Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The story of my mom

Mom loved this 2015 photo from the Chow reunion, which miraculously
captured all but one of her kids, their spouses and children in one place.

My mother Helen Paterson was born in 1925 in Moose Jaw, the sixth of nine children in a hard-scrabble household of mixed-race kids back when nobody even knew that term. 

Her father, Charles Chow, was Chinese and ran a grocery store catering to the Chinese community, many of them labourers who had come to Canada to work on the railway, and for a time he managed the Canadian Pacific Railway dining room in Moose Jaw. Her mother, Mary Feica, was Romanian, married off at 17 by her equally hard-scrabble Prairie family; when she wed her Chinese boss at the CPR restaurant where she worked, it was considered scandalous.

Such family circumstance provided fertile ground for stories. My mother knew them all. She grew less and less reticent about sharing them as she aged, and we made good use of her as the historian of a larger-than-life Canadian family. Her stories stitch us together, the sprawling Chow-Feica clan that has grown to more than 100 and still keeps up family reunions started in the early 1970s.

The two stories that stand out for me happened around the same time in my mother’s life, the late 1940s, when she was finishing up training as a registered nurse at Saskatoon General Hospital. She met my father, David Paterson, around the same time at a dance in Saskatoon, where she swooned at his (admittedly dazzling) blue eyes. They were together from that moment on, until his death in 2002.

The first story involves a hot-headed Saskatoon surgeon who hurled some poor woman’s newly removed uterus at my mom in the operating room when she was in training and mistakenly handed him the wrong kind of scissors. I love that one for reminding me that while equality still eludes women, at least we have moved beyond a time when a man could throw a woman’s uterus at a student nurse and nobody who witnessed it would dare to complain.

Mom, standing second from left, with her siblings and parents.
The other story unfolded at Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw, at the time a cool place for young people to go dancing. The owner of the club tried to kick my mother out one night when she showed up with my dad, because only white people were allowed in. He reconsidered only when other patrons started making a fuss. 

That one snaps me back to reality on our country’s racist roots, as did Mom’s tales of delivering groceries as a kid to Moose Jaw’s old opium dens, where lonely Chinese men exploited for their labour eased the pain of living in a country that denied them even the basic happiness of having wives or family members in China join them in Canada.

Happily, my mother and her siblings were blessed with exotic physical beauty and unstoppable personalities, so the racism they all endured was buffered by a magnetism that drew everyone to them. My mother was cooking lunches and dinners for great batches of friends and family at least four times a week right up until her death, and never tired of elderly men from her past telling her of the mad crushes they had on her back in the day. One such man attended her celebration of life in Victoria, her home of many years, just to tell me that his first glimpse of her at a party when he was 15 took his breath away. He’d never seen her again.

She was a crackerjack. At 91, she was still acing the New York Times Sunday crossword, bossing all of us around, and preparing perfectly rare roast beef after Googling how to do it. May we all live a life as full-on and courageous as hers.