Violet Alice Marks was born on September 15, 1918, the eleventh of fourteen children, to Katie and Sam Marks in Langbank, Saskatchewan. She slid into the world so quietly, her mother said, “I will name her Violet.”The midwife replied, “With those big brown eyes I’d call her Susan.” The name Vi stuck, but she would soon prove that she was no shrinking violet.
Mum writes in her autobiography: “My first memory was being out in the moonlight with my brothers and sisters, looking up at the moon and the stars. The night was warm; we ran, romped, and squealed ecstatically. It was then I realized I was a person.”
She grew up on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan. Her father, an immigrant from Cornwall, England, had been a homesteader, living in a sod house before he met and married Katie Cameron MacDougall. The family worked long hours on the farm, as did everyone who lived on the prairies in those days.
Mum was a natural athlete, strong and lean from doing farm work. She loved any kind of sports, and her Dad would often take the family to ball games. She played softball on an all-girls team with her best friend Nina Kirchenko. Their team once pitched a nine-inning game with no hits, no runs and no errors. The ump said they were one of the best teams in Saskatchewan.
During the summer, the Marks family would go to Kenosee Lake for vacations. They would camp in a big army tent. Mum remembers once going camping with three sisters. It rained all week, and they were unable to light their campfire to cook their meals. They survived on Saskatoon berry pie, raw potatoes and bread and butter. Of course they all got sick.
In Mum’s early teen years the Depression and drought started; the prairies became a dust bowl. Nothing grew, or if it did, it was spindly and seldom survived the gophers and grasshoppers. Hopelessness hung everywhere like a black cloud.
In 1932, when she was thirteen, life on the prairies ended for Mum. The family set out for British Columbia in their farm truck nicknamed Prairie Schooner. She writes: “There were twelve of us, as well as our dog Doc and our cat Old Blue; we were piled into the back of the truck, with a trailer hitched on behind, holding the few treasured items left after the auction. I couldn’t figure out why people stared. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to be going where we wanted to go in the way that best suited our means. In Yahk, B.C., we lost the cat and the trailer as a result of a minor accident. Twenty-two days later we arrived in Chilliwack – we had crossed two Prairie provinces and the Rockies, all this standing in the back of a truck without brakes!
Mum’s life in Chilliwack was a difficult one. She missed the vast open prairie, single-room schoolhouse and old friendships. Somehow she adjusted, but not without a few tears, and depression, which would plague her throughout her life. For a couple of years she attended high school but became discouraged and quit.
The following summer she stayed with her sister Edith, who ran a Tea Room at Cultus Lake. When Mum wasn’t working, she took swimming lessons. She soon mastered the sport and was the speediest swimmer in the class. At the local Dominion Day races, a local sports writer saw her swimming and said she could be in the Olympics. Her head filled with glory, but her swimming dreams had to be put on hold for awhile.
Looking for work, a family friend, Georgie MacDonald, invited Mum to stay with her in Vancouver. Georgie saw a job ad in her church bulletin; an Au Pair was required for the French Consulate’s children. Mum applied and got the job, despite not knowing French and largely on the parish priest’s recommendation.
On December 14, 1934, when she was just seventeen, Mum and the Suzor family sailed on the luxury liner Aorangi for Australia. In Sydney they lived in a huge mansion at Darling Point.
At this time, before WWII, diplomats were very active. The Suzors entertained frequently, bringing in staff as needed. The biggest celebration for the French was July 14, Bastille Day. Mum writes: “Two of my favorite foods served that day were sweetbreads and chocolate cupcakes. Twenty-five cases of French champagne were consumed that afternoon, and in all 500 persons came and went!”
When no events were planned, Mum was their only staff, looking after the children, fixing their meals, and cleaning the whole house. Mum writes: “I got to be a fair cook. One day Madam Suzor was in a tizzy because unexpected company was coming: the Countess de Chaunteraque. As there was no food in the house I was asked to prepare a teatime snack. I whipped up my mother’s recipe for baking powder biscuits, put fresh butter and apricot jam on them, wrapped them in a linen cloth, and served them in a silver dish along with a cup of tea. The Countess came out to the kitchen and complimented me, asking for my recipe.”
Mum spent two years in Australia. Toward the end of her time there she became ill and spent several months in hospital. She said she had a burst appendix and was exhausted, but in all probability it was depression. Later, back home in Canada, she wrote: “At the first meal with my family, my mother said she thought I must find our home very humble after all the posh places I had been to. I could not answer her, I was so choked up, I was afraid I would cry if I talked. “
Mum went to Mission City to join her sister Elsie, who had a beauty salon. One day she spotted a handsome man walking down Main Street. He was tall, with a tanned complexion, black hair and beautiful brown eyes. She told her co-worker, “There is the man I am going to marry.” Her friend replied, “Al Walker is not the marrying kind.” Mum said, “He is now,” and two years later they wed.
