My Grandmother – The Queen – and Me

23 May 2018

 

 

There was always something regal about my grandmother, Olave Wheatley Hollinshead Bowman.  Although she was born in Canada, her roots were deeply planted in the United Kingdom.  Olave was an avowed monarchist and piqued my curiosity about Great Britain and the Royal Family at a very young age.  My moment with the Queen was but one of the many happy results of the influence of this extraordinary woman.

Miss Olave Hollinshead was a student nurse at McKellar Hospital in Port Arthur, Ontario when she met her future husband, Frank Walter Bowman, a patient.  He must have been impressed with the care he received because they were married shortly thereafter in 1913.  Frank’s ancestor had emigrated from Helensburgh Scotland and Olave’s from Lincolnshire England, so her new husband fit in nicely with her strong British sensibilities.

Olave Wheatley Hollinshead  Wearing an Everyday Fascinator

My grandfather had come from a commercial fishery family on Lake Superior, and since the new Canadian National Railway line was opening up Northwestern Ontario, and ran along the southern shore of Lac Suel, 300 miles north of Lake Superior, it seemed Lac Seul was an ideal location to expand the fishery.

J. Bowman & Co. Wholesale Fish  Port Arthur, Ontario

The trust that Olave must have had in her husband to embark on this adventurous move miles north to the shores of Lac Seul from the bustling society of Port Arthur.   There were no roads into Hudson. Imagine Frank wading across a chilly river, pulling a canoe, with his wife, his young daughter Frances, and all their worldly goods in one small canoe.  What did he say that made her come away? Perhaps he said something like this.

COME AWAY WITH ME

I dream the dream of every young man,
To go out in the world on his own.

Come away with me.

I have heard of a lake that teams with fish
On the new rail line, Lac Seul.

Come away with me.

This land will be hard on many who come.
You’d be nurse and midwife for some.

Come away with me.

We will build a fishery to feed our children,
And build the bones of our nation.

Come away with me.

But my dream is just that,
 without you by my side.

Come away with me.

With my heart in your hands,
Darling Olave.

Headwater Brand – Bowman Fisheries – Hudson, Ontario

Olave embraced her life with a fervour that became an institution.  Until Frank could build her a house, they lived in the CNR Station with four other families.  She became a general merchant, a postmistress, a nurse and a midwife over the years and her family grew.  She had four children now who needed an education and sending them all to Port Arthur, as she had done with Frances, became impractical, so she bought a one-room log cabin for four hundred dollars and her children were among the fifteen children to attend this first school in 1927.   And naturally, the schoolteacher, Miss Gudgeon, boarded in Olave and Frank’s new home.  Fifty years later, at the anniversary celebration of that first school, the keynote speaker recounted that the members of the first school board were Mrs. Bowman, Mrs. Bowman, and Mrs. Bowman!

First School     Hudson, Ontario

The years passed and Olave’s children grew up.  My father and his siblings called her Mother, not Mom, not Ma, not Mummy, but Mother–always.  Their respect for her was profound, and when war broke out, they rallied around the flag–the Union Jack of Canada – each in their own way.  Frances taught young women home economics and became a social worker.  Jack became a pilot for TCA, which eventually became Air Canada.  Bob, my father, built hurricanes in Fort William and led a motorcycle squad in Chilliwack for the Canadian Army, eventually becoming an auto mechanic and then an aircraft engineer.  Grama’s youngest son, Bill, became a civil engineer.  As the saying went after D Day – Billy Bowman is Busy Building Bailey Bridges in Belgium.  He retired from the Government of British Columbia as Director of Bridges.  All of Olave’s children were a tribute to her work ethic and patriotism.

Bob Bowman with Kitty Hawker–Canadian Car–Fort William

My parents met and married during the uncertainty of the Great Depression, only to be parted for the duration of WWII. My sister, Arletta, was born in 1941 and soon after Dad left for the Airforce. She was 4 when he returned. Then in 1948, I came along, and my lifelong adoration of my Grama Bowman began.

Olave W. Bowman – 1948 – The Summer of my Birth.

I spent my childhood in Hudson, this tiny community in Northwestern Ontario, unincorporated, unpretentious, and unassuming, but a town with a steadfast patriotism steeped in a post-war ‘joie de vivre’. I was a true Baby Boomer – the 50’s I knew were carefree, full of optimism and innocence.

During those formative years, I took for granted all my grandmother’s community activities or failed to notice them at all.  She was the organist in our non-denominational Protestant church, the Sunday school teacher and always seemed to “pour” at Community Teas.  When the first vaccines came out, she came to the school to administer them in her nurse’s uniform.

