The women who took a chance

On a beautiful Nova Scotia morning, I am charging through the crowds along the Halifax waterfront intent on one thing: finding Pier 21. In a few minutes, I will be standing in the place where I landed with my mother and sister 59 years ago. I was two years old. I have no memory of that day so I’m startled by the emotion welling up in me.

Before we went, I did a little research and learned that for years, the pier sat in disrepair. It was refurbished and reopened in 1999 as a museum to honour those who had passed through its doors between 1928 and 1971 — refugees and immigrants including war brides and their children, like my mother and my sister and me.

My mother, Marjorie (Babs) Mackenzie, was born and raised in the village of Maryburgh north of Inverness in the highlands of Scotland, the youngest of four girls in a close-knit family. She met my father, Laurence (Larry) Coles, at a dance held in the next village for Canadian soldiers stationed there during the Second World War. That Christmas, Mum invited Dad to have Christmas dinner with her family. Dad recalls arriving to this festive meal with dirty, greasy hands. On his way there, he had had to repair the chain ohis bicycle. But he also remembers leaning over to my mother during the evening and brashly declaring into her ear, “I’m taking you back to Canada with me!”

They married in July 1943, about a year after they met. Mum was 22 years old. Dad was 27. They spent their honeymoon in London at the Regent Palace Hotel amid sirens and bombings, many times donning tin hats and seeking shelter in the London Underground. I was born 10 months later, my sister, Zoe, 18 months after that.

Dad returned home from Europe in October 1945 on the Ile de France. We, like all war brides and their children, would come later. Dad remembers the French ship “packed solid” with young soldiers eager to set foot again on Canadian soil. Unlike Britain, which had conscription, the Canadian army overseas had been an all-volunteer army until 1944. Dad had signed on believing it would be for a short time. Instead, he came home at the age of 29, having spent five years and three months abroad. He had gone overseas with Company 18, the Canadian Forestry Corps. These troops were sent not only to help protect Britain in case of an invasion but to augment the British workforce to produce wood products for the war effort.

Like several other companies in the Forestry Corps, Company 18 had its own sawmill. The soldiers cut trees and sawed lumber to provide pit tops and mine ties for British coal mines and lumber for the artificial wharves called Mulberry Harbours, which were towed across the English Channel for the invasion of Europe by the Allies. They also exported lumber to England to re-build homes that had been devastated by the bombing. Some of the trees were exported to the pulp mill in Sittingbourne, Kent, and made into paper products, such as wadding for explosives. Later, attached to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the Forestry Corps helped to re-build Germany. They prepared pilings for the docks that had been bombed and recruited German prisoners as carpenters to help them construct housing for displaced persons.

My mother, sister and I left Liverpool for Canada on the Letitia in July 1946, 10 months after Dad’s departure. Zoe was nine months old, and Dad had not yet seen her. It was a sad farewell for Mum. She left behind her mother and father and three sisters. She made a promise she would be back to visit in a year or two. In fact, she was not able to make that trip for 17 years. By that time, her mother had passed away.

As I walk through the museum at Pier 21, I’m wishing I had listened more carefully to Mum and asked more questions about this ocean voyage. I only remember bits and pieces of what she told me. I know I had whooping cough for most of the trip. Many of the women had not brought enough “nappies” and formula for their babies. Most were from the United Kingdom; some from the heart of London and Glasgow, others, like her, from small villages. Almost all were seasick. Standing on the deck one day, Mum felt seagull droppings land on her head; a fellow passenger told her this was a sign that good luck would be coming her way. And that’s about all I knew about this trip of courage and faith my mother had taken.

I knew even less about what transpired when we got off the ship. The women spent a day in Halifax before they boarded the Canadian National Railway to take them across Canada to join their husbands. That’s how Mum explained her bunions. They were the result of trying to see as much of Halifax as she could in one day in cheap wartime shoes while toting around her two “wee bairns.” As the train made its way across the country, the women’s excitement grew. They shared their stories of the Canadian men they had fallen in love with — these handsome uniformed men who would be there to meet them. It was a terrible shock for many when the train rolled into Moose Jaw, Sask., and Medicine Hat, Alta., and there in blue jeans and cowboy hats stood their Canadian soldiers.

