I've lived a long life. Born on January 25th, l923, I have racked up many memories - many of them as a toddler, a young girl and then a woman in Victoria. I've expanded a lot - and so has Victoria!
My first real memory was when I was about two years old, walking with my mum on that stretch of sidewalk we called The Causeway. I don't know if it is still called that by the locals, but it is the strip along the harbour from where the old Princess ships - the Joan, Marguerite and Kathleen - used to dock opposite the Legislative Buildings, and along in front of the Empress. I can remember stopping, crying and begging my mum to carry me for what looked like miles ahead. I was surprised when I returned to Victoria and found The Causeway was only two-blocks long.
The next clear memory is my father throwing me in the deep end of the swimming pool at Crystal Gardens. He had to rescue me from the bottom, and I've never dived since. Crystal Gardens was a magical place with its domed, glass roof and tropical plants, where exotic birds flew free from one tree to another on the steamy interior while old, well-bred, Victoria society ladies gossiped and sipped tea.
Another memory, still vivid, was at Terry's, maybe a drugstore, located at the southwest corner of Douglas and Fort Streets in the '30s. Terry's served the best ice cream in town and their cane tables and chairs were where mums and their kids met. One day, when I was about seven years old, I guess I was fooling around, and tipped my chair backwards and got my neck caught in the cane loop, which comprised the back of the chair. I screamed bloody murder and so did my mum and, finally, the proprietor had to use a saw to release me.
I started school at Bank Street School and then went to the Willows, where in Grade 4, I had a teacher called Miss Tobin. I can still see the dress she was wearing that fateful day. During an exam, I copied an answer from the girl across the aisle. I felt so guilty I told Miss Tobin that I had cheated. She said I was such an honest little girl she wouldn't punish me and, hence, committed me to a lifetime of honesty. Wise teachers can make a huge impact on their pupils!
Then we moved to Fairfield to an apartment at the northwest corner of Linden and May Streets, and I attended Sir James Douglas School.
Mum worked, so I spent a lot of time in Beacon Hill Park. One day, the dogcatcher was chasing a large brown curly-coated Irish water spaniel, which was bent on catching a duck. I'm sure God forgave me my fib when I told the dogcatcher it was my dog and I would take it home immediately.
I got it out of the park (onto Cook Street) and looked at the address on its collar. Holding on tightly, I knocked on the door. An old lady (In retrospect, I think she must have been in her early fifties) answered. She was bent over with a hump on her back, had large teeth and kinky white hair. I thought she looked like a witch. I told her the story. Patting the dog's head, she said, "Patrick you are a naughty boy." She invited me in for tea, but I knew my mother would have had a fit if I had accepted, so I declined. The lady's name was Madame Annette Babo Vivenot and she taught French at an exclusive girl's school in Victoria.
She told me to ask my mum if I could visit her and her animals; she had a home for strays. I did and that started a strange friendship that lasted until Madame died in the '60s. Madame had many animals to feed, including a rabbit and tortoise called Baccus. One of my jobs was to ask the butcher for fish heads, which we cooked on an old woodstove in Madame's basement. Rescued cats watched in anticipation from the rafters as I poked down the boiling fish heads so the eyes couldn't look at me.
I had a sad task every few months when one of the cats had a litter. I put the kittens in a basket and walked up to the vet's clinic on Quadra Street, so he could sex the babies. I brought the boys home, but the girls could never be placed so they went to kitten heaven. I cried all the way back to Madame's, but the mother cats were so overjoyed seeing their sons, they forgot to count! That was 80 years ago, and I still recall one of the cats was called Martin Charles.
I guess I was about 12 years old when mum paid for me to attend the annual Children's Ball at the Empress Hotel. We were very poor but mum wanted her two girls to experience life in the rich lane. I can remember feeling self-conscious in my midnight blue satin dress clinging to my flat chest. The dress was ruffled at the neck and had a gold necklace attached. I hated it so much I slunk against a wall until I could go home.
