Author Archives: Barb Angus
Upon seeing the farm after so many years the first words out of my mouth were, “I remember it being much bigger!”
“You were much smaller when you spent childhood summers here”, was my husband’s response.
Yes, I had been smaller but there were certainly changes. The perimeter of the property has been slashed. The trans-Canada highway now cuts through the apple orchard behind the house. That night I watched the lights of the big transport trucks where once there were only fireflies lighting up the darkness. The barn is gone, its aged wood sold off as reclaimed wood for trendy furniture. The big vegetable garden is gone, too. No one has time anymore to preserve vegetables. The trees and bushes along the brook are thickly overgrown. There is no sign of the headstones in what was a small family cemetery.
The lilac tree, however, still stands as it has for decades. Beside it now is a large sign: La Gite des Lilas, Caplan, Quebec. It was at this B&B that I had made reservations for two nights.
My grandfather, George Hudson Willett, bought the farm in 1900 following his return from the Klondike Gold Rush. My grandmother, Isabella Maria Gilker, came here as a bride in 1901. Seven children were born and raised in the house, the youngest being my mother. This was where my grandmother died in 1933 when my mother was only fifteen.
My grandfather raised pigs and chickens along with beef and dairy cattle. His eldest son Keith became a butcher, slaughtering the animals and those of their neighbours. Father and son worked together until my grandfather’s death in 1961.
Various siblings left their city homes each summer to return to the farm with their families. The cousins spent sun-filled days playing in the barn, riding the hay wagon, catching brook trout, picking big juicy strawberries, and splashing in the jelly-fish infested waters of the Bay de Chaleur.
Little has changed inside today’s B&B. The four guest rooms were once the family bedrooms. A second bathroom has been added. The original bathroom (missing the large “footed” tub), the fifth bedroom, and a section of the hallway has been closed off to form a small suite. Vintage furniture and quilts evoke the end of 19th century when the house was first built. The tilting hardwood floors are testament to the two hundred years the house has stood overlooking the bay.
The upstairs was once warmed, through grates in the floor, by a huge wood stove in the kitchen. My cousins and I would huddle by these openings straining our ears to hear the adults’ conversation long after we should have been in bed. Today the house is heated by electricity and all the rooms are comfortably warm. Guests are free to watch television with the owners in the “parlor” and are served breakfast in the dining room.
The kitchen has undergone the most change. Gone is the big wood stove. Gone are the chairs and the long table where my aunt would serve a full noon meal to any number of farm hands. Gone are the two cots where my uncle and grandfather napped before returning to the fields. Gone is summer kitchen off to the side where each day the milk was separated from the cream. The summer kitchen is now the owners’ bedroom.
As I drifted to sleep each night in a bedroom where I had once slept as a child, memories emerged, memories all but forgotten. Layers of summers unfold in my mind to be enjoyed once again in the telling.
My husband was an appreciative listener.
Today my own grandchildren are collecting summer memories at a lake in the Laurentions. I had a farm, they have a cottage, but both embody the enduring history of family.
Remembrance Day services always bring me to tears.
My childhood was spent in the shadow of World War II. My father, Douglas Ian Rankin Angus, and my uncle, James Oswald Stewart Angus returned home from overseas but they left an older sibling in a grave in Germany 1. My grandparents grieved for the rest of their lives.
My earliest memory of Remembrance Day is of my father parading down Quebec City’s Grand Allee to the cenotaph with his head held high, so handsome in his RCAF uniform. No tears then, just a stiff upper lip.
The first tears I remember were shed when I was fifteen. On the way home to Canada from a contract in East Pakistan, my father took his family to Hong Kong. At the Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery, my dad stood by the graves of many of his high school classmates who had served with the Royal Rifles of Canada in the defense of Hong Kong and sobbed. It was the first time I had seen my father cry and I was shocked. 2
In school that September my history teacher was one of the men who survived the horror of a Japanese POW camp. “He was never the same”, claimed my grandmother. Was my father also not the same man who joined the air force in 1940?
Dad never spoke of his war-time experiences. When discharged from service he returned to his old job at Price Brothers in Quebec City, bought a house and started a family. I often wonder how he and my mother were able to resume a marriage after four years separated by war. Dad spent additional periods of time in a military hospital following his discharge. All I knew is that while hospitalized, he made wonderfully big stuffed felt rabbits for my brother and me.
