In 1968 my Mother decided to move to Toronto, Canada with three girlfriends, she had just ended a 5-year relationship and engagement to a man named Ken Chambers. One day, when I was around 8 years old, I remember sitting at my Mothers dressing table and looking through the little drawers – yes, more antique mahogany furniture with little drawers! I found a photo of Ken Chambers and asked her about him. I was intrigued by this man from her past. She told me he was over 6ft tall and he was a very good-looking man. I imagined how I would look if he had been my Father, would I be blessed with long slim limbs which my sisters and I were always reminded we did not have?!
When I asked why they broke up she said, ‘I was not rich or thin enough’ for him. So, the engagement finished and she got a one-way ticket to Toronto for fun and adventure, she ended up staying there for 2 years and it was during this time that my Mother wrote weekly letters to her Mother.
Yes, it was the swinging 60’s, but my Mother was not so rock n’roll, she was not smoking marijuana, taking tabs of acid or getting lured into Spiritual cults, she swerved that by not ending up in California! But I don’t think that would have been her thing, she had too much determination to succeed in her career, earn her own money, have her independence. She liked shopping and fast cast, not rolling around stoned and naked at Woodstock. She never became a smoker despite being raised by parents who smoked. My Mother had a fierce discipline that I have always admired but also slightly opposed the rigidity.
In every single letter she is talking about her weight and how much money she is earning and spending. My Mothers weight and her relationship to money was an obsession until the end of her life. She talks in great detail to my Grandmother about her exercise and diet regime.
Her initial work when she got to Canada was cookery teaching and demonstrations, she was a trained Home Economist. In the second year of living in Toronto she decides to trade in the wooden spoons for the glamour of becoming an air stewardess and then she had a target weight to reach, girls had to be slim, trim and pretty. She was incredibly determined to get the weight off, discovering how protein at every meal and swimming 40 lengths per day became the recipe for her Stewardess and body success.
My Mothers talks a lot about clothes, clothes that she is buying or clothes and make-up that she would like my Grandmother to send to her from England. She even drawers’ little diagrams of the outfits she has bought to help her describe them. These details made me reflect that fashion was more embedded in me than I realised. My Mother did always look good and have nice clothes, but to me, she was just my Mum and I didn’t really think about her as stylish.
She references her false eyelashes, and how she is complemented for them in her air hostess interview and in another letter, she is furious with one of her girlfriends for throwing them in the bin (trash.) This makes me laugh because in recent interviews I have been doing, her eyelashes have been mentioned by various family friends. Apparently, she would be applying her false eyelashes wherever she was, even on camping trips and the day I was born she applied them for the new baby photo’s.
She explains to Joan that she has to wear red nail varnish as an Air Canada hostess and how some of the girls were protesting at wearing red nails, but she liked it and that remained her signature colour for the rest of her life. My Mother never went to a nail salon, they didn’t exist, but her nails were always perfectly shaped and polished as if she had been to one. I can see her Revlon nail polish bottles right now sitting on her nightstand.
When I read about my Mothers experience of flying it’s like reading my own words. She says she loves the sensation of flying in planes, she says she loves it because she doesn’t think about anything else except for flying. I relate to that, I find being up high in the sky is a suspended reality which feels so free and expansive, deeply relaxing. My mind opens up in different ways. I find it sad that we have Wi-Fi available on planes now, because it just brings me down to reality. I don’t want to receive texts, calls, emails. I want to rest from all of that, that’s my time to dream and create whilst I am awake.
In one letter my Mother talks about spending time in New York and the emotion starts to well inside of me. I think, I wish I could share my love of New York with her. I wish we could go shopping and travel together, I wish she was here now to talk about her time in Canada, her time as an air stewardess. What does she think about the USA and me living there?
My Mothers letters are filled with adventure and seeking, planning trips around Canada and the States, but she laments that she misses home. She misses her family, she says she will not stay in Canada indefinitely, she wants to be around the things that she grew up with. I wonder what she means by that, does she mean English tea and biscuits, does she mean Marks&Spencers which is a store that has been around for generations selling good quality clothing and food, that she is frequently asking her Mother to send underwear and tights (stockings) from. Or does she mean more personal things like her family, her lifelong friends and the family business that she would be destined to take over later in her life?
It was as if this time in Canada was teaching her who she was and what she enjoyed. She had an ambitious adventurer in her wanting to meet people from all over the world. I think she wanted to prove to herself that she could be okay without her family, that she could be independent and look after herself. But maybe these are my own projections as well.
She raised my sisters and I like that, putting us to work from a young age and encouraging us to be independent, to get on a plane without her and travel and see the world.
In one letter she says she can’t imagine settling down to married life. Without doubt she made the most of her dating days in Canada, these letters, are drenched in men’s names! I could just dip my hand in that shoe box, pick out any letter and I can guarantee you in every single letter there is a man’s name mentioned who she is dating. Some of the names are: Walter, Patrick, Jim, Trevor, Tony and Dick. Dick is mentioned a lot! Tony proposes to her! She loves the batchelorette life, the parties and flirting. She was having the time of her life being driven around in open top sports cars, taking skiing trips at the weekend and seemingly loving the high life.
In two different letters she makes references to how life is short, she says, ‘live now for tomorrow you may die’ and in another letter, actually to her younger sister Alison, she says ‘never do anything you don’t fancy, life it too short’
I find this so curious, she was 23, 24 years of age, by this time, she had not had any relatives close to her die, but she had this urgency to live life to the fullest. To pack as much in as she could, whilst she could. Did she have a sixth sense that her life would be short? I have often attributed my own hyper alertness to the fragility of life to the death of my parents. But my Mother had not experienced untimely deaths of people close to her at this early age in her life.
It sounded like my Mother lived in the fast lane and it wouldn’t be long until she met her match in my Father…