Olave Wheatley Hollinshead – McKellar General Hospital 1909

I once asked my mother why my grandmother was so important.  In hushed tones, she assured me that Grama was a “pillar of the community.”  She was quick to remind me of the weight of my name on my shoulders.  At that admonishment, I equated Grama’s stature with royalty.  I tried to imagine what it must be like for Prince Charles to live up to his Royal name. As we were born only a few months apart, I felt very close to him.

Royal Family prior to their Canadian Royal Tour of 1959

The perspective of one’s childhood is formed in innocence.  In the 50’s, I saw the world from within the circumference of my experience.  There was no television, no cell phones, no internet.  I listened to Maggie Muggins and Mr. McGarrity – https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/549439223269105244/

on the Just Mary radio show, the Happy Gang with Bobby Gimby – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bobby_Gimby and the Howdy Doody Show.  Life was simple, but I thought it was rich with adventure and wonder.

The commercial fishermen from the Lac Seul Reserve who sold their catch to my grandfather’s fish house were Ojibway.  Occasionally, their wives would appear on the back stoop of my grandparents’ house.   Grama would greet them at the door in her apron and invite them in. Silently they would shuffle in to sit cross-legged in a circle on the living room rug.  After tea and dainties, they would rise, nod their heads in her direction, and leave without ever having uttered a word.

Grampa Bowman – Filleters with Sturgeon – Bowman Fisheries

Even though these fishermen’s wives knew very little English, and my grandmother knew very little Ojibway, they still came to pay their respects. Their shared experience as mothers-of-veterans brought another level of mutual understanding to these occasions, which bridged the language barrier.  My grandmother’s sons came home from the war, whereas some of theirs did not.  My grandmother was very moved by their quiet dignity.

Pte. Robert Rowell Bowman

Pte. George Williams – Lt. William Arthur Bowman – Pte. Arthur Williams

After closing the swinging gate on the white picket fence to my grandmother’s front yard, these calico-skirted women would walk the dusty street, down to the local Hudson’s Bay store to pick up supplies, carry them down to the dock at Bowman Fisheries, load their canoes, and set out up the lake to the Lac Seul Reserve.

I always marveled at the crisp white aprons that these women always wore over their calico skirts – the colder the weather, the more layers of cotton, but always with a crisp white apron on top.  As I close my eyes today, I can still hear the soft crunch of their mukluks in the snow.

As a young child, when I would visit my grandmother, I would often see a group of older kids sitting on the grass in the back yard, pen and notebook in hand, listening to my grandmother relate the history of our community and our connection to world events – they had been sent by their teacher to do research on local history.  At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of these lectures from the back stoop. To me she was just “Gammy”, and she made the best ginger snaps in the whole world.

Grama Bowman sewed her own dresses.  She never wore pants – never.  I watched tentatively with my chin in my hands and my elbows firmly planted on the leaf of her Singer treadle sewing machine and watched her meticulously making thread tailor tacks, deftly draping a dress form. I scarcely blinked.  I did not want to miss a thing.

Olave Bowman – Her own Couturier

When she would make a suit, she would send some of the fabric to a milliner in Winnipeg, some five hundred miles down the CNR line.  The milliner would create a matching hat or a matching fabric purse with a metal clasp.  Her shoes and gloves would both be brown leather and her fox stole was the finishing touch.  I sat behind her every Sunday in church, marveling at the bobbles, beads, and pheasant feathers that adorned her glorious hats.  (Those same feathers can be seen on my hat today.)  She looked splendid, dignified, and regal.

To me, my grandmother was comparable to the Queen of England. This seemed perfectly logical to me.  Wherever I’d seen Her Majesty, whether on the News Reel at the movies or in Life Magazine or the Winnipeg Tribune, she had always been wearing the most beautiful, well, majestic hat.  And it always matched her outfit perfectly – just like my grandmother.

Olave (Grama) Bowman in a fabulous Fascinator before it’s Time

At church, I would pretend that Princess Anne and I had prepared for our royal Sunday duty together. We’d giggle.  She of course, sat in the front pew.  My grandparents, founders of the church in our community, sat in the next pew, while I sat behind with Mommy.  Princess Anne had to be “proper”, but I could colour on the programme, because Mommy always had a couple of crayons in her pocket.  Church was so long and boring, I was lucky to have something to keep me from squirming.  But I envied Anne, even though she had to sit still and pretend to listen, because she got to be the princess.

