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In Depth

Canada's war brides

My mother, the war bride

Last Updated November 4, 2006

Mary Fletcher Sheppard is shown as a child in Liverpool and in her ambulance driver's uniform from the Second World War. The medals on display include past president of the Ladies Auxiliary, Royal Canadian Legion, and a 35-year service pin. Mary Fletcher Sheppard is shown as a child in Liverpool and in her ambulance driver's uniform from the Second World War. The medals on display include past president of the Ladies Auxiliary, Royal Canadian Legion, and a 35-year service pin.

Crossing the ocean in 1947 as the wife of a Newfoundland sailor was the single defining decision of my mother's life.

Until she met my father when she was 18, she was a giggly factory worker in Liverpool who loved to dance, see the latest films and ride her bike down to the docks to see the ships moored in the Mersey.

Seven years later, she was the mother of two girls, very pregnant with a third and on a ship going to Newfoundland. She thought she had extracted a promise from my father that he would stay in England. And he did try. They stayed two years after the war and were making a go of it, just barely, when a telegram came from home to say his father was ill and he wanted to see his eldest son one last time.

Granddad met them at the train station, healthy as a horse and they both knew they'd been had. But they agreed they would wait until the baby was born to see what was to be done.

She stayed. The facts were simple. England was absorbing hundreds of thousands of men home from the war and jobs for foreigners were scarce. Meanwhile, Bowater had promised any man who volunteered to fight that his job at the paper mill was guaranteed when he came back home.

Home was elsewhere

But her heart never settled. It was always understood in our household that "home" was not the house we lived in. It was that mythical place across the sea where roses bloomed in May, houses were built of brick and rainwater made the softest hair on earth.

This business of "home" not being where her children were raised and not being the house that she and father had bought and finished, furnished and refurbished over the years was a constant threat to us bonding as a family. How could we be a family like in Father Knows Best when our mother's home was somewhere else?

Like the other war brides, she had to start again. She had no mother to confide in, no sisters to console her or to help with babysitting, no lifetime neighbour who knew her as the cute kid from Fortescue Street or teacher who knew of her academic successes. She was her dad's little princess when she stepped on that ship, and while she didn't know it then, she would never see him again.

We lived in a newly built post-war veteran enclave. The house had four walls and not much else when they moved in. There was no running water, the road was barely passable and the veterans' houses were built on top of a hill that was swept with deep snow and high winds most of the long winter.

Snow. She had never seen snow and with three small children, twins on the way, no family support, no road and water that had to be hauled up the hill by the buckets, snow was hell. She never did get to like it. In winter, it was her prisoner; in spring, it kept her garden from blooming well into June.

The common ground for war brides was the legion. It was there, at Branch 13, that my mother felt comfortable talking with the other war brides and raising money. She must have helped cater hundreds of dinners and weddings and auctioned off dozens of novelty cakes made in our kitchen.

Comfort at the legion

I think it was the volunteer work at the legion that brought her out of her domestic cocoon. And once that happened, she became a force to be reckoned with. Sure, there were now nine children underfoot, but there was greater work to be done.

I was in Grade 3 the year my mother went on a campaign to get water and sewers to the neighbourhood. She did radio phone-in shows, wrote letters to the editor, talked to politicians until she was blue in the face. And finally, the diggers moved in and after more than 10 years of a community water tap at the bottom of the hill, we could turn on hot and cold water and flush a toilet.

She went on a mission to get my father's war pension sorted out. That took her 20 years, but in the end, she got what she felt my father deserved for his many wounds. Over the years, she learned when to call the premier's office and how to get action.

I think that eventually, say after 40 years of marriage, my mother finally accepted that marrying her Newfoundland sailor was indeed a good thing. By that time, she'd gone "home" a few times and compared the cost of raising nine children in England versus Newfoundland. The Rock won out, hands down. She was shocked when in the 1990s, her sister was robbed of her TV while she was asleep in her bed in a little village near Liverpool.That wasn't her England. But she never stopped referring to England as home.

She's dead now. I sometimes think we did her an injustice by burying her on an isolated hill overlooking the Bay of Islands. I keep meaning to buy a British Union Jack to put on her grave so there's a reminder that here lies a woman who is forever far from home.

Mary Sheppard is the executive producer of CBC News Online.

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