Etta Whitney’s life was not an easy one, but she did not complain. Her life was not one of material riches, but one rich in the love and respect of family and friends. Mom was one of the most amazing people you’d ever meet, but you wouldn’t dare say that to her because she didn’t think she was amazing. Etta Terry was born in St. Eleanor’s, Prince Edward Island, and married Bob Whitney on May 11, 1944. They met while they were both in the armed forces and married in the Maritimes. Etta lived for 85 years, two months and 25 days. Cancer claimed her life, but nothing will ever claim her spirit.
Mom raised 13 children Judith, Howard, Dawn, David, Cyndela, Doug, Don, Raymond, Wendi, Laura, Tammy, Cathy and Shelly. She joins David and Raymond in heaven. Etta’s long life gave her 21 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. She was a mother, sister, grandma, great-grandma, aunt and friend to many. Her legacy is one of strength, grace, humour, compassion and generosity. I knew I could get through whatever came my way because Mom was at my side. No matter what came her way, she would come back continuing to kick butt and take names. Not that she’d necessarily remember the names, but she would take them anyway.
Strength should have been Mom’s middle name. Imagine moving to Carleton Place (where she would live in the same house for 39 years) with eight kids and no job. Daunting for most, but not for our Mom. Etta landed a job within days and worked the midnight shift at a nursing home for 11 years. This enabled her to be home to send us to school, sleep during the day and then make dinner for us every night. While working the midnight shift at home nursing home, Mom spent three years taking night classes to earn her Health Care Aide Diploma This in the face of having to leave school at age 14 and going to college 30 years later as a single parent of eight.
Despite it all, she achieved some of the highest marks in her classes. Mom’s grace was evident throughout her life. She never felt entitled to anything in particular, but was always grateful for kindness and help that came her way. Throughout my adult life, Mom was always so grateful for the pleasure of company. Nothing exotic, simply-going out to shop, get coffee and wander. It was a major delight for Mom to head to Prescott and see her sister Eleanor for a day of shopping, lunch out and laughter. Mom could see the humour in situations that so many could not. That’s not to say she made light of difficulties, but she had a good perspective on things that kept her grounded. She spent much of her life taking care of others and did so brilliantly. How she managed to care for all her children and work in nursing taking care of the elderly is a strong testament to that most admirable trait. Wherever there was a need, if Mom could help she would. I can’t imagine living on so little for so long, but still giving so readily. In a world where there are many who don’t think beyond themselves, or who have so much and could give, but don’t she was truly a standout. Knitting was a creative passion for Mom. The angels will have beautiful afghans. Cathy Whitney
Yesterday after I posted my first blog about women in the 1950s I got a lot of email from Quebec and Ontario. There were so many other mothers like mine that had postpartum– I was not alone the way I felt. So I begin to heal and wrote this in my mother’s voice. Thank you for all your emails– truly touched my heart.
A fictional letter from Bernice Ethelyn Crittenden Knight– but all the content is true.
For years I have been trying to make my oldest daughter Linda Susan Knight aware of how much I loved her. I died in the Brome Missisquoi Hospital in September of 1964 the night Linda was confirmed at Trinity Anglican Church. She was taken out of school at 3 PM, told of my passing, and told to dress up in her confirmation dress and act like nothing had happened.
Sometimes in life you don’t have a choice, and I have tried to send her signs to sit, think and remember what we as a family went through and how no one is to blame except life.
Yesterday, her youngest son Perry sent her a link to an article about the Allan Memorial Hospital which was near the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. For years Linda had blocked that name out of her mind not wanting to remember what when on there, and yesterday it clicked– and she remembered– and she could not forget about everyone whispering “The Allan” and her mother’s name together in the same sentence when she was still a small child.
When I was 8 -years-old my mother Gladys Crittenden died of a cancer related sickness and l was living in Park Extension in Montreal with my father George. I know how Linda felt when I died when she was 12– but we really don’t control anything. Six years later my father remarried and I got tuberculosis at age 14 and spent years at the Ste. Agathe Sanitorium because I had lost a lung. So when I was sent home to the Eastern Townships years later I had nothing. They had told my Father I was not going to live, so they burned everything I had — including giving away my beloved piano.
