Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The women who left behind all they knew

Deddeda Stemler

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 7, 2008


Eswyn Ellinor came home on wartime leave to her parent's village in the south of England.

It was February, 1943. The Second World War raged into what would be its fourth year. Eswyn was just 19, three years of business college in her head, the navy blue uniform of the Women's Royal Naval Service making her a Wren.

Her mother was pleased she had brought her ration book.

“We've got a Canadian guest,” her mother announced.

Her father, who owned the tobacconist's shop in Aldwick, had been a dispatch rider in the Great War. He had come to know many Canadians on the Western Front, enjoying their friendship and admiring their fighting spirit. It became his habit to invite young Canucks to Sunday dinner.

“He thought they were wonderful chaps,” she said.

At the dinner table was a smiling William (“Call me Bill”) Lyster, a strapping young man from the ranch country village of Empress, on the Alberta side of the boundary with Saskatchewan. “I thought he was very impressive,” she recalled, a hint of the Mother Country still on her tongue.

“He was six feet tall. He had wonderful white teeth. The Canadian uniform material was better quality than most you saw. They kept them pressed.”

An ocean, a continent and more than six decades later, she ticks off the qualities of a handsome Prairie lad.

“Very sharp. Very interesting. Had a good sense of humour.”

Their courtship lasted six months. They went to the big city for their honeymoon, the fireworks provided courtesy of German bombers.

“Of all the crazy things, we went to London and we were bombed frequently. Being young we didn't take much notice.

“We couldn't be bombed the other way because there was a shortage of liquor.”

In time, the new Mrs. Lyster would leave her homeland for a new life in an unknown land.

This Mother's Day weekend, she will leave her home at Qualicum Beach to visit the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria. On the third floor, she will see her portrait on display with those of 79 others as part of a new exhibit titled, War Brides: One-Way Passage. The work, also featuring 800 photographs and multimedia installations, is the work of Calgary artist Bev Tosh.

Ms. Tosh has spent the past seven years painting and recording the stories of women from her mother's generation.

Her own mother had met a pilot from New Zealand training in Saskatchewan. She would be one of the 4,000 Canadian women who left for a new life elsewhere. She arrived in her husband's country on Christmas Eve in 1946, having travelled “as far away as you could without getting closer to home.”

The artist began the portrait of her mother as an 80th birthday gift. The project has since expanded into a show exhibited in six provinces.

Mrs. Lyster nearly lost her husband in the closing days of the war. He had earlier survived the raid on Dieppe before they had met, earning a “Mentioned in Dispatches” after shooting down a German plane with the anti-aircraft gun on their landing craft. He was filling in for a wounded (or perhaps killed) navy gunner. On April 24, 1945, he suffered a grievous chest wound, losing much of his right shoulder. The war in Europe ended two weeks later.

He returned to Canada on a hospital ship, followed later by his bride and son. They arrived at Halifax with a boatload of other women and children aboard HMS Mauritania. A transcontinental trip by train ended at Swift Current, Sask., where her husband met her on the platform despite being encased in an upper-body cast.

Mrs. Lyster greeted the older woman who accompanied her husband with a hearty, “Hello, Mother, I'm so glad to meet you.” It was not her mother-in-law, but her sister-in-law, who had a sense of humour and laughed off the gaffe.

It was tough adjusting to life in the semi-arid countryside surrounding Empress, a village so small that even today its website trumpets the fact that “many side streets are paved.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs placed her husband in a labourer's position at a bakery, where he had to move barrels of lard, a rather cruel task for a man with so serious a war wound. He ended up as a sales manager, later working as a manufacturer's representative.

The couple had a daughter and another son, lived in Edmonton and Vancouver before retiring to a home with a sea view on Vancouver Island. Bill Lyster died in December, 1996.

Mrs. Lyster has completed a book about the war-bride experience, which she hopes to self-publish later this year. She is excited about the prospect of seeing Ms. Tosh's portrait, which her daughter and granddaughter viewed at an earlier exhibition.

Yesterday, the artist and assistants were installing the pieces for the Friday opening.

Most of the portraits have been painted on unsanded plywood, the panels leaning on one another in a symbolic show of support. The brides are identified only by their given names and some come with captions telling some of their story.

One of them, Elly, a Dutch bride, had been married in a suit tailored from a U.S. Army blanket.

Two cousins married Newfoundlanders in a double wedding the day before D-Day. The organ was drowned out by the roar of military vehicles headed to the coast.

Saddest of all, one of the captions reads: “Joy was not wanted. When she arrived in Canada, her husband met her accompanied by another woman, who was pregnant. He asked for a divorce.”

The artist will be placing a white rose in front of one of her portraits.

Winnifred May Jones, born in Tonbridge, Kent, immigrated to Canada as a war bride in 1946, raised a family here, outlived her husband, and died last week before what would have been her 90th birthday.

She had yet to see her painting in person and had been looking forward to the encounter.

Instead, museum patrons will be able to pay their respects to one of many who bravely, foolhardily and, in so many cases, lovingly left all they knew behind for an unpredictable adventure.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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