8:19 p.m. - Saturday, Dec. 27, 2003
he was the kind of woman legends and movies are made of. Bigger than life, yet unknown, except to me, except to her family. Alice Buker was born in the first part of this century. No one really knows her age, she kind of, sort of, always liked to keep that a secret and there are various versions. She was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario to a Canadian/American family with British ancestral roots. Like many Canadian/American families some lived here, some there but it was all the same family, same people, Pioneers from afar. I have fond memories traveling back and forth across the border, so much in earlier and later life, I feel as American as Canadian.
Alice had three brothers and a sister. She was separated from them and her parents at an early age after her older brother, shot her in the leg at a time when guns were more easily accessible. After that, a number of stories ran rampant in the family, records were lost, and Fred and Margaret Ann Smith, from Orillia, adopted her. Fred, the only grandfather I knew. He was in his 50’s, Margaret Ann twelve years his senior when they brought her home. They named her Donelda, June Smith (Donna).
When she first went to live with them, she didn’t speak for two years and then the first words out of her mouth were, “I want to go home”. This she shared with me in a rare intimate moment when I asked her about Margaret, my grandmother whom she never mentioned. My grandmother died on my second birthday and I was asking what her first name was. Donna, no longer Alice, came to love my grandfather as they became the light of each other’s lives. She spent hours in the fields he plowed and reluctantly helped her mother with chores like the wash. She told stories of tying the family collie up to the manually operated washing machine and chasing him back and forth until the clothes were clean.
My mother had four children, Lee, Bob, Dennis and myself. We knew our grandfather Fred well both from the farm and when he came to live with us in the fifties. My father had an accident sometime before my fourth birthday and was permantly injured leaving my mother to come home from the hospital with her new baby to raise all four children on her own. There was a family split up as we went into different directions and then together but not with her. She set out to work, often three jobs eventually becoming a liberated woman by default at a time when it was less than fashionable. When we were finally reunited, I didn’t know her wondering who “Donna” was. She was my mother. A woman, strong, chaotic, always hurrying, scurrying trying to make things do, things right and upmost, get her children back and together as a family. She didn’t take welfare which was similar a cardinal sin in those early days. She worked, long and hard.
Donna – Alice was not perfect and not given to flowery phrases, nor would she want that. She had a great sense of humor, loving arms and at times could be loud, crude and selfish. Without the latter, I doubt she would have survived life, society during those early years. She loved her husband; she loved her children, she loved her few friends and she loved animals. She would say things like, “You feed the birds, and the birds will feed you. It is in the Bible.” And we believed it until we were old enough to look it up and then, we believed it anyway.
Having worked her entire adult life, often more than one job, home life was sometimes a free for all. We had more than our share of family scenes, embarrassments and conflict but what I know most about what my mother contributed was about heart. She taught us how to love beyond the simple, beyond the familiar. She taught us how to love the stranger, the outcast, the unkempt, the difficult ones. Easy our life wasn’t.
She had her reunions. In her late thirties and only when my grandfather had passed away, a relative of his told my mother that she had a brother in Newmarket. I remember walking up the steps to 371 Amelia Street and meeting Uncle George, a real-blood relative for the first time. My mother’s mother had died two years earlier after a life long search for her, my mother’s father had left wooden shoes at the farm once only to be chased away by my grandfather with a rifle, Edith, her sister died in her teens and Don and David were still living. David was still in Gravenhurst. My mother became so close to her brother George that there was jealousy between George’s wife Helen and her. Their reunion didn’t last. George was a supervisor at DeHaviland and built aircraft only to crash over Lake Simcoe one early morning, never to be seen, only to be loved by us. She never totally got over the loss.
My mother survived a relationship with Joe, who died at 40 with cancer. Then after all the children were in their teens and grown, she married Gord whom she has loved for 35 years.
Life has never been easy for my mother. There are many comical stories about her, her energy, her antics, her dress which was always chaotic but one common thread always comes through and it was this: Alice Beuker otherwise known as Donna Watts had the biggest heart you could ever know.