Every year without fail Dad took part in Remembrance Day services. He joined the Canadian Legion and sold poppies; he presented scholarships to the children and grandchildren of veterans at graduation ceremonies ; he attended squadron reunions and, following several medical procedures, convalesced at the Veteran’s Hospital in St. Anne de Bellevue .
I struggled to push my father’s wheelchair over the bumpy lawn at the Field of Honour in Pointe Claire on what would be his last Remembrance Day. Tears streamed down his face throughout the entire service and he sobbed uncontrollably during the Last Post. At his funeral seven months later, at age eighty- three, friends and colleagues who had also served overseas hobbled up to the altar in tears and laid poppies on his urn.
It was only after his death that I learned of dad’s war time service. I found his Pilot’s Flying Log Book, his service file, his discharge papers, a scrapbook of newspaper clippings my mother had complied, various certificates and a bundle of letters.3
Dad began his military service as a Wireless Air Gunner and was discharged to the Reserves as a Flight Lieutenant. He was trained to fly Hampdens, Elbacores, Wellingtons, Tiger Moths, Ansons and the Link C. He served in the Swordfish Squadron #415 and, when deployed oversees, he was assigned first to the RAF Costal Command and then to Bomber Command. He flew out of air force bases at Thorney Island, North Coates and St. Eval in England, Tain and Leuchars in Scotland, and Sumburg in the Shetland Islands.
The average expectation of life for nine crews out of ten was less than six months.
In one of the articles my mother clipped from the Quebec Chronicle Telegraph, Dad was listed as a Dambuster having participated in the 1943 bombing of the Mohne Damn and the Eder Damn which destroyed the heart of Industrial Germany in the Ruhr Valley: the factories, roads, railroads, mines, bridges and power stations.4.
One journalist attempted to interview a returning Dambuster and was told that the men had been ordered not to talk about it. It would seem that Dad never disobeyed order. In the his book Bomber Country, Daniee Swift refers to the “forgetting” by the bombers, “For in the place of a full record of the bombing, there is a curious absence.” 5
More than 500,000 German civilians were either killed or drowned in the raids on the damns. Immediately following the war the politicians of the day argued that to honour Bomber Command for their enormous contribution and sacrifice towards defeating Hitler was too politically charged because of the deaths. It was not until 2012, sixty-seven years “too late” that a memorial to Bomber Command was unveiled in Green Park, London. By then, Dad had been dead for nine years and with him the loss of the stories he never told.
And of the Remembrance Tears? They are shed for the bombers and for the bombed.
1. Service Record of Sergeant David Colin Brodie Angus, Library and Archives Canada
3. Documents on file with author
5. Daniel Swift. Bomber Country: The Poetry of a Lost Pilot’s War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010
There’s a mystery behind the sampler I inherited from my great, great grandmother.
The sampler itself is quite lovely and very detailed, most of the colours still vibrant today. It is edged with a border of stylized red roses. Inside are the traditional bands of letters and numbers in various stitches, along with a large two-storied house, trees, birds, animals, two baskets of flowers and a verse about the challenges of life. The creator’s name is written clearly: Jane Jamieson, Her Sampler, Quebec and a date. 1819? 1844? The numbers are unclear and therein lies the mystery.
Jane Jamieson was born in 1818 in Drum, Ireland to Samuel Jamieson and Jane Stewart. A sampler date of 1819 is therefore not possible, Jane would have been an infant.
Jane’s father was a tenant farmer and according to family legend, had at one time belonged to the Irish Constabulary. He was also a Protestant and a Loyalist. After suffering a series of irritating incidents at the hands of his Irish landlord, Samuel decided to quit Ireland and take his family to where he could farm his own land. In 1836 he, his wife, and their six children immigrated to Canada.
The Jamiesons, along with twenty-six other families, settled in the “highlands” of Megantic County south of Quebec City. Samuel was given Lot 5 S.W. on the First Range of Inverness Township in what was to become known as South Ireland (now Saint-Jean-de-Brebeuf). Their first home was an old cabin that an earlier squatter had left behind.
The land grants were part of a complex government scheme, beginning in 1791 and now known to be largely unworkable, to settle the vast wilderness between Quebec City and the American border. It took until 1869 before Samuel’s 100-acre grant was finally legalized in his name.
