Author Archives: Dorothy Nixon

Heatwaves and Victory Gardens

 

socialnotespotato

On Sunday, October 1, 2017, some members of Genealogy Ensemble will be participating in the Culture Days event at the Verdun Farmer’s Market, in promotion of Beads in a Necklace, our  book of family stories to be published in November.   My talk will focus on WWI Victory Gardens and the rising cost of living during that period.

The newspaper clipping, above, is from the social notes column of the Richmond-Times Guardian, (Richmond, Quebec) circa 1905. The very silly item about a big potato is probably my husband’s grandfather’s way of poking fun at small town pretentions.  Or is it?

The Nicholson family’s vast vegetable garden behind their charming red-brick house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec was no joke to them, not even in an era when pre-prepared foods, like Heinz Beans, Jello, and Quaker Oats, were fast becoming house-hold names.*(1)

In 1911, with their four children were grown up, the large backyard garden that produced corn, beets, sweet peas, etc., was critical to the diet of this frugal Scottish Canadian family.

The potato patch was a particular concern:

“I put the Paris Green on the potatoes twice. Mrs. Montgomery came over to tell me that the bugs were eating up my potatoes. I was waiting to get someone to do it for me, as that was one thing I never attempted.

“But when she interfered thought we would try it. So one dark night, Flora (daughter) got the lantern and we went out when the bugs were asleep and gave them their dose. We dressed ourselves in the shed. You ought to have seen us. When we got through left our clothes there. Went to bed and dreamed all night that the bugs were crawling over us.”

So writes Margaret Mcleod Nicholson, in a July, 9, 1911 to husband Norman, who was away in Northern Ontario working as a railway inspector.

You have to admire Margaret’s style. Although her letters were often penned in haste and full of household concerns, ‘the local news’  as in gossip, and much high anxiety over finances, she certainly could paint a word picture when she wanted to.*(2)

In the spring of 1911, it was 57 year old Margaret’s job to care for the garden because her two older girls, Edith and Marion, were away teaching in Montreal, and her youngest, Flora, was very busy studying for final exams. Margaret and Flora were living alone for most of the year.

Although her daughters returned to Richmond for the summer, they came and went as they pleased, often in motorcars owned by wealthier neighbours. *(3)

Norman, in his letters home,  warned his wife not to work too hard out in the backyard, especially in hot weather, and the summer  of 1911, as it happens, was very, very hot.*(4)

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An ‘old-fashioned’ carriage in front of Tighsolas, the Nicholson home, circa 1910. A hire. The Nicholsons couldn’t afford to keep a carriage, let alone buy an automobile, like so many of their neighbours.

The same  letter continues:

“We have had dreadful hot weather. Just fancy, one night we slept out on the veranda. Took our mattresses down. The Skinners (other neighbours) were sleeping in theirs so that we were not afraid and we had Flossie (the dalmatian) with us but yesterday afternoon it rained so last night was cool.

We all had a good sleep and today is fine. We feel like working. I hope you did not have this extreme heat. We had quite a cold wave about the 24th but no frost.”

This sounds like typical Quebec  weather, doesn’t it?  So up and down.  It’s not easy cultivating a garden in this province. It takes perseverance.

Six years later, in the spring of 1917, most everyone in the west end of the city of Montreal was out on the street digging their wartime Victory Gardens.*(5)

Marion Nicholson, now a mother and homemaker living on York Street in lower Westmount, describes the scene in a letter home to Mom:

“Every vacant lot around the city has been utilized for gardens and I think it is more common to see people out digging and planting in these gardens than in a small town like Richmond. Some I think are making their first attempt.”

Her small family is no exception.  “Hugh (husband) and Willie (cousin) are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing for sure, the beds are straight (her underline) and square. I myself would prefer more in them.”

Marion (who is six months pregnant) then describes how she has hardly slept all week while tending her very sick toddler. She begs her mom to send as many crates of eggs as she can on the next train.

It certainly was an era of high-anxiety about food, nutrition  – and so many other things.

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Margaret’s 1917 butter bill. Inflation. The price of butter goes up from 30 to 40 cents from September to October.* (6)

Still, Marion closes her letter to her Mom by praising her comfort food:  “So, now to get a taste of your home-made bread. When I eat it, I close my eyes and I feel as if I were home. Thank you for all the good things you sent.”

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Edith, young Margaret, and Marion, far right, in summer of 1918 in an orchard in Richmond, possibly behind the Nicholson home as they had apple trees. (The newborn is in other pics.) This was the year of the Spanish Flu. It was safer in the countryside. Marion stayed an entire month in Richmond, until her husband, Hugh, begged her to come home in a letter. “The ice in the icebox has melted all over the floor, there’s no food in the house, the windows are kept open and it’s hot as Hades in here. Please come home and take care of me!” He was in the care of his sisters-in-law, who had better things to do in wartime Montreal  than to baby their brother-in-law. Edith, a Sun Life employee, volunteered in Soldiers’ Aid for the YMCA and for the Navy League.

  • 1. Most of the famous food brands of the 20th century got their start in 1900-1910 by advertising in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with happy-family lifestyle ads with bigger graphics and fewer printed promises. “Pure” was the adjective of the day.

It was understood, even back then, that the home was evolving from a center of production to a center of consumption. Margaret, born in 1853, made everything from scratch, on a woodstove, with recipes she kept firmly locked in her head; Marion Nicholson, born 1886, would cook on a gas stove relying on her Fanny Farmer Cookbook; her daughter, also Marion, born 1917,  living in middle class comfort in 1950’s suburbia, would feed her brood nothing but canned vegetables, even canned potatoes, which she warmed on an electric stove.

