The World of Helen Gordon
by J. King Gordon with Introduction by Marjorie Gordon Smart
Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1978, Volume 24, Number 1
This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.
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Helen Skinner King was born in Toronto in 1876 but came to live in Winnipeg at the age of eight years, and she always considered herself a Westerner. Her father was the Rev. J. M. King, first Principal of Manitoba College, and her mother, before her marriage, had been Miss Janet Skinner. She and her sister had founded Morvyn House, a private school for young ladies in Toronto. They gave up this educational project when Janet married the Rev. J. M. King. Their school became Havergal College, a school for girls run by the Anglican Church.
Unfortunately, Mrs. King died shortly after their move to Winnipeg. Helen's young brother died the following year, so Helen was the sole companion of her quiet scholarly father. She was always devoted to him. Dr. King belonged to that small enlightened group of Academics who believed that women should have the same educational opportunities as men. Al-though Manitoba College was established as a Theological College under the Presbyterian Church, in Dr. King's time an Arts course was added and the Principal welcomed young ladies to this course. It was natural, therefore, that his own daughter should continue on to University when she finished her secondary schooling.
My mother would have laughed at being called an outstanding student but, nonetheless, she gained her Bachelor of Arts Degree in 1896 and, in that year, won the German Prize.
Undoubtedly her father considered that she was a bright enough student to benefit from a year at a larger University abroad. He was a graduate of Edinburgh University and, in the fall of 1896, Helen King went to Edinburgh. She did not work towards a higher degree, but she did have the opportunity of sitting at the feet of leading scholars of the day. In addition, she met a wide circle of people and, in years to come, she would often speak of that happy year.
Shortly after her return to Canada, she married the Rev. Charles W. Gordon, then Minister of a small mission church in Winnipeg which later became St. Stephen's. As a Minister's wife, Helen Gordon threw herself into church work. Her husband, writing under the pen name of Ralph Connor, was already a well-known novelist and his wife was always interested in evervthing he did.
As her abilities became recognized in the church, she served on the Presbyterial, the Conference Branch and the Dominion Board of the Woman's Missionary Society of the Presbyterian and United Churches. Although this took her away from home on many occasions, she never neglected her family and was deeply interested in their education. A true daughter of her father and mother, she saw that not only her son, King, but her six daughters received a university education. The stately Gordon residence at 54 Westgate on the bank of the Assiniboine River today serves as the clubhouse for the University Women's Club.
It has not been easy to prepare an appreciation of Helen Gordon that would be appropriate for this occasion. This is partly because I was too close to her, too bound to her by love over a long lifetime to be fair and objective. And it has not been made easier to know that I am talking to friends of hers - and, indeed, members of my own family - who have been more immediately close to her during a good part of her life. And then there is that aura that surrounded her - and it was not just in her closing years - that raised her to a level of esteem amounting almost to adoration and discouraged any mundane attempt at assessment.
During the past few weeks - in fact, ever since I learned of this tribute to Helen Gordon being planned by the Women's University Club - I have been immersed in letters which she wrote, most of them addressed to me, over a period of forty years. It has been a remarkable experience because it has brought me into the world of Helen Gordon as nothing else could and, in a strange way, has made it possible to think of her more objectively than when I relied upon the memory of my mother. She speaks in these letters, tells us about herself, tells us about her world, her enthusiasms, her friends, her faith. And, as much as possible, I am going to let her speak to you.
The first group of letters are not addressed to me. They were written by Helen King from Toronto in the summer of 1899 to her friend Maggie Scroggie in Winnipeg. Helen King was just 23. She had come out to Winnipeg in 1884 when her father, John M. King, had been appointed first principal of Manitoba College. She graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1896. In recent years she had been active in the work of the West End Mission, which had become St. Stephens Church, on the western outskirts of the city. The work of the church had been greatly enhanced by its new minister, Charles W. Gordon, who had been serving on a home mission field in the foothills of the Rockies and had acquired some fame as a writer of stories based on his experience in the north-west that appeared over the pen name Ralph Connor. It happened that Helen King and the new minister found themselves strongly drawn to each other, an attachment that did not meet with the complete approval of Dr. King, largely because of the difference in their ages, who sent Helen away to Edinburgh in the hope that distance would lead to disenchantment. It didn't and Helen King returned to Winnipeg and became engaged to Charles Gordon with her father's blessing.
