Mum and Dad: The Early Narrative

Mother met Dad during the Battle of Britain. She served as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital in London where she met Dad on one of the wards. She preferred older men; a fact that she readily acknowledged and he was an officer, which met another critical prerequisite. He was turning grey prematurely, at the temples, which she admitted caught her attention. She thought he was older than 2o ‘something’, but Ironically, she was 2 years older than him and they shared the same birth month, October.

They married, emigrated to Canada and raised four sons.

Dad learned to fly in Canada before the War, in preparation for it. He joined the RAF, as a volunteer at the start of the war and served every day of it. He was raised Presbyterian on a farm in Grimsby Ontario, which didn’t deter mother, who was born of social position in India of Scottish parents.

Dad kept his medals under the socks in a drawer. He didn’t wear them, even on Remembrance Day. He talked little about the war except to relate that he had designed a high-level mining (or bombing) technique that saved hundreds of air crews. He was rightly proud of that singular achievement. He said that a superior (whom he didn’t name) took most of the credit, which dad said, “was his prerogative.” He acknowledged that, on a training mission, he directed his Wellington bomber, alone, over German flack. Back on the ground, he said “the crew never spoke to me again”.  I was never sure why he thought this confession was essential for me to know.

He served as navigator on Wellington and Sterling bombers and ended the War as Squadron Leader. He took credit for devising the signature drink of his squadron and called it ‘Bramble 45’ which, he said, “had a little of everything in it”.

Mother’s father was manager of the national railway in India, where she lived to the age of 10. She, like others of her generation, was sent to England for her formal education. She graduated at the age of 21 with a university degree in nursing and physiotherapy, in ‘the top ten’ of all the British Isles. She mentioned this occasionally, not for praise, but for recognition that she had earned something of immeasurable value; in a family of men, she often felt alone and unappreciated.

Mother always insisted “if anyone asks you, say you are a Mackenzie.” I had no way to prove this declaration then or now. Her accent was English, rather than a Scottish brogue, and Dad sounded Canadian for my entire life, though he occasionally imitated a British upper class accent that was brilliant, by any measure.

Back in Canada, Mum and Dad settled into a life that probably wasn’t one that either had anticipated on the trip home from England. Dad, a social, amicable person looked forward to work and a wife at home with children, who would rebuild his Brittan family. His sister, Dorothy, and his father, Horace, had died while he was overseas. Mum had been confronted with a choice; leave her home and move to Canada or forsake their young relationship. Colin, their first baby, was born in England; one can only imagine the conversation she must have shared with her father, aware that she might never see him again. She followed Dad to Canada, with young Colin, and set up home on Rothsay Avenue in Hamilton.

Mother’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) took ‘a back seat’ to Dad’s disorder. She reported that he would awaken in the middle of the night violently tossing and turning from periodic nightmares and cry out in apparent agony. When we were little, she said little but, as I became a young adult, she confided some of the details to me. It was apparent that her own suffering had been suppressed; there were memories of bombings in London near the hospital and the staff would move patients from the operating theatres to the basement. She had been injured and a surgeon accidentally nicked her sphincter muscle, which changed the rest of her life.

Mother found herself doing things that the servants had done at home. It must have seemed strange to chat with a neighbour over the back fence about the minutiae of keeping a house clean, keenly aware that, at her family estate, such conversations would only arise between servants and the butler.

An ambivalence about her new life began in those early years and never left her.

In 1964, with her four sons old enough to manage, she returned to nursing. She qualified for practice in Ontario, bought a car, and reported for duty at the Henderson General Hospital in Hamilton. She proved to be a brilliant diagnostician; a skill which nurses trained in Canada were discouraged from acquiring. Doctors leaned on her assessments, which renewed a sense of purpose and inspired a fresh awareness of her professional development. She was a war bride, sidetracked by the demands of a husband and children, yet she managed to cultivate a superior intellect, at a time in our culture when perceptions about women were rather primitive.

Dad worked all his life at Westinghouse in Hamilton. He started in the parts department and rose to a senior executive position in sales and advertising. The company manufactured electrical switchgear and components for atomic energy plants, as well as consumer products. Dad worked in the Atomic Energy Division which ensured that there was always employment as the economy began to change.

