Wife, mother, grandmother, wonderful listener. Born in Calgary on Feb. 26, 1930; died in Medicine Hat, Alta., on July 30, 2013, of heart failure, aged 83.
Violet was born in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression. She was a small-town prairie girl and lived almost her entire life in Medicine Hat, Alta. Her life was a culmination of the great forces that shaped the United States and Canada.
Her Swiss grandfather immigrated to the United States in the 1860s. When he stepped ashore in New York City, he was immediately commissioned to fight for the North in the Civil War. After three years of fighting, he settled in what became South Dakota. Years later, his daughter, Violet’s mother, moved north with her husband to new lands in Alberta. They were homesteaders at the beginning of the 20th century, about the time Alberta became a province.
Violet, youngest of five children, vividly recalled growing up during the difficult Depression years and the tribulations of the Second World War. A few years after the war ended, she met On Wah (George) Lee, a Chinese-Canadian, on a blind date. His father had come to Canada in the late 1800s, one of the thousands of Chinese labourers who built the transcontinental railway. The couple dated for seven years before marrying in 1956, a lengthy courtship that reflected their families’ concerns about them marrying outside their ethnic group.
Violet’s middle name was Grace, and that quality imbued her life. She would not consider herself a rebel, but in her quiet way was always certain of the correct path to take. In marrying George, she chose a very uncommon course, as mixed marriages were rare at the time.
They bought farmland from the Alberta government, obtaining a Crown grant on condition they build a house and install irrigation ditches. Establishing a farm was difficult and soon after their first child was born, Violet went back to work. She raised three girls (Marilyn, Adrienne and Sande) and two boys (Vincent and Sidney), and worked her entire life to help George fulfill his dream of owning a farm. He was often away for weeks at a time, labouring as a pipe fitter at gas plants to pay for the farm.
Violet worked as a secretary at the rural school division in Medicine Hat. The secretaries’ salaries were much lower than those of male staff, so she courageously wrote to the all-male board to complain about the differential on behalf of the women. She received a dismissive reply and a minimal raise for her efforts, which rankled her for a long time. Nonetheless, she accepted it with grace, as she had few other options.
Violet dreamed of becoming a United Church minister and would have done so had finances allowed it. She was a lifelong member of her church, serving on the board of elders, singing in the choir and giving lay sermons.
She was a constant source of support and encouragement for her children. She typed endless school papers, often staying up late. Her greatest gift to them was her unconditional love, which she practised long before it became a catch phrase. Violet also loved her coffee groups, and friends appreciated her wonderful listening skills. She had a delightful sense of humour.
Violet spent her last afternoon on the grounds of Medicine Hat Hospital with George and one of her daughters, under a brilliant blue prairie sky. As they re-entered the building, she remarked what a perfect day it had been. While planning her memorial, we found a program from a church service in her files, with a hymn circled and a note in the margin that read, “Hi Kids! I want this at my funeral!” Perhaps she was ready, but we weren’t.
Marilyn is Violet’s daughter.
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