Life in Inverness was not easy. The settlers were expected to cut down the forest and unearth rocks to build their homes and to farm. The winters were long and brutal.
They were also very isolated. Craig’s Road, the dirt road to and from Quebec City, was mountainous, narrow, and heavily rutted with the only means of transportation being by foot, by ox cart or, in winter, by sleigh. It could take three days to reach Quebec or up to a full week when hauling a load of wood or charcoal to sell.
Two of Samuel’s daughters eventually left Inverness to find employment in the city. Both Jane and Sarah went into service. Jane worked two jobs, house maid and parlour maid, for a cash total of $3.00 a month.
In 1846 Jane married William Kelly, a wealthy coal merchant from Quebec City, and became mistress of her own home. There is no record of how they met and courted. Perhaps Jane worked in his family home. Jane and William had five children: James, Eliza, Samuel, Annie and Emma, my great grandmother.
If the date on the sampler is actually 1844, then Jane made the sampler as an adult, two years before her marriage, and not as a child as was the norm at the time. She perhaps learned the various stitches from a fellow domestic, or even her mistress, and created the sampler in her free time, likely something to be tucked away in her hope chest until the day she married. The large house in the sampler may have been the one in which she was employed. One might even suggest that the trees, the birds and the animals were reminiscent of her earlier life in Inverness. So too might have been the reference to the challenges that she “would overcome in the by and by”.
Jamieson Harper, Helen. The Jamieson Family, 1995 (part of a research project by Gwen Barry Rawlings)
Barry Rawlings, Gwen. The English 180 years in rural Quebec-Megantic. The Canadian Genealogist, Vol. 3, No.2, 1981
The Kelly Family Bible – now owned by the writer
Single women, or spinsters as they were once called, did not generally live independently or own a home in the 1800’s. So it was with my second great aunt, Annie Eleanor Kelly of Quebec City.
Until her father William Kelly died in 1902 at the age of eight-two 1. , the census records every ten years list Annie Kelly as living under his roof. 2. Family legend claims that she served as a missionary at one point but I have not found any supporting documentation.
Annie was one of five children born to William Kelly, a coal merchant, and his wife Jane Jamieson. Two brothers and a sister died young. Her remaining sibling Emma Jane married Peter Brodie. Annie’s mother lived until she was seventy-one and I presume it was Annie who cared for her parents during the last years of their lives. 3.
According to his will, William bequeathed to his married daughter Emma the property and house he owned on 1908 Valier Street. To his spinster daughter he bequeathed all his interests in the Quebec Coal Company, all the money in his bank accounts, and all his shares and stock. He also left to her all his household furniture, goods and effects. 4.
One wonders where William thought Annie would put these goods and effects when the house itself went to her sister. He appears to have simply followed the mores of the time. Emma’s husband must deal with the house. There is no evidence that Peter and Emma ever lived there.
The 1911 census finds Annie living with newlyweds Jean Brodie and James Angus, my grandparents. Where she lived from her father’s death to that date is not known. Annie was fifty-seven when she moved in and she stayed there until she died at seventy-four. Jean was the little niece William described in his will as having been taken into the care of her aunt. His sizable bequeath to Annie was “partly in remuneration of her long service in the family and towards me, and to help provide for a little niece she has taken in her care”. 5.
The term “long service” sounds like Annie may have been the family Cinderella.
There has been much speculation as to why Emma gave the care of her youngest daughter over to her sister. It is uncertain if Jean moved into her grandfather’s home to live with her aunt or if her aunt acted as a nanny in the Brodie home. The expression “taken in her care” would suggest the former. There were two other Brodie children, Carrie and Lawton, who appeared to have stayed with their parents.
Or was Emma actually Jean’s mother, despite the names Emma and Peter Brodie on Jean’s baptismal certificate? 6. It is not unheard of for the child of an unwed mother to be raised by a sister. Annie would have been twenty-six when Jean was born. Secretly I like to think she experienced love and romance sometime in her life.
Whatever the reason, clearly the bond between aunt and niece was as strong as any maternal bond.
Undoubtedly, much of the furniture, goods and effects left to Annie by her father were moved into her niece’s home. It may also have been Annie’s money that saved the Angus family when my grandfather’s bookstore went bankrupt during the Depression. As a child, I remember hearing about “Auntie Annie” but I was too young to remember any details. She would have been an integral part of my father’s childhood but my interest in her life came too late for me to ask for more information.
