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Snaps: Mum and Dad

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Doris Violet (Burn) Brittan

Mother met Dad during the Battle of Britain. She served as a nurse at Middlesex Hospital in London where she met Dad, on one of the wards, recuperating from a crash landing. She preferred older men; a fact that she readily acknowledged and he was an officer which met another critical prerequisite. He was turning grey prematurely, at the temples, which she admitted caught her attention.

They married, emigrated to Canada and raised four sons.

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John Brittan

Dad learned to fly in Canada before the War, in preparation for it. He joined the RAF, as a volunteer, at the start of the war and served every day of it. He was born on a farm in Grimsby Ontario and raised Presbyterian which didn’t deter mother who was born of social position with servants on an estate and nurtured by a Church of England education.

Dad kept his medals under the socks in a drawer. He didn’t wear them, even on Remembrance Day. He talked little about the war except to relate that he had designed a high-level mining technique that saved hundreds of air crews. He was rightly proud of that singular achievement. He acknowledged that, on a training mission, he directed his Lancaster bomber alone over German flack in error. He said, back on the ground, the crew never spoke to him again.  He served as navigator on Lancaster and Sterling bombers and ended the War as Squadron Leader.  He took credit for devising the signature drink of his squadron and called it Bramble 45 which, he said, had everything in it.

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Dad married Mum in the Church of England. There must have been ambivalence about Faith by War’s end, likely provoked by the realisation that the enemy had claimed God on their side too. Dad was shot down three times and he was keenly aware that his bombs were not falling only on enemy soldiers and munitions. He knew those people below would have been friends in another time. He understood what his generation had done, how necessary it had been, but he wasn’t able to ignore the full ramification of it. His sons, I am number 3, were not raised in a church, but as adults, we were not discouraged from a natural inclination to find God when that time arrived in our lives.

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Her father was the manager of the national railway in India, where mother lived to the age of 10. She, like so many of her generation, was sent to England for her formal education. She graduated with a university degree in nursing and physiotherapy at the age of 21, in the top ten of all the British Isles. She mentioned this occasionally, not for praise, but for recognition that she had earned something of immeasurable value; in a family of men, she often felt alone and unappreciated.

This is her family home in Scotland (I think). Mother always insisted “if anyone asks you, say you are a Mackenzie.”

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Mother’s name was Doris Violet, on the right, Mary to the left, and her brother Colin in the centre. Colin served in the War in Asia. He was captured by the Japanese and served in the construction of the bridge on the River Kwai on which the movie “Bridge on The River Kwai” was based.

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Doris Violet (Burn) Brittan

Back in Canada, Mum and Dad settled into a life that probably wasn’t one that either had anticipated on the trip home from England. Dad, a social, amicable person looked forward to work and a wife at home with children, who would rebuild his Brittan family. His father and sister, Dorothy, had died while he was overseas. Mum was confronted with a choice to leave her home and move to Canada or forsake their young relationship. Colin, their first baby, was born in England; one can only imagine the conversation with her father. She followed Dad to Canada, with young Colin, and set up home on Rothsay Avenue in Hamilton.

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Mum with Colin Andrew, the first of 4 children.

Mother found herself doing things that servants had done at home. It must have seemed strange to chat with a neighbour over the back fence about the minutiae of keeping a house clean, keenly aware that, at her family estate, such conversation would only arise between servants and the butler. An ambivalence about her new life arose in these early years and never left her.

In 1964, with her four sons old enough to manage, she returned to nursing. She qualified for practice in Ontario, bought a car and reported for duty at the Henderson General Hospital in Hamilton. She proved to be a brilliant diagnostician; a skill which nurses trained in Canada were discouraged from acquiring. Doctors leaned on her assessments, which renewed a sense of purpose and inspired a fresh awareness of her professional development. She was a war bride, sidetracked by the demands of a husband and children, yet she managed to cultivate a superior intellect at a time in our culture when perceptions about women were rather primitive.  By failing to be supportive, Dad pressured her until she quit her job; this about face was a deeply personal defeat, from which she never fully recovered.  She had been ready to accept a head nursing position at the hospital but her resignation collapsed her ambition; she became insular, remote, brooding and, as years passed, she rarely left the house.

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Dad worked all his life at Westinghouse in Hamilton. He started in the parts department and rose to a senior executive position in sales and advertising. The company manufactured electrical switchgear and components for atomic energy plants, as well as consumer products. Dad worked in the Atomic Energy Division which ensured that there was always employment as the economy began to change.

Dad imagined that a wife was supposed to be happy at home with her family and he couldn’t grasp mother’s need for intellectual stimulation or a sense of importance outside of her relationship with him. They stayed together through rough times, or as I like to put it, ‘a lot of water passed under the bridge.’ Their relationship endured the strains typical of the social and economic changes brought by married women entering the labour force in significant numbers. They didn’t divorce, though there were times when I thought in my youthful arrogance, that they should but mother would say “that just isn’t done, Geoffrey.”

A piano was the first thing mother bought in Canada. They must have needed dishes, linens, clothes for their baby, but Mum bought an old upright piano. She would play for us at bedtimes. We could hear Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt in our beds, as the music wafted like delicious odours up the stairwell to our room. Moonlight Sonata became a favourite for me, long before I understood what it was about or why it was written or the extraordinary influence it would have on the direction of my life. Vera, soon after we met in June 1976, played that piece for me and I was hooked and ‘reeled in’ as the guys at work might crudely say.

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Mother lived into her seventies. She read the Globe and Mail line by line, every day. She suffered from Diabetes acquired in mid-life and a host of other ailments that tormented her. Her eyesight deteriorated which took away her favourite pleasures, reading and watching television. She was sitting on the toilet when she died.  Mum had pre-arranged her funeral to avoid fuss; it was brief and short on ceremony.  She was cremated and her ashes were thrown to the winds over the Bruce Trail.

Old Brittan & Shepel family photos Oct. 2015 031Dad always looked dapper and kept himself fit most of his life. A debt, if there ever is one in marriage, had been paid when Dad learned that he had Parkinson’s Disease.  He lived to the ripe age of 92 in a nursing home for veterans. When he died, his body was donated to Parkinson’s research.

There was no funeral or Last Post.

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