I booked my first cruise in January of 2005. Although I began cruising almost a decade earlier as a teenager, my first cruise I ever booked, paid for, and sailed on would take place five months later, in May of 2005 aboard Holland America Line’s Oosterdam.

The classic wooden promenade deck lends Holland America Line's Oosterdam a true "ocean liner" quality. Photo © Aaron Saunders

May 4, 2005: my first-ever, fully-booked-and-paid-for cruise aboard Holland America Line’s Oosterdam. Photo © Aaron Saunders

To book my cruise, I bumbled into Sears Travel’s Robson Street location at the corner of Robson and Howe in Vancouver. I’d been raiding them of their cruise brochures for months, and the three person team that worked there gently tolerated my pilfering. Those three travel agents – Bob, Marty and Thelma Poirier – would end up becoming good friends of mine over the next decade.

While I booked cruises with all three, it was the always-smiling Thelma Poirier that turned out to be my go-to travel agent for several years – and I inundated her mercilessly with all kinds of whacked-out cruise requests. “

Thelma!”, I’d write in an email, “can you price out the following voyages for me, in a balcony stateroom?” That would be followed by some sort of run-on list of voyages around the world that I found particularly interesting. Thelma did it, gamely, and never once complained. In fact, she’d add to my growing fantasy list of voyages to take. She’d send me news alerts from Holland America Line – my go-to cruise line at the time – letting me know when they were having some big blitz of a sale.

Since I still worked downtown at that time, in the animation industry, I’d pop into Sears and ride the escalators up to the fifth floor, where Thelma would have a nice stack of brochures she’d put aside waiting for me. She never assumed a line was out of my league or my income bracket, and always made sure to have my personal fantasy lines – Cunard and Silversea – represented with new brochures at the top of the pile.

But aside from booking cruises, I liked visiting with her. She was probably in her early 60’s at this point, and I enjoyed the friendly banter that would occur around this small corner of the store, which Sears succeeded in making smaller with each passing year. But if Thelma, Marty and Bob minded, they never let on – in fact, as their workspace got smaller, their jokes only seemed to get funnier.

Eventually, Thelma left Sears Travel. She’d gotten a job at a mining exploration company that came with what I assumed was a considerable pay bump over Sears Travel. Her colleague Bob then took over the vast majority of my bookings, and he was every bit as kind and nice as Thelma had been.

It’s important to note that all three of these people are what I’d consider to be good friends. I’d met Thelma for lunch several times, and did so with Bob as well. When I became a cruise writer, Marty invited me out to Sears Travel Capilano, in North Vancouver, to be a sort of guest-host for a cruise night they were having. I tried to be all suave and intelligent, but I think I just worked on taste-testing the doughnuts.

If you’ve been to Vancouver recently, you’ll know that Sears on Robson is gone. The “White Whale” of a building it used to be housed in is no more; it’s been redone as a glitzy Nordstrom location. Sears Travel is also, sadly, no more – a reflection of a changing industry.

This morning, I got an email from Bob. Thelma Poirier, travel agent extraordinaire and all-around nice lady, died on October 7. I didn’t know she was sick. I knew she’d had health problems. But at the end of the day, I just didn’t know. And I felt terrible.

Tomorrow, her friends and family will gather for a celebration of her life in Surrey, British Columbia. I can’t make it, because I’m nowhere near British Columbia at the moment. So I wanted to take the time to recognize her here for the impact she had on my life. She never assumed I was too young to cruise, nor did she ever make any judgements on me for spending my cash on so many of them. Instead, I remember her laughing as she’d check into yet another obsession-of-the-minute that I figured I could somehow afford.

The last time I saw Thelma in person was at London’s Heathrow Airport. I was returning from a cruise, maybe two or three years ago and my inbound British Airways flight had been disastrously late. I found myself running through Heathrow’s Terminal 5C, desperately trying to make BA 85 to Vancouver.

As I raced around the corner, I hear this voice yelling at me. “Come on, Aaron! Run faster!” I look – and there’s Thelma, standing on the jetbridge. She’d come from a vacation in Ireland, I think, and there she is, telling the gate agent in her friendly but commanding voice not to close the flight yet.

I had no idea she’d been in England, or was even on vacation. And yet there she was holding this Boeing 747 for me so that I could make it home.

I remember sweating profusely from all the running, and walking down the jetbridge with her. “What are you doing here?!”, I asked.

She laughed. “After all these years, I’m still having to make sure you get home safely!”

Thanks, Thelma.

Sailing away from Miami; a cruise ship lingers over the setting sun. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

 

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