Judith Josephine Koritar was born in Montreal on April 28, 1944, the second of three children of Mary Hettel, a caterer, and Karoly Koritar, a railway man. She spent her teen years in Ahuntsic, a middle-class neighbourhood on the northern end of Montreal, and spent many summers in the Laurentian village of Chertsey. After high school she went to work as an animator at the National Film Board. She wasn’t interested in a career, however. She turned down a job there to travel extensively through North, Central and South America with her brother Danny and some friends. She visited the Amazon rainforest and lived with the natives in huts.
She met Christian Pederson on a sojourn through Peru in 1975. He was so taken by her that he left his native country to settle down with her, first in southern Manitoba and then in Montreal. He had difficulty finding work, and her parents never approved of the relationship. Nevertheless, the pair married in 1976. Judith found out she was pregnant with their first child, Oliver, on her wedding day. A daughter, Christina, followed in 1981 and, 15 months later, April. Judith and Christian separated soon after, and he moved to the West Coast.
Judith and the kids lived in an apartment in NDG, a middle-class multi-ethnic Montreal neighbourhood. But after a run-in with an alcoholic tenant in the building, Judith decided a change was in order. She knew Ray, her neighbour next door, wanted to go to Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, in the Eastern Townships. She struck a bargain: she would put him up if he would fix whatever house she could afford in the country. They went driving through Waterville, a tiny burgh near Lennoxville, and found a gutted shell of a house behind a row of maple and pine trees. “Yup, this is it,” Judith said. That was how the relationship began, and she and Ray stayed together for eight years.
Judith was earthy, effervescent, curious. She tried to teach April to meditate when the child was all of five years old. “Just imagine the beach,” Judith told her. There wasn’t much money, but there was plenty of food: raisin tarts, creamy spinach sauce, and spaghetti squash were specialties. She told her kids to frequent an organic farm in nearby Compton, and was mildly offended if they went anywhere else. “It’s your health,” she told Christina. “It’s good for you.” There’s a tradition of mushroom picking in the Townships, and soon she was an amateur mycologist, a student and connoisseur of wild mushrooms. She even decorated her home with driftwood and large dried mushrooms that grew like steps up the sides of trees.
“Go outside and make something with sticks,” she would tell her kids when they were bored. Television was strictly for watching the news. Her children remember being dragged to protests against nuclear war in Ottawa. She organized awareness campaigns about the blue-green algae that choked the oxygen from Lake Massawippi, where she swam. When dozens of Quebec municipalities went through mergers in 2001, thanks to her collection of 759 signatures—nearly half of Waterville’s population—her town merged with Coaticook and not the much larger Sherbrooke. She wanted nothing to do with any big city.
Judith bartered incessantly. There were always strange, friendly men around, cutting the lawn and fixing things. The roof was redone in exchange for a summer’s worth of babysitting. Her arts degree from Bishop’s, earned once the kids were out of the house, was paid for in large part with apple pies she baked for her professors. “What I didn’t have made me who I am,” April says. What April did have was a pleasantly protective mother who would, on occasion, hide in the cedar hedges behind April’s friend’s house to make sure all was kosher. For April and Christina, bringing boys home to meet mom was a thorny and occasionally traumatic experience.
On July 5, Judith was helping a neighbour cut his lawn when she stumbled onto what she thought were Lepiota naucina, a mushroom known for its mild taste—and close resemblance to the poisonous Anamita virosa, known to mycologists as the Destroying Angel. The federal government calls it Canada’s deadliest mushroom. She was excited; normally Lepiota naucina are only found in the forest. She checked her mushroom book to be sure, and at 11:30 that night she boiled, fried and ate 10 mushroom caps.
She woke up feeling nauseous. She was soon rushed to Hôpital Saint-Luc in Montreal and, despite a liver transplant and a fierce will to live, developed Aspergillosis—a respiratory infection known as “mushroom of the lung.” Other complications ensued, and on July 24 she died in the company of her three children. She was 65.