  • 2. Norman was tickled by an anecdote from a November, 1909 letter, where Margaret vividly describes a back-and-forth argument she has had with a male relation over woman suffrage. The relation invokes St. Paul as was the custom. She replies “St. Paul has been dead for a long time. I don’t live in those days, milking cows and making fires.” Norman, who is active in local politics, replies in support of his wife: “Too absurd to think that a woman cannot exercise her franchise with as much intelligence as some of the male sex. And when you have to drag some of these supposedly intelligent men to the polls as you would cattle.”
  • 3. Margaret disliked motor cars. From 1909. “Mr. Montgomery is selling his horse and buying a car. Don’t you think he is foolish?” But, she was happy to go on drives when invited.
  • 5.  http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/victory-gardens. Apparently, Victory Gardens weren’t only a way to add to the food supply; they were about improving morale on the home-front by making people feel useful.

 

  • 6. A Chicago Agency sent a very fancy direct mail advertisement out to Richmond homemakers in 1916 on behalf of a new product called Crisco Shortening asking, “Do you like the taste of fresh buns in the morning? Try Crisco.” A coupon was attached.

 

Border Raiding Ruffians

Border Raider and Reivers Public Domain

  Border Reivers: They were often romanticized in art.*

 

Growing up in Montreal in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I was often asked, “Are you related to HIM?”  They were referring to Richard Nixon, President of the United States from 1969 to 1974, also a Vice-President from 1953 to ’61.  To this I would reply an emphatic “No! I’m English.  He’s Irish.” I always wanted to add, “Do you ask everyone named Johnson if they are related to Lyndon?”

My father was the one who insisted we were not related to Richard Nixon. Dick was an Irish Nixon, Daddy said. Our Nixons were English. My father also told me, with a sly self-effacing wink, that our Nixons were sheep stealers.  It all sounded a bit cockeyed to me.

Today, 50 years on, I am engaged in working out my genealogy. I’ve had my DNA tested at Ancestry and I’m growing a tree. It seems that my dad was right on two points, about the sheep and, possibly, about Richard Nixon’s Irishness, but not about our family’s relationship to the late American President.

We probably do come from the same ancient stock.

I’ve just learned the Nixons of Northern England are descended from Border Reivers, families from the lawless, burnt out Scottish/English border regions of the British Isles  (Cumberland and Northumberland) who raided other people’s livestock for a living. If you are a Nixon, Forster, Graham, Armstrong, Bell, Eliot, Armstrong, Robson, Crozier, Kerr, and yes, Johnson, you might be descended from these 13th to 17th century outlaws.  Apparently, the Nixon Administration was full of them.

As it happens, I am both a Nixon and a Forster.  An alleged ancestor of mine, illustrious Border Reiver Sir John Forster of Northumberland, was knighted for his service to Queen Elizabeth I in 1557. Sir John was lucky to be on the winning side of two key battles. His castle was in a strategic location on the “middle march” section of the border, so, apparently, he enriched himself with his share of the spoils from all local cattle raids, in England and Scotland.

The Nixon Clan has an even sketchier reputation. According to some accounts, they were “rude borderers” from Carlisle, Cumberland, who held no allegiances (except to the Armstrong Clan) and felt at home on either side of the border.  They were real baddies who were exiled to Ireland and, then, kicked right back to England. Many in the clan were hanged for their transgressions at Carlisle Castle.

That is likely where my father got the idea that Richard Nixon was an Irish Nixon.  I suspect my great grandfather, Robert Nixon ( 1863-1937), a sawmill worker in Helmsley, Yorkshire in the 1920’s, filled his young grandson’s head with many a grand, romantic tale of their burly, bearded ancestors, skilled light horsemen on  fleet-footed stallions, engaging in strategic, daring cattle raids on the Scottish border.

It appears that these Border Reiver families can be described as reckless ruffians on horseback and/or heroic defenders of the monarchy; scoundrels or heroes; charming rascals or organized crime. It’s only point of view.

Just don’t blame these people for their wild way of life.  In the 13th to 17th centuries, the area around the English/Scottish border was ravaged by warfare and not suitable for farming. Raiding sheep and cattle was just a way to earn a living. Also, the exact location of the border was disputed.

The BBC paid homage to these Border Reiver families with a TV show in 1968 called “The Borderers,” featuring a young and handsome Michael Gambon. The adventure series never came to North America, but I have found it on YouTube. If the BBC series had come to Canada back in 1968, when I was 13, I doubt it would have appealed to me any more than any other small screen horse opera.

But my father would have been mightily impressed.

* Illustration at top from book  Border Raids and Reivers, Robert Borland. Available on Archive.org and in the public domain.

 

Here’s  Sir John Forster’s Wikipedia page.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forster_(soldier)

You can read more about the Border Reivers on the Historic UK website, where I got some of my info.

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Border-Reivers/

Read about their connection with the Nixon Adminstration here.

http://articles.latimes.com/1996-02-11/news/mn-34692_1_border-reivers

How to Bring a Voice to Your Personal Essay

Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent.  Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.

Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.

Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers.  Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.

Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”

It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.

What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art.  The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent.  Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.

The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because   readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.

Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:

  1. Are you using your own unique voice?
  2. Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
  3. Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
  4. Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
  5. Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?

The Dowry

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Maria Roy Crepeau and three daughters and a granddaughter in front of 72 Sherbrooke West in 1926 or so.

In the Edwardian Age, an ambitious young man, however resourceful, usually needed a solid financial foundation to kick-start his career.  If he didn’t have family money, he had to marry well. Take my grandfather, Jules Crépeau, (1873-1938). The son of a mere house painter, he rose up in 30 years from Messenger Boy in the Health Department to Director of City Services, the top civil servant at Montreal City Hall.

Jules didn’t have the advantage of a superior education; indeed, he completed his regular studies at night. He did have a workaholic nature, an affable disposition, a memory like a steel trap,*1 as well as a connection to the powerful French Canadian industrialists, the Forgets.

New information I found on the Internet reveals that the make-or-break-point for young Jules was in 1901, the year of his marriage. Back then, Jules was making only $600 a year, not a terrible salary for a single man, but certainly not enough to get married on.*2 So, Jules, like so many others, had to choose his wife very carefully.

