Saturday, January 23, 2010

To a butterfly

One hundred and twelve years ago today -- January 23, 1898 -- my grandmother, Kathleen Appleton, was born in the tiny town of Enderby, B.C. Her father, Fred Appleton, had come to Canada from Manchester when he was in his forties, to work as a clerk for the ubiquitous Hudson's Bay Company; her mother, Katherine Crosson, was the Victoria-born daughter of James, a shop keeper who'd arrived in the 1850s from Tyrone, Ireland, and Annie, who'd come from Aberdeen on one of the bride ships in 1862.

By the time Nana was born, Fred and Katherine had made a comfortable life for themselves and their older daughter Hazel. Fred managed the flour mill in Enderby, and within a couple of years they'd raised enough money to buy a substantial chunk of land in Gordon Head, a rural enclave outside Victoria. There, at a house they called "Headlands," Nana grew up with her sister and younger brother Gordon.

She and Gordon were a pair of devils -- Nana told me they once snuck a packet of Eno stomach salts into the chamber pot under the bed of their very proper maiden aunt, who was visiting at the time. Sure enough, Aunt Jane got up to do her thing in the middle of the night, the pot bubbled and fizzed over, and there was much shrieking and wailing -- to the delight of the two kids, who tried to feign sleep but couldn't stop giggling.

In 1907, older sister Hazel caught influenza and died; and in 1909, Fred suffered a fall from a horse, and was told by his doctor that he should do very little for the next year. I don't know about you, but if a doctor were to tell me to "do very little," I don't think I'd pack my family up, load them onto a boat, and travel to England by way of Asia. But that's just me. Apparently Fred had different ideas.

That trip was young Kathleen's first glimpse of "the Orient," and it gave her a love of travel, and of adventure, that she never lost.

In January 1914, she and her mother set out aboard the Empress of Ireland (which would sink later that year, with great loss of life) for Germany (yes, Germany--in 1914), where Nana was to attend finishing school in a town called Blankenburg, in the Harz mountains. Her courses included German and French language ("Laisse beaucoup a desirer," reads a report card), piano, singing, and handwork. Years later, she would tell me stories about her school adventures, many of which involved receiving calls and letters from young men of the town.

When war was declared that summer, young Kathleen found she had become an enemy alien, and she had to make her way home, all alone. She travelled to England via Holland, and stayed with Sir Richard Udny, an old family friend; and eventually, she was able to secure a first-class cabin aboard the Minnetonka, a ship in the Atlantic Transport Line, which sailed to New York in November. Her dinner table-mates included Mr. and Mrs. Henry Morgan and their son (and maid), as well as Mrs. Havelock Ellis.

She was detained on arrival, as the immigration officers were a bit unnerved at the thought of a 16-year-old unaccompanied girl carrying about $1,000 in pocket money; but eventually they let her go, and she took the train back across the States, finally landing home in Victoria in December, to her parents' great relief. Nana never spoke of being afraid during her trip home -- she was thrilled with the independence and adventure of it all.

She was never a great beauty, but she was lively and full of fun, and had tons of friends, with whom she attended dances and parties and picnics. She used to tell me of going to play tennis at Emily Carr's house, though she was unimpressed with the great artist herself --"She never washed, and she had those dreadful animals in the house."

Kathleen's nickname, bestowed by an early boyfriend, was "Butterfly" -- and she lived up to it, flitting from interest to interest, never really settling down. Eventually, though, she went to visit her friends the Spaldings on nearby South Pender Island, and that's where she met my grandfather, Edward Bruce Irving.

Bruce, whom I described here a while back, came from a "good family," but was the poster child for alcoholic, traumatized ex-soldiers from the Great War. He was in the throes of divorcing his first wife, but very shortly he and Nana had become an item, and they married in 1927. Looking back through the letters Nana saved (and she was a meticulous packrat, who left behind an astonishing trail of letters, pictures, mementoes, and curios), the danger signs are all there: many of her letters beg him to send money, as she had no food except for what she'd eaten at a neighbour's house the previous evening. Or she asks Bruce to come home and spend some time with their son, who is growing up without a father. Or they beg him to stop drinking and face up to his responsibilities.

Eventually, Nana was forced to face the truth: her dreams of domestic stability with a loving husband would never materialize, and if she wanted to make a life for herself and her young son, she'd have to find some means of supporting them.

That's when she became a taxi driver.

I can't imagine what it must have taken for a young single mother in the late 1930s, born into a middle-class family and at least nominally married to the oldest son of a former Justice of B.C.'s Supreme Court, to decide to drive a cab in those days. Even now it's rare to see women driving taxis, and Nana told me that one of the hardest parts of the job, for her, was when she had to drive people she'd gone to parties with a few years before.

Victoria was a small town in those days, and it wouldn't have been long before word got around: Kay Irving is a cab driver now, did you hear? Oh, poor thing -- such a shame. Nana had lost friends when she'd married a divorced man; now, she'd lost the last thing she owned: her social status. Instead of hobnobbing at the Empress Hotel with her friends, she was spending her days sleeping, and her nights driving her ex-friends to their parties and films.

She could have become all twisted and bitter about it, but despite everything, she always had a sense of humour. And her years as a cabbie left her with some pretty sharp driving skills, and an attitude to match.

When I was about eight years old, Nana and I were cruising down Douglas Street in her snazzy little five-speed Austin. At a stop light, a Buick full of teen-aged boys pulled up alongside us, jeering and laughing -- "Hey, Gramma, wanna drag?"

Nana just smiled and said nothing. The light changed, her foot hit the floor, and by the time we hit the next traffic light we'd lost the Buick in our dust. Our challengers limped up to the light, looking embarrassed; and Nana gave me a quick look, and said, "You know, dear, I think it might be best if we didn't tell your father about this." Um, yeah.

It's hard to do my grandmother justice in a blog post -- she was such an odd, contradictory bundle of toughness and sentimentality, of melodrama and practicality, of traditionalism and iconoclasm. One of her great moments came in the early 1960s, when her rich cousin Bertram left her a substantial legacy (in those days, $60,000 was a LOT of money), and she was able to travel back to Asia and the Pacific Islands, visiting the places she'd gone with her family 50 years before: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu. I have pictures from her Hong Kong visit, and somewhere I have a shot of her lying on a surfboard, proudly showing off her handsome young "beach boy," whose name was Jesse.

Nana spoke and carried herself with all the dignity of visiting royalty, but I can still remember packing up huge wicker baskets of sandwiches, chopped egg and tuna and ham on her favourite Hollywood Bread. Our destination was a love-in at Beacon Hill Park during the "summer of love" -- because Nana and I were going out to feed the hippies. "As long as they're not dirty," she'd tell me, "they're really very interesting young people, once you get to know them."

One of my favourite memories of Nana is this: on a bright April afternoon when she was 86, she and my mother-in-law Phyllis walked with me and Adrian to a park in New Edinburgh. Despite years of crippling arthritis, it wasn't long before Nana had seated herself in one of the swings, ankles neatly crossed and purse looped over her arm. She swung back and forth, higher and higher, throwing her head back and laughing in the sun.

And that's how I like to remember her: Butterfly on a swing.

Happy birthday, old girl.


Mitchell said...

I could see pictures in my mind as I read.

Happy birthday, Nana.

LeAnn said...

Beautiful tribute!

Geek Knitter said...

Beautiful writing. I swear, I can hear her laughing on the swing.

Patti (from Ottawa) said...

I love this, thank you for writing it and posting it.

Julianna said...

Wonderful story of your grandmother's life. I misted up while I was reading.

Thank you so much for sharing it with us.