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

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  1. I’m curious as to why you never respond to the Comments made. Perhaps our understanding of the blog is different. Take care.

  2. This is a new blog so I haven’t decided where it is going, though I am confident that a direction will emerge. I read every comment but I haven’t decided to reply to each one because that might create an ongoing conversation. I am not certain that I want a conversation to dominate this blog. I am ‘feeling my way.’ Thank you for reading my stuff and taking time to write.

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