Their first home was at Halfmoon Bay near a logging camp where Al, my Dad, was employed. They had a beautiful cottage overlooking the bay. When I was born, I nearly arrived in a canoe. The hospital could only be reached by water, and the local First Nations man who piloted Mum there reassured her that he was the father of seven children and had helped deliver them all.
Not long after the war broke out, Dad joined the Canadian Army. While he was away, Mum had a nervous breakdown and a prolonged bout of depression. She spent her days sleeping, and I was pretty much left to my own devices. In those days parents did not hover nor worry very much about their children’s psyche or whereabouts. Things happened to me that should not happen to any four-year-old child: a near drowning incident and advances by an adult man left me with psychological scar tissue.
Shortly after the war Mum and Dad were in a car accident when Mum was pregnant with Ted. Mum was the only one injured, sustaining a facial injury that required eighteen stitches which left a scar across the bridge of her nose. Fortunately, it did not affect the unborn child. Ted was born November 7, 1945.
Reading Pearl Buck’s book The Good Earth inspired Mum and Dad to take up farming. They purchased a small farm outside Mission. Mum had been raised on a farm, but Dad had not. He also owned a small trucking business. In late spring of 1948 the Fraser River flooded. Al knew every road in the territory, and so his three trucks were used to transport flood victims and their livestock to higher ground. Unfortunately, there was no remuneration in those days for this kind of effort; the floodwaters eventually destroyed the trucks, and Mum and Dad lost everything.
Circumstances had foiled so many of her dreams, but Mum would just rebuild again, as if nothing ever seemed impossible. She put her dreams into her children, determined we would be achievers. After I won a talent contest for reciting, she decided I should take elocution lessons. We did not have a car, and Mission was almost a day’s trip from Vancouver. Every Saturday morning she would pack a lunch and we would hitchhike to Vancouver. Later that year, Dad got her “Mini”, a little green Morris convertible. She was delighted. Despite the fact that she had worn the same coat for ten years, she now insisted that both my brother Ted and I should take elocution and singing lessons.
My brother Tyrone, born in 1955, very nearly died at birth. He had to be rushed by ambulance from Mission to Vancouver for blood transfusions, as he was an RH baby. He then remained in hospital for several weeks. Separation from her sick infant son was difficult to endure.
A stay-at-home Mum with three children to look after, she could never sit still for very long and soon returned to school, completing her high school diploma and eventually became an accredited medical records librarian. This was work she did for several years.
Mum once again took up swimming when adult swimming lessons were offered at the local swimming pool. She progressed rapidly through the Red Cross progammes and became a qualified swimming instructor. She taught and coached hundreds of swimmers, one of whom dubbed her “Mrs. Swim”. In her later years she competed at the B.C. Seniors Games and won thirty-five medals over a period of ten years.
Shortly after Ty’s twelfth birthday Mum was hired to teach swimming at the North Vancouver Recreation Centre. Ty showed great promise as a swimmer, and Mum was delighted to hear he had “Olympic potential.” She pushed him to do more, living through his victories.
Then tragedy struck. Dad, at age 53, died of a heart attack. Mum was devastated; this was something she hadn’t bargained for. For a while her indomitable spirit was crushed. Dad’s toothbrush and razor rested in a dish in the bathroom of her home for many years.
In 1974, Mum moved to the Queen Charlotte Islands: she felt she needed a change. Life in the Charlottes was exciting. She took part in community events like searching for eagle’s nests or black cod fishing off Langara Bay. She writes: “A storm blew up. At first we seemed to be in a vast ocean ditch. We would see the sky one minute, the next a huge wave would wash over us. I felt I was about to meet my Maker. Luckily I was with experienced fishermen.”
After a tragic drowning incident, the government of the day required that all fishermen needed swimming certificates. Vi saw she once again had a job to do, a purpose. At one point she had a class of twelve Haida fishermen, none of whom knew how to swim, and yet, with her instructions they discovered an uncanny ability to move through the water.
And so began the final chapter of Mum’s life. During this time she met and married Archie MacLean. He was a kind and fun-loving man twelve years her younger. They had 26 years together, leading a gypsy lifestyle; enjoying the outdoors, making prolonged visits to friends and relatives alike in one of their various modes of transportation. Sadly Archie died of cancer in September of 2011, shortly before Mum’s ninety-third birthday.
During our last visit I asked how she felt about her life. She said, “My life has had its ups and downs, often it was a case of sink or swim; most of the time I chose to swim. Regrets, yes I have a few, but mostly it’s been just one glorious long ride. Now Barb, take me shopping, I want to buy a pair of jeans.”