Today I look at some of the beautiful antiques I inherited from my grandmother and ponder their provenance. Might they have been the inheritance of Annie Kelly, spinster aunt?
Research Notes and Sources:
- Burial Record, Mount Herman Cemetery, Quebec City, November 15, 1902 (on file with author)
- Census records up to and including 1901, 1911, 1921, 1931, Library and Archives Canada
- Kelly Family Bible (owned by author)
- Last Will of William Kelly, 6th June, 1901. Louis Leclerc, Notary Public in the city of Quebec (on file with author)
- Baptismal certificate of Jane Jamieson Brodie – on file with author
- For many years baptismal documents were used in lieu of birth certificates in Quebec. One could obtain a passport with a baptismal certificate. I did not obtain a birth certificate until 1992.
Morning came early at Hebron Academy. At six a.m., I would enter the bathroom, calmly pick up the basin with the snake curled up inside, and walk outside to dump it in the bushes. I was a border and this was not my first brush with snakes.
The school was in the village of Coonoor, high in the Nilgiri Hills of Southern India.1 Most of the students were the children of missionaries but a few like myself were “business kids”.2
Shortly after arriving at Hebron in 1957 I found two names in the front of an old text book: Margery Angus and Kathleen Angus. It was enough of a curiosity that I wrote home about it. Imagine my surprise when Dad wrote back that they were his cousins, cousins he had never met! Their dad, the brother of my grandfather, had been a missionary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Now my curiosity knew no bounds!
How did they travel to Hebron? They could not have come like I did, four days from Calcutta on a train. Had they come by ship across the Bay of Bengal to Madras and then on the narrow- rail train up into the hills? At what age did they come? As teenagers? Or were they Kindergarten age and placed in The Nest? Did their parents join them for the May vacation or were they required to spend the holiday month with the school staff?
How did they feel about the school program? About tennis and field hockey? Art lessons, music, and drama? About being kept busy every minute of the day? In what academic subjects did they excel? I bet they had no trouble memorizing scripture or praying publicly in the daily prayer meetings being the children of missionaries. How did they feel sleeping six to a dorm on wooden beds with straw pallets? Or bathing in a tin tub twice a week in water heated over a wooden stove? Did they like the blue and white checked frock uniform? And the navy tunic and tie on Sundays? Were they as homesick as I, living for the daily mail distribution and letters from family?
This was my first brush with genealogy. Names were insufficient – I wanted stories, not just the knowledge that I walked in steps they had walked. I wanted these cousins to come to life for me! Today I want the same thing. The family tree I inherited from my dad was just a list of names and dates. Who were these people, where and how did they live?
Today the internet allows me to find some answers.
Margery and Kathleen’s father Thomas Angus was an Evangelical missionary from Glasgow.3 His wife was Eliza Simpson and they had five children: David, Robert, Joan, Kathleen and Margery.4. There was an Anglican school for girls in Kuala Lumpur but Thomas likely chose far-away Hebron to ensure that his daughters were educated in their own faith. 5 Perhaps his sons went to Breeks Memorial, Hebron’s sister school for boys. Or they may have been left at a school in Britain on one of the furloughs. Thomas’ final trip home was in 1940.6 He suffered from a heart condition and died in 1948.7 His son David took over his work in Malaysia until his interment by the Japanese during WW2.8
My work on Thomas’ family remains incomplete. I will likely never find answers to my questions about the girls’ years at Hebron. The school is now an orphanage, academic records and yearbooks likely lost to time. I have not yet been able to trace the remaining years of the girls’ lives. What is key for me today, however, is that this long ago first brush with genealogy led to my insatiable quest today for family stories.
Notes and Sources
Hebron Gleanings 1958 (yearbook) – on file with author
Note: The school was surrounded by plantations growing the famous Nilgiri tea.
- My father worked for a Canadian mining company that was part of a NGO in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. The job involved the construction and start-up of a newsprint mill in the village if Khulna south of Dhaka on the Ganges River. At the time, Bangladesh was under martial law.
“Mr. and Mrs T.R. Angus arrived to work with the Hakka tin miners and in October 1903 found “a crying need for the gospel on every hand” but few to meet the need. Training locals to serve the Lord proved difficult as the miners led a rather nomadic life and were unable to attend church regularly. Just before the Second World War engulfed the Pacific, the aging Mr. Thomas Angus returned to Scotland and was replaced by his son David Angus.”