We left Victoria when I was halfway through Grade 8. And I didn't go back until the Second World War when I was married to my hero sailor at St. John's Anglican Church by Rev. George Biddle. My father-in-law gave us enough money for a room at the Dominion Hotel on our wedding night and then neither of us had a penny until my husband's next payday.
With the naiveté of youth - he was 20 and I 18 - we went to Beacon Hill Park, where the broom bushes were thick on Sentinel Hill. We nestled down using his issue great coat for a ground cover. It was June and warm, so we didn't need anything over us. I had my Marriage Certificate in the pocket of my bell-bottoms. We took an alarm clock so my sailor could hitchhike to Naden at 1 a.m. Sometime during the night, a policeman came upon us. After me sobbing that we were married and had no money for a room, he let us stay for the next week until payday. With no home, I climbed an oak tree, waiting for my husband to come back to me.
Then I got a job at Kresge's on Douglas Street, so we had money for a room. On my husband's 21st birthday, I had a three-tier cake baked for him and took it by streetcar to the barracks, where he had been confined for smoking on duty. Disaster!
But perseverance wins out in the end. I bribed the guards at the gate with the top layer of the cake, and they let my sailor out for a few minutes. We walked over to the shed belonging to the E and N Railway, which my Civil Engineer great-grandfather had surveyed many years before. I sang "Happy Birthday" and we kissed for a while, until he had to go back inside. We met at the wire fence surrounding the barracks - I slept on the outside of the fence in the bushes, and he on the inside. We held hands through the wire and swore eternal love.
I was one of the first women in Victoria to join the Canadian Woman's Army Corps (CWAC). I worked in the office of the Royal Canadian Engineers, who didn't much care that I couldn't type because I was young and pretty.
Eventually, I got pregnant. He shipped out in November and I moved back to Vancouver with my poor, long-suffering mother. My sister had joined the army by that time and was back East. Our baby was born in August 1942, while he was still overseas. He was on the H.M.C.S. *Athabaska* when she was sunk off the French coast. I received a telegram the next morning, "Alive and well coming home on Survivor's Leave." I was terrified I wouldn't recognize him - he had been gone almost three years and I had only known him six weeks before we were married, and was with him only a few months before he left for overseas.
With his leave up, he was posted to Halifax where I joined him. We lived in one small room in an old house on Barrington Street, which had survived the 1917 explosion, but had crooked doors and windows that didn't shut properly. After fighting with bedbugs for a few months, he was posted back to Victoria where we lived at 27 Boyd Street in James Bay.
After a few miserable months, I got him out of the navy on compassionate grounds because his drinking was killing our marriage. We then moved back to Vancouver, where we divorced two years later - a typical war story. He died in a one-person car crash in northern B.C. in May, l970. A notice in the newspaper listed seven people killed on the road over the Easter weekend. I phoned our daughter and we both cried. "He didn't even know he had grandchildren," she said. Neither of us had heard of him for years.
About 20 years ago, I took one of my grandkids to Victoria for the boat ride. When I passed Douglas and Yates Streets, I was flooded with memories. We fondly called that intersection "Pussers' Corner." And just west on the north side of the Douglas Street was the Liberty Café, which was affectionately known as Naden 111. The café belonged to the navy and their gals. Loves, hates, jealousies, fistfights over women, partings and meetings, tears and laughter were all part of the Liberty.
Clothes were as important then as now. Sailors, who had any pride, wore Tiddlies with huge bell-bottom pants. Pussers were what the navy issued.
My sailor had Tiddlies, of course, even though it cost two week's pay.
Today, I'm an old lady, happily living alone in Vancouver. I was blessed with three more wonderful daughters, six beautiful and healthy grandchildren, three great-grandkids and a sparkling treasure chest of cherished memories that all started in Victoria many years ago!
NOVEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
Senior Living Magazine is distributed throughout Vancouver and the Lower Mainland,
in Victoria, BC and across Vancouver Island.
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