Nurse. Matriarch. Crossword fiend. Tough cookie. Born Oct. 17, 1925, in Moose Jaw, Sask.; died Jan. 7, 2017, Victoria, of kidney failure; aged 91.
Helen Paterson was the sixth of nine children in a hard-scrabble household of mixed-race kids back when nobody even knew that term. Her father, Charles Chow, was Chinese and ran a grocery store catering to the Chinese community, many of them labourers who had come to Canada to work on the railway, and for a time he managed the Canadian Pacific Railway dining room in Moose Jaw. Her mother, Mary Feica, was Romanian, married off at 17 by her equally hard-scrabble Prairie family; when she wed her Chinese boss at the CPR restaurant where she worked, it was considered scandalous.
Such family circumstances provided fertile ground for stories. My mother knew them all. She grew less and less reticent about sharing them as she aged.
The two stories that stand out for me happened around the late 1940s, when she was finishing up training as a registered nurse at Saskatoon General Hospital.
Once, a hot-headed surgeon hurled some poor woman's newly removed uterus at my mom in the operating room when she mistakenly handed him the wrong kind of scissors. I love that story for reminding me that while equality still eludes women, at least we have moved beyond a time when a man could throw a woman's uterus at a student nurse and nobody would dare to complain.
The other story unfolded at Temple Gardens Hotel in Moose Jaw, at the time a cool place for young people to go dancing. Helen had already met my father, David Paterson, at a dance in Saskatoon, where she swooned at his (admittedly dazzling) blue eyes. (They were together from that moment on, until his death in 2002.)
But at this dance, the owner of the club tried to kick my mother out when she showed up with my dad, because only white people were allowed in. He reconsidered only when other patrons started making a fuss.
That story snaps me back to reality on our country's racist roots, as did Mom's tales of delivering groceries as a kid to Moose Jaw's old opium dens, where lonely Chinese men exploited for their labour eased the pain of living in a country that denied them even the basic happiness of having wives or family members in China join them in Canada.
My mother and her siblings were blessed with exotic physical beauty and unstoppable personalities, so the racism they endured was buffered by a magnetism that drew everyone to them. My mother never tired of elderly men from her past telling her of the mad crushes they had on her back in the day.
One such man attended her celebration of life in Victoria, her home of many years, just to tell me that his first glimpse of her at a party when he was 15 took his breath away. He'd never seen her again.
She was a crackerjack. Helen cooked lunches and dinners for great batches of friends and family at least four times a week right up until her death. At 91, she was still acing The New York Times Sunday crossword, bossing all of us around and preparing perfectly rare roast beef after googling how to do it. May we all live a life as full-on and courageous as hers.
Jody Paterson is Helen's daughter.
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