My mother was to get off in Golden, the small town in the Rockies where my paternal grandparents lived. We were to join my father in Vancouver when he had found housing for us. But Dad surprised her. The moment he got news the train had left Halifax, he begged for a few days off work. (He tells me he was given three days off — “one day to get there, one day to spend with us and one day to get back.”) He drove from Vancouver and boarded the train at Field, the stop before Golden. Mum always chuckled as she told of her surprise at finding Dad on the train. When he asked where the new baby was, Mum said, “You walked right by her. She’s in the arms of that woman over there!” When we disembarked at Golden, I was introduced to my Granny Coles. Apparently, I looked at her suspiciously and then blurted out, “That’s not my Granny! My Granny’s in Scotland!”

On buying my ticket to enter Pier 21, I’m given a badge to stick onto my blouse which says “Pier 21 Alumni.” I’m being acknowledged for a time in my life that I have no memory of but have a strong emotional connection to. Walking from the gate to the museum, I pass the gift shop. A postcard in sepia tones catches my eye. It is a photo of a ship coming into Pier 21. War brides and children are on the deck in coats and hats, ready to disembark. Below the photo is the caption: Canadian soldiers brought back more than memories. I find myself examining the photo to see if we’re in it.

When I enter the museum, I’m ushered into a room to watch a documentary of those who had passed through Pier 21. One of the interviews is with a war bride. She tells about her voyage to Canada much as my mother had told it to me. She speaks of how lonely she was once she had settled into her new home and how thankful she was for the support group that she joined. At this point, I feel a shift inside me. I remember Mum’s homesickness. I remember the letter she received each week from her mother. I remember that each time a letter arrived, Mum piled the babies in the pram, the older ones hanging on to the sides and off we would go to Dundarave near our home in West Vancouver under the guise that she needed to get something for dinner. Tears would be running down her cheeks. Unlike the woman in the documentary I’ve just watch, Mum had no female support group.

Besides the weekly letter, Granny Mackenzie also sent the Rosshire Journal. In the summer, Mum would often carry a stack to the beach where she would sit back on a log and, as her Canadian children laughed and squabbled around her, catch up on the news from “home.” She would read the obituaries and make little sighs as she learned that someone she knew had died. Or she would say, “My goodness, listen to this!” and then read of an old schoolfriend who had married or left for America or Canada. She devoured the Journal. It was her link to “home.” She also kept her memories alive by telling her children stories about her life in Scotland. When I went to Scotland as an adult to Maryburgh, I knew almost every pebble in the road from all the stories my mother had told me.

In 1963, Mum returned to Britain with Dad for a six-week visit. They spent time in London where they had honeymooned during the war. They visited with Mum’s sisters and their families, recounting all the details of life in Canada that was difficult to capture in letters. Although my Scottish grandmother had passed away, Grandpa Mackenzie was very much alive and literally rolled out a red carpet for them to walk down. It was a satisfying and emotional visit but when Mum returned, she told us Canada was her home now. And never again did she feel the same depth of homesickness.

In 1965, when Canada got its own flag, the family was sitting around the dining room table, listening to Prime Minister John Diefenbacher preside over the official lowering of the Union Jack in Ottawa. As the flag came down and the Maple Leaf was raised, I looked across the table to see tears in my dad’s eyes. Although one of the proudest Canadians I know, his heart was in Britain and he had fought under the Union Jack as had his father and uncles in the First World War. On the other hand, my mother was all smiles and proclaimed, “It’s about time we had our own flag!”

Watching the documentary at the Pier 21 museum, I find myself weeping. I’m weeping for my mother – for her courage, for what she had left behind in order to be with my father and for the fact she did not live to see the tribute Canada was paying her. Mum passed away in 1990. Dad, at 89, is one of the few remaining Second World War veterans. When he enlisted, he had no idea he would be swept away by a Scottish lass and bring back from the war much more than memories.