- Eliza was listed as the wife of Thomas on his death certificate. To date (February 2015), I have been unable to find any other documentation. The children’s’ names are those provided by my father. The children may have been born in Kuala Lump, indeed Thomas and Eliza may have married there, but I have been unable to access Malaysian records.
- Finding passenger lists (outgoing and incoming) have proven difficult. Angus is not an uncommon name in Britain, there are many British ports from which Thomas may have left, and a Malaysian destination is often merely a port–of-call on the way to a final destination like Australia. The lists I have been able to find sometimes show Thomas travelling alone, sometimes with his wife, or with his wife and children. The children’s names do not all match those given to me by my father. I have found a David, a Robert, a Margery, an Annie and a Frances. I have not found a Joan or a Kathleen. Were they younger than the others or did they go officially by other names?
- Death Certificate: http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/
“In 1931 Mr. David Angus joined his father to continue the service the hallmark of which was grace and humility. During the war years Mr. Angus and other missionaries suffered imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese invaders. He survived the horrors of prison with fortitude and emerged with a new understanding of the people in the country of mixed nationalities he had come to serve”
The crowd of 600 invited guests and thousands of spectators cheered as the great ship slid into the waters of the Clyde on June 7th, 1906. She had been commissioned by Cunard, built at the John Brown and Company shipyards, and christened the Lusitania. For a brief time she was the largest ship on the seas. 1.
One man in the crowd may not have been cheering: my grandfather James Rankin Angus. He knew the employment he had so recently secured as a joiner would soon be over. On September 7th, 1907, her outfitting completed, the Lusitania would make her maiden voyage to New York. 2.
In November of the same year, my grandfather set sail on the Sicilian for Quebec City.3. What led him to immigrate? It is unlikely that he could not have found work at John Brown or any other shipyard. Ship-building on the Clyde was at its height and no doubt James had acquired significant skills working on the luxurious Lusitania. Had his time in the Royal Marines developed a wander-lust? Two of his eight years in the navy were spent in “service afloat”. 4. Or was it the example of his older brothers, one who immigrated to Australia and another to Malaysia? 5.
James was born on October 17th, 1878 in Patrick where the Kelvin River enters the Clyde .He was one of ten children born to David Angus, a shoemaker, and his wife Anne Rankin.6. Originally the village had been a milling centre but the growth of the Clyde-side ship building industry in the 1800’s led to Patrick’s rapid expansion. Hundreds of multi-story tenement buildings were erected to house the flood of workers. When my grandfather left Patrick it was rough, dirty and crowded, far from the trendy area of Glasgow it is today. 7. He would miss only his family.
There is no record of James’ early years in Quebec City. He came to Canada a Presbyterian and a Freemason 8. so one can only assume he found employment contacts and a social life through his church and his Masonic Lodge. In 1912 he opened the Angus Book and Stationary Store 9. , a business that thrived until 1935 when the Depression led to its demise. 10. James ended his career working for the provincial government. He never owned a car but walked to and from work with his head held high and his back ram-rod straight. A proud man. 11.
James married Jean Jamison Brodie, the daughter of a wealthy Quebec City flour merchant, in 1911 12. and fathered three sons. All three enlisted when World War II broke out and served their country overseas. His first born died in the skies over Germany in 1943. 13. The remaining two returned to marry and give him the grandchildren he so dearly loved.
For eight years the Lusitania sailed the Atlantic until she was sunk by a German U-Boat on May 7th, 1915 off the coast of Ireland with the loss of more than a thousand lives.14. James gave his wife a tin box of sweets with a commemorative photo of the ship on the lid, the ship that had ultimately led him to her and a life in Canada. The cherished tin remained on her desk for as long as they lived in their home.15. My grandparents’ marriage spanned fifty-three years.16. Today their descendants number thirty-four, an enduring legacy.
