“Don’t Call Me War Bride”

By Mavis Gallant
Standard Staff Writer

After a year in Canada Elizabeth Mackenzie is surprised to find people still calling her a war bride. The term never bothered her until she heard it used in a certain tone of voice. Now, she says, it sends chills up and down her spine.

At first she was puzzled, but now she’s beginning to understand why some Canadians start conversations with “Oh, a British war bride” and then follow it up with a quizzical look. Some of the girls, according to Elizabeth, “have definitely stuck their necks out.”

“You hear them complaining in public. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. If they had any gump they’d swallow their feeling for a little while and see if they weren’t to blame for a good many of their troubles. It makes it hard for the rest of us.”

Slow to assemble impressions into an opinion, Elizabeth has now decided she likes Canada. Her enthusiasm isn’t as extreme as some of the brides, the ones who landed at Halifax and said they were fed up with England and glad to get away.

“I was happy in England, even during the war,” she will tell you. “I could be happy there again, especially if I took some of the things I’ve learned here.”

Day-to-day living, she has found, is easier in Canada. Housework seems fantastically simple. She gets through a day’s cleaning in a couple of hours and finds it almost too quick because then she has nothing to do for the rest of the day.

PULL QUOTE

The Mackenzies live in an upper duplex in the suburbs. The street is still only half built up, and except for a few children is nearly always empty. Their four-room cut is new and easy to take care of. Most of the furniture was bought recently, and the place has a distinctly newly-wed look. Her husband, Kenneth, is back at his job in the CPR. He phones her, she says, a dozen times a day. Nevertheless, she finds the afternoon long and dreary.

“I don’t know what to do with myself,” she says. “I sew a lot and knit. I even find myself doing unnecessary cooking and extra cleaning. Then when it’s all done I think how
nice it would be if my mother were close by and I could just run down the road and see her.”

Elizabeth is naturally friendly and has met quite a few people, mostly through her husband and his family. She knows other British wives, particularly those who married into her husband’s regiment, the 17th Duke of York, but she doesn’t approve of the tendency many brides have clinging together. It keeps them from becoming assimilated into Canadian life and emphasizes the facts that they are “different.”

But, she says, no matter how many people you meet and no matter how nice they are, “they don’t know you when you were a little girl. They didn’t go through the war with you.”

Shortly after arriving here last April, Elizabeth met one girl who seemed likely to become a close friend. She had worked at Dorval in Transport Command and was in close touch with had been going on during the war which gave them something in common. However, she married a British transport pilot and went to live in England. Elizabeth was still actually home-sick then, and the situation seemed ironic and unfair.

The logical answer, as she herself points out, is either to get a job or have a baby. She’s used to working; her wartime job as a signals Wren was a full-time one and not easy. But it left her worn out and she still hasn’t completely recovered. She hasn’t decided decided yet which was most exhausting: the strafings they used to get on the coast during hit-and-run raids, the bombings, or the nine months she spent underground when the Newhaven coastal forces head-quarters dug into the cliffs. A baby would keep her happy but she doesn’t feel settled enough yet to start raising a family.

“Not that I’m planning to move,” she says. “In England my husband and I used to say to each other ‘No more travelling. Let’s get a home and stay put.’ But it’s funny how long it takes you to unwind and relax after so many years of work and continual worry.”

Even if Elizabeth were stronger it is doubtful if anything would induce her out into the cold unnecessarily. She hates it. Canadians in England told her two things about the weather here: that it never rained and that she wouldn’t feel the first winter. She arrived during one of the wettest springs in the history of Montreal and she left her raincoat and rubbers back in England with her sisters. And she is decidedly feeling her first winter. Outdoors, she bundles up like a cocoon but says despairingly that the cold air always seems to get in somehow. Her father gave her a fur coat before she left England and she has since acquired the other cumbersome necessities like snow boots and woollies.

In winter it’s the cold. In summer there’s always the heat. Elizabeth spent part of the last year on Ontario where she says the humidity wasn’t as bad as it was here, but she still gasps at the thought of Montreal during a heat wave. She doesn’t complain much about the weather, though, mostly because she remembers how the Canadians and Americans behaved in England. A good many of the troops didn’t like the climate or anything else, and didn’t hesitate to say so, loudly and often. The British hadn’t asked for comments, but we’re hardly in a position to say “If you don’t like it here why did you come?” Canadians, on the other hand, are very quick with the phrase.

