Trying to make myself learn more about using a computer I have been searching for old friends on google. I discovered three people who had been significant in my life were now dead. Momentarily despondent I reflected on the positive relationships I had had with the three women now in another world. As a very young girl I had my heroines: my English god-mother Maud Russell Lee, Edith Cavell the WW l nurse, Ingrid Bergman and Florence Nightingale.
The three women, my friends from the past, were in the same league. Heroism is simply a matter of degree. They were all special people.
Doreen was ten years older than me. She died this spring aged 86 in Portage La Prairie, the town that I was born in. I met her when I was about 10 years old and she would have been 20. A big difference in time then. She was a dietitian in the department where my Mother worked in the huge institution of a few thousand people known then as The Manitoba School For The Retarded. It was a colossal facility, training doctors and nurses but primarily a teaching facility for the inmates or ‘patients’ as they were referred to. Doreen was very young for the position but highly respected for her competency.
I, as a child was completely enthralled when she would periodically come to visit my Mother for tea. Doreen was possibly the most beautiful person I have ever encountered in my entire life, akin to the early film stars. She was about six feet tall, very unusual for a woman in those days, slim, dark haired with an enchanting smile. In retrospect I realize she was very mature for her age, always gracious and charming. Although I was always hesitant to speak to her, I would sit on a chair and simply watch her, completely mesmerized. Later, as a teenager I would drop by the institution to walk home with my Mother. Suddenly a plate with cupcakes or cookies would appear for me and my Mother would tell me that Doreen had sent them.
I would still see her from time to time when she would come to visit my parents. Now with her “friend”.This relationship of hers caused consternation to everyone for the “friend” was a married man with children.The man in question had been described by her family as ‘the love of her life’ and lived until his late nineties. His brother was one of my Father’s close friends and I gathered from bits of conversations that I overheard that there were many complications. Doreen was much loved and admired for herself but also for her professionalism and leadership. By now she was head of the catering department, training the inmates in the kitchens plus a huge staff that she was responsible for. I never referred to her relationship when I knew her although she happily chattered about what she and her friend would be doing or what she had prepared for his dinner. As an adult now I knew people despaired of her love choice but she was besotted and as discreetly as possible did all she could to help him and his family. My Mother occasionally invited her Mother to tea. I did not include myself in these visits as I never ceased in my admiration for the woman. In a very small town with a real career and a love affair she more than handled it all including the responsibility for her own family, Mother, siblings and various nieces.
When I went away to Nursing School I would drop by and visit her on my few visits home so we kept in touch. I returned to my home town after having lived and married in London, England for several years. I had left my husband and was pregnant with someone else whom I brought home with me. My Mother was shattered,not knowing what to do. My grandmother, stoic as usual was happy for me to be home whatever the circumstances. Unfortunately I was very ill and then had a car accident which required surgery. Doreen would invite us for meals trying to prepare interesting things for me to eat. I had been cut dead by my childhood friends on my return. Finally I went in to hospital for delivery, a pattern of false alarms. Doreen had made it clear to my Mother that she could leave work whenever I needed her. Some of my Mothers co-workers objected to her sudden absences, she was now a supervisor and so my Mother told me she would be unable to leave until I had actually delivered. My Mother informed her co-workers that I was again in hospital but she would not be leaving for several days. Moments later a message came down from Doreen’s office that my Mother was to leave for the city immediately! Nothing more was ever said.
Over the years we gradually lost touch except for Xmas cards. I last spoke to her at some length 10 years ago. My life really changed but I would hear of her from time to time, she had continued her caring and support of anyone who entered her life still generous, gracious and kind.
Within three years of having my children I had cancer and could no longer reproduce. I thought of the influence this beautiful and dignified woman had had on my life. I did not think I was alone. I believe she was much loved and had a good life, clearly giving more than she took.
The town has planted a tree to commemorate Doreen Buchanan’s passing. A garden in her name would also be appropriate.
I first met Bobbie just a few weeks short of my 18th birthday. We were part of the new intake at the nursing school embarking on a three year program. It was a very tightly controlled environment and we turned inwards as our worlds contracted and altered. Friendships were more important as the outside world was less available (one overnight allowed per month).
Bobbie was a live wire and a natural leader. Everyone gravitated towards her except for those too withdrawn or shy. She was dedicated and aspired to be the best at everything without breaking waves. A faculty dream and the nuns loved her. Myself, I took one look at it all and realized that I was in for a 3 year endurance test and had to go ahead with it whatever I encountered to please my Mother. Strangely enough, Roberta and I became friends, visiting each other’s homes. My Father thought she was a real sport, fun, unspoilt and respectful.
The other evening on Radio Ulster, John Bennett’s program, The Sunday Club, played Dean Martin’s ‘Memories are Made of This‘. Bobbie and I used to jive wildly to this in the corridors of our residence, much to the consternation of others trying to sleep or study. We gradually formed a close group of friends. One day about six of us were sitting around when Bobbie entered saying she had an announcement to make which included an apology. Apology? Bobbie? To whom and why? “First of all”, she started out, “I have to say that I hate looking after Finnigan’s patients” (that was me). She had our attention. What is this? She turned to me, “I confess that I did not think you could possibly be a good nurse with your casual, indifferent attitude so when you were off I asked for your roster of patients (about 12). Each of them, no matter how sick, are an absolute pain because they complain that you do things differently and never hurt them. You always sort things out and even harass staff for more pain killers for the cancer sufferers! That’s all I have to say and I apologize and want everyone to know because I have made sarcastic comments even though you are my friend.” Dead Silence. I asked her if she felt better and now could she please forget about it and would she please stop harassing my patients! It took more than courage to do that amongst her peers. She admitted culpability and also admitted to mis-judgement. In the uncomfortable silence that ensued I wondered whom else had entertained these thoughts.
