Patti Allan’s Story of Betty

“I was an oddball right from the start – a really weird kid. I smashed all the neighbour’s flower pots and smacked their newborn baby at age 3 – I don’t know why… I guess I wasn’t getting enough attention. I went across the street into the forest at 4, and picked bleeding hearts to sell door to door for money for my piggy bank.  I faked sick from school, because I hated being harassed by bullies, and getting in trouble for colouring outside the lines.” My mum – speaking about herself.

I’ve always loved listening to her tell stories of her growing up years, and in particular these stories of the naughty, irreverent, little girl tickle me, because they do not describe the proper, classy Mother that I grew up knowing.  To me Mum was like a movie star – always dressed with flare, beautiful, creative, adventurous, loved by friends, a lover of history, and courageous.  Why, fresh from the hair raising journey down the ol’ birth canal, – her mother hemorrhaging and the doctor hollering, “Don’t worry about the baby! Save the Mother!!”  –  she was shoved out and expected to fend!  And she did. Thankfully, she had not been victim of one of her mum’s prior ‘self-aborting with a knitting needle’ operations. She doesn’t remember how she knows about the latter, she just does. Mum loves sharing these stories, and I adore hearing her burst into ‘great gales’ at the memory of some crazy antic, or witnessing her retreat into a thoughtful reverie.  It intrigues me. Even when things were not always going her way – when ‘real’ expectations would collide with her romantic heart and break it – Betty would persevere, with hope in her heart, humour and imagination in her head, and funny little ‘buck-em up’ mottos like “It’s always darkest before the dawn, dear”, or “Rome wasn’t built in a day, dear”, or “What the hell does it matter anyway, dear, for God’s sake!?”

Betty Doreen Borrie, was born to Wilfred and Beth Borrie, on May 15th, 1929, in Vancouver, B.C. The family lived in a newly constructed house on 8th Avenue just west of Alma – one of the first homes built in the area. A lover of animals from the start, Mum adored watching the huge Percheron horses used for excavating and leveling the surrounding properties. From her house she could also watch them trot down Broadway, hauling wagons, trucks, or giant utility sleighs in winter, full of milk and bread which were delivered daily to homes. The horses were housed in cow barns which stood all along Broadway, and enterprising homeowners, like her father, would scoop up the calling card ‘horse buns’ and use them to fertilize the garden.

From a young age, ‘little Betty Boop’, was outgoing and loved the excitement of performing! As early as age 5, she would rally the neighbourhood kids together, run up to 10th Avenue, and perform an ‘all out’ song and dance routine for tourists aboard the “Teddy Lions Sightseeing Streetcar”, which chugged along the avenue on weekends. Following in the footsteps of her amateur actress mother, “Boopie” would, over the years, dive into many community-minded performing adventures – participating in parades, theatre productions, serving as a ‘Miss Canada War Bond Girl’, and singing at local canteens for the servicemen. It was an expected ‘duty’ to serve during war time, and Betty and her friends embraced every opportunity to do so, including attending weekly meetings of the Vancouver Women’s Auxiliary Corps, where they practiced marching, wrapping bandages, knitting and making things for ‘the boys’.  But while there was excitement on the home front, there was also constant worry for relatives living in London, England, and for other loved ones fighting in the war itself. A teenage Betty would never get over the death of her favourite cousin and hero – killed in action overseas. She was heartbroken.

Romantic Betty loved to escape to the movies.  Every Saturday, the promise of love, adventure, and ‘happy ever after’ stories, saw her faithful to the Alma Street Movie Theatre, where she swooned over popular stars of the day. Her scrapbooks, loaded with movie mag photos and mail order autographed 8×10 glossies, are a goldmine of historical memorabilia. Since her father was head of the West Coast war bond drive, and her mother was given the duty of driving the movie star ‘bond solicitors’ around town, a star struck Betty even had the thrill of actually meeting some of her most adored idols!

But, ‘romantic movie’ Betty could not entirely escape the realities of ‘practical’ Betty’s life. Over the years, she was expected to take on the role of caregiver to both her epileptic brother and undiagnosed manic depressive Mum. These assignments could be embarrassing and overwhelming – like when her brother had a seizure at the movie theatre: the film was stopped; the lights came up, and terrified movie-goers witnessed a freakish display of a much maligned disease. Capable Betty moved into action, tending both to her brother’s safety, and to the fears of judgmental onlookers. Looking after her alcohol dependant Mother could be equally difficult. At times Betty would flourish in the midst of her Mum’s manic highs – a whirlwind of people and parties – but other times, she would tread precariously through the somber silence of her mother’s depressions. There were fights; there were suicide attempts, and even hospitalization for weeks at a time. Diary entries written during those years by my teenage mum are gut wrenching to read.

