VOICE

Ottawa Magazine - - WINTER 2018 - Jessie Duffy is a writer in­ter­ested in all things food, es­pe­cially the peo­ple be­hind the plate.

Trou­ble on the Line

Har­riet Clu­nie opens the back door of The Beech­wood Gas­tropub and steps into the dimly lit space be­hind her restau­rant. Cradling a cig­a­rette, she lets out a deep ex­hale into the night air. “It’s been a tough day,” she says with a sigh.

It’s been three weeks since Clu­nie closed the pop­u­lar neigh­bour­hood eatery, and she is in the fi­nal stages of the sell­ing and griev­ing process.

“I was feel­ing so shitty and so alone when I made the de­ci­sion to close the restau­rant. There was a lot of self-loathing,” Clu­nie con­fesses.

Ask her why she de­cided to close, and she’ll say it was ev­ery­thing and noth­ing. She chalks it up to min­i­mum-wage hikes, soar­ing rents, a short­age of qual­ity staff, and, above all, it was not turn­ing a profit.

De­spite the heartache, Clu­nie seems re­lieved that it’s all com­ing to end. She laughs and shakes her head. “If there are any lessons to be learned here, it’s that this was a very ex­pen­sive busi­ness school,” she quips.

We head in­side. Clu­nie sur­veys the space where her guests knew her for her bear hugs and warm hos­pi­tal­ity. “I feel re­ally for­tu­nate,” says Clu­nie, who was swept up in an out­pour­ing of emo­tional good­byes and last sup­pers, with no short­age of in­dus­try folk of­fer­ing jobs. “But right now, I just want to take some time.”

It’s been sev­eral weeks of or­ga­niz­ing and sort­ing. She nar­rows her eyes and leans in close. “You know, when you are de­pressed, one of the hard­est things to do is to make de­ci­sions.”

But her most dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions are yet to come. She still has to go through the be­long­ings of her mother, who died four years ago — an an­niver­sary that now co­in­cides with the fi­nal days of The Beech­wood Gas­tropub.

“I thought it would be a good idea to close the restau­rant on an al­ready emo­tion­ally charged day,” she says, dryly.

Clu­nie lost her mother, Kathryn Mis­sen, on Septem­ber 1, 2014, when she suf­fered an asthma at­tack at her home in Cas­sel­man.

“She was ana­phy­lac­tic,” Clu­nie says. “She had so many al­ler­gies — but she was re­ally good at man­ag­ing them,” not­ing that her mother al­most al­ways used herbs as her first line of de­fence. Clu­nie re­mem­bers her mother’s house brim­ming with herbs and home­made tinc­tures and “jars of stuff soak­ing in vodka.”

When those reme­dies failed that day in Septem­ber, she called 911 — it was the first time she had called.

Sadly, it was that call that failed her. Her wheez­ing, moan­ing voice led to an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to com­mu­ni­cate with the pri­mary dis­patcher. That dis­patcher sent the call on to a Smiths Falls 911 dis­patcher who, like­wise, couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate with Mis­sen. The dis­patcher called Bell, where it was er­ro­neously deemed “trou­ble on the line,” af­ter which the dis­patcher down­graded the call’s pri­or­ity — all of which was con­veyed to an OPP of­fi­cer who never re­sponded to the call. Mis­sen’s body was dis­cov­ered two days later af­ter con­cerned neigh­bours called 911.

“It never should have hap­pened,” Clu­nie says. “The sys­tem failed my mother ev­ery step of the way.”

Clu­nie put her culi­nary ca­reer on hold to fo­cus on all the obli­ga­tions that a death can bring — in­clud­ing her grief. It would be a year un­til she was fi­nally ready to emerge. Af­ter sev­eral of­fers, she set­tled on the po­si­tion of chef at The Beech­wood Gas­tropub, just as the hear­ings into her mom’s death re­gard­ing the of­fi­cers in­volved got un­der­way. (One pled guilty to mis­con­duct, while an­other was found not guilty of al­legedly cov­er­ing up the first of­fi­cer’s mis­take.) “That was hard. It was a big dis­trac­tion,” she says. Then there was the mat­ter of her in­her­i­tance. “[Own­ing a restau­rant] has been a long-stand­ing goal of mine, and my mom and I had a plan on how I was go­ing to get there — busi­ness school. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she was go­ing to help me,” says Clu­nie.

With her mother’s in­her­i­tance and her grow­ing fond­ness for The Beech­wood Gas­tropub, Clu­nie found her­self with the op­por­tu­nity to in­vest in her fu­ture. “I felt that buy­ing the restau­rant was the right thing to do — it’s what my mother would have wanted,” she says.

But then things started to go wrong. “I felt nau­seous,” Clu­nie says. “I thought, ‘Oh God, have I squan­dered all that money?’ ”

She shared her in­ner tor­ment with her fam­ily, her aunts re­mind­ing her that their sis­ter would have wanted noth­ing more than to see Clu­nie fol­low through with “the plan.”

“So we did it back­wards,” Clu­nie says, chuck­ling, “My aunts and I like to call it my elite busi­ness school of one.”

With the restau­rant nearly packed up, Clu­nie is pre­par­ing to take an­other sab­bat­i­cal and, per­haps, find some peace. The Of­fice of the Chief Coro­ner has be­gun an in­quest into her mother’s death (which in­cludes other cases where the 911 sys­tem failed) af­ter the re­gional coro­ner’s of­fice chose not to. Clu­nie and her aunts plan to de­vote their time to mak­ing sure no one else falls through the cracks.

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