Life went on, friendships strengthened. Bobbie and I kept in touch. Much later when I had a family we visited her and her family in the U.S. She pulled out all the stops and we had a fabulous time always. Roberta had gone on to do post graduate studies working constantly even admitting herself to hospital after coming off duty to have her 4th child informing the staff of her progress. Her then husband whom she was constantly supporting through his many degrees. She lectured and wrote books. On one quick visit to Winnipeg she had some free time for lunch but I couldn’t leave the house as my son was ill (he was an asthmatic and was also being treated for cystic fibrosis) so she came to the house. I was very excited as I did not get out much and hadn’t seen her for some time and against better judgement allowed my small son to visit when he should have rested.
We were in animated discussion when my son began to have trouble breathing. It seemed different on this occasion and his color rapidly changed. Roberta slowly stood, picked him up and held him out to me saying, “you and Mummie are going to have a shower now” and she shook her head so we went into the shower with clothes and shoes, turned it on light and cool and after a few minutes his color and breathing returned to normal. Later, as I changed she had him wrapped in big towels discussing the birds outside the windows. A potential real crisis averted. In later years a family tragedy kept her away and we followed up in letters and phone calls. These soon lessened but I followed her career as more books were written and she became a part of the medical lecture circuit in the US. Roberta became an authority on professional care giving and of the care of the care-giver. I only discovered recently that she had died two years ago, aged 74.
She left a lasting legacy in her work and her large family. I was privileged to have known her.
A.K.A. Susie King
Rachel first appeared in my life in the nineties as the artist Susie King. I had been given a card illustrating a mouse playing the piano. I loved it and was given more of these cards for special occasions and then I started looking in stationers for ones that I didn’t have until I had built up a little collection. Everyone I asked knew the name Susie King but nobody seemed to know anything about her until someone said that she had left the country. So be it. I set her aside for some time until one day while on a bus I saw a sign on a wall saying SUSIE KING IS COMING BACK. Still no one knew anything. More signs began to appear and then one day at an art opening – there she was – this tiny, delightful person who could have been 50 or 90…Susie King. She did not appear to have the strength to wield a paint brush.
I told her that I collected her cards and she invited me for tea at her studio/home. On arriving I looked at everything and then asked her if she would consider selling her original piano/mouse drawings, if I could afford them. She howled with laughter and said she didn’t have them anymore as they were in Ireland where she had been living, i.e. Dublin. I assumed they were in a museum and asked if there was a catalogue available. More raucous laughter. “No”, she said, “they are in the sea, The Irish Sea has them”. I’m looking at her in total bewilderment. “Well it’s like this; they told me I was dying, so I went on one of my “toots” (binges) and threw all my drawings into the Irish Sea, and I don’t think the sea will give them back, do you?” I looked at her, “Not one drawing?” She then explained.
She had been diagnosed with Aids from using dirty needles as she had been a heroin addict. So there she was, this little old lady looking like a nun from an ancient monastic order, almost 10 years younger than me, lesbian, alcoholic, former heroin addict with Aids. She was one of the most incredible artists that I had ever encountered. She wasn’t Susie King either, she was really Rachel Berman.
She had discovered her real identity beyond her adoptive one. Her work displayed this duality. The whimsical ingenuity of Susie and, reminiscent for me, of the Scandinavian style in her use of oils which was Rachel. She no longer did the piano-mouse works of the past but Susie continued in the loving and endearing animal caricatures and Rachel did the solemn portraits. She embarked on reflecting her views on the loneliness and angst of her fellow humans. Burdened by her illness she reproduced herself on canvas.
Rachel was generous beyond anything. If you mentioned a tea or a cereal, out it came from her cupboards and it was thrust at you. The same went for drawings and sketches. Her letters were always accompanied by sketches and doodles which her friends collected and treasured. Mementoes of Rachel, in case she disappeared again. Others collected her formal works.
Her illness bore down on her but she had a strong group of supporters amongst her lesbian circle and established people who followed her in the galleries. She was not, however, remiss in going off on one of her ‘toots’ from time to time. I would not hear from her and she would not answer the phone and then suddenly she would reappear. I never knew her well enough to know what drove her. She had had to leave Ireland because medical help for aids sufferers was insufficiently advanced there. Occasionally I would see her in a grocery shop we both frequented and our eyes would meet but as I moved towards her I would get the message ‘not today’ and I moved on.
In spite of her depleted energy resources she worked constantly and had time to help and encourage others, trying to find work for the disenfranchised and engaging in several charities. Rachel died this spring aged 68. I hope and trust that she will have a major retrospective, well catalogued. Surely, even the misogynist Canadian art world will welcome that. She is, I believe, distinctive amongst Canadian artists and her work should be visible, discussed and not overlooked. Rachel Berman is worthy of that.
Northern lights undimmed by death or time.