Dr. King died in March 1899 and in June Helen went to Toronto to stay with close friends, the Taylors, from whose home these letters are written.
Here's the way the first letter dated June 27th '99 opens:
"By the time this reaches you I fear you will be thinking I have forgotten you. But there seems to have been no time at all for writing, there are so many arrangements made. I won't tell you about our trip, as your mother would do that. Maggie, Ackie and Mr. Gordon were at the station to meet me, and we all went to the Taylors, had lunch about 4 and rested till dinner time. After that we went down on our wheels to Dr. Gordon's and then over to see Auntie. Friday morning, Maggie and I went over for Mr. Gordon and we rode to town, did some shopping, and made a call or two. I got two nice white blouses, a muslin with tucks and insertion and a plain pignee. After lunch, Mr. Gordon and I went over to the island and spent the afternoon. We took our wheels and had a nice ride from Hanlans Point to Centre Island. We also had a canoe ride which was fine and the rest of the time we sat under a tree."
Later that day they go to an "historical exhibition" where the programme "consisted of readings from celebrated ? Canadian writers and music. It was a very hot night so we did not walk about much and we only went in to the hall when Ralph Connor was to read parts of Black Rock. He was received very well."
She loved a challenge and had extraordinary vitality: A group of them cross the lake by steamer to Queenston. After going to the Falls and having lunch there they come back to Queenston and decide to ride their bikes to Hamilton, 50 miles away. They start off at 2:30. Helen writes:
"We had a high wind against us all the way, and quite high hills to go down and climb up. Miss Ritchie rode rather too slowly and put us back and then she gave out at Beamsville, 22 miles from Hamilton, and took the car from there as they had to catch a train at 8 o'clock. But we persevered and reached Hamilton at 9:30. We did the last half in fast time considering our wind. 7 hours was pretty good for 50 miles with a high wind against us, wasn't it? I did enjoy the ride so much and arrived feeling quite fresh and not stiff and I have felt no bad effects. The Hamilton people were very much shocked at our attempting it but Gilbert says it will only do us good."
But her thoughts are also in Winnipeg and in the church there. Things aren't going so well with the mission band apparently: On July 13th she writes:
"I was very sorry to hear the last mission band meeting was so small but I am sure you did splendidly and you must not talk about not being an officer. What would they have done if you had not been there. I am very glad it is to be closed for the summer, for it would never do to have meetings as small as that. I was at a Mission Rand meeting the other night, it was an annual one and Mr. Gordon gave an address and the reports were read. It is the best band I have ever known about. All the work was displayed and it is wonderful what they do. They work for all kinds of things and I got a good many ideas from their plan of working."
And in the last letter just before Helen's wedding on September 28th she writes: "Do all you can, Maggie, to keep the Mission Band going. It is hard to get a beginning made."
Of course the wedding looms increasingly large in her thinking and planning. From Winnipeg come reports on the progress of the new house on Broadway at Balmoral and that brings up practical considerations. July 24th:
"So the house is progressing, that is hopeful and looks as if we might be home in October. We can't set any date until there is some prospect of the house being ready."
Then there is the trousseau. Same letter:
"I have not got any of my trousseau yet but have ordered all my under clothes and they are being made now. In a week or so the dresses will need to be attended to I suppose and I don't like that very much. The whole thing seems like a dream yet and I can't begin to realize it. But it will be very real in two months I daresay." We don't hear much about those dresses until mid-September when it is reported that underclothes, dressing jacket and dressing gown are home and are very pretty. "My dresses are well on and are to be home next week. I have just had no say at all hardly in the way they are being made and yet they are so nice. Some of the styles are such as I would not have chosen but I really like them." Then comes the description of various dresses. "Then last of all the wedding dress. It has a chiffon yoke and collar, very closely gathered and the waist is trimmed with real lace. The skirt is plain but has a little train. I am going to have a veil too. My coat and skirt are just on the way too. It is so hard to describe clothes at least I am no use at it but you will see them soon now."
