Mavis Billie Ward: Pioneer. Matriarch. Homemaker. Character. Born May 26, 1921, in Regina; died May 23, 2019, in Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, B.C., of congestive heart failure; aged 97.
In her favourite T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “In Dog Years, I’m Dead,” she cut a fine figure. Before she died, just three days shy of her 98th birthday, the only regret she had ever truly confessed was her failure to learn the fine art of tap dancing. Her ill-starred hoofing career was a repeating conversational motif for 90 years.
She detested the name Mavis and decided to use her middle name Billie instead. As a child, she came west to live in Vancouver; Kitsilano, more specifically, but she was born in 1921 in Saskatchewan. As an adult, she bore a resemblance to the Queen, but it is unlikely anyone would have mistaken Billie for Her Majesty.
The Depression ingrained her with wry humour. Having come into her own during the war years, living upon and raising kids in a logging camp float house, at places such as Great Central Lake, Billie kept the 1940s squarely in her social repertoire. Once she rolled up a $5 bill and stuffed it into a server’s cleavage. You could practically hear her inner dialogue, “Here’s a fiver, Toots. Don’t spend it all in one place, see?”
Billie left the mild-mannered backed against the wall, wishing they could sink right into it. Her tactical growl was especially horrifying to her three daughters and son, but hilarious to me, her son-in-law. I would go around the bend with this adorable throwback character, absorbing her broadsides and firing back in kind. She loved it. She couldn’t stomach shrinking violets and constantly probed to test their mettle.
She met New Brunswicker Alec Ward in 1939, who had made his way to the West Coast to log and operate a bulldozer in forestry’s halcyon days. Alec had the heart of a poet but the practicality of a sensible pair of shoes. They married in 1940. From that union sprang a family of four generations that has, to this day, thought of Vancouver Island as their home, no matter how far they roam. When Alec died in 2006, Billie’s eldest daughter and son-in-law bought her house, moved in and took good care of her. She transitioned to a retirement home in 2017.
At Eagle Park Lodge, Billie was known to like a prompt glass of wine. Like a sailor in search of her rum ration, she roamed the decks like a cute and sparky Captain Bligh. She had the excellent staff terrorized into punctuality, dutifully delivering a tot from a box of the most acidic and regrettable pinot at 4:30 p.m. When her physician advised that she needed, in her mid-90s, to cease drinking so much of it, her rejoinder was swift: “Oh, go piss up a rope!” The doctor wisely deferred to her, as most people ended up doing eventually.
Whether her family realized it or not, Billie’s love for her kids, large extended family, unbroken lineage of dogs dating back decades and adored cat Albert, gave substance to their collective, unseen strength. This sturdy, delightful spitfire who wouldn’t dream of crying unless she could also chop onions, for the sake of plausible deniability, seems the very illustration of an era of pioneers that we shall not see the likes of again.
Vince Ditrich is Billie’s son-in-law.
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