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January 16, 2007
THE STORY OF ALICE – MY MOTHER
My mother did not have an easy life. Her love for her husband and children defined her. Her strong will and determination and her strong faith enabled her to survive challenges which would have overwhelmed most women.
Alice Camilla van den Branden was born in Hontenisse, Zeeland, The Netherlands on November 8, 1919. She was the second child, first daughter, of Joseph van den Branden and Emerentia de Block. Five more sisters and one brother followed her. The eldest of the family was her brother August (Gustaaf). Alice was named after her maternal grandmother Camilla Thijs de Block. Alice attended school until she was 14 in Grade 8 – and then even though she attained top marks, she had to leave school forever to help the family. This was common in the Depression Year of 1933.
Being the eldest daughter meant that immediately many onerous responsibilities were thrust upon her slender shoulders. It never occurred to her to complain. Such was life at that time. Assisting with household chores such as laundry, cleaning, cooking was expected. The family also ran a small fruit and vegetable store so there was much to be done. Her father grew his own potatoes and other vegetables and it became Alice’s job to accompany him to his rented field to harvest these before the store opened in the morning so that her mother could then sell the produce. Alice and her father left the house at 4 am to accomplish this. She often told me that she enjoyed this early morning work with her father and it drew them very close. She remained a morning person all of her life.
Alice met the love of her life, Florent de Burger, a young farmer, when she was 21, at a dance. They were married on February 14, 1941, in a civil ceremony at the town hall of St. Jansteen where her family was living at the time. The following day, February 15, they were married at the Catholic Church. This is the date they considered their anniversary date. Alice wore a black dress as it was war and there was not much else to be found. Florent was 25. The young couple moved to Hulst into a little house where they began a small store in what should have been the living room, selling fruit and vegetables as Alice’s parents were doing. The fact that they were nearby the marketplace in the centre of town helped their modest business to flourish.
Their first child, a daughter, Erna (me), was born on June 7, 1941, after a very, long difficult labour. The baby was tiny but healthy. Alice nursed her for as long as she could. Their second child, Ronald, was born on August 27, 1942, just 14 months later and the little house was becoming cramped for space. Now Alice had two little children as well as the store to keep up with. Florent still worked part-time on his father’s farm as well as in the store.
The time had come to search for a larger home for the family as well as bigger quarters for the store. Alice and Florent found just the right building close to the train station. The home section had 4 bedrooms, kitchen, living room and formal dining room, a large area for the store and a stable attached. It also had a spacious back yard for the children to play in and to grow fruit and vegetables. Alice was very happy here. Another son, Willy, was born on June 18,1944. The war was nearly over in our part of Holland, and the whole family and the business flourished. Alice could afford a live-in housekeeper now to do the housework and look after her three small children. She loved working in the store six days a week, meeting people, and proved to have a real head for business. When a salesman approached her about buying a large electric machine, which would peel and wash potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables she saw its merits immediately and she was right – her customers loved it and had their potatoes peeled and cleaned while they were chatting with her. The products for sale soon included staples such as sugar, salt, coffee, tea and many other things while still maintaining the designation of being a greengrocer. The law was strict about that in Holland at the time.
On February 15, 1948, a third son, Frank, was born to Alice and Florent. It was about this time that a very good friend of Florent’s convinced him to invest in a scheme which he promised would make a great deal of money in a relatively short time. This man named Speeleman, even convinced my father to bring other people into the plan. As a result, Florent talked Alice’s father as well as his brother Bernard into investing. To make a long story short this so-called friend defrauded my father and all the other investors. Alice and Florent were devastated for their own losses but also for their relatives’ losses. They felt obligated to repay them and promised to do so. The crook received a mild sentence of just three months of jail time. Since he just lived around the corner from us, he would walk by our store with his wife frequently, she wearing a real fur jacket which was unknown in Holland at that time. This angered my parents and caused them to be reminded of their misfortune constantly.
Florent had had the immigration “bug” for some time but Alice could not conceive of leaving her family and homeland to go somewhere where they did not know anyone nor the language or customs. His main concern was for the future of their three sons as he considered how devastated Holland was after WW2. His daughter, me, would just get married. Such was the thinking in the late 1940’s. Eventually Florent’s constant emphases that where the future lay was in Canada, wore Alice down. Applications - reams of paper were filled out for the family. Alice and Florent attended English classes in preparation for the major move. No one ever mentioned that Canadians also spoke French in some areas. Alice’s father was angry and upset and asked my mother to stay in Holland and let my father go alone to Canada if that is what he wanted. My grandfather said that he would help her to look after her family. But as she explained later to me, “ I had made my vows to your father and could not imagine being separated from him for an indefinite period of time. My place was with him and so were the children’s.” The building was sold, as was her lovely furniture. Our toys were given away to younger cousins and close friends. New warm clothes for all of us were purchased with the proceeds. Florent had applied to become a fruit farmer in Canada and was assured this would happen. My parents were given much misinformation that would directly impact their lives in Canada.
