We often say that the War Brides followed their hearts to Canada, and so they did, but they were not the only ones. From the Italian proxy brides to those who met on ships as children only to find each other years later in Canada we have had the opportunity to hear a lot of love stories. I think of my favourites as snapshots, and the first image that comes to mind is of a little girl on a ridge.
Dr. Israel Unger was born in Tarnow, Poland in 1938. For the last two years of the war his family and five other Jews were hidden behind a false wall in the attic of a flower mill. Dr. Unger generously consented to be interviewed for our new film in Canada. When asked about his family’s train journey from Halifax to Montreal he digressed, and told one of the sweetest stories I have ever heard. Dr. Unger said,
“…one very interesting thing is that the CN route passes by a place called the ridge which is 8 kilometers from Minto, New Brunswick and Minto is where my wife was born and she has frequently said that had she known, she would have gone out to the ridge as the train was passing by and she would have shouted, Israel, you're coming back in 8 years and we're going to be married. And I did. And we were…”
Another of my favourite mental snapshots is a car parked at the dump. A Canadian serviceman had married a girl from the Scottish Highlands and brought her home to his farm on the Prairies. In the early days of their marriage the flatness of the landscape was foreign and depressing to her. So much so that her young husband, desperate to offer her an approximation of her beloved Highlands, took her to the only nearby place with hills, the city dump.
We have heard a lot of stories about seasickness on the ships but only one that ends with a wedding. Agnes Catherine McTernan from Scotland was making a mad nausea-inspired dash to the upper deck when she ran right into Martin Christiansen from Denmark. She was feeling better by that evening when Martin bowed and clicked his heels in front of her and said, “dance?” Martin took her to the first class lounge and while they were sitting on a couch holding hands in silence (Martin spoke no English), four men in kilts approached them. The men held mistletoe above their heads and said, “Kiss the wee Lass”. My snapshot is of their heads being pushed together by their unlikely matchmakers, once it had become clear that Martin didn’t understand what they were saying. Catherine says, “that was our first beautiful kiss”. After four years of correspondence the pair were married.
Another favoured snapshot is of a Canadian serviceman in London, running for a train. In 1943 Thomas Lloyd Vincent was stationed in England and fell in love with a girl from Wigan named Betty. He tried to do the right thing by proposing to Betty, then writing to her parents for permission. Betty said yes but her parents did not. They were adamantly against the union so Betty, knowing they had no future, broke up with Tom. First heartsick, then actually ill with pneumonia, Betty was having a terrible time. A month later she received a letter from Tom saying that although he respected her wishes, he would still be waiting if she ever changed her mind. Due to her illness Betty had two weeks off for Christmas and Tom visited her before she left London for Wigan. Tom promised to meet her at Euston Station when she returned from Leave.
At home Betty tried to explain how she felt to her mother but nothing could persuade her parents to reconsider.
Tom met Betty at Euston as he had promised. He listened to her and then said, "OK Bet, I'll take you to Waterloo, then I have something to do, I'll see you later this week." Four days later he re-appeared. He took her hand and slipped a ring on her finger. When Betty looked down she realized to her amazement that it was her mother’s engagement ring. After leaving her in London Tom had travelled 200 miles on the overnight train to Wigan. Betty doesn’t know what he said to her parents, only that it worked, and that arrangements were already being made for them to be married on January 26th.
Tom hadn't recognized the date but Betty did. It was her parents' anniversary, and it was just three weeks away.