Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

War brides overcame harsh, unexpected conditions to build new life

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There were times in the early days when Rose Lindsay would lie awake at night and think: why don't you just get up and walk out to the highway and catch a bus and go somewhere?

And yes, there was a time only a few years after the young English war bride settled into her new life in rural Manitoba that her mother would visit and, appalled by the living conditions, try to take her back home.

But those are old memories now, lost in time and a life that has given the 87-year-old a large and successful family -- four children, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren -- and a chance to see more of the world than she might have otherwise.

"It wasn't easy, but in the long run it worked out pretty well," Lindsay recently recalled. "It's pretty rough around Christmas."

It was harvest time, 1945, when Lindsay arrived in the middle of the night in Laurier, about 260 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Twenty years old and freshly married to Arnold Lindsay, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, she was among some 45,000 war brides and their children who came through Pier 21 in Halifax, and were dispatched by train to towns and cities across the country.

It's a journey remembered through anecdotes that Lindsay reminds herself to laugh about: in Moncton, the five-year-old boy so used to food rations he marvelled at seeing a banana for the first time; in Winnipeg, her husband treating her to steak dinner upon her arrival; and in Laurier, the string of lights that still lined a street where the locals celebrated D-Day.

"Everything seemed so fresh here. It was still sort of a land of opportunity," she said.

But for the working-class girl from Sheffield, Yorkshire, it was a rattling experience to learn just how much opportunity remained.

The two settled into farm life just outside of Laurier, where homes were without electricity and running water.

"I thought it was like a farm in England. If anybody owned a farm, they were quite rich and had quite a nice place," she said. "I never lived in a house without running water, so I can't say I was terribly happy.

"I ended up milking cows, feeding chickens, making bread, all this stuff I'd never done before."

In 1955, the family moved to McCreary, into a large home that had electricity and running water. He would work as postmaster for more than 30 years, and she at the local hospital.

Involved in the church, community sports, Cubs and cadets, their four children became a doctor, an industrial electrician and workers at Canada Post and Great-West Life. In return, the couple got a large extended family that grew up to become nurses and teachers, financial analysts and pharmacists.

"If we lived in England, and say I'd marry someone on my level, I don't think we'd have been able to afford to put a son through to be a doctor," she says.

In the years following the war-bride wave, it was common for local clubs to form as a way for the brides to socialize and acclimatize to the culture shock -- not just of the country, but of their new husbands.

Catherine Cuddy, who came to Canada in 1945 three months before her husband, helped found the War Brides Club. The group met in Tuxedo and offered a chance to deal with the "bewilderment" and "state of flux" following the war.

"It was all sort of strange to us," Cuddy said. "What we could say to each other was something we couldn't say in the immediate family."

New brides joined, and some were lost, Cuddy said, noting one bride in the group struggled to fit into her new Polish family, who had arranged a marriage for their son and were not pleased when he came back from the war with a wife.

"She was studying Polish because they wouldn't speak English in front of her. She went home. She said she couldn't do it, but she tried," Cuddy said.

The group eventually evolved into the British Wives Club, which raised money to help local causes through the decades after the war.

"We had a lot of talent in our group... (and it was something to do) rather than sit and drink coffee. That got boring," she said.

There are still 35 members who get together socially, Cuddy said.

"There are three Scots, three Irish, three Welsh, and all the rest are English," she said. "We've seen our kids grow up. It's a friendship that can't ever be broken."

This summer, a small group of war brides from southwestern Manitoba will meet in Killarney. The group, former members of the now-defunct Manitoba War Brides Association, recognizes there isn't much time to still do so, said Swan Lake resident Peggy Sheffield.

"We don't have too long to meet, so we want to do it for as long as we can," she said.

Joining the association after her husband died in 1973, Sheffield saw it as an opportunity for her to reconnect with familiarity, and trade stories about the war and her journey.

"There was a tremendous sense of fellowship," she said. "We came from all walks of life, and yet it was one of the best things I ever belonged to in my life."

In 1987, Lindsay's husband died from colon cancer. Two years later, she moved to St. James in Winnipeg and became involved in the local ANAVETS (Army, Navy, and Air Force Veterans in Canada). In between, she has spent time travelling in Canada and the United States. She is expecting her 11th great-grandchild this fall.

"Having the family I got, I think it's a good contribution to Canada," she said.

"I feel like I did my part."

She chooses not to dabble too much in the what ifs of life, but admits she sometimes succumbs to wonder.

"I've seen probably more than I would have ever seen," she says. "And sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the war never started. I probably would have stayed in Sheffield my whole life."


-- with files from Kevin Rollason

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 J3

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