Dad imagined that a wife was supposed to be happy at home with her family and he couldn’t quite grasp mother’s need for intellectual stimulation or a sense of importance outside of her relationship with him. They stayed together through rough times, or as I like to put it, ‘a lot of water passed under the bridge.’ Their relationship endured the strains typical of the social and economic changes brought by married women entering the labour force in significant numbers. They didn’t divorce, though there were times when I thought, in my youthful arrogance, that they should but mother would say “that just isn’t done, Geoffrey.”

A piano was the first thing mother bought in Canada. They must have needed dishes, linens, clothes for their baby, but Mum bought an old upright piano. She would play for us at bedtimes. We could hear Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt in our beds, as the music wafted like delicious odours up the stairwell to our room. Moonlight Sonata became a favourite for me, long before I understood what it was about or why it was written or the extraordinary influence it would have on the direction of my life. Vera, soon after we met in June 1976, played that piece for me and I was hooked and ‘reeled in’ as guys at work might crudely say.

Mother responded to Dad’s pressure and left her nursing position, not long after she had begun to work, and lived well into her seventies. She read the Globe and Mail line by line, every day. She suffered from diabetes acquired in mid-life, and a host of other ailments that tormented her. Her eyesight deteriorated which denied her favourite pleasures, reading and watching television. When I asked how she died, I was told, “she was sitting on the toilet when she died,” likely referring to severe constipation, caused by one or several medications; an unceremonious end to a challenging and gifted life.

Mother had planned her funeral, which the family attended. It was designed to encourage as little mourning and as few tears as possible to avoid fuss. Perhaps, she was ambivalent about her own passing, having seen so much of it in the war years that so often occupied her thoughts.

Dad always looked dapper and kept himself fit most of his life. He was plagued, in his later years, with Parkinson’s Disease but struggled to the age of 92. His remains were donated to research for Parkinson’s Disease. There was no funeral.

I remember Dad for his part in a turbulent childhood, yes, but he taught me to write, which left me with vivid memories sitting at the kitchen table choosing words, editing text, and honing ideas. It is curious that I didn’t learn to write in school. Dad prodded me through high school mathematics, saying “mathematics is a language,” which is a true observation but Dad and I were too often at odds with each other. He taught me to play chess and cribbage, which he said “would teach me to count.” I miss my Ukrainian father-in-law more than my father because Ivan had a kind heart and gentle nature that appealed to me.

There are many moments that I no longer remember about my youth but, thankfully, the ‘gist of it’ remains.

Geoffrey Brittan

Remembering Gramma and The Long Suffering of Eastern Europe

A tribute for a generation of survivors on the occasion of the Assault on Ukraine by Russia 23February 2022, and the deprivation that will surely result..

Aniela (Czechowska) Shepel 12Jan., 1926-17Apr., 2011 During the occupation of Poland in WWII, Aniela was taken by the Germans from school and herded onto a train never to see her family again. She was forced to spend her youth digging fields with her feet, with little food, no shoes, and compelled to witness atrocities that marked her for the rest of her life.

At war’s end, she emigrated to Canada to begin a new life. She married Ivan Shepel, Ukrainian, whom she met in Canada. She mothered three children, Vera, Peter, and John. Despite the deprivation of her youth, she learned English, Polish, Ukrainian, and German. She was quite musical and blessed with a lovely soprano voice. She was friendly, possessed a fine sense of humour, and managed to live her life without speaking an unkind word about anyone.

It was 11 years ago that Aniela died. Her last months passed in a nursing home, suffering from advanced dementia, with the care of nurses and her daughter at her side. She was 85, had lived a full life in the opinion of most people, but she was marked by a misspent youth under Nazi oppression and physical and emotional pain as she built a life in Canada.

I first met Aniela (pronounced with a short vowel as a’nella) in July, 1976. Vera and I had dined in Toronto, our first of many dates that summer. Vera said that her family wanted to meet me. Although Vera and I had been introduced just days before, I knew this was a critical moment. It was like the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which told the story of a young man meeting the family of his Greek girlfriend. I lived every minute of that film, including the first encounter with a future mother-in-law.