My grandmother, Maria Roy, the daughter of a master butcher, brought a huge $40,000 dowry to their 1901 marriage, so I’m told. The next year, Jules had a house built for them on Amherst, near Ontario Street, and by a noted architect, at that.*3 Maria’s money!

Lovell’s Directory shows that in 1905 the Crépeau family moved to a tony stretch of St. Hubert Street.  Jules is listed as Head Clerk.  City Hall.   In 1918, they moved to St. Denis Street, just a few doors down from J. A. Brodeur, “Montreal’s Napoleon,” and Head of the Executive Committee. My grandfather was, by then, Second Assistant City Clerk, with a salary of $2,500 -$3,500.

 

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Crépeaus around 1918. My mother wasn’t born yet. Doesn’t Jules, center, look stressed?

In 1921, Jules was promoted to the newly-minted post of Director of City Services*4, almost tripling his salary to $8,000, and soon thereafter, to $10,000. In 1922, his family moved to a three storey greystone at 72 Sherbrooke West.

It’s during this period, the Roarin’ Twenties, that my grandmother, Maria, finally started earning dividends on her dowry, taking  shopping trips to New York City to stock up on bourgeois bric-a-brac like marble urns, porcelain statuary, and art nouveau lamps; a complement to the whole roomful of ‘gifts’ the family received from various community groups, especially at Christmas. Jules and Maria needed a good supply of breakables. Family legend has it that the crockery flew over the stairs throughout their tumultuous 37 year marriage.

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Aunt Flo posing in front of some Crépeau bric-a-brac on Harvard in the late 1940’s. The marble bust of three children actually ended up in my mother’s possession, gracing our upper duplex apartment in the 1960’s, but rather out of place among the melamine furnishings and artwork from Woolworth’s. Today, I own the orange art nouveau-deco Le Verre Francais “Amourettes” vase at top right.

In 1931, Jules Crépeau was forced to resign by the new populist Mayor Camillien Houde, but not before negotiating a huge life pension of $8,000 a year. But, soon,  my grandfather, who had no hands-on business experience, lost all of his savings with bad investments.*5  In 1937, Jules also lost his pension when Montreal City Hall passed an emergency bill to abolish it as a cost-saving measure. *6

Just two weeks later, Grandpapa was hit by a car driven by a plain clothes city policeman. He died the next year from complications. Jules probably threatened someone with a long reach.

Living out her life in the final family home on Harvard in Notre Dame de Grace, Jules’ wife, Maria Roy Crépeau (1879-1951) never complained about her situation as an impoverished widow, and this despite the fact her fat dowry financed the first years of the choppy Crépeau-Roy merger. Still, I suspect her story wasn’t at all unique, especially in the Depression Era.

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Rue Jules Crépeau, Ahunsic, Montreal. Designated in the 1980’s. Funny story. In the late 80’s, when my husband and I were buying our first computer, the ONLY place in Montreal we knew that sold them was in  Ahunsic, where we seldom ventured. We got lost and stumbled upon this road and park. I had to find a phone booth to phone my mother to tell her that a street had been named after her father. Serendipity or what? Jules’ nemesis, Camillien Houde, has the huge road winding through the mountain named after him.

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  1. Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to publish a long obit of my grandfather, in 1938, saying that Jules was the go-to guy for any information about how City Hall ran. Affable is their term.
  2. The 1911 census shows that a $600 a year salary was average/above average for a family. Many era workers were ‘day workers’ with unsteady employment, but, even that $600 salary was not enough for the big families of the era to live on. Terry Copp, the sociologist who wrote An Anatomy of Poverty,claims that $1500. was the minimum salary for a family to live in dignity in Montreal in 1910.  In the Edwardian Era, in England and elsewhere, a working class couple might start out in good shape, with a decent salary for a small family, but as more and more kids came, the family fell into poverty.  Such might have been Jules’ fate, save for this huge dowry.
  3. Louis Zephirin Gauthier specialized in churches. His partner was a Monsieur Roy, so maybe he was a relation. Back then few Montrealers owned their own home, in the 20 percent range. Since 1899, male renters could vote in the municipal elections; women had to be single and own their home to vote. Montreal has long been known as a city of renters, but, just lately, this appears to be changing.
  4. The post of Director of City Services was created in 1921 after much deliberation and input from citizens to ensure an equitable distribution of money among the city districts. The post was a liaison between the seven city departments and the Executive Committee. Newspaper accounts of the time reveal that my Grandfather’s office did everything from organizing events for the visiting Royal Princes to being on the City Clean-Up Committee, to testifying in Quebec with respect to Private Bills. When someone had a beef at City Hall, they wrote to his office. My grandfather was the first to testify at the inquiry in to the fatal Laurier Palace Fire, in January 1927, which was ironic, as I suspect  the fire may have been started by organized crime to get at him. (Just my theory, though.)
  5. Jules’ brother, Isadore, Insurance broker and VP Of United Theatre Amusements, the company that erected many of the famous 1920 era movie houses in Montreal, ‘fell’ out of his 7th floor office while waving for his chauffeur in 1933.
  6. Kristian Gravenor, journalist at Coolopolis.blogspot.ca http://coolopolis.blogspot.ca/2017/01/ndg-coincidence-undercover-cop-slams.html wrote a bit about Jules and dug out the info about the cancellation of his pension.

An Ingenue, a Diary and the Goddess of Love

 

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Young Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Virginia. Daughter of Elizabeth Hardy, who was  sister to Mary ‘Pinky’ Hardy, United States General Douglas MacArthur’s mother.

As a schoolgirl back in the 1960’s before Expo 67 opened in Montreal, the only works of art I would have recognized were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.  I would have seen them, you see, on TV caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste or gloves, or on sophisticated Saturday morning cartoons like the Bugs Bunny Show.

Today, when I think of the Venus de Milo, I think of my husband’s Great Aunt  Elizabeth.

In 1910 Elizabeth Hardy Fair,a single society girl from Warrenton, Virginia, USA, was visiting the Continent for the first time. She was in her mid twenties.

