“You know dear, we never thought of divorce. We thought of murder, but never divorce,” giggled Lena Condon, a wee war bride originally from Ireland. It is Nov. 6 and she is one of approximately 225 brides, and approximately 150 family members, heading from Montreal to Halifax on board VIA Rail Canada’s War Bride Train.
I am here to paint these women, and so I set out exploring the various cars to find the brides. I don’t have to look hard because they are everywhere, sharing their memories, cracking jokes and singing old songs. It is a portrait artist’s paradise. This trip is a gift.
It is a gift of a different sort for the brides. At VIA Rail stations along the way there are big receptions, and in almost every community the local Legion branch is out to add the colour. Many of the women find themselves pressed up against the train’s windows with tears in their eyes, astounded by the warmth of the people outside. In Campbellton, N.B., a crowd is gathered by 6:15 in the morning. The townspeople, along with the Campbellton Branch colour party and the ladies auxiliary, are out in uniform in the grey dawn, waiting to say hello, and waving signs that read Welcome War Brides.
Between station stops, the women tell me their stories–the good and the bad–and each lilting accent adds to the charm of the telling.
Scottish war bride Elizabeth Radford tells me, “We got married without permission. They put him on CB (Confined to Barracks) cleaning pots and pans, and he lost wages for a while. By the time they gave us permission, my daughter was born. He went over the day after D-Day and was badly wounded on Aug. 29, 1944. I got a telegram that day, and heard no more till the end of September. He was shot through the intestines. I got to Halifax on April 11, 1945, and he came home in a hospital ship later that month. I was taken to a little place called Keyes, Man. I was raised in a city and hadn’t a clue what I was coming to. The first few years were very difficult. I even learned to milk cows. I raised pigs and used to feed them with a bottle…. It was seven years before I got home to Scotland.”
There is lots of laughter and a few tears as the brides remember the war, their journey across the Atlantic and their first lonely years in Canada. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and even Italy. Some only knew their husbands for a few weeks, but in the passion of war they lived hard and fast, not wasting a minute. Between 1942 and 1948, approximately 48,000 war brides and 22,000 children came to Canada from Britain and Europe. The vast majority of them arrived in 1946. Many ended up in the middle of nowhere, with no running water and a two-seater instead of two toilets.
English war bride Brenda Burtenshaw-Butt remembers those times. “I was in school when war broke out, and married when it ended. It was a different world. The men grew up fast and so did we…. I was home one day, there was a knock on the door, and there was the padre telling me that he (my husband) was getting the paperwork ready in order to marry me. I said he didn’t ask me! The padre told me that regardless, if I was going to marry, I had better get to it, as he (my husband) was leaving for the Continent in six days…. I didn’t even know him when he came back after a year. I came to an outport in Newfoundland.”
Just before the train pulls into Halifax I join Lena Condon in the Skyline Car. She is with her daughter and five war brides from Peterborough, Ont. “I met my husband coming home from a dance. He was outside a pub, said hello…two months later he asked me to marry him. We were married 60 years before he passed away.” As she tells the story her twinkling Irish eyes fill up for a moment. “He had been to Holland and came home before me. I followed on the Queen Mary. It was luxurious, white tablecloths, white bread–which we hadn’t seen for years–and someone waiting on you!”
She remembers the train trip to Ontario. “I didn’t know anybody. I had only seen my husband in a uniform. Then you see a man at the station wearing a hat and I thought, is that him, and it was. You don’t recognize them out of uniform. You are homesick until you make that first trip back. You missed your brothers and sisters and mom. There is no one like family. We wrote back and forth every week and if you got extra lonely you wrote two letters, and cried in them.”
In Halifax the brides make their way through the welcoming crowds as well as a VIP receiving line that included Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald. Eight provinces named 2006 The Year of the War Bride, and to mark the occasion, Pier 21 joined VIA Rail Canada to host the reunion celebrations in the city.
November 8th begins with a non-denominational church service at the pier, and that afternoon 18 couples renew their vows in the midst of a hectic media scrum. Minutes before the wedding service, one of the grooms, Joe Cummings, motions me over. “The first time I got married I wore lifts in my shoes,” he grins as he shifts in his wheelchair to let me peek at the stack of newspapers under his bottom. “Now I need lifts in my chair.” He and his wife Phyllis were married on Oct. 6, 1945. That evening, after being picked up by horse and carriage, the brides are trotted over to a gala banquet at Pier 23, just down from Pier 21.
The next morning we gather at the train station for the return trip on board VIA Rail’s designated Troop Train which will travel through to Ottawa. Joining us are approximately 60 veterans on their way to Ottawa to take part in the national Remembrance Day ceremony organized by Dominion Command of The Royal Canadian Legion.
I ask one elegant gentleman, Trefley Poirier, why he wished to come. “I came simply because this is the last Troop Train. Right after the war we were so busy trying to make a living, and for many years I tried to put my past aside. I didn’t want to talk about what I went through…. I wanted to view the Remembrance Day parade in Ottawa. This may be the last time I can go.”
The weather in Ottawa is dismal on Nov. 11. Nevertheless, war brides and veterans gather in the cold rain and wind at the National War Memorial. In front of me, an 84-year-old veteran from the train stands tall, while the rain soaks down his neck, through his overcoat and onto his thin back. He tells me later it took two days to warm up.
The war brides and the war veterans offer us the stories of our nation, and as I paint I am once more struck by their humour and dignity. There is so much life in their expressions, and as I layer the transparent watercolour on the paper it slowly begins to define their features. Once again, as the colour builds, I hear the brogues, inflections and lilts of the brides and the stories of the men who married them. Many of those marriages were long and productive, which may seem unusual for couples who married in such haste, but it seems so obvious to me. Who better to share your life than a partner who heard the bombs, felt the fear and yearned as badly as you did for a full stomach and peace. There are no explanations required. They had an understanding.