My mother, Angela Huntley Clarke, was born in Victoria, BC in 1931.
Her father, Ernest Huntley Clarke was a Mountie from 1918 until 1948, during which time he and his wife Edna (Marks) traveled around Western Canada according to his assignments. Some locations I know of included Regina, Prince Rupert (speculative, but likely), Cloverdale, Vanderhoof, and Esquimalt/Victoria. Corporal E. H. Clarke received the “Long Service” medal for his 30 years in the RCMP.
Angela attended Esquimalt High School, graduating in 1948, and was quite active in the local stage and music communities thereafter. By all accounts, a beautiful, warm-hearted and talented young woman, she acted in many productions with the Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society. She also played the piano and had a beautiful Alto-Soprano singing voice. I think she may have taken some music or voice training in Ontario in the ’50s. One of her cousins, my Aunt Shirley Nash, says that Angela was advised by an instructor that her voice was more suited to singing pop tunes than opera, but Angela’s Mother, Edna, had wanted her daughter to sing opera. So maybe this was some kind of defeat for Angela – I don’t know. I do have a small 33 RPM record labeled “Auditions: Stars of Tomorrow 1955” which has two songs sung by my Mum. She sounded a trifle nervous, but what a pretty voice… *sigh* Dad once told me that she had the skill to sing with the Metropolitan Opera.
Anyway, I believe that Mum took various clerical jobs around Victoria, including CHEK TV where she met our Dad. But she’d had many boyfriends before him, and even been engaged a couple of times! I have met and spoken with one of her oldest boyfriends, a gentleman who, it is my belief, still carried a torch for her right up until her death. Personally, I think Dad either intimidated this fellow or they didn’t like each other too much.
Kim and my wife Grace and I also believe that my Mother probably also suffered from manic depression or some other form of emotional or mental imbalance. As a child, I rifled through her coat pockets looking for change but instead found an empty bottle from a lithium prescription (a common manic-depressive prescription).
Angela’s mother, Edna, also exerted some kind of “Mommy Dearest” influential control over Angela’s life according to stories from Mum’s cousin, my Aunt Shirley, so I wonder how many of Mum’s emotional problems and her later alcoholism stemmed from this manipulation, and how much was just hard-wired into her from the start…
By the time I was old enough to notice the way things were around me, the Mum I knew was quite different from the glowing and talented young girl I had heard so many stories about. Mum and Dad tended to support or amplify each other’s vices (now known as co-dependency). Short story: they both drank a lot and would fight loudly and violently when times got rough. This was all hard to bear for us kids of course – I was about 9 and Kim was about 7 during one of the worst fights when we were staying in Victoria. Mum’s left shoulder was dislocated. (It was never quite the same after that.) It seemed that Mum always lost, and many of their fights might have been money related – the pressures of not being able to support your family, uncertainty about the future – who knows. As a married couple, in terms of their relationship with each other, they ended up becoming rather sad and broken down.
Their fights and drunken yelling matches were witnessed by other members of our family too, and this caused a lot of polarity in both my immediate and extended families. Some people felt that blame rested more on one side than the other. Having been in the middle of a lot of it, I feel that Jim and Angela were both at fault whenever their actions hurt or alienated themselves or those they loved.
It always seemed to be “hot and cold” with my parents. While I have hard memories of their loud fights, I also have some equally sweet memories of how much they actually loved each other. One of the first songs Kim and I remember is “You are my Sunshine”, and it is a kind of special song for us. Around 1974, when we living in Langley, Mum and Dad celebrated their 13th wedding anniversary. With a mixture of embarrassment and joy, we watched our Mum play “You are my Sunshine” on the ukulele while Dad and her sang it in perfect harmony. We could see that they were truly happy together that night.
After the death of her father Ernest in 1977 (her mother Edna had died in 1971), Mum sank deeper into depression. She no longer got up or dressed – just occupied the couch, drinking Port all day. By the middle of 1977 she had stopped eating meat, and then only seemed to eat nocturnally when we were all asleep.
It was like she had completely given up on life and taking care of herself. She provided no motherly role to us for almost all of 1976 – 1977 as I recall and rarely spoke to us. Strangely enough though, she did show enough interest in “Star Wars” to dress up in a nice dress and her mink coat and take me downtown on the bus to the Vogue Theatre in May 1977. I had begged Mum and Dad mercilessly to go see Star Wars. Dad couldn’t care less about some space opera, but Mum had always liked going to movies. (Maybe Star Wars reminded her a little of “The Wizard of Oz”, a movie she had loved as a little girl.) She had taken me to see my first movie, “Grizzly Adams” in Victoria in the early ’70s. So I think that if she hadn’t had some personal interest in Star Wars, I probably would never have gone.
