When I was seven years old my mother had dinner with the Queen. When I saw her in her evening gown I was quite sure she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She wore a yellow taffeta ball gown that showed off her shoulders and diamond necklace. On her feet she wore glass slippers with diamonds in them just like Cinderella. Over top was a deep purple velvet evening coat. My father wore the full dress uniform of a Canadian Mountie. That memory of my young, beautiful and glamorous mother with her handsome prince has always dazzled me, especially after I found out she was so frightened that night she could barely eat.
Bernice Joyce Willes, nee Carveth, aka Darling, was born on September 25 1927 in Regina Saskatchewan. She always said “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich and rich is better”. What I knew of ‘how poor’ has changed almost every year. First, we all knew her father lost their Saskatchewan farm in the middle of the Depression. Next, that her oldest sister, older by 15 years, had done a lot of the work raising my mother when their mother went to work as a cook. Gradually a fuller picture has emerged: so poor she and her three sisters and brother sometimes went hungry when their father was drinking; so poor her sisters slept 3 in a bed in the tiny wooden house they rented in Regina; so poor that when her parents finally gave up on their unhappy marriage, she and her mother lived in the basement of the home of another married sister. But she didn’t talk about that. She said she couldn’t remember much of her childhood.
Instead, she remembered that she got to finish high school, and her brother Joe, who had skated from the “wrong side of the tracks” Regina into the NHL, paid for her secretarial college. She worked at RCMP headquarters, and met my father at a New Year’s Eve Ball, though both of them had gone with other people. They married on September 1, 1951, and, even though she had never been away from her family for longer than a week, began the life of roving that was then part and parcel of a Mountie’s family life: Saskatoon, where I was born while my Dad attended law school, Ottawa, where my brother Ed was born, Montreal – brother Ron, back to Regina (joy joy joy!) where my sister Sue joined us. Nine months later the black news of another transfer – back to Ottawa, then to Chilliwack, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, and finally, Victoria. And every couple of years we had a glorious summer tour of all the relatives in Regina and my Dad’s family farm in Alberta. Reunions so big we had to rent the CN hall to fit in all the aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, great aunts, grandparents…all the women in the kitchen, the men tending the bar. At the end of the evening the Bunny hop would snake through the hall like a tribe.
By the time I was 11, I could open the door of whatever house we called home and read the quality of the silence. The oppressive miasma of her silent anger assaulted us. And she had much to be angry about. Four kids, no help, no sisters to visit or lend a hand, a husband who had to travel a lot. But we weren’t allowed to talk about that. Only how lucky we were. We didn’t go hungry. We didn’t wear hand-me-downs. We could have an education if we wanted.
I left when I was 19 to go to University. We had started fighting when I was 13 and never really quit. I was too rebellious, didn’t follow the rules. The ‘60’s frightened my mother, and she was never convinced any good ever came from such flagrant disrespect for the status quo. She was a deeply conservative woman, shocked and appalled by the changes in the world that happened so fast, so fast.
When I married at 35, just in time to still have my own kids, she was so happy. “Chris”, she said, “it’s the only way to live.” Of course it didn’t work for me anymore than any of the other conventions she wanted me to follow, conventions born out of her love and fear that my life would end in want, as hers had started.
This is how she came to be Darling. Her first grandchild, my nephew Matthew, would come to visit. She would stand at the top of the stairs and call down to him “Hello darling!” One day Matthew called back “Hello Darling.” And it stuck. For the last fifteen years of her life she was Darling to all of us. She died very quickly in December 2000, of pancreatic cancer.
My relationship with my mother has been the most passionate and enduring of my life. Since she left, it has become less fraught. A wise spiritual advisor told me this is because my mother now knows love is the only thing that matters. I still feel her presence, and am grateful to her looking out for me. To honour her memory I’m sharing the only true family recipe we have: Carveth Salad. Serve it only at Christmas, preferably at a feast of your closest relatives – 20 is a good round number. And think of Darling.
Darling’s Carveth Salad– a Christmas tradition
1small container whipping cream
1pkg. lemon flavoured gelatin
1 cup cheddar cheese (orange colour), grated
1 cup pimento stuffed green olives, sliced medium fine in circles
1 cup thinly sliced almonds
Make lemon gelatin as per instructions. Put into a bowl large enough to hold all ingredients in the fridge to set. When the gelatin is thickened but still runny, in another bowl whip the cream until stiff. Gently fold the whipped cream, grated cheese, olives, and almonds. Smooth top and return to fridge to set. This salad can be made on Christmas Eve, and looks very elegant served in a cut glass bowl. It is very rich, but a delightful accompaniment to turkey.
I use plain gelatin and lemon juice when I make it – but Darling always claimed it was too savoury my way.