Nora Ulrike Perra Booth was born on Nov. 13, 1941, in then-German-occupied Gleiwitz, now Gliwice, Poland. The second daughter of Martha and Victor Bruchmann, Nora narrowly escaped death at the age of three when her family was being evacuated by the Nazi army. The train had been moving at a snail’s pace, and she had to relieve herself. A soldier offered to take her, then catch up with the train. Just as they got off, gunfire erupted. The train sped up, leaving the soldier and Nora in the fight against the Allies, and her mother believed she was gone. But two hours later the soldier miraculously reappeared, with Nora in his arms.
The family immigrated to Canada in 1951 and settled in Batawa, Ont., where her father became an executive of the Bata Shoe Company. When she was 16, Nora’s older sister Monica was killed on Labour Day weekend by a drunk driver. Monica’s death would remain an agonizing memory in Nora’s life. Shortly after, the family relocated to Hamilton, where Nora finished her high school degree. She graduated from McMaster University in 1965 and became a high school teacher with the Scarborough school board.
Two years later, Nora took a leave of absence to visit Europe with three friends. In late July, they travelled by bus from Hamilton to New York City where they boarded a boat named the Aurelia and enjoyed a 10-day crossing to England. After touring England, they stayed with Nora’s aunt Lizel, a Lutheran nun who lived outside of Bremen, Germany, then bought a Volkswagen for their tour. By December, they were in Florence, where a year before the river Arno had flooded the city. Teams of students were volunteering to restore damaged books, documents and artwork. “That’s when Nora decided that she was tired of being on the go all the time,” recalls Ligita Galdings, who was on the trip. Taken by the city, Nora settled in Florence to volunteer as well.
It was there she met her future husband, Sebastiano Perra, a member of the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police; he was wearing his navy blue uniform complete with military hat during their first encounter on the streets of Florence. On Sundays, Sebastiano had the whole afternoon off and they would always enjoy dinner together. “My family, they welcomed Nora like a princess,” he remembers. In 1971, he requested a 40-day leave from the force to wed Nora, in a ceremony that took place in Hamilton on a sunny day in early September. They settled in Toronto and had their first child, Meri, five years later, followed by their second daughter, Christina, a year after. “I have never met anyone who was so totally proud and accepting of her girls,” says Nora’s friend of 29 years, Joan Fryd. “The three of them together could do anything.”
Nora and Sebastiano separated after 13 years of marriage but remained involved in each other’s lives. “They were ahead of their time,” says Meri. “They never stopped being parents together.” In fact, when they finally divorced in 1992 they didn’t bother toget the divorce certificate on paper. When Nora wanted to remarry in 2005, she faced a minor administrative hurdle–she was technically still married to Sebastiano in the absence of the physical certificate.
Following her retirement from teaching in 1998, Nora lived a freer, more spontaneous life. For the first time she dressed up as Santa Claus for Christmas, even though her kids were in their twenties. She also began clowning with her friend Mary Lynn Roberts, taking on the clown identity of Sunny. The two entertained in hospitals and nursing homes across Toronto with the Toronto Clown Alley, a clown association. “She saw a way of being out there, and a talent that she could give to other people,” says daughter Christina. In fact, Nora was on the cover of the March 3, 2003, issue of Maclean’s magazine, for a story about retirees finding second careers.
Moving into a new condominium in 2003, Nora inspired the “spirit” of the community, says neighbour Jean Keele. She had stopped clowning by 2005 and served on the Bayview condominium board of directors, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with baked goods, and organized teas and socials. After officially receiving her divorce certificate, she married Cec Booth, her partner of 12 years, in 2005. Cec tragically died early of pulmonary fibrosis in 2007. Then, on Feb. 8, 2008, experiencing indigestion and bloating, Nora visited Sunnybrook hospital, a place where she used to clown. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “She asked me if I would paint a picture of her in her clown suit. She wanted to give it to her granddaughter Soraya,” says Jean. Nora passed away in her home on May 20, 2009. She was 67. The picture hangs in Soraya’s room.