In her early teens, Betty helped instigate one of her most enduring life’s ventures: “THE SILANUS GIRLS CLUB”. Clubs were fashionable, and she and some of her pals were keen to be part of the trend!  They met once a week, rotating houses, ‘laughing and gassin’, knitting and confiding. There was no experience that this ‘family’ didn’t share. When I was a child these women seemed famous to me, and the atmosphere around ‘Club’ itself was important and special. You weren’t allowed to interrupt. I loved hearing them all downstairs – communing into the wee small hours, caring, cozy – bonded. To this day, they continue to gather once a month though, sadly, they have also witnessed the passing of some of their closest comrades.

With these pals, Betty also enjoyed her love of the outdoors. As teens and young adults, they thought nothing of packing up and cycling to Boundary Bay for an overnight bash, or getting up in the early morning to ferry to North Vancouver, ‘streetcar’ up Lonsdale for tea and sugar cake with Granny, hike up and down Grouse Mountain and be back home in time for bed! In winter, a hike up Hollyburn with skis, or packing up wood and supplies for an all day skate and bonfire at Jericho Pond or Lost Lagoon was regular sport.

Also during her teen years, Betty began to foster two of her greatest loves: writing and singing.  She wrote for the Lord Byng High School Newspaper, with a thrilling highlight –  interviewing beloved music idol, Stan Kenton! She had a wonderful singing voice and performed regularly with high school bands, and eventually even placed second in a city-wide ‘DINAH SHORE’ contest, which saw her singing on radio, in dancehalls, and for a final ‘full house’ performance at the Orpheum with the Dal Richards Big Band. She was crazy about singing, and dreamed of it as a life’s profession, but in the 1940’s, and with her upper-middleclass values, a gal just didn’t do that sort of thing.

What a gal did do was get married and have children. So when, after graduation and while working at the bank, Betty met the fun-loving, and handsome, trombone playing waiter from the diner across the street, the hope of future security and ‘happy ever after’ was too much to resist. She fell in love with and married Bruce Allan, former navy man, future builder, real estate agent, and father to her 4 children. They spent wonderful years together raising their beloved family.

By the time Betty was 22, she had given birth to a daughter, and my twin brother and I (all within a year and a half), and, though we were ‘her life’, the job of dealing with so many babies all at once was mammoth. At the same time, she cared for her mother who had contracted breast cancer, underwent a radical mastectomy and endured painful radiation treatments which burned her entire chest.  Three years after my birth, Nana died unexpectedly of a stroke. Betty was devastated, but expected to carry on, being now not only hostess/wife to her husband (boss of a newly formed construction company), proficient mother of three toddlers, but also, full time escort for her very public, and politically involved father. She felt sorry for him, so, loyal and duty bound, Betty accompanied her dad to events throughout the country, anguishing when it required her to abandon her babies and husband, for days at a time.

Betty continued to look after other’s needs until her kids were grown, but eventually she started a journey back to her authentic self.  She had always been curious, was an avid reader, and had enjoyed the occasional night school course. I loved watching her do homework at the kitchen table -clearly this was her time, not ours! She would practice her Spanish lessons and hoot with laughter following her vigourous repeat of a phrase, or clack furiously at an essay on her old manual typewriter. She was a skilled typist, and it was fascinating to watch her fingers fly around the keyboard, punctuating everything with a great wack and ding, as the carriage came to the end of a line.

In her 40’s, she returned to college to study writing and psychology. Her marriage of 20 some years broke apart, so Betty made the difficult but necessary decision to leave. Women of her era did not do this. She was judged harshly by some loved ones, but, worn out and fuelled with courage and the hope for something more, she left.  She moved into an apartment and started a life of her own, making new friends, broadening her academic interests, and, over the next few years, finding new happiness. She took the time to really enjoy raising her fourth and cherished daughter. She fell in love again and continued her adventure with a second husband, gradually letting go of ‘duty bound Betty’ and embracing more and more of her true passions and joys.

Over the years, Boopie has met with other challenges – in her life and in the lives of her loved ones. Her own hormonal depressions could take her down for days at a time but Betty always “soldiered” on. I think one of the only times that I, as her daughter, really worried about my resilient mum, was a couple of years ago when she phoned to tell me about the death of her beloved doggie, Sam.  Her voice sounded mangled. There was nothing I could say to help her. It was awful.  Mostly, though, when I think of my mum I remember the fun of her – the ‘event’ she created around celebrations; her in the living room, cranking up the hi-fi and belting out a tune, or playing a classical ‘something’ on the piano; jitterbugging with party friends; or howling at ‘I Love Lucy’; or jumping around to TV’s Jack Lalanne!

Today, at 76, Boopie, is a glorious gardener, loving Gramma, treasurer of the ‘Tale-Spinner’s’ writing group, sponsor of injured and orphaned animals, a regular fitness participant, and she enjoys a most wonderful circle of friends in Qualicum Beach, B.C. And…even though my own doggie now receives more presents from her at Christmas than I do… I love her deeply… my inspiration Mum.

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