Every year around Mother’s Day, my thoughts turn to my mother and the difficult life she had.
Alice Camilla van den Branden was born in 1919 in Holland while the Spanish Flu was raging in many areas of the world. Her parents were very healthy, as was their new baby girl, fortunately.
She was the second child born into the van den Branden family, preceded by her brother Gustaaf. Five more sisters followed Alice, making it a busy household. Her youngest sister Corrie was born when Alice was 18 years old. Alice became her godmother when she was baptised.
When Alice was 14 years old, she completed Grade 8 with a 100 per cent average, but she had to start working to help support the family.
Continuing on in education was unheard of for her and others of her generation.
Her father rented a field from someone and he and Alice were out there at 4 a.m. gathering bags of potatoes. They brought the potatoes home for my grandmother to sell in her small store.
Then there was laundry to be done for this large household. Scrub boards were the norm, and as you can imagine, that took an entire day of back-breaking work. Ironing was another huge task to be done.
At a Saturday night dance, Alice met Florent de Burger, a farm hand. They married on Feb. 15, 1941 and began to raise a family together in Hulst in a small abode. Alice was 22 and Florent 26. I was the eldest of the seven children they would eventually have.
In 1951, the family immigrated to Canada, having survived the Second World War, which left our homeland devastated. Alice was 32 and Florent was 36 and they had four children by this time. It took immense courage and fortitude to undertake such a journey. After nine days of sailing, the ship reached Quebec City on October 11.
The family was taken to a train station in Montreal for the long trip to Warren, Ont. where a farming job awaited Florent. There was no one to meet us at the small Warren train station.
Our parents were becoming increasingly concerned for their family. At last, a tall man entered the building, and we understood that he would take us to our new home. So, into the pickup truck went our meagre belongings and us.
My parents sat in front with the driver and we four children in the back with the luggage.
That new home was a disaster. It was already occupied by another Dutch family which also had four children, and all these people were expected to live together in a three-bedroom house.
Mr. Spaull’s application had stated that he would provide housing for the immigrants he was sponsoring. Alice and Mrs. Neeleman could not get along, so it was most difficult for my mother attempting to prepare food or do laundry for our family.
Alice became very ill and required a doctor, to whom she could not speak or understand. Eventually, he made clear to her that she was pregnant and must stay in bed so she would not lose the baby. Alice cried many nights.
Moving to St. Charles was a hopeful move, hope of one day having a farm of our own. We were given a house – a shack, really. We could literally see outside through the boards.
However the first week Florent worked there a bull charged him, rolled him around on the ground before he stopped, resulting in a serious fracture of his elbow and chest damage.
He was taken to hospital in Sturgeon Falls and admitted. Alice was alone with four children, unable to speak either English or French. The loneliness was overwhelming. She was also nearing the end of her pregnancy and worried about the birth of the new baby which was imminent.
The time arrived when Alice required hospitalisation at the same hospital in Sturgeon Falls where my Dad had been, but she was refused admittance unless Dad’s bill was paid. A stranger happened to walk into the foyer and paid the bill without ever giving his name.
The baby, born in 1952 on my 11th birthday, was a Down’s Syndrome baby with serious physical and mental problems which would never improve. Alice cared for Marianne lovingly until she died at almost one year old on June 4, 1953.
Alice gave birth to a healthy baby girl on July 14, Mary Alice. Moving into a small hamlet called Dogpatch gave Alice and the family a normal life. She had neighbours here and the ladies formed a social club called “The Twenty – One Club.”
They met in each other’s homes once a month. This was a happy period in Alice’s life for nine years. But that ended abruptly in March 1960 when her 15-year-old son Willy was killed in a car accident.
Alice, Florent and the family found a temporary house as they had sold that home with so many painful memories.
Another pretty, healthy daughter named Lillian was born April 24, 1960.
In 1961, they opened a convenience store in Whitefish. Retail is what she loved most. She was very much a people person. After Florent suffered a major heart attack underground in 1962 at Creighton Mine, he was unable to work for seven months.
Alice and Florent began to look south for a milder climate and longer growing season. They moved to Wallaceburg in 1970 and discovered many people living there from Hulst, their hometown in Holland.
They loved their new town, had a pleasurable social life and settled there happily. Once again they opened a very successful store, which they operated until 1979, when Alice and Florent retired.
But Alice still needed contact with people, as she always had. She became the Welcome Wagon Hostess for Wallaceburg and enjoyed doing that for seven years. She received an award for the
success she had.
Illness during the last years of her life was very difficult. Alice died on March 3, 1997 at the age of 77. Alice was survived by her husband, five children and numerous grandchildren. Alice and Florent had been married 56 years at the time of her death.
Erna de Burger-Fex is a writer and retired teacher.