A generation of war brides is disappearing.
The primarily British women who married Canadian servicemen during the Second World War and accepted a one-way ticket to live among strangers in a bewildering and still largely rural country are now in their late 80s and early 90s.
Elizabeth (Betty) Bow was one of the approximately 45,000 women who left behind families, bomb sites, and rationing to traverse the often treacherous Atlantic Ocean from 1942-1948.
Only 25 when she arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Bow raised four children, served with her diplomat husband in postings as varied as Spain under the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the deepest freeze of the Cold War and Cuba under Fidel Castro.
Raven haired, stalwart and keen for adventure, Bow coped through it all, although she could occasionally be overheard muttering, “God give me strength, and give it to me now!”
Awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal for her service to her adopted country in 2002, she died of pneumonia a decade later, on July 2 in Sidney, British Columbia. She was 92.
Betty Roberts was born on December 25, 1919, in Uckfield, Sussex, the youngest child of Bertram and Nell Roberts.
Her father, the baby of an ancient Cornish family, was a feckless adventurer who squandered his inheritance, had trouble holding a job, and moved his family from one rented accommodation to another along the Sussex coast, and eventually settled his family on a small holding near Shoreham on the Sussex coast. On the contrary, her mother, a blacksmith’s daughter, whose own mother had died when she was a child, raised chickens and ducks and grew vegetables to feed her family.
By all accounts, Betty took after her mother in her striking good looks and her character. Older brother Richard (Dick) was sickly and had to leave school early and work as a farm labourer, but Betty excelled at academics and won a scholarship at age 11 to the prestigious Brighton and Hove High School.
Her resourceful mother made her uniforms and she bicycled to school across the South Downs through the blustery winds coming off the Channel.
Despite Betty’s prowess, educational opportunities were limited for a poor girl and she left school at 16 to work in the post office.
Four years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, she trained as an aeronautics inspector, working at a Lancaster bomber factory outside London, even crawling inside the wings to check the rivets.
She also drove an ambulance during the London bombings, played tennis as German incendiary bombers flew overhead and received 13 wedding proposals, according to her daughter, Jane Bow.
The successful suitor was Malcolm (Mac) Bow, a Calgary Highlander she met in a pub in 1942 in Guildford, Surrey.
At first she thought he was “just another wild Canadian,” but she changed her mind during the two years they corresponded after he was seconded by the British Army and posted to India and then Burma.
When he returned to Britain in early 1945, he proposed, giving Roberts one night in which to make up her mind.
With the war in Europe nearly over, he was being sent back to Canada to teach jungle warfare to Canadian recruits for the ramped up Pacific campaign against the Japanese.
Following a hastily organized registry-office wedding on March 6, 1945, the newlyweds sailed to Canada in the same convoy, but on different ships. Some honeymoon.
Bow, who had malaria, was hospitalized in Halifax, while his wife, by then pregnant with their first child, boarded a government sponsored continental train with a contingent of other war brides.
Years later, she still remembered the train stopping in tiny stations so that a young woman could disembark, often with a babe in arms, to stand alone on the platform with her suitcases with nothing but the haunting whistle of the disappearing train and the lonely windswept prairie for company while she waited to be collected by strangers.
Bow met her own parents-in-laws at the train station in Edmonton.
They were an imposing couple – he was deputy minister of health in Alberta and her mother-in-law called him “The Doctor.”
Getting to know them must have been an excellent primer for a diplomat’s wife.
After her husband was released from hospital, he was sent to Nanaimo, B.C., (after a brief reunion at his parents’ house in Edmonton) where he was demobilized in 1946 with the rank of Major.
She joined him in Vancouver with their son Paul, who had been born in Edmonton in January, 1946.
While working as a journalist for the Vancouver Province, Bow completed his war-interrupted undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia.
In 1949, he joined the Department of External Affairs under his hero Lester Pearson, future prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and went ahead to Ottawa to begin work and find them a place to live.
Bow, heavily pregnant with her second child, made a second train trip across the country, stopping at her in-laws in Edmonton for the birth before continuing her journey with newborn daughter Jane and three-year-old Paul.
Their third child, Michael, was born in Britain in August, 1953, while Bow was clearing up the details of the Korean ceasefire at the United Nations in New York.
For the next 25 years, the Bows moved up the diplomatic ladder, alternating foreign postings in countries few Canadians visited in those days with assignments in Ottawa.
They were posted to Spain in the mid-1950s in what turned out to be a particularly stressful assignment.
The Canadian ambassador had been recalled because of illness, so Bow, the Chargé d’Affaires, had to take over many of his duties and his wife, who gave birth to their fourth child, Neil, in 1957, had to step up to the administrative plate.
Not only did she oversee the pasteurizing of milk for her children in the embassy kitchen, she supervised the staff as they prepped and served at diplomatic functions for 200 people.
Laid low by a nasty bout of hepatitis, she was given daily injections of iron and was soon back in her evening attire for the relentless round of receptions and official dinners.
Bow stayed in Ottawa during her husband’s posting to Havana in the early 1960s, where he negotiated with former president Fidel Castro for the return of Canada’s pre-revolutionary assets and became stranded during the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
But she and the children went along when her husband was named ambassador to Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1964.
Besides food shortages that were at least as dire as rationing in Britain during the war, the embassy cook was snitching food to sell on the black market.
The resourceful Bow enlisted her own children to help her steal it back.
The family’s quarters were bugged, they were under constant police surveillance and the Czech government was endorsing Quebec independence in those fervid nationalist days.
Diplomacy was stalled until Malcolm Bow, in an initiative worthy of his mentor Lester Pearson, parlayed the mutual passion that Canadians and Czechs share for hockey and film into a diplomatic coup.
He helped form the Maple Leaf Hockey Club – the two younger Bow sons became the first Canadian children to play minor league hockey in Czechoslovakia – and, in the wake of Expo ’67, wangled permission during the Prague Spring for the embassy to run its own information and film program.
Everything came crashing down when Soviet troops rolled into the capital in the summer of 1968.
The Bows’ final foreign posting was as Ambassador to Cuba and Haiti from 1973 to 1975.
By then he had accomplished what he considered his biggest achievement, helping Canada negotiate the UN’s first nuclear non-proliferation treaty; she, her children grown, took an even more active public role.
They both volunteered on construction sites and in the sugar cane fields, taking diplomacy to a truly grassroots level.
Observing the number of autistic children institutionalized in state nurseries, Bow volunteered to work with them, but was rejected as an outsider.
Undaunted, she raised the issue with Cuban Health and Education ministers during an embassy dinner.
Castro overheard, intervened, and gave her his imprimatur.
Later she said working with these children was one of her most rewarding diplomatic jobs.
After Malcolm Bow retired in the mid-1970s, the couple moved to Vancouver Island.
Besides golfing, gardening, playing bridge, reading and travelling, she kept her volunteer work and nursed her older brother, Dick, until his death in the mid-1990s.
Predeceased by her son Paul in an airplane crash in 1976 and her husband in 2005, Bow leaves her daughter, Jane, sons Michael and Neil, and seven grandchildren.
Later this month, the family will gather to scatter their parents’ ashes in the mountains and on the sea, symbols of their individual heritages in a marriage that lasted 60 years.