Ute Merritt, nee Von Holtendorff Ute #208 *

Honoured by the Merritt children and the Holtzendorff Brothers.

Ute Barbara Merritt, nee von Holtzendorff, was born on the 4th of May 1956, in London, Ontario. She was the first of four children born to Arndt and Ursula von Holtzendorff, German immigrants new to Canada.

On August 20th, 2011 12:50 pm E.S.T Ute perished in a plane crash, with eleven other people on board First Air flight 6560 near Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Only three survived. This catastrophic news shocked and deeply saddened family, friends and people globally. Ute was a youthful 55 years old.

Ute was a sister, daughter, wife, mother and recent grandmother. She was a great friend and colleague to so many others in her life. Her loss touched all those who knew her. Between her birth and death Ute lived a full life; and while many words have been used to describe Ute and her life by those who loved her, one word seems to be common to all who speak of her – special.

Some weeks after Ute’s death a friend of hers remarked, “Ute was special”. Yes, special. Ute was special to her family, that was obvious, but after her death it became clear that Ute was special to all who knew her and even more than this, that she had the ability to turn the ordinary into something special. One of her cousins remembered how with Ute even the tedious job of washing piles of dishes after a large family gathering became a fun and interactive event.

Already in childhood Ute had something unique about her. When she travelled to Germany at an early age she impressed all her relatives with wonderful stories of Canada and family, or tales of cats and lakes. Living in North Bay, she was always next to water, and so perhaps it’s no great surprise that she would later choose to settle down in Yellowknife, on the shores of Great Slave Lake.

Ute loved games of imagination. Her specialness found expression in the imaginative games she invented and played with her younger siblings and cousins. One of these was the Alley Cat Club. To be admitted, on had to leap from the garage roof into a snowdrift, or slide down the staircase on your bottom. Only once you’d proved your mettle, were you admitted as a member and awarded the badge of honour that Ute had made – a black cat on a yellow circle.

In high school, Ute continued to shine. Although an excellent student who loved to learn, it was in musical theatre where her real passion and talent came to centre stage. In one of her roles she played the famous Eliza Doolittle, from My Fair Lady, to great acclaim. Ute had a beautiful and pure singing voice but she could act as well. She loved and worked hard on those dramatic roles. Her brothers still recall her practicing the cockney accent required for Eliza: “Oim a good gel oi em” (I’m a good girl I am). To this day, people fondly remember those performances.

Perhaps the biggest event in Ute’s early adult life was falling in love with a young tuba player in the pit orchestra for musicals in which she starred. James (Jim) Merritt, a young man of charm and ambition who was training as an aircraft mechanic and pilot, was to be Ute’s co-pilot for this adventure. Did his dark and dashing good looks remind Ute of Mr. Spock (the only true rival for Ute’s affections, as Jim himself noted)? Following a whirlwind romance (involving but not limited to: dramatic fire-escape escapades, exciting plane rides, poetry, awkward dancing, and plowing his future father-in-law’s driveway) at 19 years old, Ute and Jim were wed and Ute became Ute Merritt. With the Merritt name, Ute had a second family in the form of Jim’s parents and siblings. Just as Jim became part of the Holtzendorffs, so Ute was welcomed within the Merritt family. Ute and Jim were to be together until her death; they had five children together. Ute’s children soon became the main focus in her life and she was truly proud of what they all became: confident and beautiful, talented and kind. Some of her children are now parents themselves and all were touched by (and have a touch of) that spark of Ute’s specialness.
Ute was a wonderful mother. As her daughter Sam said, “she loved us just enough.” Ute managed to strike that elusive parenting balance between freedom and sheltering. It was amazing how there would seem to be a whirl of chaotic activity all around Ute, who seemed calm and unconcerned in the middle of it, and then, with catlike movement Ute would spring into action to prevent some impending catastrophe. But more change was soon to come: the Salvation Army.

Jim found organized religion and Ute’s faith too found and expression within the Salvation Army. They spent two years in training to be Army Officers and upon graduation they went to preach the Word, wherever the Army dispatched them. Ute’s specialness shone once more in her role as army Captain; with her intellect and writing talent she produced insightful sermons, and once again her musical ability came to the fore as she sang with joy that was sincere and heartfelt. She was celebrated in the Army’s magazine as a woman of compassion, gentleness, and wisdom. Ute’s deep love of God and people, her humility and her imagination and creativity made her someone whom coworkers and loved ones praised at her memorial and long after. All of them again used that word, special.

After leaving the army, Jim, who had kept up his flying skills while being the spiritual kind of captain, now was an aircraft captain again, and Ute also found a new calling. She began to work alongside Jim as a Customer Service agent. During these years Ute seemed to find real contentment. She was happy with her work and the freedom it gave her to enjoy leisure pursuits such as sailing and walking her two dogs, and of course, spending time with family and friends. She was overjoyed to become a grandmother, twice over, with the birth of Viktor and Edward. Ute welcomed her two daughters-in-law and treated them like her own daughters. Ute also enjoyed the camaraderie of her co-workers who were impressed by her ‘joie de vivre’. One of Ute’s colleagues commented that Ute was always perky and smiling, and worked very well under pressure. Soon she moved on to be a flight attendant, fulfilling an old dream from her adolescence. Here, her love of helping people, which she had begun to practice in the Sally Ann, and her love of flying (Ute also had her wings, becoming a pilot at age 20) were united in the person her colleagues and passengers saw. Seldom was she seen without her smile. Many have commented on Ute’s smile: in fact her children remarked recently that it was a challenge to find a photo in which their Mom was not smiling.

In recent years Ute returned to her love of wind and water with a new passion – sailing. She and Jim won many trophies and made new friends on their sailboat Checkmate. Their tee-totaling days of the Salvation Army were over, now replaced with moderate enjoyment of a good glass of wine and sailor’s grog. As she left for work on August 20th, Ute seemed a contented person. She enjoyed her job, she loved her family, and she loved her life. In the photo of her at the helm of their new boat, Arcturus (named after the brightest star in the northern hemisphere), taken only weeks before her death, something enigmatic and triumphant can be seen breaking through in Ute’s smile. To describe that charm and beauty, that strength and joy of Ute’s smile would be a challenge for the greatest of poets and it is fitting therefore that Ute’s children turned to literature, choosing a quotation from the Narnia novels of C.S. Lewis (a man who knew a lot about specialness), to celebrate their mother’s life.

The painting in question was of a ship. More importantly, it was of a Narnian ship. The prow of the ship was a gilded dragon. There was one mast with a large, purple, square sail. What was visible of the sides of the ship was a rich green color.
The ship was most assuredly Narnian, and it reminded the children of their reason for being there.

“The question is whether it doesn’t make things worse, looking at a Narnian ship when you can’t get there,” Edmund asked that afternoon.

“Even looking is better than nothing,” Lucy sighed. “And she is such a Narnian ship.”
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader