“Never miss an opportunity to learn…there is always something more you can do.”
Mary’s life epitomizes these words; advice she wisely offers after a long life of maximizing every opportunity she was given. She has carefully compiled her life story in a three-ring binder that sits on a shelf adjacent to her many framed certificates, degrees, poems and artwork.
Born at home on December 29, 1923, on a bitterly cold day in High River Alberta, she wasn’t anticipated to survive. At only 4.5 pounds, she was weak and suffered from convulsions in her first year, unable to sit on her own until she was over one-year-old. But she beat the odds she was given – a theme that would replay many times in her nearly century long life.
In 1929, Mary’s father set out to find land to farm. In July of 1930, the family headed north to their newly acquired homesteads, purchased at a price of $10 each. Along with their cow, two young heifers, 4 horses, a dog, 2 cats and 12 chickens, they travelled by train from High River to Evansburg via Edmonton. Upon their arrival, it was a 2-day, 16-mile journey before the family reached their new home.
The depression years were incredibly hard on the family. Initially, they lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor and a leaky roof, the wind blowing between the logs that were plastered with mud and straw. Having suffered an accident that took most of his sight, Mary’s father struggled to earn money. Their main source of income was selling cream to the North Alberta Dairy Pool in Edmonton for 10 cents a pound.
With no money to purchase proper winter clothing, their feet and legs were often exposed to the cold and frostbitten, which caused both Mary and her mother, Antoinette, to lose legs in their later years. The only winter footwear that her father had was gunny sacks wrapped around his feet, tied with binder twine. Often, they had only bread and milk for a meal – but they were grateful to have it.
Mary left school at age 15 (grade 9) to help on the family farm. In 1942, she enrolled in Olds Agricultural College – the only girl in a class of 50 young men, and excelled at carpentry and horse showmanship and decoration. Antoinette worked many jobs to support her daughter, having lost her husband to cancer that same year. Mary graduated in 1944.
It was suggested to Mary that she might consider hairdressing as a career. Mary was unsure at first, having only ever visited a hairdresser once for her graduation from Olds – but she enrolled, and successfully completed her qualifications. She saved every penny from various jobs to establish her own salon in Grande Prairie, and Mary’s Beauty Shoppe opened on September 12, 1945.
Even with no running water, Mary built a successful business with many loyal customers, charging $1.00 for a shampoo and set, ten cents for a haircut, and $5.00 for a permanent.
In 1949 at age 25, Mary decided to complete her High School Diploma by correspondence – which would be no easy feat while working and running her shop. She had been out of school for 10 years. Seeking out some assistance with her lessons, she was introduced to Sister Lucy, the Superior of a Convent, who helped her for one hour each week. Within a month, she was flying through her studies, and completed her High School Diploma in 1954, age 31.
Sister Lucy encouraged Mary to consider leaving hairdressing to attend University and pursue a career as a Home Economics Teacher. She followed this advice, enrolling at the University of Alberta to complete her Bachelor of Science
with a major in Home Economics. Sister Lucy was a friend and mentor to Mary till the day she died.
Mary graduated in May 1957, ranking in the top five students in a class of thirty. Antoinette was her guest at her graduation, a day of great achievement and pride. “Mum’s admission ticket was completely crumpled up with her excitement,” Mary recalls. She subsequently completed her Education Degree in the fall of 1958, and was immediately offered a teaching position in a town close to Edmonton.
Once again, Mary was encouraged to further her education. The Head of the Home Economics Department at the University of Alberta suggested that Mary study for a Masters Degree, and recommended Teachers College in Columbia University, New York City. In September of 1960, off she went to the big city, a long way from her humble beginnings on the family farm. It was her first time travelling by plane and touching down in a bustling metropolis, crushed by the crowds on every corner. She accepted a job as the Assistant Social Director in her student residence, and enjoyed exploring her new surroundings with her fellow classmates.
Upon her graduation in 1961, the placement office at Columbia University said they could get her a job in any state in the country. She chose Bellingham, Washington, as it was closest to Vancouver and Antoinette had always wanted to live on the west coast. They arrived in September 1961.
1962 would see mother and daughter move to White Rock, and subsequently to Victoria in 1966. Mary taught at Mt. Douglas Secondary School for 13 years. After so many years of moving to follow opportunities, Mary and Antoinette finally settled in their own home together in 1967, built in a newly developed part of Victoria.
The road outside was mud and they had little furniture – but it was theirs and they owned it. They immediately set about planting a garden: lawn in the front, and a mix of vegetables, fruit trees, roses, rhododendrons and ornamental shrubs in the back yard. It gave them years of joy together, tending to the beds and harvesting fruits and vegetables to make preserves, jams, pickles and relishes.
Mary resigned her post at Mt. Douglas School in March of 1980, taking leave to care for her mother, whose condition was worsening. After an operation to amputate Antoinette’s second leg later that same year, Mary resigned her teaching position to care for her full time – despite her mother’s willingness to move into a care home. “I never regretted it. This was her home,” says Mary. “She had had a hard life, and I wanted to make sure her last years were happy ones.”
Before Antoinette could return home, Mary needed time to prepare and make the house accessible. She arranged a two-week respite stay at Victoria Hospice. With her mother in the loving care of others, she could make the necessary preparations and arrangements at home, including the installation of a lift and an elevator to the garden. “I have never forgotten the kindness my mother received during her stay at Victoria Hospice,” Mary recalls, “and it gave me the time and space I needed to be ready to care for her at home.” Antoinette died at home in 1983.
Following her mother’s death, Mary could have returned to work as a teacher; but instead, she felt called to be of service to others. She volunteered with the Queen Alexandra Hospital Foundation for 13 years, handwriting thank you letters to donors and cataloguing photos and records to establish the Archives. Mary also enjoyed travelling to New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and England. She purchased her first computer in 2000 and taught herself how to use it – just in time to chronicle her life story for all to enjoy.
Mary’s legacy gift honours Antoinette and the care she received back in 1980, which meant her final three years could be at home in comfort. Looking back on her life, Mary reflects, “The right doors opened for me at just the right time, and for that, I’m very thankful.”
On behalf of all of us at Victoria Hospice, thank you, Mary, for sharing your inspiring journey with us.