The aging ingénue kept a written record in diary form and I have  it.  This European diary reveals that she started her trip in London (hated it, too gloomy) and then went on to Paris,  (loved it, so pretty).

Sorry to say, that’s about as deep as she gets.

Still, Elizabeth penned this one rather intriguing phrase from a visit to the Louvre:  “Saw Gaylord Clarke coming out of the Venus de Milo Room. Second time we have met since abroad.”

Now, if this were a scene from an E.M. Forster novel, and Miss Elizabeth Fair were a luminous young woman of head-strong character, this  ‘chance meeting’ at the Louvre would have been, no doubt, a significant turning point in the trajectory of  Miss Elizabeth’s life.

Just think of it.  In 1910, women such as Elizabeth covered themselves, neck to toes,  in starchy shirtwaists and princess skirts.

Now  contemplate  the Venus de Milo with her sumptuous drapery dipping below the upper curve of her perfect buttocks, and  then figure what it must have felt to be  a young man coming out of the Venus de Milo room  in that era–before the age of California beach volleyball. And then imagine what an opportune moment it was for the very eligible Miss Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Warrenton, Virginia.

As it is, this Mr. Clarke left for England the next day. End of their story.

Elizabeth soon returned to Warrenton, still very much single. Eight years later she would travel to Montreal (to visit her older sister, Mae) and find a husband in the form of one Frank Tofield,  banker.

She would live out her life in the posh Linton apartments on Sherbrooke Street West in ‘uptown’ Montreal, impressing her great nephews and nieces at every Sunday dinner with the button on­­­ the floor under the dining room table that she used to summon the staff with her foot.

Now, as someone who likes to write about ancestors, I like to think that everyone who ever lived is worthy of at least one book, or at least a good short story, but my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth may be an exception.

Elizabeth and Frank had no children and all she left behind  to her nephew is a tattered scrapbook with a few yellowed clippings like this one from a 1904 St. Louis Social Notes page: .

Miss Elizabeth Fair of Warrenton VA is the guest of Dr. and Mrs. John O’Fallon and is a beautiful girl who has been a great deal feted and admired around St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair!

The year before, in  1903, she attended her soon-to-be famous first cousin, Douglas MacArthur’s, West Point graduation.  She glued the dance card into her scrapbook. Mae had the first dance, a waltz; she had the third, a gavotte.

And then there’s this diary, this pedestrian record of her 1910 European experience visiting  all the usual landmarks, Hyde Park, Les Champs Elysees  and Le Bon Marche where she bought handkerchiefs and gloves. It is a diary exposing no wicked sense of humour, sharing no penetrating insights, and including not even one memorable phrase like, say,   “I shall return.”

Well, she did mention seeing suffragettes on the march in London.

Oh, she does pencil in this candid opinion on Da Vinci’s most famous work.

Went to the Louvre in the morning. Pictures most interesting. Mona Lisa was carefully inspected but it does not appeal to me in the least. After lunch, shopped and then drove through Parc Mont Claire. This park is lovely, abloom with flowers, statuary and strollers galore. Great place for lovers and babies… So, no surprise, in 1910, Elizabeth, had love and babies on the mind.

I wonder what was wrong, then, with this mysterious Mr. Clarke?  If things had gone well, it might have been a very good thing for one Frank Tofield. Family legend has it the well-to-do couple argued incessantly over the decades over her spendthrift ways.

(I found Frank’s signed Bible and it was filled with dozens of brittle, faded four leaf clovers.)

So, no book about Great Aunt Elizabeth Hardy Fair, by all definitions a most ordinary Southern Belle and first cousin to a genuine history-book legend. No short story either.

Just this short blog post.

The End.

Below: Elizabeth at her wedding: lavish tastes

elizabethfairmarriage

A Beautiful (Terrible) Life

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The Royal Selangor Club and padang today in Kuala Lumpur.  Photo taken by my son.

It is a truth universal for genealogists: If at first you don’t succeed – finding info on an ancestor on the Internet – try and try again.

About ten years ago, surfing the Library of Congress online archive, I discovered that there existed a 1953 March of Time video about the Malayan Communist Emergency.  Even better, the blurb on said website claimed said this particular episode of the iconic newsreel contained a bit about my grandmother and namesake, Dorothy Nixon.

I soon found out that the video was long out of production. I couldn’t even find an old copy on eBay. Then, about two or three years later, a former Malayan colonial posted the video in its entirety on YouTube, Playing Cricket whilst Fighting Goes On. It’s still up there. 

Today, all I have to do is point and click and there she is: my small snowy-haired grandmother, about  55 years old, seated beside a man in a tall turban while scoring a cricket match at the much-storied Royal Selangor Club, on the pedang, or green, in Kuala Lumpur.

My grandmother’s segment is at the end of the piece describing  the decade long jungle conflict, at about the 6 minute mark.  “Mrs. Nixon,” says the announcer, “is a fixture at the Royal Selangor Club” which has just opened up to non-Europeans. It isn’t mentioned, but I know for a fact that, at the time, Dorothy was the only woman who had ever been allowed into the men’s section of the club.*

Before WWII, the green or padang was surrounded by government buildings.  That is why, on Boxing Day, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbour, the green was bombed by the Japanese.  My grandmother was at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a library nearby, when the bombs hit. According to her family memoir, she hid under a desk until the barrage ended and then got up to help dig out dead bodies from the rubble.

Here’s a post-war picture of Dorothy with the Selangor Cricket team from the 1947 sent to me by a former Colonial.

dorothy-club-big

 

The picture suggests my grandmother enjoyed being one of a few women among a large group of men. And, it’s true, almost everything I have learned about her seems to underscore this point.

A few days after the bombing, when Kuala Lumpur was overrun from the North by Japanese soldiers riding on bicycles, all rubber planters’ wives were told by telephone  to leave the city.  My grandmother removed herself only reluctantly, taking a dark and noisy night train to “safety” in Singapore.  When, a few days after that, and much to everyone’s surprise, Singapore fell, Dorothy simply refused to get on a boat to Batavia like most other British women, so she was interned at Changi Prison.