One day not long after “Star Wars”, Dad couldn’t rouse Mum from unconsciousness and called the Doctor and then an ambulance. She was rushed to Burnaby General Hospital where it was determined that her liver had quit. If she’d stayed like that for another 24 hours she would have died for sure. She was detoxed (full transfusion, IV, etc.) and she never lived with us again after that. She was damn lucky to be alive, and had suffered some permanent brain damage. This resulted in some memory loss – in her case most of the ’70s were a blur – and some changes to her personality. She was more “basic” in her needs and expressions now, like a little kid of three or four maybe. “I want a cigarette” or “I’m hungry”, etc. repeated over and over again at 10-20 second intervals. The worst one was “I want to come home”. How the hell do you respond to that from your Mother?!? It chokes me up now just thinking about it.
After that, Sunday visits to see Mum became the weekly ritual, a combination of “pleasant Sunday drive” combined with some anxiety about what state she’d be in when we got there, whether she’d know us, etc. This was the same whether she was at Burnaby General, or at any of about 4 different private hospitals in which she stayed between 1978 and 1981, when she was finally transferred to Riverview (the provincial mental health facility for British Columbia) as a long-term care patient. At this time, she became a ward of the provincial Ministry of Social Services and her affairs were assigned to a procession of anonymous social workers.
After a year or two in Riverview, she seemed to recognize us less and would rarely communicate verbally. Dad stopped going into the hospital anymore, waiting in the car while Kim and I went in for a half hour or whatever we could manage. Dad just couldn’t face her anymore. It was a mixture of fear and guilt towards Mum and sympathy and anger towards Dad on my part, all quietly suppressed of course. Kim felt a lot of the same feelings as me, but didn’t keep them to herself. It was extremely hard for her (at just 13 years) to understand why things were the way they were. She learned quickly though that if drinking did this to Mum, then Dad shouldn’t be drinking either. This would tend to be the source of their many arguments and fights throughout the ’80s.
Around 1984 I took to sketching Mum on my visits, and sharing my drawings and stories with her, which she seemed to enjoy and which also helped to focus our time together. Every visit started with “Hi – do you know who I am?”, then the inevitable “No” and my careful explanation. It was like starting from scratch most of the time. She’d remember stuff from 20 years earlier sometimes though. Many times I be happy to get a squeeze on the hand and some sustained eye contact – maybe even a hug (initiated by me). She was at Riverview from 1981 until she passed away there in 1995.
It seemed like her time there was at best only maintaining an existence, but she made no real progress out of her mental fog – except on one occasion: In the late eighties, a new doctor assigned to Mum’s case changed her medication, and without these “meds” she became suddenly alert and energetic. She told the nurses that she had a craving for some scrambled eggs, and she really wanted to talk to her children. So, out of the blue, I got a phone call from a nurse at Riverview one evening saying that my mother really wanted to speak to me. I heard her excited, almost hurried voice on the line, and felt like I was in some weird dream. She knew me after all! I told her about Kim and her daughters and when I’d come to see her next. We spoke for about five minutes before Mum said she would have to go. I felt dizzy with an elation I can’t describe – it was almost like the “Awakenings” movie with Robert Deniro. I called Kim to tell her, and we cried and laughed and were generally amazed. Shortly thereafter, Angela’s regular meds were re-administered, and she went back into her shell. But at least I knew that she was still in there somewhere and hadn’t been lost forever!
I think she might have made real progress if maybe she had more stimulation, but that’s not a practical expectation on a long-term care ward in a place like Riverview. In my opinion, it seemed like a warehouse for maintaining human bodies. The staff there were nice and really did their best, but I saw nothing but daily routine and ritual there.
Ironic: our family could not deal with or care for her, but I was non-plussed with how she fared as a ward of the province. There’s no easy resolutions – just the continual “dealing with it” for everyone in some way or other I think…
My Mum died at Riverview from pneumonia about a week after my 29th birthday in March of 1995. I don’t recall ever really having a conversation with her when she was well, and most of my information about her came from what my Dad told me later. It’s weird to hear someone spoken about in the past tense while they are still alive, but in the same way as us kids, my Dad had lost her too, so when he spoke of our Mum, he always spoke of the woman he had once known. He never spoke of who she had become or the loss he felt from it.
Knowing my mother was a difficult thing even at the best of times, and to this day the real Angela is still a mystery to my sister and me. We’ve got a bunch of puzzle pieces, but we still don’t really know what the image of the whole person is supposed to look like when (or if) the puzzle is completed.