In October 1974, my mother wrote me a letter to explain my history. In doing so, she told me a little of her life’s story. Here is what I have discovered about my mother from her birth in 1923 to her death in 2003.
Mom’s start in life was a little rocky. She was born to a woman whose husband had died the year before (a full year before…). All she knew was that they were from Orillia, Ontario and that this woman had several children, with two young ones still at home. The Children’s Aid Society got involved because the scandal would have created a problem for the unnamed father’s family (as he also had two young ones still at home).
As my maternal grandmother couldn’t cope with a new baby on her own (and to avoid causing the scandal) she put Edith up for adoption after about three months.
(Years later, after a few hiccups, I found her birth mother’s family on ancestry.ca: she had been born May Theed. She married William Pettifer and after he died, married Thomas Bryson.)
Jean Elsie Groom
The couple that adopted little Edith just before she was nine months old, changed her name to Jean Elsie. Her new father was a Bank Manager with the Bank of Montreal in Toronto. Both he, Arthur Groom, and his wife, Elsie, had emigrated from England and had been unable to have a child of their own. As is often the case, they subsequently became pregnant and had a son, whom they namedCullis (Jean called him Dodo).
Two events stood out in my mother’s memory from her childhood, and as I was growing up, she shared them,with me. The first involved hockey (so that got my attention): evidently, she had attended a Toronto Maple Leafs game with her dad; she was sitting near centre ice and got hit in the face by a puck from the face-off. It broke her nose.
The second was about a dance she went to in High School: her dad had bought her the dress on his own, and she felt that was a beautiful thing for him to do.
However, it must not have sat well with her mother, because there seems to have been a bit of animosity between them. Finally, it all came to a head when Jean was about 16. I believe she came home late one night (beyond her curfew, I would imagine) and the next morning, her bags were sitting by the front doorstep and she was ‘invited’ to leave home.
Jean Elsie Stewart
Not one to leave the dust on her shoes, she joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and got posted to Kingston. It was 1939 and World War II had just started in Europe. There she was promoted to Sergeant (her bark was worse than her bite, according to what she told me). Also she met her first husband there, a Major in the Royal Canadian Air Force. I believe they married in 1943.
As you might expect, she was a bit closed-mouthed about her particular role in the CWAC, but she did mention once that she was attached to Military Intelligence. No doubt she was in the steno pool.
Mom characterized her marriage to Edmund Vaughan Stewart as ‘on again/off again’, so it came as no surprise to me to find that the Voter Lists for the years between 1945 and 1950 show her living on her own.
Then she met my father, James Ewart Miller. She called their relationship, ‘the affair of the century’ and then added that most people involved in such things think that way. She got pregnant, but couldn’t persuade him to make an honest woman of her. Oh, and the fact that she was still married didn’t help the situation. Vaughan offered to raise me as his own, but my Mom held out hope for a change in Ewart’s heart.
I was born in February 1950. Mom’s new life started as a working single parent. Vaughan divorced her a little more than a year later.
Jean Elsie Thorpe
Some time in late 1953/early 1954, Mom started seeing Ruskin Peter Thorpe, the man who would marry her in early 1955. He had great prospects: studying for the ministry, he was considered a great orator and a biblical scholar. The slight problem of marrying a divorcee with a young child was discussed with God and God told him to go ahead. From then on I had a new surname, and no one was the wiser (including me, to be honest).
Within 18 months, Mom had her first daughter, Anne. However, the pregnancy wasn’t an easy one as she had to be confined to bed for the last few months to avoid miscarriage. Then she got pregnant again within a year, only this time the baby was stillborn. (Years later I found out from my sisters that Mom had named him Stephen.)
Then, after a couple of years, Mom had another daughter, Rachel. This child was very premature, weighing just 3 lbs 6 oz. However, she survived, and the family dynamic changed.
By the time Mom was 40, she had the last of her girls, Elizabeth. Now we were a family of six.
During the years that followed, it was obvious that something was wrong with the marriage, but as children we were not privy to the inner workings of their relationship.
In the summer of 1968, Mom went to Saskatchewan to take some University courses. We never questioned this, but I suppose now that she was intending to complete her education. Back home in the fall, she and I traded knowledge about how best to précis passages in English. She also challenged me to translate French and Latin poetry. It’s a time I remember fondly.
Then in the summer of 1969, Mom moved out with the girls to Loon Lake, Saskatchewan to take up a position as lay preacher. I was left behind with Rus.
Mary Jean Thorpe
Somewhere along the way, Mom decided to change her name and dump the Elsie part (her adoptive mother’s name). Whether it was inspired or not, I discovered years later that her mother had died in 1970 or thereabouts.
From Loon Lake she and the girls moved to Aldergrove, BC, where she took a job with the local weekly newspaper.
Then Rus moved to BC, too, so Mom served him with divorce papers.
I visited their new home in 1975, and decided to move to BC as well.
On the front page of the Barrie Examiner dated January 30, 1983, there is a photo of Mom bundled up against the blistering cold. She had moved back to Ontario to pick up a thread that had been dropped more than 15 years before. However, it didn’t turn out the way she expected so she moved back to BC, this time living in Salmon Arm. A friend, Andy Schneider had opened a spiritual centre there and Mom wanted to help out.
She began studying the Alice Bailey books and seeking to find her spiritual way in the world.
She also found a loophole in the strict ‘closed file’ of her adoption, and discovered her birth name. So she changed her name to Jean Bryson. It was as if she had gone back to her beginnings and experienced it for the very first time.
Mom lived in Salmon Arm for a good many years, finally agreeing to return to the Lower Mainland of BC when her eyesight started to fail her. She settled in Abbotsford so that she could be closer to Rachel.
Along the way, she came to England to visit me (even though a psychic had once told her that she would die in England), and we kept up communications until the last.
In fact, she rang me on Easter Monday, 2003, to see why I hadn’t been in touch for a couple of months. As usual, I’d been going through some difficulties in my relationship, and I hadn’t wanted to burden her. During our telephone call, she started to cough, and I ‘heard’ a death rattle (I don’t know how I even know what that would sound like). When we rang off, I felt perturbed.
I got a message from Anne a couple of days later to the effect that Mom had been taken to the local Abbotsford Hospital. I flew out immediately.
Evidently, she had suffered a stroke the next day and had been unable to move. Rachel came in a day later and found her on her bed. It was too late to stop the damage however, and Mom was paralyzed on the left side.
When I finally got there, I sat by her bed and told her she didn’t have to conquer this one because ‘there is nobody wanting anything, nobody needing anything; just relax.’
She lasted a few weeks, but the hospital staff suggested that she come home to Anne’s place to die. She held on until the wee hours of the morning after Mother’s Day.
Mom’s body was cremated and we waited 10 years to scatter her ashes in the Pacific Ocean off White Rock, BC on Mother’s Day, two years ago. She has been gone 12 years now.
Thank you, Mom, for being the rock that this family built its foundation on. We miss you every day, and we will love you forever.
Picture credits: all photos of my Mom are from my own collection
Children’s Aid Society courtesy of recruitingsite.com
Toronto Maple Leafs courtesy of Wikipedia