Sam had a brother named John (after whom I’m named). “Uncle Jack” and his wife Greta came to Victoria a couple of times each year to visit. They were from San Francisco, U.S.A. which sounded mysterious and far away to me. I do have a vague memory of visiting them at their home in San Francisco, possibly when we got stranded in California, but the times they visited us in Victoria were the best remembered.
Like Poppy, my Uncle Jack was a relatively conservative, reserved man, but he seemed to possess a sort of casual easy quality which made me feel comfortable. You might call it “laid back” now. I thought maybe he was rich too, coming from the States, wearing an ascot and clip-on sunglasses. Aunty Greta, in contrast, was much more animated and spoke in a lively and energetic manner that made watching her in conversation a treat. She also had a European accent that made her sound a bit like a lost Gabor sister. Basically, she was fun to be around.
When I was older, I discovered a very old photo of Poppy and Jack together as young men. Poppy was decked out in what looks like a Mountie uniform, so I think this picture was taken not long after Poppy began his long RCMP career back in 1919. I’ve often wondered if Poppy met Jack first, and then married Jack’s sister, or if he met Sam first.
Regardless, they had all known each other for at least 40 years, and had watched my mother grow from a baby to a young woman. I couldn’t imagine them ever having been young. It was like they’d been around forever.
Here is Greta, my sister and me posing with Colleen. Note Kim’s own doll-like pose, and how I appear to be somewhat suspicious of Colleen. Perhaps I thought posing with her was just a little too silly.
One Sunday morning, I woke up very early before anyone else and crept into the kitchen. After burning myself some toast (it never turned out as well as the grown-ups), I felt the urge to colour. I got some pencil crayons and settled in at the kitchen table to work on a big yellow school bus.
I was searching for a nice mauve to colour the tires with when Mum came in. She said good morning and I told her about my school bus as she settled in her chair and lit her first cigarette. Even back then, I knew my Mum was artistically inclined. She had done funny little doodles for us kids, and had even kept a sketchbook. With time to herself, it seemed that my mother also liked to draw and colour.
As Mum and I sat there together in the quiet of the morning, I began to feel something rather special. It was the rare feeling of having Mum all to myself, and knowing that we had some things in common.
Even though I was still quite young, I felt that Mum didn’t come across like a parental figure. I knew she loved us dearly, but she just didn’t project the same “grown-up-ness” that I associated with other adults. For example, when she joined me in the kitchen, she didn’t prepare breakfast or make sure I had brushed my teeth (which I had already done anyway). She didn’t make me go through any of the regular morning rituals. If it were Dad, I certainly would have been asked to do these things, but Mum didn’t. In that way, she seemed to be as much a child in that house as my sister and I were.
Something bad had started happening to Sam. She gradually became sick with cancer, although I didn’t know what it was at the time.
Even though I could remember Sam seeming a bit cold to me as a young child, I later found many photographs and home movies portraying a much different person: happy, energetic, and even playful at times. I never knew this side of her really. I can only imagine that, being concerned with her appearance and stature and not wanting to grow “old”, the prospect of getting sick with an incurable illness and becoming dependent upon others for the little things must have been horrible for Sam.
I don’t think Mum knew how to deal with her mother’s illness and new frailties. Dad had begun helping Sam get dressed in the morning, which I’m sure was a bit awkward for both of them, being very proud people. I think Dad had a lot of respect for Poppy and Sam, and as we were living with them, he did his duty to help them however he could. In later years, Dad would sound very bitter saying that Mum could have done more to help her mother, and that it shoudn’t have been all up to him. But Mum was raised as an only child without a lot of the obligations and responsibilities that Dad grew up with in a larger family.
Sam seemed to be getting more tired all the time. I would watch her sitting on the chesterfield, dipping her finger in a fine china teacup filled with water. I remember the strange red sores, like warts, on her fingers. When she put her finger in the teacup, the water would turn red. Could this strange scene have been a product of my imagination? Could she just have been drinking her favourite Red Rose Tea?
Weeks later, Sam was taken away to the hospital. I don’t remember us kids ever visiting her there. We were probably babysat back at the house while the adults went. Sam never came home again, and Kim and I were never brought to her funeral. Dad told us that it was one of Sam’s last wishes that Kim and I not remember her that way.