For a 6 month period in 1943, Granny, as we kids called her, was elected Women’s Commandant, where she had repeated run-ins with the mostly hands-off Japanese Commandant. Soon after she relinquished her leadership post, she was arrested by the Japanese Kempetai for allegedly spying (and colluding with the Men’s Camp) in an infamous ‘radio’ incident called the Double Tenth.  

dorothycell

Dorothy: Self-portrait. The relative luxury of her Changi cell. At first, the Japanese Commandant was hands-off and even helpful, but that changed over time with a new man put in the position.  The women’s camp population grew large, to over 300, over the span of the war and soon there were three women to a cell. 

Dorothy spent a month in a tiny windowless room in the bug-infested basement of the Singapore YMCA with 17 desperate male suspects who were taken out nightly to be tortured. Their screams and a bright light kept her from sleeping.  Then she was put in solitary confinement for five long months and starved to an inch of her life on two cans of condensed milk a day.  Apparently, she much preferred the buggy room.*

double-tenth-diary

(A page from her ‘memoir’..Double Tenth is 10th of October)

My father, a classic “Child of the Raj” hardly knew his own  British ‘mater’, so much of what I knew about my grandmother before my recent Internet forays was mere family myth.

Using Ancestry.co.uk, I recently discovered that my Granny travelled by boat from Yorkshire (well, Liverpool) to Malaya in December, 1921 to meet up with her new husband, Robert, also from the North of England, who was working on a rubber plantation near the beautiful Batu Caves.

(She had been a Land Girl in WWI, in forestry, leading the giant Clydesdales that pulled the logs through the woods.)

She gave birth to my father, Peter, but ten  months later, and this despite the fact my grandfather refused to give up his Asian girlfriend. Anglo rubber companies forced their employees to marry British wives, which provoked a lot of resentment against these interloping women, who were considered too high maintenance and parvenus of a sort.

Still, colonial life wasn’t all terrible. In the twenties, Dorothy attended polo matches with sultans and hosted formal dinners for British dignitaries, some of these men living legends, at her airy bungalow on her husband’s rubber estate.

“We had fun in those days,’ she told a journalist in the 1970’s, who put it in a book about Colonial Malaya. The journalist described my grandmother, in her dotage, as very weak and ‘somewhat vague.’

It was later, in the 1930s that Dorothy became Head Librarian at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a turn-of-the-century institution that also provided a mail-order book box service for Brits isolated in the remote jungle.  I don’t know if she took on this job out of sheer boredom (since her children had been sent to England early on, and she had the usual quota of servants) or because the Depression forced her to.

Then came WWII and her near-death experience at the hands of the Japanese.  Eventually, in the fifties and sixties, she was anointed the “Grand Dame of Cricket” in Malaya.  For a while they were giving out a Dorothy Nixon Trophy.

My grandmother died in 1972 at age 77, shortly after that interview, in her rooms at the Majestic Hotel in KL surrounded by her precious personal collection of books which were later donated to the Malaysian National Library, but not before meeting her name-sake granddaughter.

Upon her retirement from the KL Book Club, in the summer of 1967, she flew in to visit us for six months in the Snowdon area of Montreal.

Dorothy Senior was not impressed, I can tell you, with our bilingual island city, our ‘exotic’ World’s Fair, or her pimply, pubescent string-bean of a granddaughter.

And all I saw in her was a bad-tempered old crone, always pacing the narrow halls of our cramped upper duplex apartment with a Rothman’s cigarette in one hand a tall tumbler of gin in the other, criticizing almost everything, including my mother’s decadent pound-of-butter, six egg French Chocolate Pie.

So closely confined and besieged by a band of unruly Canadian grandkids, she must have felt as if she were back at Changi!

grannylll

Granny, in picture, visited us for Expo67.

She did, indeed, tell my mother about her WWII experience and my mother did mention it to me. “Try to be nice to your grandmother,” I recall Mummy saying. “ During the war she had to sit cross-legged for days in a room with many men.”  But, that plea made no impression on me.

My grandmother and I hardly spoke,that sweet Expo summer, even though I gave her breakfast in bed every morning, one hard-boiled egg and a tiny container of a strange food called ‘yogurt’, and we both preferred it that way.

After all, the  very first week of her visit she had told me I could never visit her in Malaysia, as she would ‘lose face’ in front of her Chinese friends.

Oh, well. I’m making it up to her now.

===========================================

*The Royal Selangor Club, founded in 1884 by British colonials, has a long history reaching back to Victorian times. The story goes the club was knick-named the Spotted Dog because, from the beginning, people of all races were allowed to join, although this March of Time piece suggests that happened only in the 50’s. Still, no question, Malaya  in the 1920’s and 30’s was a bustling multi-cultural society – but with a distinct pecking order.

*Luckily, she wasn’t horribly tortured like the men or a  certain young Chinese  woman, who suffered all kinds of indignities including electric shock and, yes, even, waterboarding.*(IF you have seen the brilliant BBC series Tenko, you’ll know all about her Changi experience. That fictional mini-series was bang on from what I can see. )

An Ill-fated Social Experiment

Royal Arthur School

80 Canning Street

September 30, 1912

Dear Mother,

I am writing this in school to tell at last taken that long talked of flat and while I think (of it) will tell you the address; it is 2401 Hutchison St. and is almost next door to the McCoy’s which makes it fine for us. We moved in on Sat last (Sept 28) and they have been in cooking and doing all sorts of things for us. Mr. McCoy gave us a basket of peaches to start on.

The flat is completely furnished and is lighted by electricity and we do all our cooking by gas. There are four girls in the scheme, Flora, May, Lena Bullock who is a school teacher, too, and yours truly. We are planning to pay 20 dollars each per month and hope to be able to make ends meet but if we cannot then we will get another girl to come in with us.

