It’s important to be kind.
When I was twelve or so, my mother and I had a conversation about relationships. What my mother said then stunned me. “I am glad I married and had children, but if I had not, I would have made a life for myself just the same.”
I did not fully appreciate that statement until I got older, but it was characteristic of my mother to surprise me with her opinions. Only a woman with a strong sense of herself could make such a declaration. On this Mother’s Day, I remember and think about that independently minded woman who was my mother with love and admiration.
Kathleen (Kay) Elizabeth Mary was born September 4, 1923, in Montreal, the second of three children. Her mother, a seamstress, had emigrated from England to Montreal. Her father, a boiler maker, was born in Quebec and had fought in the trenches of The Great War. She described her growing up years as happy ones and she was close to her family. Those years were marked by a Depression and later, World War II, two experiences that shaped her life and developed her keen sense of fairness and commitment to the greater good.
In June 1942, Kay joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and served until December 1945. War postponed so much in people’s lives and the post war era was a period of great change. Several years after the war, at the age of 28, my mother married my father and had three children. Kay very much wanted to be a dietitian and talked about it many times but with family responsibilities and not enough money for her education, she settled into secretarial work once we were in school and volunteer work.
Like many I suppose, I was not aware that my parents had a life before children came along. Family seemed to be central in my mother’s life. In a moving tribute to my mother at their 50th wedding anniversary, my father talked about how Kay put her children first and made many sacrifices for her family with dignity and grace.
I never thought about the sacrifices my mother made for us. She wasn’t unhappy and I like to think she found her life fulfilling, but was it the life she imagined? What was her life like as a young person? What were her dreams at a time in her life when possibilities felt they were within reach?
A recent encounter gave me a glimpse into my mother’s earlier life and a greater sense of my mother as a woman with an independent spirit. A friend from childhood who I had not had contact with in more than five decades, reached out and asked if we could reconnect. She was writing a piece of fiction based on her mother Dorothy’s experiences during and after the war and wanted to share some photographs, a few of which included my mother. I welcomed the opportunity to meet. Through photographs and remembered bits of conversation from long ago, we pieced together fragments of our mothers’ lives during the war.
What would prompt a young woman to leave home and join the Air Force? It could not have been easy. I remember my mother telling me how homesick she was at first. It was a bold move for young women who grew up in a world of prescribed roles where traditional ways held sway. At the same time, the war presented an opportunity to step out of those confining roles – the chance to do things that ordinarily would not have been possible.
Kay and Dorothy had served together as part of the RCAF’s Women’s Division and were based at Camp Borden. My mother worked as a medical secretary and Dorothy, who dreamed of being a fashion designer, sewed and packed parachutes.
It was astonishing to see photographs of our mothers from the 1940’s. My mother looked so young— laughing and smiling, confident, and full of life. Yes, there was a war on, but the photos reflect an experience of the fullness of life. I was intrigued by a series of photographs of our mothers in Montreal in 1944 with other Airforce women, walking around the city as if living a great adventure.
Experiences during the war shaped our mothers’ lives. These were women involved in vital work; they had their own money; they lived an adventure that may not have been the one they dreamed of, but which drew on their resourcefulness, intelligence, and spunk. Life had not yet had a chance to wear them down.
It is curious how events can influence life choices. What would I have done in my mother’s place? It’s hard to imagine acting with the courage and boldness that she did at her age. I wish I knew more about what took her down that path. Whatever the reasons, my mother and her Air Force friends had an independent spirit that supported them in living their own lives and making the most of uncertain times. Ironic that being in the Air Force with its rules and regimens could offer an experience of freedom.
Did that independent spirit and sense of possibilities last? Or was it lost in the post war era of narrowed opportunities for women when life was expected to centre around the home, when sacrificing for the greater good took on a different meaning? Perhaps the notion of fulfilling one’s dreams was too lofty a question for people at war.
There is much I don’t know about my mother’s dreams and her earlier life, in part because I didn’t ask until it was too late, and her memory betrayed her. It leaves me wondering how well we really know the people in our lives.
I do know my mother did the lion’s share of work in our home, even while employed outside it; and I had a father who helped. She sometimes showed the fatigue of juggling too much, trying to make ends meet, and making the necessary sacrifices along with my father, to give her children a good life. She saved to buy us what we needed and that sometimes meant going without buying something for herself. She was frustrated and angry at the unfairness of a system of traditions and norms that advantaged men whether it was wages, working conditions, or the laws at the time -and at those men and women who held fast to such unfair practices. I recall her frustration at a bank manager’s refusal to discuss financial matters with her unless my father was present.
On one occasion my mother worked for a large company as a secretary with significant responsibilities -hiring and supervising staff, overseeing logistics, and all manner of administrative work. Today she would be called an administrator. As the work expanded, a decision was made to hire someone (a man) to lead a new department and take over some of the work she was doing. My mother accepted the decision, but she was outraged when she learned his salary and that it far exceeded anything she could hope to earn. Her boss did not understand her concerns despite assuring her that her work was exemplary. After all, a man was needed for the position. My mother’s objections fell on deaf ears, and she later left the company. That experience immediately sensitized me to the inequities in a system that advantaged men.
I know my mother loved her family very much. She cherished her women friends and cultivated those friendships. She wrote wonderful letters in her beautiful penmanship and was a stickler for prompt thank you notes. She gave the benefit of the doubt to others, especially children, when there was no reason to do so. She was an excellent public speaker which I only realized when I heard her speak publicly for the first time, in her sixties. Kay laughed out loud, enjoyed a good party, and loved to sing! She made the best shortbread.
When I look at photos of my mother, I remember her as courageous, spirited, and a woman who enjoyed having fun. There are people who go down in history as doing grand things and making life changing events. But ordinary people do grand things too. They live their lives with dignity and grace and courageously show up every day to do what needs to be done. It often goes unnoticed, but it matters in a huge way. It also changes the lives of others.
That was Kay. It was also Dorothy and I imagine many of the women with whom they served during the war.
Kay was a woman who:
- Had dreams
- Refused to settle for what was expected of her
- Laughed and made the most of the moment
- Was principled and strong in character
- Took risks
- Loved unconditionally
- Enjoyed warm friendships with her women friends
- Was resourceful
- Fiercely independent
- Loved my father
- Wanted the very best for her children
- Was kind
My mother, Kay, was a woman of contrasts. Lively and forthright in expressing herself, she was also gentle and kind, especially with children. She enjoyed her work outside the home, but also loved much of her time at home as a homemaker. Principled and quick to take a stand for what she believed, my mother was a good listener and could be silent when the situation called for it. My mother lived her life fully at a time when there were obstacles to doing so. I know my mother wanted the same for me.
I marvel at my mother’s life and the person she was.
I am so grateful to Dorothy’s daughter for reaching out. Our mothers would be pleased that their daughters had reconnected and wanted to honour them by sharing memories and celebrating how truly remarkable they were.
My thanks to Dorothy’s daughter Iris for her valuable contributions to this post.
For more on Dorothy’s life, you may want to read her daughter’s story in Lives Lived- Dorothy Wilde, 97 published in the Globe and Mail. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/facts-and-arguments/lives-lived-dorothy-wilde-97/article34245077/ March 8, 2017