Consequently, on October 2, 1951, after heart-wrenching goodbyes, the whole family boarded the ship “de Volendam”. When we arrived in Warren Ontario,on October 13 and learned that we would be sharing a house with another Dutch family (Neeleman), who also had four children, Alice was very upset. We had not been told that this might happen. Tension was pervasive and Alice cried herself to sleep many nights feeling lonely for her parents, her homeland and so many other amenities that she had left behind. Then she discovered that she was again pregnant because she began to hemorrhage. She could not speak English so it was difficult to explain her problems to the doctor who was summoned. He gave her to understand that she was to stay in bed for several weeks if she was to save this baby. To say that she was lonely was an understatement! In Holland her younger sisters would have come to her aid. Here there was no support except for my father. He had to work all day and the three older children went to school so she only had three year-old Franky at home with her. Mrs. Neeleman and Alice did not get along as the other lady felt that her home had been taken over by this new family. It was not by our choice that this happened. The tension of living under the same roof with this woman and her family was unbearable to Alice.
An opportunity presented itself to my father to work on a farm in St. Charles where Florent would manage the farm while the owner M. Lafontaine would run the Red and White grocery store in the small town. After discussing this together Florent and Alice decided to make the move to the French-speaking town. The house that the farmer offered us was literally a shack. We could see out through the boards and rodents were everywhere. The only advantage was that we did not have to share this place with anyone. That was a relief to all of us but especially to Alice. However within the first week of working there Florent sustained a serious accident. The bull charged him and gored him through the chest resulting in a badly broken elbow and arm, but miraculously missing all of Florent’s major organs in his chest. He was hospitalized in Sturgeon Falls for about ten days. Alice was alone with her four children unable to visit him, as of course we had no car. Loneliness and isolation enveloped Alice also because she spoke neither English nor French. One of the neighbours took us to see my father on Easter Sunday at the hospital, a kindness much appreciated by the whole family.
When dad came home he was unable to work due to his injuries. The money Alice and Florent had brought with them from Holland dwindled alarmingly quickly. One Sunday Rev. Boyd from the Berean Baptist church in Sudbury arrived with his wife and a carload of clothes for all of us. We had no idea how he heard about us but for Alice it was humiliating to have to accept such charity. She told me later that if at that time they could have somehow scraped the money together to return to Holland they would have done so. She was much too proud as was Florent to even consider asking her father to send the fares for all of us.
On June 6 Alice went into labour. M. Seguin who lived on the next farm drove Alice and Florent to the hospital in Sturgeon Falls – the same hospital where my father had spent about ten days two months previously. The nun would not admit my mother, as dad’s bill had not been paid. An unknown local gentleman generously paid dad’s bill and so Alice was admitted. She gave birth to a daughter, Marianne on my birthday June 7. I was ecstatic – finally a baby sister and on my birthday besides! As soon as Alice saw her new baby she realized that there would be problems with her. Marianne was a blue baby and had Down’s Syndrome. However mom came home with our precious Marianne. Florent was able to work on farms over the course of the summer after his huge cast was removed.
In August he was told that the mines in Sudbury were hiring and that the money was much better than working on the farm. Another man who was also interested gave him a ride to Copper Cliff and he was weighed and hired immediately. He returned to St. Charles to tell Alice the good news. The one major drawback was that there were very few houses to rent in Creighton where he was sent and he was expected to start work right away. And so Alice was once again left alone this time with five children under 11, until her husband could find accommodation for the family. This took about six weeks. The house he rented for us was 2 miles back of Creighton literally in the bush. There were no neighbours, but the people of the town of Creighton Mine welcomed us with open arms. Alice forever after referred to Creighton as our hometown in Canada. Father Regan, the parish priest, walked to visit Alice several times a week to have tea with her and to generally check to see how the family was faring. Miss Ursula Black, the school principal, as well as the other teachers, did everything they could to make us feel at home at Creighton Mine Public School. Parents of our schoolmates invited us to their homes for a hot lunch daily. Kindness and warmth were constantly in evidence. Carlo’s Store and Fera & Celestini’s took turns bringing our groceries home for us – in the winter by horse and sleigh. Even though Alice was fearful living so far away from neighbours, especially with a sick baby, she did begin to feel at home in Canada at last. Sadly, Baby Marianne died just days before her first birthday, on June 4, 1952. Alice and Florent were devastated – to lose a child even though she had been ill, was an unimaginable pain. The birth of healthy baby Mary Alice (Liesje) on July 14, mitigated that pain a little but did not take it away. Nothing could do that. Lando and Stella Vagnini gladly accepted when mom asked them to be godparents to our new baby Mary Alice. Father Regan baptized her at St. Michael’s. He had also officiated at the funeral for Marianne and was most supportive of my parents.