But with the preoccupation with her wedding there is concern for the church and the minister of the church. He has not been well and while Helen is in Toronto he is at Metis in the Gaspe staying with his cousin recuperating through rest and the clean sea air blowing in from the Gulf. She writes August 7th:
"Your minister is improving all the time and says he is beginning to feel like work again. That is a good sign isn't it? I will be very glad when he is home again, and I only hope there won't be too many discouragements for him. I fear the congregation is going down sadly from all we hear but I don't think Charley knows."
The subject comes up again next letter on August 18th:
"Tell your mother that I am too anxious to have Charley back to his congregation to ask him to stay here. I wish he could have gone up this week, but I know he would not have stayed if he had felt quite well so I cannot reprove him. I know he is just as anxious to go home as you are to have him only he wants to be able for good work when he gets back. So much for that, Maggie. Now I suppose you would like to hear about my dresses."
There is one thing about these letters which has impressed me since I first saw them. That is the feeling of calm, unworried confidence - a lack of strain or tension - a faith in the present and the future. Here is a young woman who a few months ago has lost her father. She had lost her mother when she was a young girl of ten and her younger brother shortly after that. It is true she had support from a remarkable aunt, sister of her father who, a widow, had moved in to take her mother's place. But in these letters there is no sign of fear or self pity or doubt in the future. Only once in the last letter is there an acknowledgement of an inner pain:
"It will be lovely to be home again although in some ways it will be hard to go back and there will be a lonely feeling. But I am not going to think any more of it than I can help. There will be so much happiness to compensate all that."
There was happiness in that new life together that began on September 28th,1899. And in the square white-brick house at Balmoral and Broadway a family took shape, enlarging in biennial increments until by 1913 it numbered eight, mother, father, brother, five sisters. The house had grown too small and it was elongated to make more rooms. It was one short and one long block from the house to the church and the church was very much a part of the family's life. And while my father was the one who was identified with the church in his pastoral and prophetic role I daresay that it was Helen Gordon who made the deep basic contribution to the life of the congregation through her concern for people and her deep feeling of responsibility in the church's missionary and charitable vocation. In 1902 she became President of the Ladies Association. I have a letter from her dated January 5th 1924. She writes:
"Wednesday was the Provincial Executive from 3 till nearly 6. In the evening there was no prayer meeting, so I wrote 12 letters mostly letters of thanks but some a good length. Stopped at 12 with my head and eyes very tired but I got most of them finished. Thursday afternoon had two Corn. meetings. Friday was our Ladies Association meeting which was long as it was the Annual Meeting. I could not get out of being President again. Isn't it terrible to hold an office for 22 years without a break. But as soon as a new minister comes with a wife I am going to retire. I think it is time I was taking a back seat."
I have a beautifully embossed presentation booklet dated February 4th 1927 addressed to Mrs. Charles W. Gordon which begins: "Time in its flight has rounded out twenty-five years since the Ladies Association of St. Stephen's Church was organized as an active force in the life of our congregation. During that long period, transcendent with interest to our country, our Church and the Christian religion, you have been our President. It is not strange but fitting, that the occasion should call forth from your fellow-members an appreciative expression of the work that has been so faithfully, lovingly and efficiently performed by you."
But the work in the congregation somehow never interfered with her life in the home and those of our family who were a bit older remember the days at Broadway as happy days, centered in our parents and particularly our mother but embracing what today would be termed a large measure of participatory democracy.
In 1914 we moved to 54 Westgate and a new era began. It began not just because of the new venue, new neighbours, new friends. But because we had entered into a new world with the coming of war. Alison was born in this house in January 1915. Later in the year my father left with the 79th Camerons for overseas. The strain on Mother, which must have been great enough before, was increased immeasurably and how she maintained her composure and continued her responsibilities in the church and with added responsibilities in the community I do not know.
