16 Apr Suzanne Humphrey’s story of Marion
Mom was born in Peterborough, Ontario, in 1909, second child to Michael and Margaret, and sister to older brother Emmett. Eleven more siblings would arrive in this wholesome Irish Catholic family, five sisters and six more brothers, but not until they moved to Vancouver in 1912. Michael provided a comfortable living for his large family with his lifelong career as a respected agent for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company or, as the family teasingly called it, Mother Met.
In Vancouver Mom was enrolled in the local school, Tecumseh Elementary, at 41st and Joyce. She enjoyed school. In reading, writing and arithmetic Mom fared well. Art was the challenge for her. One day, after handing in her assignment, a drawing of a book, the teacher looked at it quizzically and asked, “What is that supposed to be?” Blushing, Mom took back her picture and from then on seldom tried the art of drawing.
After completing grade ten, Mom went to Business College to prepare herself for a secretarial career. One of her first clerical jobs was with the Vancouver Casket Company on 2nd Avenue. Mom’s responsibilities included typing letters, tallying accounts and keeping the caskets in good order. One day, while she was dusting the showroom, the boss entered, pushed Mom into a coffin and tried to have his way with her. Giving the boss a good shove, Mom picked herself up, gathered her belongings and left. That put a death to the casket company career. Recovering from the ordeal, Mom followed in her father’s footsteps, taking a job at Mother Metropolitan.
As a young woman Mom was popular, stylish and full of fun. She had an active social life that she shared with a ʻchorusʼ of six girlfriends. They hung out together, spending time around Vancouver and on Bowen and LummiIslands. They loved swimming off the beaches at Bowen and golfing on the local fairways.
Of the many girlfriends she had, Mom’s favourite was Shirley. Together they spent weekends on Bowen Island at a camp ground that featured cabins named after Snow White’s seven dwarfs. Sleepy Hollow Cabin was Mom and Shirley’s choice of overnight stays. Some weekends, Mom, Shirley and friends packed themselves on a chartered boat called Half Moon and took trips to EagleHarbour for picnics and swims in the warm local waters. On occasion, they daringly took flights from Lummi Island in a friend’s open cockpit biplane.
Life as a single person was active and full of fun, until she met the love of her life, Bill. At age 23, after a year of courting, Mom and Dad decided to marry. Grandma was against their pairing, as she never trusted Dad’s intentions. “He’s nothing but a philanderer!” she warned Mom. To avoid Grandma’s wrath, they decided to elope. With Dad’s brother Art and Mom’s sister Eleanor as their witnesses, they drove to Bellingham, where they were married in the chapel at the Church of the Assumption. And so began the life of Bill and Marion.
Continuing in the Catholic tradition, Mom and Dad had a large family of six children, five boys and one girl, that’s me. We were all born in St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
As a married couple Mom and Dad continued to enjoy socializing. Bridge was a favourite excuse for a party. Treats were readied, drinks fixed, living room set up with card tables and chairs, enough to seat eight. Friends and family would arrive armed with snacks, cigarettes and bottles of rye. The evenings would begin. Sometimes they had parties simply for the sake of having fun. Upstairs, we kids tried to sleep but the noise would lure us to sneak down the stairs and peak at the goings on. After watching for a while, Mom would discover us and shoo us back to bed. Somehow or other we managed to fall asleep, even though the parties often went on till dawn.
Some Friday afternoons Mom would set dinner in the warming oven for us to eat when we got home from school, usually macaroni and cheese or spaghetti bake. She would dress up in her best suit, fur coat, high heels, and head downtown to do some shopping and meet with family and friends at the GeorgiaHotel pub. When Dad finished work, he joined the group. After much socializing, they came home to a dinner of leftovers. Sometimes they would pick up Dad’s favourite, Alaska black cod. Mom cooked it up with steamed baby potatoes and broccoli in cheese sauce. We were glad we didn’t have to eat that because fish was not our favourite food.
Though Mom enjoyed the company of her friends, her absolute priority was her family. She did not work outside the home, as having six children, a large house and a demanding husband were enough for her. It could get lonely spending so many hours on her own, so to keep her company, she kept the radio on. One of her favourite programs was the CBC’s “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.” While down on her hands and knees, scrubbing and waxing the kitchen floor, the opera would blast forth from the radio, and Mom would accompany the sopranos as they sang the beautiful arias from La Boheme, Madame Butterfly and Carmen.
Sometimes, when the music stirred her, Mom would take a break, sit down at the piano and play her favourite Irish songs that she had learned as a child: “Danny Boy”, “Kerry Dance”, “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen”. Though Mom didn’t often play for us, the piano was a source of comfort and reminiscence for her.