In September we moved into a house in Rockville, near Creighton. Imagine - we had electricity, running water, only cold water, but what an improvement in our standard of living. We also had neighbours now, which made Alice very happy. She soon had friends and the ladies formed a club called “The Twenty – One Club” as there were 21 original members. They met in each other’s homes once a month for fellowship and fun and Alice looked forward to those meetings with pleasure. Finally she experienced happiness. Florent built a small greenhouse and together they raised all kinds of plants which they later sold. The plants were of excellent quality and many Creighton residents drove out to purchase them. Alice absolutely enjoyed working in the greenhouse and selling the plants. (Just last week I met Helen Mynerich who reminded me that she used to come to purchase plants from my parents and how beautiful her flowers always were as a result.) Catechism classes were held in our home for Catholic children from Rockville who attended public school. The teachers under the leadership of Miss Madelaine Rochon and Miss Blanche Gauthier prepared the children for First Holy Communion and Confession. For eight years life had normalcy for the whole family.
However on Saturday March 12, 1960 the worst thing that could happen, did. Willy who was almost 16 at the time, received a phone call to set pins at the Mine-Mill Hall in their bowling lanes. Mom gave him permission to go, as this was one way that he and Ronald earned some spending money. Unknown to us he decided to take the bike ……and almost directly in front of our house was hit by a drunk driver at 8:15 pm. He died at 10:15 pm of his severe injuries. A healthy son, his life snuffed out so quickly! Alice and Florent were speechless in their grief! Now they had lost two children. Again Creightonites showed their love and many kindnesses by attending the funeral mass, bringing food and making many visits to our home. Father Regan, Miss Black, Stella Vagnini, Maria Bruyns and many others were frequent visitors in the difficult days and weeks afterwards giving my mother the support she needed.
After this Alice could no longer remain in this home where she had been so happy as the kitchen window where she stood to prepare her meals and wash her dishes, looked out at the spot where the accident had occurred. Baby Lillian was born on April 24, 1960, after a most difficult labour. Due to the horrific emotional upheavals that Alice had experienced, she developed a very serious childbed fever and was extremely ill. She was hospitalized a full month before she was well enough to return home to her family. Alice was 41. Alice and Florent decided that they must sell this house and their next-door neighbours Allan and Patsy Green purchased it. In January of 1961 Alice and Florent moved to Whitefish where they opened and operated a corner store for 11 years. For the first 2 years Florent continued to work at Creighton Mine. On Boxing Day of 1962, he sustained a severe heart attack while working underground. Alice was shocked fearing whether he could survive this as Dr. McGruther told her that we would have to wait a week before he could tell us for sure. What next was Alice’s thought? Florent was hospitalized at Copper Cliff Hospital for 5 weeks. He was unable to return to work at the mine for seven months. Another setback! In 1966 he received a disability pension from INCO after having suffered another heart attack. Alice and Florent were grandparents by his time to my daughter Jacquie which was a role they absolutely loved. Alice had lost her mother in February of 1965 and with Erna went to Holland for the funeral – a most difficult trip. Both Florent and Alice operated the Whitefish store until 1969 when they decided that they wanted to move to Southern Ontario. They had visited a pretty town named Wallaceburg where they discovered that many people from their hometown in Holland were living.
And so in June of 1969 they moved to Wallaceburg with16 year old Liesje and 9 year old Lillian where they again ran a convenience store which was open seven days a week. They operated this store until retirement in 1979 when Alice was 60 years old. She had been working since she was 14. A different opportunity presented itself then. This one she took on with pleasure. The “Welcome Wagon” in Wallaceburg needed a representative – would she be interested? With her excellent people skills she excelled and won an award of recognition in the form of a lovely plate. Was she ever proud of that! She did this job for seven years and loved every day.
In December of 1991, Alice became very ill. She was hospitalized first in Wallaceburg, then in London where she underwent many tests over a period of nearly a month. Dad and I drove to see her daily. The diagnosis was not good. She had cirrhosis of the liver and the specialist estimated that she had possibly 5 years to live. It was genetic with four of her sisters also having suffered liver problems. Alice grew progressively weaker with time, and was hospitalized several more times. She became so weak eventually that she had to go to a nursing home called Lapointe – Fisher which was right on Nelson Street where her home was. Florent and Alice’s 56th Wedding Anniversary was on February 15, 1997, but she was barely aware of it. The entire family had been summoned at this time and we prayed around her bed and expressed our love and appreciation to her. I’ll never forget her grasping my dad’s arm, looking him right in the eye and asking, “Is it really so far?” “Ja, mens,” he said with tears in his eyes. She slipped into a coma shortly after that and passed away on March 3 at the age of 76. Her five children survived Alice, also her adored twelve grandchildren and two much-loved great – granddaughters and her beloved husband. She left us a legacy of unconditional love of family, an example of the importance of hard work, and a clear sense of priorities in life.
At her funeral family friend Father Dikran Islemeci told us the strength of her faith had been an inspiration to him on the many occasions that he visited Alice. Her grandchildren honoured her by being pall – bearers, doing the readings and being flower – bearers. She would have been proud to see her family all together being supportive of dad and of each other.