I came across a letter written to my father in April 1918 which I hesitated to read. It was addressed to him in Minneapolis and it turned out that he was involved in the Liberty Loan campaign in the United States, giving his account of the war aims of the Allies. He had asked Mother to join him in Minneapolis for a few days. And there was a cry of anguish as she desperately struggled with her wish to be with him and her obligations which kept her bound to her home. The children are not well, King has exams, housecleaning is on this week, and in the Red Cross drive she has the east side of Sherbrook from the Point to Portage, 52 houses. But it is the home responsibilities which are the greatest. And then she says in two remarkable sentences:
"I hope you won't think me stubborn but you know how much I want to see you and how lovely it would be to run away and have a good time and leave all the cares and worries behind. But I can't see it to be my duty."
The war ended and my father came home. I completed university and went to Oxford.
On April 30th 1922 she wrote me:
"I am working against time trying to get everything finished before I leave for the east for 10 days. Have the two upper flats done, the sun room, living room and library so we ought to be finished before the end of the week. The girls think I revel in housecleaning, and I really do enjoy it, and there is such a satisfaction in seeing things look nice and clean."
In that same letter she writes that she will be staying with Aunt Margaret, one of the Taylors she had visited in 1899, and hoped to bring her back to Winnipeg with her. She would have to hurry back,
"as the Assembly meets June 7th and there will be a lot of things to see about as we are sure to have three or four ministers. Of course, it is only bed and breakfast, unless Daddy thinks they ought to come for all meals. I hope we won't have too great celebrities."
As it turned out, her hopes were realized. On June 22nd she wrote:
"Our commissioners are only here for breakfast and Dr. and Mrs. Farquharson are always out for meals. So we have four or five others in for supper each evening. In this way we are seeing our friends."
But you could never quite predict the content of Helen Gordon's letters. Take January 1st, New Year's Day 1923:
"Tuesday night - have just returned from a hockey game to which Lois persuaded me to go as she wanted to go with Beryl and they couldn't go alone. It was a very cold night.
"Wednesday evening this letter seems to take the form of a diary, but at this point last night Gretta came in and brought Bade Shipman who had come home with her, so I had to get cocoa, etc. and when he departed it was nearly 12, so had to go to bed. The game on l uesday was quite ex-citing, but varsity was beaten 5-3. I think they really should have won but our goalie let in two or three goals which he should have stopped. Mary will be giving you the game in detail so I will not bother. This morning I was downtown and this afternoon made three calls on a Mrs. Scott (wife of our missionary Dr. at Wakaw) who has been ill in the hospital here; then on to see Mrs. Paterson and Mrs. Fisher. This has been a hard Christmas for her. Have just come in from prayer meeting."
In May 1923 she was in Toronto again for a missionary meeting and, as usual, managed to see some of her friends:
"On Wednesday I had lunch with Margaret Reid, then called to see the Cavens and Miss Reid, an old friend of my mother's. Then to the W. E. Robertsons for dinner. Thursday met Mrs. Robertson down town and went about trying to find a dress. Then I went to lunch with the foreign Corn. of our Ex. Board and to meet Mrs. Robertson again and succeeded in getting a dress. Then to Mrs. Hamilton's room where I had tea and met Mrs. Patton. Then back to Jack's for dinner where I stayed till I left for the train at 9:30. I did enjoy my visit immensely and every one was so good to me, and made me feel they were "really glad to see me I felt I was really very nice by the time I got away. After all there are no friends quite the same as old friends. They seem to be more interested in one. After a rather tiring journey reached home yesterday and found most of the family at the station. Every one has been well and good and got along finely. But I think they were all glad to get their mother home."
In the same letter, the wistful, slightly sentimental note was repeated:
"Today is Mother's Day when all the boys and girls are supposed to write home and naturally the mother's thoughts turn to their boys away from home. I have had a lonely feeling for you all day and would give anything to see you for awhile. I daresay you have these lonely times too, when you long for home and after all it is harder for you away from us all. But I am at the bottom of my page and it is late so I must say goodnight."
I marvelled that she could do so much and still have the energy to sit down and write letters. Only occasionally she would admit to being tired. Following the week of the Assembly when she had four people staying at 54 and four or five coming in for dinner every night she sat down on Sunday afternoon and wrote:
"Everyone is well. Lois and Ruth begin their exams on Tuesday, and Ruth has her music exam the next week which makes it rather hard. Now it is getting on for five and I must see about the tea. Excuse this dreadful scrawl. Both the pen and ink are bad and one of my pages tells the tale that I fell asleep several times but it can't be helped so excuse all defects."