It was a sunny, warm Canada Day. As I walked up the driveway, I could hear music. Someone was playing an accordion, just like the movie. It was Vera, laughing and dancing at the same time. There were three barbecues, each with different meats cooking. The aroma was wonderful and the laughter invigorating, as I walked to the rear garden.

Aniela was passing salads through the dining room window, laughing at something someone had said, as someone else took the large bowl from her hands. Her face was etched by life, her hands worn by work, and her smile framed her laughter with a natural glow that defied age. I knew nothing of her story, yet I knew I was in the presence of someone quite remarkable.

The Shepel family had invited all the neighbours for dinner, which I hadn’t expected, and like the lead character in the film, I found myself thrust into another culture. Aniela was Polish, and Vera’s father, Ivan, was Ukrainian. He was a tall, strong man who nurtured a vegetable garden, where most people I had known fussed over manicured lawns. The lettuce, onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes had been picked from the garden and shared with me as if I was a neighbour or family friend of many years, rather than a suitor interested in their only daughter.

That moment has remained with me for 45 years. Every detail is burned in my memory. The smells, the sounds, the food occupy my mind as if that day was yesterday. I was accepted. It was understood, a given, that as long as I didn’t hurt their daughter, I was welcome in the family. They didn’t know me, so they trusted their daughter. I had not experienced that confidence and trust from the families of other women, so like the suitor in the film, I was stunned.

That moment changed my life.

There was always something to eat. Food was a social lubricant, an expression of love, and always plentiful. Aniela’s youth had been so disadvantaged; she had been hungry, always cold, and had worked without shoes by digging furrows with her feet. She intended that her life in Canada would not remind her of the hardships of those early years.

When our first child, Colin, was born, gramma and grampa were quick to volunteer to help us raise him. Vera and I had busy careers. It was remarkable that not once did they cancel their time with our son. Every day, they accepted him, played with him, taught him, read to him, and fed him. It was an extraordinary commitment that continued for Jason, our second son, and through the years that followed Aniela and Ivan were discreetly present, never intrusive.

Vera took flowers to the grave site yesterday (April, 2012). She placed them, cried some, and thought back to the daily struggles that had consumed Aniela’s last months. Her life had been difficult, marked by pain and separation, but her suffering had not made her bitter, unkind, or thoughtless. She had made a life in Canada that had been well lived, without apologies, or excuses, with just a few regrets.

She regretted most the horrible affliction that had tortured her son Peter. He had been diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) at the tender age of 14. Ivan raged at God and shook empty beer bottles at Heaven, rending his heart in a vain effort to make God understand the injustice of it. Peter lived to the ripe age of 42, which surprised the medical community and the rest of us. Ivan died of heart failure. Through the years, Aniela soldiered ahead as if she could do nothing else, accepted the vicissitudes of her life with charm, and resisted a temptation to curse a God she could not quite grasp.

I imagine that when she met God, He smiled and after an awkward silence asked her, “Do you forgive me?” She must have smiled in return, cried a little, then taken His hand to hers, offered Him a warm drink with a few pierogies, and comforted Him as she had done so often for us.

Article first published 9th April, 2013, updated and edited 27Feb.2022.

Geoffrey Brittan

Lament For Ukraine

The recent events in Ukraine brought to mind vivid memories of Ivan Shepel, my father-in-law.  Surely, there would be tears in his eyes and hurt in his voice.

On Jan 23, 1997 Vera’s father, Ivan died. We found him sitting on the couch in his living room, facing the television, dressed in his undershirt, breathless. He died of heart failure, overnight, following many years of heavy smoking and drinking, with plans for a spring garden formulating in his mind. 

Dad (I addressed him as Dad, even before Vera and I married) grew into adulthood living in Ukraine, under Stalin. He remembered 1932, when (Holodomor) millions died from starvation. Like so many of his generation who emigrated here following WWII, Ivan turned his backyard into a vegetable garden.  It wasn’t just a raised bed or a patch. He, like so many fellow refugees, plowed furrows in almost the entire lawn. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, potatoes, even corn all without using pesticides. He would point to strategically planted dill and proudly explain, in his inimitable style, “the old way is best, Geef.”

In early spring, he would travel to Taborski’s farm for a bushel of (7 year old) horse manure, which he would dig into the soil with a shovel. He would work all day, then nurse several beers and numerous cigarettes, as he marvelled at the prospect of his creation. The garden produced wonderful food, more than he needed, so he gave some of what Heaven had given him to his neighbours and, occasionally, he would invite them to his garden for barbecues during the summer.

He was a complicated man, yes, but a loving man. His great grandson James Ivan Peter was named with affectionate thoughts of him and an understanding that Ivan’s heart began its downward trajectory much earlier than that fateful day in 1997, perhaps years earlier, when his son Peter, just 14, learnt that he had MS (Multiple Sclerosis). Ivan shook empty beer bottles at Heaven and lost a vain battle to avenge a God, whom he could not quite understand; a boy so young just seemed too unfair, too much to accept.

Russia’s attack on Ivan’s childhood home would provoke memories of Holodomor, a hungry childhood, a sister, and parents and a world war that ripped up eastern Europe, then turned him into a refugee who emigrated to Canada.  He found work at Carleton Place, near Ottawa, at a foundry that manufactured the famous Findlay ‘Oval’ wood stoves.  He met his wife, Aniela, and his life began a second time.  He would remember these events, and many more of home that he kept to himself, and grieve for a nation he once knew.

Geoffrey Brittan

The North-American Culture War

I was born in the decade that followed the Second World War.  Mother was Scottish, born in India during the British Colonial Period.  Dad was Canadian, raised on a farm in Grimsby Ontario.  I am witness to the Americanisation of my Canadian culture, to the ‘culture war’ that has since raged north of the 49th parallel.  My cognisance (but, with few exceptions, not my spelling) was shaped by American English, which grew steadily in the post war era as information technology advanced north, across the border.  Language was the spear and the American dictionary was the tip of that spear.

European English (or British English) informed my early education.  ‘Cheque’ is a financial instrument.  ‘Check,’ as American English spells the same word is not correct.  Yes, there are correct spellings and incorrect ones.  Alternative spelling (as the dictionaries printed in America show) are just errors put into the dictionary.  ‘Practice’ is a noun, when spelt with a ‘c.’  ‘Practise’ spelt with an ‘s’ is a verb.  The position of the word in a sentence changes the spelling, which isn’t a feature of every word certainly, but there are common words, used every day, that people mispel (yes, one s and one l) because people are no longer taught correct spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. Even journalists fail to know the difference between ‘different from’ and ‘different than’, and ‘fewer calories or less sugar,’ which we learnt in grade 6, in my day.

American English freely turns nouns into adjectives and adjectives or verbs into nouns.  ‘Quote’ is a verb.  ‘Quotation’ is a noun.  Advertising (yes, ‘s’) often boasts ‘free quotes’ rather than free ‘quotations.’ American commercials on television exhibit this error, (yes, it is an error), every day as if it is an acceptable alternative.  ‘Cognisance’ is correctly spelt (yes, spelt not spelled) with an ‘s,’ rather than a ‘z’ (pronounced zed, not zee just to make it fit a nursery rhyme).  There are numerous examples, of course, too many to list here, but the word ‘license’ comes to mind because, in American English there is just one spelling but ‘licence,’ spelt with a ‘c,’ is a noun and a verb when spelt with an ‘s.’

My language isn’t pilfered by individual words alone.  Grammatical changes and sentence structure have been forced on me and the culture that shaped my youth.  Turn on CNN (Cable News Network) and listen as each broadcaster messes up verb forms. ‘Would have been’ is most often misused, rather than say ‘had been.’  ‘If the President would have come out with that policy sooner,’ rather than ‘had the President come out with that policy sooner’ and other examples like it, ring my cognisance like chalk screeching on a chalkboard.  Connectives, like ‘and,’ ‘but,’ ‘so,’ are never necessary at the start of a sentence and prepositions are never necessary at the end of one.  Pick up any book, published by an American publisher, and you will find lots of examples.  The solution is easy; re-structure the sentence, which is something editors fail to do.

There is a tendency for dictionaries to function as a ‘standard for the language,’ a common perception, despite the fact that the content of English is changing every day. Dictionaries, (one supposes their publishers), include colloquial expressions in the lexicon as if they have been ‘certified’ by an authority. American English dictionaries follow rather than lead so turning to a dictionary as an authoritative source for spelling and pronunciation becomes a dubious exercise that leaves the language in a constant state of flux. Of course, the acceptance of computer technology has radically increased the pace of this progression. Listen to any news broadcast (particularly from America) and you will observe that the word ‘military’ is used as a noun (consistent with its definition in an American dictionary where it is both a noun and an adjective) when, in fact, it is not a noun. It is an adjective. Misuse of the word is so widespread in American English that the assertion that the word is only an adjective seems wrong. In Canada, we use the term ‘armed forces’ as the noun and ‘military’ as an adjective, say in the phrase ‘military objective,’ or ‘military weapon.’ The misuse of the word, accepted in American English, is changing my (Canadian English) language.

This process is assisted by the English spellchecker, provided by Microsoft, which assumes that Canadian English is the same as American English. Thankfully, I can change the spellchecker to British English, which allows the word processor to include the ‘correct’ spelling with the ‘incorrect’ American English spellings. Words like ‘colour’ (the correct spelling) are not highlighted as incorrect, unless I change the setting to American English (something I am loth to do). Lest you imagine that I am cranky, there is real cause for my objections. Take the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) News Network as an example. The announcers use the word ‘military’ as a noun, particularly the young people, and avoid the term ‘Canadian Armed Forces,’ which is the correct terminology, the correct ‘noun.’ My language is being colonised (yes, an ‘s’ not a zed) and too many of us don’t seem to realise (ditto) it. If you check the Cambridge Dictionary (which includes both American and British spelling) the correct spelling is referenced but, in the textual explanations, American spellings are used, likely because the online version (which I use) was heavily influenced by American English, which suggests that the battle for ‘correct’ English is indeed an uphill struggle.

One of the most brutalised words in English (that seems to be tolerated in American English) is ‘way,’ which means ‘route.’  How often have you heard ‘way better?’  ‘It tastes way better,’ or ‘it fits way better,’ or’ it looks way better.’  ‘Way’ does not mean ‘much.’  It’s a diction error.  It isn’t, yet, in the American lexicon but, in time, it will become an alternate meaning, as American dictionaries follow language use (or misuse) rather than lead it, and when it does, it will still be a diction error.

Another Americanism, is ‘less and fewer.’  The label on my orange juice advertises ‘less sugar and calories,’ which is wrong.  It should read, ‘less sugar and fewer calories.’  ‘Less’ is volume, ‘few’ is number.

The word ‘people’ is a plural noun.  The word ‘peoples’ doesn’t exist in English, though it has a following in American English and Canadians seem to accept it, which warps my language. There is a long list of examples, many more than I can list here.

Many of the ‘forced’ changes are political, like ‘fishers’ instead of ‘fishermen’ and ‘firefighters’ rather than ‘firemen,’ (to list just two instances) to remove gender distinctions from the terminology. “They” is “used to refer to a person whose gender (= sex) is not known or does not need to be mentioned, to avoid having to say “he or she” (this is a reference from the Cambridge Dictionary) which changes the declensions of every verb in my language.

I wasn’t consulted or allowed to vote for or against these changes. It means that the agreement between subject pronouns and verbs in a sentence will not agree, as they should agree. Plural nouns and pronouns should have plural verbs; my grade 6 teacher was quite insistent on that point. The Americanisation of my language and my culture has an inexorable, relentless downward trajectory. I doubt that Mrs. Clarke is alive today, which is a good thing; she is spared the pain.

Addendum 19 February, 2022

About ‘Freedom Convoy’ Protests in Ottawa: January 28, to February 20, 2022

Canada wasn’t built on protest. In 1867, the British North America Act passed the British Parliament, received Royal Assent and, with the stroke of a pen, we became an independent nation. We were not shaped by protests then, or now. We are witnessing the consequences of a culture war, the Americanisation of our country, by an alien culture whose proponents hurl sputum at news reporters and many who wish that January 6 2021, when the Capitol in Washington was overcome by insurrection, should inspire the same kind of event in Ottawa.