The flat itself costs us $40.00 then we will have the rest for running expenses. When you come take an Amherst car up Bleury and get off at St. Viateur. And we will let you see what sort of housekeepers we are.
This is the first part of a missive written by Marion Nicholson, school teacher at Royal Arthur School in the Little Burgundy district of Montreal, to her mother, Margaret, back home in Richmond, Quebec.

By today’s standards, the letter contains nothing earth-shattering: a young working woman has taken an apartment with three other girls and is anxious to tell Mom all about it.

But, it is,indeed, an extraordinary letter.  In 1912, when the correspondence was penned, it was unacceptable, borderline illegal even, for women in the big cities of Canada to move in together to share expenses.

First, there was the problem of prostitution, so any such arrangement was highly suspect.  And then there was the problem of, well, personhood, that is no one would rent to a woman, even a woman with a steady salary, because these women couldn’t sign a lease.

Most women didn’t have a bank account, and those wealthy women who did couldn’t keep more than $2,000. in it.

Marion cashed her paycheque of 60 dollars a month at Renouf’s, a store that sold textbooks to the Montreal Board.

Official records reveal that between September 1912 and May 1913, 2401 Hutchison, in the Mile End district of Montreal, was occupied by another family that had been living there for years.  So, Marion and her friends did not sign any official lease.

Their unusual sublet was no doubt enabled by the McCoys mentioned in the letter.  The McCoys were family friends from a pioneering  Richmond  family.

 

marion margaret

Margaret Nicholson and daughter Marion in Richmond in 1912. Letters reveal that her family was afraid for Marion, she had become so thin.

The earlier letters in ‘the Nicholson collection’ explain why Marion was so excited about getting her own apartment. For a few years, she had boarded at a rooming house on Tower, in Westmount, run by a widow named Mrs. Ellis.  As was likely the custom, this Mrs. Ellis “lorded it over” her female charges, (Marion’s words) making sure they towed the line, especially when it came to male visitors and curfews.

In 1910, in the big bad city, even a well-connected 27 year old women like Marion Nicholson was considered in need of protection.  Besides, no respectable widow wanted to be accused of running a bawdy house.

In late 1911, Marion began seeing a certain Mr. Blair, a very eligible lumber merchant, which made her especially hate her curfew.  In 1912, already bone-tired from managing her class of 50 “very bad” second graders, she ran herself ragged in her spare time looking for a flat to live in.

Then, in late September she found that flat. And it even had electricity, a luxury her lovely family home in the fancy section of Richmond, Quebec wouldn’t have until the next year.

Family letters reveal that Mr. Blair or “Romeo” was a regular visitor at 2401 Hutchison during the fall and winter of 1912/13, not that Marion talked about his visits in her letters home. Flora, her younger sister, was the one who spilled the beans.

Oh, my!

Still, in the end, this bold feminist experiment didn’t work out, but not because of any sex scandal.

Running a home back then was just too labour intensive for women who worked during the day, even a home with a newfangled gas stove.

That’s why, during the winter of 1913, Marion and her flat mates relied on a series of older female relations, including mother Margaret, to keep house for them on a rotating basis.

In May 1913, the girls abandoned their flat on Hutchison and moved into a hotel room downtown at the Mansions on Guy Street.  Supposedly, they left behind a big fat mess.

 

Flora Mae Watters.PNG

Flora (front) and Mae Watters, around 1908 in Richmond, Quebec. Mae would get married in 1914 but Flora only much later, when in her forties.

Marion Nicholson soon became engaged to Mr. Blair.  She was disillusioned at work because a “mere boy out of school” had been hired over her head and given the much coveted  7th form, a position second only to the (male) principal, is how she described it to her father.

Sister Flora and Mae, a first cousin, returned to Mrs. Ellis’ much despised rooming house on Tower because they simply had no other place to go.

In the 1910 era, there was a dire shortage of accommodation for working women in Montreal.  In fact, Montreal’s leading citizens, including Mssrs. Birks and Reford, Mrs. Molson, Reverend Symonds of Christ Church Cathedral and Miss Carrie Derick of  the Montreal Local Council of Women, were holding public meetings to organize a hotel downtown just for women,  ‘respectable’ women (sic) where the girls could spend their evenings engaged in wholesome activities and presumably not cavorting around town at Vaudeville theatres, motion picture palaces, or at Dominion Park, the enormous thrill park on Notre Dame East.*1

Marion, who enjoyed all of the above activities, didn’t write anything in her letters about this critical community project, but I can guess what she thought about it.

In 1906, while attending McGill Normal School near what is now Place Bonaventure, she roomed at  the YWCA on Dorchester and simply hated it. “Too many rules,” she wrote home to Mom.2

  1. Montreal Gazette. Definite Start to Women’s Hotel. November 18, 1910.
  2. Marion Nicholson would marry, have four children and be widowed in 1927. She would go back to teaching and rise to be President of the Montreal Protestant Teacher’s Union during the WWII years. She fought for higher salaries and pensions for teachers, but died before she could earn one herself.  She was honored with an editorial in the February 16, 1947 Montreal Gazette that began: With the death of Marion A.N. Blair the teaching profession in the province, indeed, the whole Dominion, has suffered a serious loss.

Socialists and Auctioneers

grandmmdmdmmdm

Emma Forster. Reprinted courtesy of the genealogy website myprimitivemethodists.org

Yippee!

For a while there I thought I had an illustrious ancestor, Joseph Cowen, the radical Liberal MP from Newcastle-on-Tyne. Here was someone I could be proud of and  someone my ‘socialist’ brother, living in Europe, could be proud of, too. Or, so I thought.

Upon looking up my great-grandmother Emma Cowen’s father, John, on familysearch.org ,  I discovered that the man was born in Blaydon Manor, Durham, which would make him the brother of this famous Joseph Cowen.

There was no other John Cowen born in Durham in 1832, his birth year, so it had to be him. Right?

I texted my brother in socialist Denmark along with a capture of a statue of Joseph in the town of  Newcastle. “Look, who we’re related to. We’re NOT the descendants of lowly coal-miners. He’s got Daddy’s eyebrows, doesn’t he?)

