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Writing women's history one mother at a time... since 2004.

Cory Bretz’s story of Lee


My mother is Henrietta Leigh Butts. She was born October 15, 1941 in Fort William, Thunder Bay, Ontario. She died at the age of 48 on May 25, 1989. She was known by her mother as “Henri” but she referred to herself as “Lee”, re-spelling of her middle name Leigh.

In Lee’s life she was a nurse, a doting daughter, concerned sister, dutiful wife, engaged mother, community volunteer, author, painter, and a musician. Many of her noted accomplishments were achieved while she struggled with the effects of very volatile diabetes and the ensuing side effects like kidney failure, blindness, and neuropathy.

Lee grew up in Fort William, a suburb of modern day Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her mother was Rose Pollock and her father William Beryl Butts. They lived in a cozy house owned by Rose’s mother Baila Pollock, nee Nudel, known as “Bobby”, the ancient Jewish word for Grandmother. I never met my great grandmother Bobby Baila because she died in 1956, 7 years before I was born but both my mom and her mother (my grandmother Bubbe Rose) spoke often about Bobby Baila describing her as strong, loving, and caring. When my mom was 5 it was 1946 and World War II had just ended. My grandpa Bill was still away serving with Canadian Forces as a Quartermaster in Scotland.  Lee would’ve only seen her dad briefly when she was a baby before he shipped out for 5 years to serve in the war. Living in that house during the war was Bobby Baila, my grandmother Rose and my mom Lee: just three ladies.  Lee’s younger brother Martin didn’t come along until 1947, the year following the return of my grandfather from the war.

Her dad William Butts ran an automobile service station with his brother Harvey. They were very entrepreneurial and later ended up owning a clothing store and several general stores.

Lee went to school and high school in Fort William and when she was 19 she and her cousin Marsha both went to Nursing School in Winnipeg, living in residence. After two years she graduated in 1960 and found herself working in the children’s wards of the local hospital. Some mutual friends set up a double date between Lee and a Gordon Bretz, a local guy from Winnipeg. It was instant attraction and the two were quickly engaged and married within the year, a wedding on winter solstice, December 21, 1961. They remained in Winnipeg, renting an apartment to live in.

Gordon was working in a bank and dreaming of becoming an accountant, which he did within a few years. Lee worked at the hospital, coming home late on many evenings.

The following year Lee was pregnant and their first born son Cory was born in May 1963.  Two and half years later Darren was born. But Gordon was on the hunt for a better job to support the young family and the opportunities seemed to be in British Columbia. By 1967 with a new bank job the family moved to Vancouver. Somehow some way, they managed to put together a down payment and purchased a brand new home in North Delta, BC, about 45 minutes south of Vancouver.

In March 1968 I was five years old and we lived in North Delta, BC. We’d just moved into a brand new house, a two story structure with the kitchen, living room, bedrooms upstairs, and recreation room, workshop, and spare bedroom downstairs. My younger brother was three years old and my little sister wouldn’t arrive till the following year.

Mom was 28 at the time and her hubby, my dad was 27. In our kitchen my family would sit around the table and eat 3 meals a day, my mom as the chief cook. She was often seen around the house wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, and her nightgown. On weekends we’d be having brunch and she or my dad would cooking pancakes or omelette or french toast. Often conversations were about what we as a family were going to do that day. Many of my ideas and those of my brother were shot down by mom, for various reasons. Usually reasons were given like “that costs too much” or “I don’t have energy for that.” My mother often reported feeling not well and would spend many afternoons and evenings sleeping. Later we would find out that she was suffering from the early symptoms of diabetes.

What Lee revealed in later years was that after the delivery of her second born son Darren she suffered some depression, what most today would referred to as “The Baby Blues” or post-partum depression. There’s no indication how severe it was nor what other options were explored but Lee agreed to her physician’s advice to undergo insulin shock therapy as a treatment. This is a no-longer used regimen of injecting massive doses of insulin to produce daily comas over several weeks. Trials seemed to indicate that greater mental clarity and “loss of tension and hostility” resulted from this treatment. Lee believed that this insulin shock therapy had triggered the metabolic syndrome of Type II Diabetes that she was later diagnosed with in 1969. It wasn’t that surprising since her younger brother Martin had also had diabetes since he was a young boy and would later die from the complications when he was just 34 years old.

From 1968 to 70 many things happened in Lee’s life. They moved into their new home in Delta in the summer 1968 just in time for young son Cory to enter Grade 1 at Heath Elementary School. Lee would walk Cory to school every morning, come back at noon and take him home for lunch, walk him back and then be back at 3pm to walk him home again, all the while with 3 year old Darren in tow.