Mary joined me at Oxford during my last year and my father and mother both came over in time for my final Eights Week and graduation. We had a splendid time visiting friends in England and Scotland. The following winter I became a student missionary in central British Columbia on the CNR line just east of Prince George. I had a great winter in the bush; my dispersed congregation was made up of lumberjacks in the camps, mill employees and their families and settlers. I lived in a shack in a clearing and mother showed some concern about how I managed and how I fed myself. She was particularly concerned at Christmas time and showed it in a letter which she wrote dated December 21st 1924:
"I had quite a time getting your box packed as it was always too heavy and I had to keep rearranging things and then had to send three parcels. I hope they reached you safely. I had some raisins which I had to leave out but will send them for New Year. Be sure and heat the mince pies as they won't be good cold. Boil the pudding in water for an hour or two the day you use it and if you want sauce take say half a cup of corn starch or flour then add a cup of boiling water, stirring all the time. Then let it boil till it thickens and add a piece of butter and a little juice of a lemon or a little vanilla. "In making scones a cup of flour with a little salt and sugar, heaping teaspoon of baking powder, to this add a little bit of butter and rub it in with your hands till it is smooth then add some milk or milk and water say 3/4 cup. Then flour your table and roll and cut. I hope you are often asked out for meals and that you are meeting nice people all the time."
One thing about mother was her eternal optimism - and I suppose this was part of her deep faith. But it showed itself in funny ways. At the Island where we went every summer she would refuse to believe that we were in for a stretch of bad weather and she would search for a patch of blue, point to it triumphantly and predict clearing within the hour. And in the depths of that winter in B. C. with the temperature dropping some days to fifty below I received a letter from her dated January 11, 1925 which read:
"We had a cold spell for a few days this past week but it was milder today. The days are getting longer now and the sun stronger so that we will not feel the cold so much."
I left Manitoba in 1929 and went to New York for graduate work returning to Canada in 1931 for a college appointment in Montreal. Our father died in 1937 and I went to New York to do some editorial work on the manuscript of his autobiography. I remained there having been invited to become non-fiction editor of Farrar and Rinehart who published Postscript to Adventure. In the fall of 1939 Ruth Anderson, art and production editor of Farrar and Rinehart, and I were married and in due course a letter arrived from Mother dated November 13th 1940. It read:
"My dear Ruth,
"I am in the house this afternoon, which is very unusual for me; and of course I should have been out making calls. But I had to wait in for a parcel and now have to get dinner ready for a Dr. Sedgwick of Toronto who is at the college giving the Robertson lectures. King knows him I think. The girls are very busy with their work which keeps me busy with the meals and housework as well as the outside things. Marjorie, Alison and I were in last night sitting at the fire and talking about you and debating whether we would phone King to see how you were, but I am afraid my Scotch upbringing won out ... 10:30 p.m. Our visitor has just gone and while we were at supper King phoned to tell us the good news, we are all so thrilled and so relieved to know it is over and that you and the baby are well. Isn't it lovely that it is a boy, especially for the first - I hope you have a doctor who will keep visitors away so that you will get a good chance to get strong for there is more or less excitement about seeing people when you are weak. Tell King to send us a detailed account of what the baby is like, whom he resembles, etc. "He is a good weight but not as heavy as his father who was 10 lbs. but the girls were all around 7 and 8 lbs. Now Ruth dear I must close for to-night but will write soon again. I had only time to phone Mrs. Fisher and Mrs. Campbell and they were both so glad and sent warm congratulations."
In New York I went from my publishing job to become Managing Editor of The Nation magazine and later to be CBC's representative at the United Nations. It is always reassuring to a broadcaster to know that he has one listener and letters from Mother game me this satisfaction. She came to visit us in Garrison-on-Hudson where we lived in 1947 and one day I took her out to Lake Success. In the delegates lounge we encountered Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet delegate, whom I had met on several occasions as a UN correspondent and I introduced Mother. Mother turned on him that warm, penetrating gaze from her clear blue eyes and opened up a discussion on the importance of the United Nations. Gromyko seemed a bit overwhelmed, but appreciative of this attention, and in a voice resembling a little the one that was to become famous through Artie Johnson acknowledged that it was all "very interesting." I wasn't sure whether this comment was on the international situation or the extraordinary woman he had just met.