- com, UK, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890-1960
- Certificate of the Service of James Rankin Angus (#9151), Royal Marines, 1906 – on file with writer
- Family letters – on file with writer
- Birth certificate James Rankin Angus; census records 1871, 1881, 1891 – on file with writer
- Masonic Records – on file with writer
- City Directory, Quebec City 1912 – first listing of bookstore
- City Directory, Quebec City, 1935 – final listing of bookstore
- Personal memory and observation
- Quebec Chronicle Telegraph clipping June, 1911 – on file with writer
- RCAF Service Records of Colin Brodie Angus and Bomber Command Service Bar (awarded 2013) – on file with writer
- Personal memory and observation
- Death certificate James Rankin Angus – on file with writer
On August 18, 1943 Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Flight Sergeant Colin Angus was posted as missing and presumed dead following a devastating air raid made on the missile research laboratories at Peenemunde, Germany. Forty one bombers and one fighter plane were lost that night. Colin’s plane did not return.
Peenemunde was Colin’s second mission. He was initially rejected by the Air Force on medical grounds – a damaged mastoid bone, the legacy of a childhood illness. As the war took its toll, the physical requirements were downgraded. Colin was accepted and trained as a navigator.
The target of Colin’s first mission was Cologne, Germany’s military command center. Other comrades and other aircraft did not return that night. “We can only hope for them”, Colin wrote in a letter to his brother Ian.
Two days before Colin flew his second and final mission, he wrote in another in another letter that should he “take a cropper”‘ would Ian, also a RCAF pilot stationed in England, send from his personal effects “such stuff as should go home”.
The family of the missing exist in a liminal zone. How long did my grandparents hold out hope that their son would be found? They may have reasoned that he lay wounded and yet unidentified or that he would soon be listed as a prisoner of war.
How powerless they must have felt during the days and weeks and months that followed. When Colin had hovered between life and death as a child, they could hold him, soothe and tend to him. Now they could do nothing but wait. Did they rant at the unfairness? Did they make pacts with God? How did they get through the long nights when daytime activities could no longer offer a sense of normalcy and hold the pain at bay? Were they able to share their fears and support each other, or did they suffer alone, neither willing to expose their despair to the other?
It took seven months for the RCAF to confirm their son’s death. On April 30th, 1944, a memorial service was held providing the family a semblance of closure. There was no coffin. His body, along with those of his crew members, had been buried in German soil far from loved ones.
“Such stuff that should go home” eventually reached my grandparents. It was a very small package that included Colin’s watch and glasses.
When I was sixteen, my grandmother was chosen to be Mother of Honor at the annual Armistice ceremony in Quebec City. The night before the event she carefully unwrapped the package. As I watched, she stroked each item, tears streaming down her cheeks. I was yet too young to fully understand her grief. I could only fixate on the glasses, so very fragile, and marvel that they could survive the crash that killed the uncle I would never know.
Yet that uncle left me a treasured gift. The bond I had with my grandmother was forged because of his death. I have since come to understand that her joy in the birth of a grand-daughter the year following her son’s death enabled her to move beyond her sorrow. I believe that I was her salvation and the reason she held me close all her days.
Service Record of Sergeant David Colin Brodie Angus, Library and Archives Canada
Personal letters between Colin and his brother Ian – on file with author, Ian’s daughter
Service Held for Colin Angus, Quebec Chronicle Telegraph, May 1, 1944 – clipping on file with author
I hold the documents as gently as I would the child for whom I have searched for so long. A birth certificate. A death certificate. Four days apart.
My husband knew he had a sister but that’s all he knew. The family never spoke of her and Jim grew up an only child. He did not even know his sister’s name. Thoughts of having a sister, however, evoked a tangle of fragmented memories and emotions that over the years he tried to shape into a plausible scenario. My searches on-line for a female Smith born to Jim’s parents came up empty. It was only last summer, when Jim was seventy, that a cousin found a name on a family tree she had been given: Elizabeth followed simply by a “d”. No dates. The name was enough to find the records.
Elizabeth Smith was born on December 18, 1943 to Peter Dudgeon Smith and Mary Ann Syme. She was born at home at 36 Bentinck Street in Glasgow. Bentinck is a street of tenement buildings near Kelvingrove Park. Today the area is very trendy, but during the war two families often lived in a single tenement sharing the kitchen and bathroom. Such was the case for Jim’s family. His father was in the navy and away at sea for weeks at a time. Given the cramped living quarters, it was very likely that Jim was witness to the sounds and sights of his mother’s labour and delivery, at best confusing for a two year old but likely quite terrifying. Certainly he would have seen the newborn and perhaps even held her although no picture exists today to document this event.
