The third time was the charm.
Twice before, the lives of Marion McGee and Dorothy Furness had intersected and, while friendships were forged, circumstances would conspire to pull the friends apart until the day of a chance meeting in a New Westminster Safeway store. Marion had recently moved to an apartment in the neighbourhood in order to be near the George Derby Centre, where her ailing husband Bert was receiving care in his final months. While walking up an aisle, Marion was delighted and surprised to run into her old friend Dorothy.
“This was not my regular Safeway,” says Dorothy, “but on this particular day it was on my route, and I decided to stop to pick up a few things. I was delighted to see Marion. We were delighted to see each other. And we have stayed in close touch ever since that day.”
The friends grew up in vastly different circumstances.
Dorothy, the youngest of three children, was raised in the Okanagan town of Summerland. After attending business school in Penticton for one year, she found clerical work at the Dominion Experimental Station in Summerland, where the Federal Government conducted experiments and research on various types of foods, including fruits, vegetables and some animals.
“This was a fascinating place to work,” says Dorothy. “There was a lot of very important work going on. They were always working on developing new strains and varieties.”
But after five years on the job, Dorothy took a position at the Summerland Medical Clinic, which eventually led to similar work at a big medical clinic in Victoria.
“I lived in the Craigdarroch Castle guest home, which is in the shadows of Craigdarroch Castle. I entered into a whole new phase of my life, meeting new people and learning how to live away from my family,” she says. “This was a boarding house with about 30 people living there, a nice mix of older and younger people. I had my own private room and there were common areas for meals and to socialize.”
It was while living here that Dorothy made history as one of the survivors of a plane crash! On December 24, 1950, a small CP Air plane, on its way to Penticton, crashed almost without warning on Okanagan Mountain. The pilot was killed instantly and the co-pilot succumbed to his injuries the next day, while the stewardess and 15 passengers all survived, none of them with serious injuries. Dorothy remembers, “This was the first air crash in the world in which both pilots died and all the passengers survived.”
Marion, on the other hand, was the oldest of seven children. She was born in Calgary but moved to Vancouver when she was six, travelling all the way with her parents and younger siblings in a Model T Ford. The depression years were very tough on Marion and her family. Though her dad did find work as a grocer clerk at Eatons, the family struggled to pay the rent, so were constantly on the move. “I attended seven different schools from Grades 1 to 7,” she says. “My mother was never too well, which meant lots of work for me. I made a vow that I would never have any children of my own. Because my mother was always sick and in bed, I became a full-time babysitter by the age of 11. My job was to look after the baby, and I hated it.”
When Marion was 13, her father informed her he had found her a job bussing and waitressing at the Trocadero Restaurant on Hastings Street.
“My father had some idea I would become a restaurant owner,” she says. “This was a big blow to me as I had only one interest, and that was to become a nurse. I had watched the members of the Victoria Order of Nurses look after my mother, and I really appreciated what they did. I wanted to do that myself.”
After working at several jobs over her teenage years, Marion wound up working at St. Paul’s Hospital as a nurse’s aide. The Sister in charge of the floor told Marion she wasting her time, and suggested she go back and get her Grade 12. By 1946, Marion had graduated from Little Flower Academy High School and from there, she attended Nursing School at St. Paul’s, graduating in 1949.
For her first nursing job, she accepted a post at Summerland General Hospital where she met Dorothy for the first time. Marion only stayed for one year, but she says, “All the nurses there were treated very well. We were all invited out by members of the entire community to dinners, picnics and other social events. I must have met just about everybody in town.”
At the Victoria boarding house, Dorothy met her future husband, Tom Furness. He worked as a statistician for the Provincial Government in Victoria after receiving his commerce degree, and soon left to establish himself in Vancouver before inviting Dorothy over so they could become married. Not long after, Tom went back to Normal School in order to follow his passion of becoming a teacher. Once he had his papers, Tom was hired by the Burnaby School District and worked for a number of schools over the years, eventually rising to principal of Second Street School. While he did this, Dorothy worked for a couple of years as a stenographer until her daughters came along in 1954 and 1957.
“Both of my daughters became world travellers,” she says. “My Linda and Nancy lived my dream of travelling.”
Following her year in Summerland, Marion applied for postgraduate studies in Pediatrics and was accepted at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Montreal. Here she met Bert McGee, the man she would soon marry. He was graduating from McGill with a commerce degree, but after some unenjoyable jobs, he decided to apply to UBC to get his education degree. By then, he and Marion had two small children, so the whole family moved into off-campus housing.
Bert’s first teaching job was at McPherson Park. The school had occasion for the teachers to get together socially, and Bert could hardly wait to introduce Marion to his new buddy, Tom. This was the second time the women’s lives crossed, and Marion and Dorothy were pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face.
“We were just so delighted to meet each other again,” says Dorothy. “It was a wonderful moment.”
“After that meeting, we became such good friends,” says Marion. “We would visit at each other’s homes, go for dinners and outings. Our families got to know each other. We even discovered that we had both been married on September 1, one year apart, so we often celebrated our wedding anniversaries together.”
Eventually, the two families drifted apart when new jobs at different schools meant they didn’t see each other as much.
And things stayed that way until the chance meeting at Safeway. By then, Dorothy’s husband had long passed away, Marion’s husband would follow soon after, and all the children – Dorothy’s pair and Marion’s four - had grown up and moved out.
The two women stayed in touch this time, forging even stronger bonds of friendship than before. Dorothy introduced Marion to Century House, a seniors’ centre in New Westminster and they started to go on trips, dinners and outings. The two also discovered a passion for learning. Together, they signed up for a series of courses at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. They attended the lectures and would then discuss what they had learned over dinner, comparing notes and discovering they did not always agree on every point.
Despite these occasional divergent viewpoints, both were in total unison on what their friendship meant to them.
“We both appreciate each other so much,” says Marion. “Dorothy is like a sister to me. We can chat over anything, including things that are personal, and we both know it will never go any further.”
Over their lifetimes, both women had lived in a variety of homes, apartments and other dwelling places, so when they saw that a new assisted living complex was being built in New Westminster they both put their names in.
“At the time, we decided we weren’t ready so we took our names back off,” says Marion. “A year later, we were ready and after a short wait I moved in during October 2008.”
Two months later, Dorothy moved in. “I just love it here,” she says. “You meet the most wonderful people and get to know them and their stories. The staff here [are] just great. We have meetings to see if there are any complaints, but the meetings never last long. I am on the fourth floor and Marion is on the ground floor, which works out very well for us. We keep in touch but we both allow each other our own space. It’s a wonderful set up.”
Marion agrees. “I love being here. I still have my independence, which is important to me, but if I want to connect to a larger community, I just have to open the door and go down the hall. I had lots of experience with moving in my life, and I hate moving. This is my home now.”
After life’s long journey, these two friends can finally say they have both arrived together at home.
AUGUST 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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