We, of course, met Mike Pearson then heading the Canadian delegation, an old hero of Mother's, no less so because he was the husband of Maryon Moody whose father, Dr. A. W. Moody, had brought all the Gordon children into the world. It was sometime later that Mike was asked by Mr. St. Laurent to take over the position of Secretary of State for External Affairs. This puzzled Mother: "King, what does this mean?" I explained that it was a very important appointment. He would now be a member of the Cabinet in charge of foreign policy and there was quite a good chance that on Mr. St. Laurent's retirement he would succeed him and become Prime Minister. "Oh-h-h" said Mother, "he is much too good for that."
Back in Winnipeg, she reported on the events close to her heart: June 13th, 1948,
"The next Wednesday we all went to the unveiling of the tablet at 54 Westgate. You would get the account from the paper I sent. Every one spoke very nicely and Mrs. Knox of the Authors Association gave a very fine tribute to Daddy. She gave me, a copy and Ronnie is getting me some copies. Dr. Perry handed me two copies of his prayer so I am enclosing one - I think he was pleased they asked him to take part. Friday afternoon Mrs. Woodside, Jean and Elinor were over for afternoon tea. Saturday I went to Mr. Moses Wood's funeral - He died very suddenly. Monday I went to see Mr. and Mrs. Moir. He is leaving for Scotland for a visit tomorrow. Tuesday I went to see Aileen Motley Durksen who has just had a goitre operation."
And from Kenora, where each Sunday morning at 11 she took a seat beside the radio, she wrote on August 1st, 1948:
"I have just finished listening to a very fine sermon from Grace Church by Richmond Craig "Christ in you, the hope of glory." He spoke briefly of some of the substitutes being offered by Science, Philosophy, Social Reform, Political Strategy and how they all acknowledge their failure to bring about a better condition of things. He said 1/3 of the world is starving to death, 1/3 gorging to death - 1/3 worrying to death. He may not have the polish of some preachers but he certainly keeps you interested and makes you think pretty seriously. He said the humanism when he was a boy which claimed that there was no need of God, that man was the master of things, had now taken on a new look, its skirts longer, called existentialism and denied that there was a God. But I won't bore you. But his sermon impressed me and I was sorry I was the only one who heard it."
It was in 1954, after I had joined the UN Secretariat and received word that I had been posted to Korea to take charge of the information service for the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency that I discovered the range of Mother's interest and knowledge that I should have suspected before. When she received the news she was torn between a natural wish to have me remain on the North American continent and a genuine interest in seeing me in a milieu with which, as an active missionary woman, she was quite familiar. I found, in fact, in talking to her, that she knew much more about Korea than those who had briefed me at the UN headquarters.
"If you go to Seoul," said Mother, "you must look up Dr. Florence Murray at Severance Hospital which our WMS has been supporting. She's a wonderful woman."
I had my first Korean meal as guest of Florence Murray at Severance Hospital. I ate or supped the biting, hot peppery soup; I ate kimche for the first time - that highly nutritious, abominably tasting dish prepared from marinated cabbage, stored for months while it ripens in huge crockery jars with alternating layers of red peppers and garlic. And at the village receptions held to honour the UN for its work to help the people of Korea I was the one who was able to partake, eventually with relish, of Korean dishes, kimche and all. She wrote me to Seoul on January 29th, 1956:
"I was so glad to get your long interesting letter telling about the service at the large Korean Presbyterian Church. The two things that impressed me most were that there were as many men as women and that the congregation's singing was tremendous. When I was at church the next day I looked over the congregation that I could see and should say there were five times as many women as men. I will take it more seriously and probably there will be more than five times. I was speaking to one of our women I was visiting and she said "Give that to Dr. Martin to read to the men of the congregation" but I don't think I would do that."