Elizabeth died at home between four and eight a.m. on December 23rd. I vision her mother nursing her in the middle of the night, returning her to her crib, falling back to sleep herself only to wake sometime later to find the tiny body. The cause of death was listed as congenital debility, a vague term explaining little. Was it clear at her birth that she would not live long? Was she not transferred to a hospital because nothing could be done? Or might congenital debility have been a term for what today we call Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and her death actually a shock to her parents?
Jim has a strong memory of his father being angry with his mother over the death. Was what Jim interpreted as anger actually grief? Or was it in fact anger? At what? His parent’s silence over the years is strange. Perhaps they felt Jim was too young to have remembered the event or they may have wanted to protect him from the tragedy. How much information he may have absorbed from adult conversations he overheard across the years is anyone’s guess. Collecting facts in bits and pieces without an understanding of the context would only serve to compound his confusion. He made what sense of it he could and eventually believed his sister was hit and killed by a car.
The location of Elizabeth’s grave is still not known. She is not buried with the Smiths in Greenock Cemetery. She may be with her mother’s people in Blantyre. What is known, however, is that Elizabeth lived for four days and is remembered by her big brother.
A sense of dread enveloped me on hearing David’s words: “Paige is the first of our generation with Alzheimer’s.” David and Paige are my cousins, the sons of my mother’s eldest sister Madge. Alzheimer’s has long held a dark grip on my family.
Madge died young as did her brother Clark. The remaining five siblings lived to seventy and beyond and all died with Alzheimer’s. Family clusters like this are unusual, my doctor assures me, and likely linked to something in the environment. The Willetts were born and raised on a farm in the Gaspe. Perhaps the trigger was something like drinking unpasteurized milk, my doctor suggested. Good, I’m a city girl and have always consumed pasteurized milk. But wasn’t that also true of Paige?
I was witness to the slow progression of the disease in my two aunts and my mother. Violet was the first to be moved to a nursing home when her sister Kathleen could no longer care for her. Eventually she appeared to have forgotten everything, even how to eat. She died when a feeding tube perforated her throat.
Kathleen was next. Frequently she tried to escape her home. Once she was found wandering miles away in a seedy section of the city. Someone drove her to the address on a letter in her purse, her old apartment. The new tenant invited her in to wait while the police searched their missing people’s files. Evidently the two women had a lovely afternoon chatting about their world travels, the tenant seemingly unaware of my aunt’s dementia. Social skills are said to be the last to disappear. Kathleen died of pneumonia, “the old people’s friend” my mother called it. Years later it was difficult for me to give my consent for mum to have a pneumonia vaccine.
My mother’s Alzheimer’s accelerated rapidly following my father’s death. For a while she was aware of her confusion struggled to regain control. She railed against going to a home and accused me of kicking her out of her house. “Take me home” she would cry again and again. “That’s where my umbrella is. And my memory.” In the end, she forgot who I was and that she was ever angry with me. Time and memory became short circuited. She searched for her own mother in the rooms of the home asking constantly why she hadn’t come to visit her.
My mother died peacefully at the age of ninety-four. By that time she too would not eat or drink and her words made no sense. But Alzheimer’s treatment had advanced. There was no force feeding, just gentle care and comfort from family and staff in her own room and in her own bed with soft music in the background. We no longer prolong the dying of Alzheimer’s patients but travel with our loved ones on their final journal. I held my mother’s hand as she took her last breath.
A few years earlier my husband and I had emptied mum’s house and put it on the market. I’m still haunted by the image of the empty boxes we found stored in the basement: big boxes and small boxes, cardboard boxes and boxes covered in velvet, blue Birks boxes and boxes from the St. Hubert Barbeque. The boxes were the remainders of a lifetime of experiences. But the boxes were empty, a very powerful metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Today I am healthy and my memory boxes are full. So I write of memories, my own memories and the stories of my family that I have researched. If one day my memories are lost, my boxes will hold the record.
Madge Alexandra Willett Whitney 1902-1941 (39 years)
Clarke Stanford Willett 1912-1960 (48 years)
Violet Gwendolyn Willett 1903-1983 (80 years)
Kathleen MacDonald Willett 1907-1991 (84 years)
Marion Geraldine Willett Angus 1917 -2011 (94 years)
George Ralph Willett 1905-1983 (78 years)
Keith Arthur Willett 1910-1980 (70 years)