A war bride’s bat­tle on the home front

Heart’s Con­tent’s old­est res­i­dent gave up ev­ery­thing for love

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BYMELISSA JENK­INS

At the kitchen ta­ble in her own home on a small lane in Heart’s Con­tent, a 94-year-old woman sits qui­etly, pre­par­ing to share her story of love and woe.

Lin­ing the walls around the house are black and white pho­tos of long ago, some still in pris­tine con­di­tion. Mem­o­ries of a life she once knew.

Sur­rounded by her daugh­ter Frances, her two sons, Roy and Calvin, and her grand­son Chris, Betty Piercey — the old­est per­son in her com­mu­nity — looks around, takes a deep breath and be­gins to re­call the tale of how she be­came a war bride and left ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one in her life be­hind in Scot­land for a new life in New­found­land. Al­though her voice is just above a whis­per, her emo­tions are raw.

Her eyes glis­ten with the first mem­ory as she opens her mouth to speak.

A love story

In the early 1940s, while the Sec­ond World War was wag­ing, Betty was in her 20s and en­gaged to be mar­ried.

She was wait­ing on the side of a road in Ed­in­burgh for a tram­car to bring her home, but be­fore it ar­rived, a young New­found­land man ap­proached her. They ex­changed pleas­antries, and the young man of­fered to walk her home. She gra­ciously ac­cepted.

This man was Ge­orge Piercey from Heart’s Con­tent, who was serv­ing with the New­found­land Over­seas Forestry Unit. Dur­ing the war, some 3,600 men from this prov­ince served in this unit, which helped main­tain Great Bri­tain’s coal in­dus­try by sup­ply tim­ber for the mines.

She called off her en­gage­ment to the other man, she ex­plains hes­i­tantly, her cheeks turn­ing pink. Af­ter only six dates, Betty and Ge­orge were mar­ried, and soon be­came par­ents to their first child, a son, whom they named af­ter his fa­ther.

When Ge­orge re­ceived his war re­lease pa­pers in 1945, he was free to leave and go back home to New­found­land. Of course, Betty and the baby went too.

In fact, she was one of an es­ti­mated 800 war brides to set­tle in this prov­ince af­ter the war ended.

She left be­hind all her fam­ily mem­bers, in­clud­ing her youngest sis­ter Frances, who was 16 at that time. But many of her friends came to New­found­land with their new spouses as well.

The fam­ily joined hun­dreds of other pas­sen­gers on the transat­lantic steam ship, the SS Drot­tningholm — a trans­port ship used for mil­i­tary sol­diers from Canada.

But Betty said if she knew what she was about to ex­pe­ri­ence, she may have re­con­sid­ered the move.

When the ship docked, Betty re­mem­bers some 500 war brides stay­ing aboard the ship, and re­turn­ing to their home­land.

Cul­ture shock is an un­der­state­ment for what Betty says she wit­nessed when she ar­rived in St. John’s. It was even worse when she stepped foot in Heart’s Con­tent.

It was as if she had taken a time ma­chine and trav­elled back 30 years, Frances ex­plains.

There were no roads, no lights and no in­door plumb­ing. There was also no bak­ery, all things which Betty was ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing.

In her Scot­tish ac­cent, Betty de­scribes how dif­fer­ent her sur­round­ings were.

“Ev­ery­thing was per­fect over there (in Scot­land),” she says.

She came from a fam­ily that was in a much bet­ter place fi­nan­cially than the Piercey fam­ily. But they made due.

One of the most sur­pris­ing things Betty re­mem­bers is how most peo­ple in Heart’s Con­tent could not read or write. She had com­pleted school in Ed­in­burgh, just like ev­ery­one else there. But there was no school or any form of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion in her new home.

As Betty be­gan to set­tle into her new life, in a house she says re­sem­bled a shed, she had to learn how to bake, gather boughs from trees and live with­out lux­u­ries she once had.

Betty was obliv­i­ous to the ac­tual dis­tance she was from her for­mer home.

“Mom thought she could just hop on a bus and head home,” Frances ex­plains. “She had no idea where she was go­ing. New­found­land wasn’t on any maps.”

But there were no buses, and mov­ing home wasn’t an op­tion.

Just like many war brides in New­found­land, Betty ex­pe­ri­enced quite a bit of hard­ship. It was not only fi­nan­cial, but emo­tional as well.

She de­scribes her in-laws, in­clud­ing Ge­orge’s mother and sis­ter, as un­ac­cept­ing of her. The cou­ple and their sons lived with the in-laws un­til the early 1950s, when they moved in with a friend.

Grow­ing up a very pas­sive woman, Betty de­scribes not hav­ing use of the ket­tle and not be­ing able to stand up for her­self.

“I had to boil wa­ter in a milk can,” she says. “(Ge­orge’s mother) used to hide the ket­tle.”

She had won­dered most her life why she wasn’t ac­cepted into the fam­ily, but her mother-in-law died many decades ago with­out telling her, al­though she says she did treat her bet­ter just be­fore her death.

Betty says she has moved past all the neg­a­tiv­ity, say­ing she is a sur­vivor.

In the years that fol­lowed, Ge­orge and Betty did get their own place, a car and raised their six chil­dren. They even­tu­ally had run­ning wa­ter in the 1970s, as well.

“We didn’t have a lot,” Frances says. “But we were clothed and fed, and mom made sure we went to school.”

With such a dif­fi­cult path in life, Betty stayed strong and never gave up on her life and fam­ily in Heart’s Con­tent.

“I had a very good hus­band,” she smiles. “And good friends (to keep me go­ing).”

Al­though Betty has lived most of her life in New­found­land, she now says since Ge­orge passed in 1989, she has wanted to go back to her home­land.

“If I had a house over there, I’d go,” she ex­plains.

The soft-spo­ken woman then says she wouldn’t change much if she could be­cause it has made her the strong­est per­son and mother she could be. She is in good health and still lives in her own home, sur­rounded by loved ones.

As Betty fin­ishes her story, the fam­ily sits around, laugh­ing and chat­ting about mem­o­ries and times gone by.

A hint of a smile can be seen on Betty’s face, know­ing she just shared the most in­ti­mate de­tails of her life. And she is happy.

Betty Piercey shares her story of be­com­ing a war bride, re­lo­cat­ing to New­found­land with her late hus­band Ge­orge (in photo) and the hard­ships she en­dured.

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