Like any independent woman, she has resented the classification which makes people judge her as a “British bride” and not as a person. It forces you into an attitude of mind, she says. When you first land you feel like a different person; after a few months you begin to think you are a different person. You’re cautious; you watch yourself; you’re constantly aware of the impression people are getting of you.

One of the things a war bride first notices is the way her reactions are noted. After a while she forgets it, but by that time she has developed a new approach to people and situations.

In England, there are two schools of thought about life in Canada. Some brides are resigned to open hostility. The rest are counting on the fact that their husband’s parents came from the Old Country and even expect a sort of awed welcome. What they actually find is something between the two extremes. They seldom hear spoken resentment unless it is provoked by complaints. But they often feel a silent disapproval, and it is months before they get at the roots of it. Sometimes, it turns out, there was a Helen or Ethel waiting for her husband, a Canadian girl from his home town who had the ear of the family when he was overseas and still has it. More often, it’s some little slip she made during her first weeks in Canada, something she didn’t notice but the in-laws couldn’t forget.

Elizabeth says that the situations among her war bride friends vary. After all, there is no typical problem any more than there is a typical war bride. The reactions they have in common are to things like steam heat and fresh eggs. After ten months, Elizabeth still finds Canadian houses hot and dry. In her own apartment, she has set pans of water everywhere and says that helps a bit. But she still feels shut in, not by the scenery, but by apartments and double windows. Out of doors, the feeling is reversed.

“Everything is so vast, you can’t grasp it. I can’t get used to the idea of motoring five hundred miles. Why, if you did that in England, you’d be in the ocean. The scenery is immense but it isn’t pretty. In England things are tidy and pretty, and much more compact. Here you travel miles to see contrysides you’d get in a small area at home.”

And she adds: “I miss walking. Nobody walks here. They think you’re crazy if you walk.”

In England, she used to walk for miles over the downs with her husband, but he didn’t like the idea much. None of the Canadians, she says wistfully, were what you would call good walkers.

Like every war bride, she was overwhelmed with the abundance of food when she arrived. And like all others, her skin broke out in spots and bumps after a few weeks of unaccustomed rich meals. Even now, cooking with fresh eggs and milk, or putting cream in her coffee seems strange. At first she couldn’t help contrasting it with England and felt almost guilty every time she sat down to the table. Now, she has heard, the situation in England is worse than it was during the war.

“But what can I do?” she says. “I send parcels to my mother. I can’t send everything I see. At first I resented it and thought Canadians were selfish. They seemed to moan over little things, tiny shortages or the way the stores were so crowded these days. Then I realized I’d never fit into the Canadian way if I kept on acting like an outsider, and I tried to get over the prejudice. But it was very hard.”

Part of the trouble, she thinks, is that Canadians who weren’t overseas haven’t a clear idea of what things were like.

“They ask me what the bombings were like–all the gory details. But when I told them, I actually thought they didn’t believe me. Before I joined the Wrens and lived at home, I was always helping my family put out fires. We weren’t far from Birmingham and got all the incendiaries that missed the main target. I find it’s easier the bombings were something to put up with and let it go at that. When I was in the Wrens we were stationed on the south coast and were quite often machine-gunned on route marches along the beach. Our uniforms stood out. But if you tell people that they almost say ‘Don’t be silly.’ Not that I want to talk about it.”

Elizabeth figures about-three quarters of her friends back in England have been killed, girls as well as men. It should give her some incentive to forget her life there, but she still doesn’t feel established. Life here is like one long holiday, she says, even though it’s lonely.

She has more clothes sense than the average English girl – or at any rate, more than the average girl who comes to Canada –  and spends a lot of time designing and making dresses and handbags. She doesn’t read much. Her mother sends English magazines, small wartime replicas of the Ladies Home Journal school of writing, and she finds they make her homesick.

“It’s the adverts as much as anything,” she feels. “They look familiar.”

At first she hated the radio. The commercials annoyed her and bothered her husband, too. He had been overseas so long he had forgotten what they were like. Now she’s used to them.

“I even listen to the soap operas,” she says. “It’s better than having no one to talk to.”

Montreal Standard, March 2 1946.