I said, ‘No, the devil’s not going to get us,’ ” says Jerry. Bonita moved in with Jerry in Gooderham, Ont.
Bonita held various jobs—putting together computers, working as a personal support worker—but she was defined by her community service. She volunteered at churches, drove the sick and elderly for medical appointments and shopping trips, no matter the distance, and delivered meals for Community Care’s Meals on Wheels program. In 2008, she was named Community Care’s Volunteer of the Year.
Bonita’s other talent was singing. Once, about six years ago, she was singing at church as part of a group, when everyone eventually faded out, transfixed by her voice. “You couldn’t explain it,” says Jerry. “You’d almost think God was helping her.”
When her mother, Alta, moved to Gooderham to fulfill a dream of purchasing land and building a house, Bonita and Jerry were key to the project, helping with the construction. When Mark had kids of his own, Kassandra and Nikita, Bonita and Jerry became doting grandparents. Jerry’s family had a bee business and Bonita helped with the beekeeping, an appropriate hobby for an impossibly busy woman. But, in recent months, Bonita and Jerry were seriously considering packing it all up and moving to Lindsay or Lakeview this year, to be closer to her grandkids.
On Jan. 11, two days after celebrating their 16th anniversary, Jerry and Bonita were on their way to pick up her grandchildren for a weekend visit, when they stopped by her mother’s place to see why her porch door refused to shut. There had been a big snowfall the week before, so, while Alta and Jerry discussed fixing the door, Bonita offered to sweep the porch. Jerry then heard a loud crash, and found that Bonita had been crushed by the porch roof, which had collapsed under the weight of the heavy snow. She died before an ambulance arrived. She was 65.