Non-Denominational Protestant Church – Hudson, Ontario

Because Grama never wore pants, ever, it did not seem unusual to see her kneeling to tend her flower beds – in a dress.  She cultivated cutting flowers for the table: zinnias, cosmos, tulips, snapdragons, gladiolas and sweetpeas.  All summer there were bouquets of these arranged in elegant vases, nestled in the undulating waves of sugar-starched crocheted doilies – doilies she had crocheted herself.

And her window boxes—Grama said that her window boxes represented the Union Jack, glorious red geraniums, fragrant white alyssum, and delicate blue forget-me-nots spilling over the edge, trailing like flags in the breeze.  Every year, the same – steadfast, faithful loyalists of our Queen and her flag.

Home of Olave and Frank Bowman – Hudson, Ontario

 

Grama regaled us with tales of the Royal Family and we listened intently to the Queen’s message at Christmas.  We celebrated the birth of Prince Andrew, Duke of York in February of the following year and Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex in March of 64.  I was already “best friends” with Princess Anne, and Prince Charles – my imaginary little brother, only five months younger than me.  I felt very protective of Prince Charles, especially when he was “exposed” to scrutiny in the press.  I staunchly defended his youthful exuberance, his right to be a child, a growing boy, a teenager. How different was my life; I was the lucky one.  I did not have to endure such indignities.

In 1959, my mother prepared to take me to Port Arthur – Fort William to see Queen Elizabeth. That June, the Royal Yacht Britannia would bring Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Canada for her first Royal Tour as our new Queen.  Along with President Eisenhower, his wife Mamie, Vice President Nixon, and Prime Minister Diefenbaker, they were to officially open the St. Lawrence Seaway on June 26th, two days after my 11th birthday.

The excitement mounted as we listened to the progress of the Britannia as it entered the locks of the Seaway and proceeded up the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes to the Head of the Lakes at Port Arthur, the Canadian terminus of the new St. Lawrence Seaway.  We listened intently to reports of their ports-of-call along the way, as we prepared for our adventure to see Her Majesty.

My mother sewed a new dress for me.  As with my grandmother, I watched every stitch with every rock of the treadle.  I was fascinated.  We bought a new hat from The Hudson’s Bay Company, an occasion that rivaled the buying of the Easter bonnet.  On our shopping trip, my mother was mortified when I confessed to the shoe salesman that my mother had to “scrape the calluses off my feet with the paring knife” for the occasion. Apparently, going barefoot was not something one admitted – it just was not proper.

It was an hour’s drive over a gravel road to Dryden, and then many more hours on a bus to The Lakehead.  It was an eternity.

Once there, the Prince Edward Hotel in Port Arthur left my mouth gaping.  It was a palace.  I was from a teeny-tiny town in the bush of Northwestern Ontario, and to me, the Prince Arthur was, well, fit for a prince.   With no sand in the foot of the bed, the starched white sheets smelling of fragrant soap were, well, fit for a princess.

Prince Arthur Hotel – Port Arthur, Ontario

It was July 9th 1959. The morning was full of anticipation.  Queen Elizabeth would disembark from the Yacht Britannia via a launch. The launch would dock at the pier, where a red carpet led to an open car for her procession through the streets of Port Arthur and Fort William.

The crowds pressed to the curb of the street.  I couldn’t see over the heads of all the people.  How would I ever get to see the Queen? Set back from the street, the hotel’s front lawn rose away from the street.  I climbed a grassy rise, away from the crowds, where I stood alone.  I was apprehensive.  The street seemed a long, long way away.

I watched the Queen’s launch approach the pier. The Queen walked the red carpet to the open car.  Slowly they drove from the pier to the street and approached the welcoming throng. The crowds cheered and waved little Union Jacks. I felt too shy to cheer and wave, standing there all by myself.  I watched intently as the procession slowly grew closer.  I forgot my new dress, my new hat and my new shoes. The Queen stood in the car, in a light flowing dress, and gave her gentle wave, smiling to the left and then the right.

There, I stood, alone, well back from the road, on my grassy rise.   As the procession slowly approached, the beautiful Queen Elizabeth turned in my direction.  I just knew she was looking at me. My hand shot into the air.  She smiled more broadly and waved more deliberately in my direction.

It was my moment with the Queen. That smile, that wave, that little laugh was for me and me alone.

Now, as I approach my 70th birthday, I can still see her special smile, just for me, and whenever I recall that magnificent smile, it reminds me of the regal bearing of my Grama—Olave Wheatley Bowman.

Olave Wheatley Bowman – Order of the Eastern Star

 

Thank you for visiting and reading My Moment with the Queen.
Sincerely,
Ardelle