I feel now that I should write a little more about my mother and her background, as she has been a somewhat shadowy figure in my story.
(I began my story with the words: “But I’m alive, I exist.” One of my intentions in writing my story is to explore what it means to be human: the nature of existence, of identity; how our identity is shaped by the social mores of our time; how our freedom to be ourselves is curtailed by the demands of society; how much of what we are is determined by nature and how much by nurture. And then finally, there is the ultimate question: who or what is God?)
* * * *
My mother was born in 1889 in a small town called Indian Head, in Saskatchewan, northern Canada, a place of endless prairieland. She was baptised Florence Nora, but was always called Nora. Her father, Arthur Ridsdale, had sailed from England to Canada, met and married her mother, Sarah Sanford, and by the time Nora arrived they already had three children, a boy and two girls.
Arthur Ridsdale was a farmer and farmed a large area of land up in Saskatchewan. He was away for long periods and his wife, who was pretty and lively, formed other relationships. This eventually led to their divorce a short time after my mother was born. My mother was adopted when she was eight months old by her aunt (her mother’s sister) and her husband. They lived in Barrie, Ontario, on a lake called Lake Simcoe, thousands of miles away from Saskatchewan, and my mother never saw any of her own family again.
* * * *
( Many years later, when I was trying to find out more about my family, I discovered that Arthur Ridsdale, in order to join the army during the First World War, had declared himself to be fourteen years younger than he really was. Several months later he was discharged on the grounds of ill health. He also remarried and, it seems, absconded with his wife’s money! So he appears to have been both a liar and a thief. He lived to the ripe old age of 81.
My mother’s side of the family was called Sanford, and the line was traced right back to 1633 when a Sanford sailed from England to Massachusetts in America, where they prospered and made good. This lasted until they fought on the side of the English in the War of Independence. After being defeated they fled over the border to Canada, where they became known as EU Loyalists.)
* * * *
My mother was always hyper-sensitive. She told me how she used to have nightmares when she was a child of being pursued by wild bears. When she was six her little brother was born, named Arthur. Very sadly, at the age of five, Arthur died after being badly burned in a fire in the home. This must have had a traumatic effect on my mother, aged 11 at the time.
Nonetheless, she had a happy childhood. Her father was a solicitor and a respected member of the community. They led a comfortable, middle class life.
She used to walk several miles to school every day, which probably gave her the strong constitution she needed in later life when she had to cook for a living. She was a clever child, often coming top in her class. She thought of going to university, but in those days a pass in subjects such as trigonometry was needed, which was quite beyond her. She was very artistic and loved dressmaking. She was making her own clothes at the age of eight, she told me. When she grew older she started designing and making wedding dresses for all her friends.
They led a healthy, outdoor life. In the summer they would go sailing and swimming, and in the winter they would skate on the frozen lake and go snowshoeing across the fields covered deep in snow. They had a lively social life, with parties and dances. When having a party they would sometimes go from house to house, each family producing a different course, until they ended up at the final house with the pudding. It all sounded quite idyllic to me!
My mother had become a beautiful young woman. She was leading a happy life; she had many friends and several male admirers.
All this came to an end with the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Many of the young men went off to fight. All the finest young men were killed in the war, my mother used to say.
Her mother’s health began to deteriorate. She had always been fragile; she became an invalid and took to her bed. My mother nursed her, also taking on many of the duties of running the household and her mother’s social duties. In 1923 her mother died, and several months later her father also died. My mother had gone away for a few days to stay with friends and she heard her father calling her in the night. He had died that very same night.
My mother was now 32 years old and she was on her own; unlike most of her friends she had not married. At some point she had fallen deeply in love with a married man. They had contemplated eloping together, but had decided against it in the end.
She now decided to go and study art in New York. She applied to the School of Fine and Applied Arts to study stage and costume design. She had not been there long, however, when she had an unfortunate accident. She was knocked over on a street corner by a car late at night which never stopped. Her leg and hip were broken. She had to spend months in hospital; the hospital fees were exorbitant and living in New York was very expensive. She felt she could no longer afford to continue her studies there.
She returned to Barrie and from there she started going to the Toronto Academy of Art. This was where she met my father, who was teaching there. My father was an Englishman who had recently come over to Toronto from England, after being offered a teaching post in industrial design. They began a relationship, but again he was a married man. She wanted to get away and she decided to go to Paris and study art at the Sorbonne. On one of the rare occasions when she said anything to me about my father, she told me she had been very lonely at the time.
At some point in her life my mother had become an atheist. Like everyone else at that time she went to Church; her family were Anglicans, and she sang in the Church choir. But she read a great deal and she began to read books by Julian Huxley, which influenced her thinking. Her father once picked up one her books and looked at it. He said, rather sadly, “this would destroy anyone’s faith.”
After her father died, his cousin was left in charge of handling the Will and the estate. As so often happens in families, relatives started squabbling over the possessions; they descended upon my mother in her home, taking what they wanted from under her nose. As these were all upright Christian citizens, my mother’s opinion of them as hypocrites was confirmed.
When I reflect on my mother’s life up to then, although she had had a secure and happy life, there was also much loss and sadness in it. She was clever, with many talents; she was beautiful with a great zest for life; she was adventurous and enterprising; she was kind. She was also hypersensitive, with a certain reserve and timidity about her. Her life was not going to be an easy one, and it would demand enormous strength of character and courage.