I found a job working at Bruck Mills in Cowansville, Quebec and met my husband Arthur Knight in the Cowansville Post Office. We fell in love, got married Sept. 6th, 1947, and built a home on Albert Street that Arthur’s father financed. We had a happy few years until I got pregnant with Linda Susan. I had a difficult birth on the hottest day of the year– July 24, 1951, and the forceps had to be used many times to get her out safely which caused her to have petit mal seizures for 28 years of her life.
After her birth I recognized no one– and I wanted to see no one. I was diagnosed with nothing but a ‘nervous condition’ and sent to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal which was 45 minutes from Cowansville. My mother-in-law Mary Knight looked after Linda and I did not see her again for a year and a half. My husband journeyed as often as he could to see me, but here was a young man who was just as much in the blue as everyone else was. I was told there was no other place to fix me except the Allan Memorial Hospital which was affiliated with the Royal Victoria.
My main treatment took the form of electroshock therapy. I am not here to talk about the good and the bad of electroshock therapy– but, this was the only known treatment for us women who had postpartum depression. In the 1950s it just wasn’t a recognized medical condition. Even Dr. Spock had only half a page in his book, saying you might feel weepy or become nervous after giving birth. All of this was hushed up and no one ever really spoke about it. It just didn’t exist. When you have electroshock therapy the first few times, it’s very scary because when you wake up, you don’t know your name, where you are, or your family. It’s like your mind has been erased. That terrible feeling lasts for at least a day before it starts gradually coming back to you. When you are suffering so much, you are willing to try anything. I was willing to take the chance that it might work to go back to my family– or out of there– because I really did not know my family.
Things never got better for me and each time my husband came to see me I screamed for the nurse to throw him out as I had no idea who he was. I knew something was wrong with me, but I had no clue what it was– nor did the doctors.
When my daughter was a year and a half they told my husband to bring Linda in to see me hoping it would nudge my memory. Linda said there are always two things she remembers. Sitting on the edge of my metal bed at “the Allan” watching me play solitaire, and being in her grandmother’s bedroom, everyone cuddling her saying she won an electric kettle from the Cowansville Branch #99 Legion draw. She was just a little over a year and a half. How could a child remember that night– so young?
It must have been a recollection of trauma. At dinner time she was put on my bed and she touched one of my cards. In anger I tried to strangle her. I just could not take the pressure of being asked questions anymore. The constant drone of voices, the smiling staring faces and nothing but a desire to slip into a dark and secret place again.
In 1953 a switch flipped and I began to get better and came home. Was I ever the same again? No, not really– but I had another daughter in 1956 named Robin. She too lost a mother when in 1957 for the next 7 years I had every test and medicine and operation known to man because I lost the use of my legs. Years later in 1997 Robin died from Lymphoma, it was decided that I did not die from a heart attack as listed on my death certificate ( so people would not talk) but had lymphoma on the spine– but no one knew what it was in the 60s. These daughters of mine have horror stories to tell you what they saw in hospitals through the years, but it gave them compassion to look beyond that initial glance to who people really are. They always looked for the best in people, no matter if you were a thalidomide child or a neurological patient with frightening bandages.
Yesterday Linda got the message I was trying to send her after all those years thanks to her son sending that link to the Allan Memorial. I never deserted her, and I loved her, and after years I think she finally gets it. She is finally mourning me. Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord and yesterday it did.
Losing a mother is one of the deepest sorrows a heart can know Linda. May that love surround you now and bring you peace. — Bernice Eyhelyn Crittenden— 1927-1963
This was written through the words of her daughter Linda Susan Knight Seccaspina- who finally realizes that those we love don’t go away, they walk beside us every day. Unseen, unheard but always near– this is proof.
“A few years ago I met a young gal by the name of of Kristen Thomas Easley who also writes under the pen name of Naomi de Plume. Years younger than I, and political views separated by the size of the Pacific Ocean I consider her a sister and nicknamed her Kate for some ungodly reason.”