‘From Betty’ with love & faded ink 82-year-old pale blue wrinkled card crowded with decades of valentine wishes now a family keepsake of lifelong devotion
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It wasn’t much to look at, at first glance. A pale blue card, wrinkled with age and tattered at the edges, tucked into a homemade envelope fashioned out of white paper and held together by sticky tape.
Inside, jotted around the manufacturer’s inscription, in elegant penmanship are declarations of enduring love stretching across the years; the first one dated February 1941 is simply signed “from Betty”.
As the years advance the sentiment in the card evolves…
“… Dearest Jules, I love you 1,000,000 times more than the first time I sent this if that’s possible… ”
“Physically faded like this paper but still young at heart…”
“Still love you as much as 1941 and more…”
Nestled between sepia-tinted photographs and yellowing notes, the vintage card lay hidden from sight until Jan. 22 this year when Hélène Beauchemin reached for the little wooden box that her parents used to keep under their bed.
The coffre, as they had referred to it, is now sitting on a shelf in her office and Beauchemin would sporadically peek into it without looking too thoroughly; everything in the chest reminded her of her late parents and her grief was still too close to the surface to fully examine its contents.
“It is emotionally difficult to go through something that belonged to my parents. No matter how long they’ve been departed, there are so many things that remind me of them,” Beauchemin shares.
A planned visit from her cousin Gisele Vinci drew her to the box. Beauchemin wanted to present her with a keepsake and suspected she would find it in the box amidst the family memorabilia her mother had so lovingly gathered.
“I had seen a picture of Gisele’s mother somewhere and I thought, ‘Gee, that would be neat to give to her’. I had looked everywhere for it but it hadn’t turned up. I thought ‘I might as well check this chest too, maybe it’s in there,’” Beauchemin explains.
Gently flicking through pictures and notes, she found the nondescript envelope that looked like a piece of scrap paper, numbers scrawled across it.
Closer investigation revealed the 82-year-old card, adorned with a heart, roses and a small cloth ribbon.
Opening it, Beauchemin quickly realized its significance.
“It was a card from my mother to my father. I knew immediately that it was from her to him as only she would send him a card that said, ‘A Valentine for My Pal,’” Beauchemin says.
“The first date, 1941, they wouldn’t have been married at that time so it couldn’t be a romantic card. I was so amazed at finding it. Not surprised at the card — this was the sort of thing my mom would do — but surprised by the finding of it.”
The delicate Valentine’s Day card was a symbol of abiding love. A rare peek into a lifelong romance that began in 1933 in the French hamlet of Ile des Chênes.
“It brought back a lot of memories of my parents, of what they were like together. They were like newlyweds despite all the things they went through, from starting a family through to illness and sickness,” Beauchemin says.
“My mom and dad showed us what you could do with love.”
It was 1933 when Elizabeth “Betty” Haddock first saw the man who would become her husband, Jules Beauchemin. She was 13 and at a party on her stepfather Walker Hoskin’s farm in Ile des Chênes. The 19-year-old had been invited to play his fiddle at a party.
According to Hélène Beauchemin it was love at first sight for them both.
“She knew this was the man she was going to marry,” Beauchemin says, “but mom was still too young. Dad was already farming at his parent’s farm, just across the road from mom’s home and every morning he would position himself at a fence post along the road, pretending to fix the post so he could catch a glimpse of Mom as she walked by to school. She did begin to wonder why that post had to be fixed so often!”
Years passed before anything romantic ensued; Haddock was now a high-schooler in St. Anne, boarding at the convent there during the week and returning to the farm on weekends to help her mother, Ethel, and perhaps see her “Julie,” as she referred to Jules.
“Dad proposed as soon as mom turned 21,” Beauchemin says, ”and they got married on April 25, 1942, at St. Boniface Cathedral. Mom was wearing all pink — dad used to call her his prairie rose because of her flushed cheeks — from head to toe with a corsage of pink roses.”
The wartime wedding ceremony was a small affair, attended only by two witnesses and officiated by a priest. The newlyweds returned to Ile des Chênes to build a life together, at first in the Beauchemin family farm, where Betty learned to speak French to communicate with her in-laws, before they moved to their own house.
Betty’s teaching career remained important to her and she would commute daily into Winnipeg to teach at Nordale School before returning home to help her husband on their dairy farm.
“She was the worst driver,” Beauchemin recalls laughing, “In the winter she would get stuck, and dad would drive the tractor to pull her out of snow-filled ditches, laughing all the way.”
Beauchemin’s childhood was one filled with love, she says. Her parents could make “fun out of everything.” Life on the farm was busy and she and her five siblings were all expected to muck in.
“There was always something that had to be done… painting or gardening or fixing the fence. As a farm wife, even though she had a full-time job teaching, my mother would help feed the cows, haul milk, drive a grain truck… whatever that was required. She would drive meals out to dad in the field, sometimes well past dark and we would have a picnic dinner, an adventure all of us remember,” she says.
They were outwardly affectionate and romantic, hugging, kisses and sitting close to each other, Beauchemin recalls. And every weekend they would indulge in a siesta.
“We were never allowed to enter their room on a Sunday afternoon,” she laughs. “They loved to dance at functions and in the kitchen. They were always helping each other. Mom was treated like a queen by my dad.”
There was always music, laughter and dancing in their lives, her father often playing the fiddle for his wife.
Things changed when Jules had a stroke in 1979.
“He never spoke again,” Beauchemin says. Aphasia and partial paralysis would render him incapable of ever playing the fiddle again.
But Betty was not one to let the tradition fade. And not having any musical experience wasn’t going to stop her.
“My mom learnt to play the fiddle at the age of 60. She would play for him, despite being tone deaf and not being able to hear in one ear,” Beauchemin says, smiling at the memory.
“She loved him that much. Sometimes it so was awful when she would play but the look on his face was so happy.”
“Mom became his voice,” she continues. “She looked after him, she advocated for him, and she entertained him. She was his soul mate. They created this language between them using body language and sounds.”
They were happiest when they were driving in the station wagon to go and see the fields of wheat. Every second day she would take him on drives, loading his wheelchair into the station wagon by herself.
“They would go to Michaud’s in Lorette, mostly stopping for ice cream. We went there as kids, and they continued to go after he had a stroke. They would always be doing something together. They didn’t need a lot of stuff, just their absolute love,” Beauchemin says.
Betty, who had retired from teaching in 1980, spent the next 17 years taking care of her husband until he died in March 1997. He passed away in her arms as she was fluffing up his pillow.
“He reached up to touch her body tenderly with his one hand. And it was there, in that moment, that he took his last breath. She knew it. She wasn’t sad. She said they had a wonderful, charmed life together, with a wonderful large loving family,” Beauchemin says.
Betty’s abiding love for Jules transcended time. As she aged, dementia set in and her vision failed. But that didn’t affect the depth of her feelings for her late husband.
“Mom would look up at where their wedding photo was on the wall, even though she couldn’t see, and would proclaim how she loved that man.
“She never missed an opportunity to mention his name and whenever she did her eyes would roll and she would flutter her eyelashes dramatically to indicate her utmost love,” Beauchemin says.
Betty died in 2013, 16 years after her husband and one month before her 93rd birthday.
Her death certificate lies in the coffre, next to her husband’s.
“I put mom and dad’s death certificates in there with their wedding announcement and the Valentine’s card. I put them in there myself because together they form a little story of their love.”
AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.