My brother, probably washing down his grass-fed beef with an artisanal beer, immediately texted me back:  “That doesn’t sound right to me.”

So, I double checked to find I had been foiled by a census typo.

My real ancestor John, great great grandfather, was misspelled in the 1841 UK Census under John Cowin. This John Cowin was born 1932 in South Bedburn, Durham. Another later Census entry for the family confirms Emma Cowan’s dad was born in Bedburn.

Emma is my great-grandmother from Durham, who married John Forster, Primitive Methodist Minister, from Cumberland, who produced Dorothy in 1895, who married a Malayan planter, Robert Nixon (from Helmsley) in 1921 and whom I only met once in my life, 1967, the year of Expo67.  Dorothy is subject of my play Looking for Mrs. Peel.

So, it seems, I am not the descendent of a radical liberal politician, friend to Anglo-Jewry, but a descendant of one John Cowen, a Victorian Age auctioneer.

(And that is correct, because Emma Cowen was born on Eliot Street, in Crook and Billy Row, Durham, and his auction house was located there, I discovered on yet another online document.)

Because I had to know, I checked to see that the profession of auctioneer was a pretty lucrative one at the time, although one that was despised because it preyed on human misery.  Thackery, apparently, simply hated auctioneers.

Bankruptcy was often used in Victorian era novels to make a point about human greed and to propel the plot. George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, which I just listened to online, includes a sad, plate-by-plate  description of a family bankruptcy.

Going backwards in time over the UK Censuses, I discovered John was the son of a grocer, Joseph, Crook and Billy Row, Durham, who was the son of another grocer, Joseph  from Auckland Bishop, who was the son of someone who worked in the lead smelters at Alston, Cumberland. (If I got things right.)

Lead smeltering. Now, there’s the hideous job I was looking for! If your ancestry  can’t be illustrious, it might as well be pitiful.

It didn’t take me long to find out all about the lead mining industry in Alston, Cumberland, where most of my Cowens lived. (The place is still crawling with Cowens.)

There are lots of books out there on the subject. I downloaded one off Archive.org  about Alston and ‘its pastoral and mining people.’

For a time, apparently, lead mining was the only industry in the area, so my ancestor had no choice.

He had about 8 kids so the work didn’t dampen his mojo.

Lead was in everything back in the Victorian era, even in food, up until 1900 or so. (Lead actually smells and tastes nice, as any girl from the 1960’s who skipped on the sidewalks of our polluted  city streets knows very well.)

These Durham Cowen’s were all religious, described  as dissenters. Their births and marriages were registered at Redwing Chapel, Garrigle, Cumberland.

Here’s a drawing of the same chapel in the book about Alston and its people.

redwingchapelpic

Dissenters and Poets

 

john

Reverend John Forster. Published with the permission of the Primitive Methodist Ancestor Website.

Late in his life, Somebody Forster, my great-grandfather, awakened from his night’s sleep to ask his wife of many decades, ‘Woman, what are you doing in my bed?”  It was dementia.

Until lately, this serio-comic anecdote was the only thing I knew about my father’s mother’s father, other than that he was a Methodist Minister from the North of England. But, just last month, I accessed the 1901 UK Census, (for free, yea) and it took me about thirty minutes to find out all I could want about my great-grandfather Somebody.

First, I looked up my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, who I knew was born in 1895 in Middleton-on -Teesdale, County Durham, UK,  to see that her father was a Reverend John from Knockburn, Northumberland; her mother Emma, a former Cowen from Crook,  and, more importantly, that John was a Primitive Methodist Minister. (I checked. PM’s were dissenters; socialists and pacifists, apparently.) *1

Then, googling the keywords “John Forster” and “Primitive Methodist,”  I  landed on a webpage from a genealogy site, myprimitivemethodistancestors.org , with a short biography of Great-granddad John, with  grainy photos of him and wife Emma taken in 1914.

Apparently, John Forster, a bookish, self-educated son of a farmer, was an accomplished essayist who penned over fifty articles for the Connexions Magazine of the Primitive Methodists on sundry weighty topics including “Heredity in Relation to Morals” and “Primitive Methodism and the Labour Question.”(He also served as a Temperance Committee; amusing, as his daughter, my Grandma Dorothy*, could really slug back the gin!)

I was most intrigued, though, to see that John had published a book of poetry, in 1923, shortly after my father, his grandson, was born at the European Hospital near Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. The author claims that Reverend John’s poems ‘contain lyrics of extraordinary charm and grace.’

(Well, I know the Wasteland was published in 1922, ushering in modernity, it is claimed, but no one said anything as nice about T.S. Eliot’s poem 😉

Curious, of course, about these verses, I contacted the Primitive Methodism Website’s administrator, asking for help. She immediately emailed me back a longer biographical article about John Forster, but no examples of his poems.  The volume in question, Pictures of Life in Verse seems to have gone missing from the church/museum library.

Quelle Bummer!

There’s good news, though. This longer article lists Reverend John’s assignments or ‘circuits’ in chronological order.  The Forster family moved often, it seems, around the area:  Thornley, Crook, Middleham, Bradford, Middleton-in-Teesdale, (a very pretty sheepy village) about six other towns, then, it said, “his present one (1912) being Helmsley.”

Bingo!  I know from the 1911 UK Census, that Helmsley is the hometown of my grandfather, Robert Nixon.  Clearly, alliances were made in that era that resulted  in the marriage of John and Emma’s second daughter, Dorothy, to Robert Nixon, son of a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry, although a Great War would delay official matrimony.

Dorothy would have been 17 in 1912 and fresh out of her co-ed Quaker boarding school and Robert Nixon just 22, and working in service as a footman.3

Perhaps Robert’s prospects weren’t good enough for the righteous Reverend John. In 1913, according to online records,4 Robert, travelled to Malaya to work as a labourer in a rubber plantation. During WWI, Dorothy worked as a land girl, leading enormous Clydesdales through the woods, a comical sight as she was only 5 foot tall.*5

The same records also reveal that Robert returned to England in 1916, now the plantation’s Assistant Manager. This trip home was very likely to secure a wife for real as rubber company officials insisted their employees return to the UK to find respectable British (see: white) wives.