And at the same time Lee and Gordon made an important decisions about their family: They had applied to adopt a baby girl. After having two sons and Gordon’s brother David having had three sons, their feeling was that conceiving a girl was unlikely. Lee was eager to have a little girl in the family so they filled out the papers. By Christmas 1969 baby Susan had arrived in the family.

And at the same time Lee’s battle with diabetes ramped up. Her blood sugar readings were wildly erratic and she would swing between the dizzying ketosis of low blood sugars and the damaging and nauseating out of control high blood sugars. Her life became frequent finger pricking to test her blood and several injections of insulin each day. Many days she felt unwell and stayed in her jammies spending much time in bed.

Lee did her best to be provide engaging activities for her children, enrolling them in swimming lessons, soccer, cubs and brownies. Her mother Rose and father Bill had followed Lee and Gordon to Vancouver and they were regular visitors on Sundays, bringing chocolate and hugs. Lee and Rose committed themselves to hosting big family dinners on all the holidays, either in Delta at Lee’s home or in Vancouver at Rose’s place. Passover, Easter, Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah, Christmas were all festive occasions with Lee spending days in her kitchen, prepping dishes.

Lee had been raised in a Jewish family and Gordon was raised Anglican or United. This brought complexity in the family. In their first few years as a married couple Lee and Gordon found themselves the subject of scorn by both sets of their parents. But once their children came along, the grandparents seemed to warm up and began to interact more with Lee and Gordon. But the topic of religion and tradition in Lee’s home was always “complex”. She made herself an expert in all traditions and brought as much energy and passion to Christmas as she did to Passover.

Gordon managed to get his accounting degree through night school programs, spending every spare moment studying in the spare bedroom. He got a better paying job with the federal government. Money wasn’t plentiful but neither was our family suffering from poverty. Lee often expressed her frustration about how unavailable her husband was while he was studying or working. When they did find time to spend together Lee and Gord would play music together, she on her huge Gulbransen pipe organ and him on his high tech synthesizer. Me and my siblings would fall asleep to the sounds of old standards and giggling.

She didn’t seem to have a lot of friends but did socialize casually with some of the local neighbourhood moms. There was plenty of drama as relationships were on and off and Lee seemed to be on the outs with various neighbours because of words that had been said. As a young boy I didn’t understand these dynamics but there were times when Lee would say that these problems between the moms had happened because of things that I had allegedly said. No specifics were ever provided but early on Lee showed some signs that she was highly emotional and reactive.

As her illness progressed, she began having unpredictable episodes of screaming, shrieking, and hitting both me and my brother. We were terrified and did our best to try to predict how not to provoke her. And there times when she was calm, loving, and supportive.

In 1975 Gordon was promoted and transferred to Calgary Alberta. Our family packed up and moved to a place where we knew no one. Lee seemed to be able to create a new life for herself. She started writing a children’s book about coping with diabetes. She drew the illustrations herself and wrote the text. The book “Donny and Diabetes” was published and available in bookstores in 1978. She was very proud of that book. At the same time she volunteered as a leader in the Canadian Diabetes Association, leading teams of volunteers to raise awareness and funds for education and research.

Her memoirs include newspaper articles of Lee posing with local community figures holding big cheques. In her later years she reminisced that she really enjoyed being a leader and making a difference. She said, “There are so many people who need to be helped and this horrible disease Diabetes needs a cure”.

After another short work transfer to Ottawa in 1978 Gordon brought the family back to Vancouver by 1979. Lee continued her work with the Diabetes Association. It was a year later that Lee’s brother Martin succumbed to complications of diabetes. He’d gone blind and died after a failed kidney transplant.

Demonstrating her strong desire to help her youngest son Darren have a career Lee initiated the buying of a pet store in 1985. She loved animals and fell in love with a toy Pomeranian puppy she named PJ, who was her constant companion to the end of her life. She threw herself into learning how to care for birds, reptiles, fish, and various cats and dogs. Eventually though, Darren had very little interest for the business and since her health was failing, Lee sold the pet store.

Lee began noticing changes in her own vision. By 1985 her kidneys began to fail. In 1988 Lee underwent a kidney transplant. The subsequent battle with organ rejection wiped out her immune system and she finally died of pneumonia on May 23, 1989. She’s buried in Temple Shalom Cemetery in South Surrey, British Columbia.


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