There is no tradition of insurrection in this country. The fact that anyone would contemplate it is evidence of the extent to which many hold ideas that were spread across this country’s border, in recent years, by ‘ultra conservative leaning’ American media.

It is shocking that people can so easily lose their grip on public policy and parade in the streets with Canadian flags (turned upside down) and a flag long associated with a Confederacy that once provoked civil war in the United States. Radical voices will blame the federal government and the PM, though the demonstration has little to do with Parliament, the PM or the rest of us. 

Geoffrey Brittan

About Our National Flag, The Maple Leaf

I wrote this personal reflection, a few years ago, in honour of the 50th Anniversary of the adoption of a new national flag for Canada. The Maple Leaf replaced the British National Flag in our Parliament and the Ensign flag (circa 1957) in 1965. Every 15February, since, marks this event.

I was 15. I remember mother standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing dishes. It was her habit to read the Globe and Mail line by line, front to back and, on this occasion, she had been reading about the flag being proposed to replace the Ensign. There was a tired expression on her face, because, with four sons, she felt the way she looked but I knew she was unhappy at the news that a flag with a red maple leaf, with two red bars on a white background was preferred by the Liberal government to replace a flag that reminded her of the sacrifices she had made during the War and after it.

Mum was a nurse and physiotherapist assigned to Middlesex Hospital during the Battle of Britain. Dad, raised on a farm in Grimsby Ontario, learned to fly and, like the rest of his generation, travelled to Britain as a volunteer. Dad joined the RAF. He served every day of the War. He was a navigator on Wellington and Sterling bombers, shot down three times, and met mother during one of his recuperations.

The Union Jack on the Ensign brought memories flooding back when she saw it in the newspaper. The idea that it would be ‘replaced,’ as if her memories could be replaced must have seemed thoughtless, even cruel.

It didn’t ruffle dad’s feathers. He seemed to take it in stride. He seldom talked about politics, so the fact that the flag debate dragged on for months must have been unremarkable. He didn’t talk much about his war experiences either. His medals were placed under his socks in a drawer. He never wore them, even on Remembrance Day. Dad was much older, with Parkinson’s Disease, when we realised that he was a War hero, in the best sense of that term, not the way it is used these days, too freely and too often.

I mention this because, for mum and perhaps other war brides, they left their homeland, for which so many sacrifices had been made, and claimed this country as theirs. When they looked at the Ensign, they remembered families, lost relatives and friends, and so many lives spent in desperate times. Canada’s new flag, with its history stripped from it, seemed too simple, too trivial to represent what they had lived.

Mum was unhappy about the loss of the Ensign. She felt adrift. She adapted to the new flag and learnt to appreciate it’s simplicity, but her former life overseas often occupied her thoughts. The new flag didn’t really flutter in her estimation. I was sympathetic to the price she had paid, so memories of the flag debates, the design competition, and the selection remain with me. I am sorry that the heritage of the British connection was lost which explains my continuing preference for the Ensign. 

Geoffrey Brittan

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About Cognisance

Think of me as a ‘fully cognisant Canadian’ with opinions that you may find interesting, provocative, or (forgive my conceit) enlightening. I am a retired professional, Canadian, who needs to keep writing, just for the exercise of it so the words keep flowing. British spellings were fundamental to my education so don’t conclude that I am an expat living overseas.

I am most opinionated about politics, culture, heritage, and language. You might not think that those four discussion areas are intrinsically related but they are.

I enjoy gardening, though at 71, it has become more physically demanding.

I admire Norway as much as my own country, particularly for their efforts in Winter Olympic Games. On a per capita statistical basis, no country equals their success on skis; they take home the most medals. One imagines that every child is able to ski by the age of 3. They are 5 million people driven to do extraordinary things.

Living next door to Americans isn’t easy. Their culture invades my country every day. You may be sure that I will write often about that daily struggle.

If you see pictures in my blog, you can be certain that they are images that my wife or I have taken with a phone or camera but this is not a space for pictures. It’s a place for composing, writing, and editing words. I can be found on facebook for anyone who imagines that we know each other. Cognisance is written for people who like to read, rather than look for images, so the printed words are the essence and purpose of this blog.

Geoffrey Brittan