Whatever transpired back in Helmsley, North Yorkshire in 1916,  on December, 1921, *6 Reverend John Forster, perhaps taking time off from penning one of his charming verses, sent his second daughter, Dorothy  off to  Selangor, Malaya. She’d become pregnant almost immediately upon arrival. I know because my father, Peter, was born on October 23, 1922.7


  1. Checking into Emma Cowan’s parentage, I see that her ancestors belonged to this same church, Redwing Chapel, that has an online presence! United Congregation of Red Wing Chapel, Garrigill, and Low Chapel, Alston, Cumberland; http://www.fivenine.co.uk/family_history_notebook/source_extracts/parish_registers/cumberland/redwing_registers.htm
  2. Website: Myprimitivemethodistancestors.org
  3. UK Census 1911
  4. UK Immigration and Transportation Records http://www.familysearch.org
  5. Family Lore
  6. UK Immigration and Transportation Records. After WWI, there were many, many more unmarried women than men in England, so perhaps this had something to do with Dorothy’s decision to go to Malaya to marry Robert Nixon. They did not get married in the UK, or at least I can’t find any record of a marriage.
  7. Family lore, (my Aunt Denise, who died last month) said that Robert kept his Asian mistress after marriage. Dorothy eventually got her own boyfriend, a colonial lawyer who remained faithful to her until her death in 1971. Both Dorothy and Robert were interned at Changi Prison in Singapore during WWI. Dorothy was Women’s Camp Commandant for a term. I only met my grandmother once in 1967, when she came to visit. Robert  died while she was at our house in Montreal’s Snowdon district.  He fell off a ladder at his daughter’s, Denise, in Farnborough, Hants, UK.  I recall the telegram. I recall, also, that my grandmother managed to wipe a tear or two from her eyes. I’ve written about my Colonial Grandmother in a play Looking for Mrs. Peel, which makes it all the more amusing that my great-grandparents were named John and Emma.

Night Flight

dadmom

Peter Nixon, former RAF Ferry Command pilot, and new wife Marie-Marthe circa 1949.

 

My father had flown over the Nile.

The Nile River. In Africa.

And, even better, he had flown over the Nile…at night.

Weren’t we impressed, my two brothers and I, way back when in the 1960’s, to learn that particular spine-tingling fact.

Of course, we knew that our father had been in the War (well, duh) as part of something called the Ferry Command (ZZZzzzz) that moved planes back and forth over the ocean.

To us, our father’s Air Force career seemed dull and boring and highly unromantic and, obviously, not dangerous at all.

But, then, we kids ferreted out his black leather WWII log book.  We deciphered his compact, prep-school handwriting to see that he had been over the Nile at night and, now, our already strapping  6 foot 4 inch British Pater suddenly seemed taller in our eyes.

(How ever did he fit that huge Yorkshire farmer frame into those tiny mosquito planes, I now wonder.)

I write about this because yesterday my husband came to pick me up at Trudeau Airport in Dorval.

My plane from New York City had been delayed by  half an hour and he had wandered the premises for a bit.

“Do you know there’s a section of the airport devoted to the Ferry Command,” he asked me as we walked back to the car.

“No,” I said.

“And they show some of the airmen involved,” he continued. “Maybe your dad is one of them.”

But, I was too tuckered out from travelling all of one hour in a cramped commuter jet to take a look at said installation. Luckily, my husband had snapped some pictures on his phone.

Ferrycommand1.PNG

ferrycommand2

Half a century has now passed since the day we kids first perused that enigmatic leather log book.

My father has been dead for 10 years, succumbing in 2005 to Alzheimer’s in the Veteran’s Hospital at Ste. Anne de Bellevue.

While he was sick, a couple of books were (finally) written about the Ferry Command. I read them.

I came to realize that the Ferry Command is the reason I am here, on Earth and in Montreal.

The Ferry Command, you see, was headquartered at Dorval.

(Hence, the installation. Hence, IATA headquarters being in Montreal.)

My father never mentioned it, or, more likely, I wasn’t paying attention, but the Ferry Command was an important part of the WWII effort.

There was nothing safe about being a Ferry Command pilot. Ferry Command planes, I discovered, were shot down and/or crashed regularly, and some crashes (the ones that made headlines, anyway) involved planes that were taking a dozen or more Ferry Command pilots, huddled together like so many human popsicles in the frigid belly of the machine, back to Canada from an overseas mission.

What exactly was this Ferry Command? Well, before the US officially entered WWII, skilled American pilots were hired on the sly, at sky-high pay, to ferry planes from Canada to England.

Planes, secretly being manufactured in the States, were literally pushed over the Border, and, then, these Yankee flying aces would take them over to England.

When the US officially entered WWII,  enlisted men from the RAF were brought into the Ferry Command, my father among them.

My father, a British child of the Raj, was 19 in 1941, either having just finished prep school at St Bees in County Durham, or a year into his Oxford studies.

He had been a top athlete at St Bees, captain of all the school teams. I’m guessing that’s why he was funnelled into the RAF.

Anyway, I read  that the Ferry Command pilots partied hard in the Mount Royal Hotel between assignments. I’m guessing my father met my French Canadian mother at one of these gatherings.

(Too late to ask either of them.)

Lately, I also learned something else of acute interest to me: that Ferry Command planes were serviced by young women maintenance workers at Keswick Airport in England.  I’ve seen certain alluring pictures on the RAF website. (I suspect they only chose the prettiest Screen Gems style women for these promo pics.)

Now, my father never mentioned that. That, certainly, would have stuck in my brain, way back when, in the optimistic era of the Beatles, Emma Peel and Women’s Lib; a time when WWII, to us Boomer children anyway,  seemed so many, many lightyears away.

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