In the early days of their marriage, Dad bought property at Hope Point on Gambier Island, and the family spent summers there. We would travel to Hope Point by water taxi, putt-putt or on the Mad Duck, a revamped army boat owned by one of the families who shared the property.
As soon as Mom stepped off the boat from Vancouver, she removed her city clothes and donned summer shorts, tee shirts and sandals. She enjoyed the freedom of the outdoors in this small community of five families. When she wasn’t swimming and sunbathing with the children, Mom was baking delicious bread, cinnamon buns and pies, using the transparent apples hanging on the tree just outside her bedroom window, or the blackberries that grew prolifically on the bushes surrounding the property. In the afternoon, when dinner preparations were done, she would get together for drinks and gossip with the other Moms in the group.
We children never bothered Mom’s routine, as there were always so many things for us to do. Occasionally Mom needed our help, especially when it was time to carry the wash to the laundry shed a few hundred feet from the house. She would call my young brother to assist her. His job was to walk ahead with a stick and rustle the tall grasses, shooing away the garter snakes that freely slithered along the path. Mom was petrified of these critters, and little brother was a great protector.
In 1954, we moved to North Vancouver, a stop gap between Vancouver and our ultimate destination, West Vancouver, where Dad was having a house built for us. Before moving into the West Van home, we spent three months in a two-bedroom apartment waiting for the house to be completed. At that time Mom, who seldom got sick, contracted a severe skin disorder and was confined to bed for two weeks, a most disconcerting occurrence for such an energetic woman. Under Mom’s supervision, Dad took over and ran the household while patiently tending Mom’s poor diseased skin, following the doctor’s direction and applying gentian violet all over her. Mom was a sorry sight.
Finally we moved into the West Vancouver home, but it never did get fully furnished, as Dad’s business failed. He ran out of money and the house had to be sold.
For the next eight years Mom and Dad led a vagabond life. The older children had ventured out on their own, so now only the two youngest children required Mom and Dad’s care. With them in tow, Mom and Dad moved first to a small seaside apartment in West Van, then to Kamloops, where Dad’s job was short-lived, forcing them to move again. Dad then took a job as manager of a hotel at SpencesBridge. There Mom was required to be sole chambermaid, housekeeper and, oftentimes, barkeeper.
As none of these ventures succeeded, Mom and Dad packed up all their belongings and returned to North Van. At that time Mom decided she needed to help with the family coffers, and going to work was the necessary step. At that stage of her life, she felt she was too old and lacking in confidence to start schooling or apprenticing for a career, so she entered into the field in which she was most competent, housekeeping.
After a year of renting an old refurbished church in North Vancouver, Mom and Dad found a nice apartment across the street from Lion’s GateHospital. With the help of my young brother, they were able to purchase it and regain some stability in their lives.
At 65 Dad retired from his job in retail lumber sales, and Mom retired along with him. That was the beginning of Mom’s decline; her lifelong enjoyment of alcohol began to get the better of her. Sobriety became the lesser part of her day. In order for us to visit with her when she was sober, we had to see her before noon.
One day, when Mom and I were grocery shopping at Safeway, the clerk asked me if this woman was my mother. When I replied yes, she informed me that Mom often came to Safeway at 4 am to do her shopping. The clerk expressed concern for Mom’s safety being out on her own at that time of night. When I told this to Dad, he said, “I didn’t know that, but it’s not a surprise. You have no idea the problems your Mother is having.”
In 1986, Dad had a stroke from which he never recovered. When Dad died, Mom’s mind snapped. She became completely disoriented, unable to reason, to recognize family members, to understand where she was, or where Dad had gone. She could no longer live on her own, and so began her life as a resident in care facilities.
In her first placement at Inglewood Care Home, Mom was deeply distressed, lost and confused. She no longer had her dear husband, her own home or her freedom to go to the liquor store at will. Caged and frightened, she would phone us every hour, asking us to come and get her, take her home, help her find Bill. For her full seven years in care, she was lost and yearning to return home.
One rainy November day in 1992, I went to visit Mom at Cedarview, where she was now locked in the secure unit. When I went into her room, she was lying on her bed. Kissing her on the forehead, I said, “It’s so miserable out there today, Mom. Do you want me to close the curtains?” “Yes dear,” she responded as she looked at the rain splashing on the windows. And then, softly, she said, “It’s so nice to be home.” I turned and looked at Mom lying on the bed, a glow of peace on her face. At that moment, I knew she was dying. Two days later, at the age of 83, Mom closed her eyes forever.
As I reflect on that rainy day, remembering Mom’s final words to me, I feel grateful for the gift she gave to me, the assurance that at last she was home and at peace.