While I was in Korea, Ruth and the children lived in Japan. And this record should be complemented by the letters which they received, because they became just as important part of her world. From Seoul and Tokyo we moved to Cairo where I became head of the UN Information Centre and, after the outbreak of the Suez War and the subsequent UN peacekeeping operation, joined General Burn's staff on the Suez Canal and later Gaza. Ruth and the children were evacuated to Rome. At Easter 1957 I managed to hitch a ride on a military aircraft to Naples and so join the family. Mother wrote on May 6th, 1957:
"We were all so delighted that you had 2 weeks with Ruth and Charley and Alison and it was especially nice to be with them at Easter. I got yours and Alison's cards from Florence and your air letter of the 22nd from Rome the day before you were leaving for Naples. And then received a very long one from Ruth giving a detailed account of all you did when you were together. It was lovely that you spent three days in Florence for I remember that it was your favorite city. Of course you have been in many other countries and places since then. I am so glad that you were feeling so much the better of your visit and found everyone so well. I can't imagine Charley almost as tall as you and Alison taller than Ruth. We are all thrilled that you will have your home leave and that we will have you at the lake.
"I am afraid my last two weeks have been spent trying to go through dozens of boxes of letters, missionary talks, manuscripts, etc. all in piles in my cupboard. I am a great hoarder just like youI just can't destroy family letters, and letters from old friends."
We were back in Cairo in the summer and fall of 1957 and received this remarkable letter dated December 15th 1957. Helen Gordon at this time was 81.
"Dearest King and Ruth:
I have been trying all week to get a letter away so that it would reach you by Christmas in case you did not receive the Christmas parcel to bring you all our best love and Christmas Greetings. Now it can only be a note as this has been as busy a week as I have ever had. Monday a supper meeting at 6 of the Isabella McTavish Auxiliary. Tuesday at 2:30 Joint Christmas story of a little Egyptian boy of 2 who was homeless and no one would have anything to do with him in the place he was because he was an Egyptian. It was a beautiful story of his life and how he won the respect of everyone by his Christian character. The lady who is a librarian in one of the city libraries was a perfect story teller. Wednesday the Conference Branch Executive had a coffee party for our city mission workers and retired missionaries. Friday the Women's Union had their meeting in Young Church. After the business Dr. Lockhart gave a very fine Christmas message. Yesterday afternoon the Sunday School had their entertainment and Santa Claus, also a magician. The program was very nice one number by the beginners in which Mary was. Quite a number by the different classes of Ruthie's Primary Department and a couple by classes a little older. "Susan was in one ... This morning the children brought their white gifts and tonight there is the Christmas pageant, Michael is one of the Shepherds and Susan an angel. Ruthie has been trying to get the costumes in shape .. . She will certainly be glad when this is over. Every day has been filled with school practices and then 5 or 6 broadcasts - really recordings for the Carol Broadcasts and Sunday School of the Air. (My italics)
"Now I have not mentioned Thursday and I know how grieved you will be. Although the doctor felt Mr. McWilliams was very ill and very little could be done nothing so sudden was expected. He died very suddenly Monday afternoon and the funeral was in the church Thursday."
But her thoughts were not in any way restricted to Winnipeg, however intense her interests, however absorbing her friendships, however direct her sympathies. Christmas meant a reaching out. And she wrote that year:
"The last 2 or 3 weeks I have been sending Christmas cards to my best friends (missionaries) in Korea, Japan and India, but as it's the only time in the year the card is really quite a long letter. Then there were the cards for quite a number in England and Scotland and the continent. I have not them all done yet. Now I have the friends in the States and Canada and there are dozens of them and I just can't sign my name. Then there are the little gifts for the nieces and nephews and dear friends in different places not to speak of the families here and in the East. So I feel my hands will be pretty busy till Christmas. I have to make my mince meat Monday or Tuesday. So sorry not to send you mince tarts but I am afraid they would not be eatable by the time they got there and to Australia." (My sister Marjorie was there.)
She suffered a stroke in the summer of 1959. This slowed her down a bit and, to her exasperation, interfered a bit with her memory for names but not with her general mental competence or her interest in people and events. I was assigned to a mission in the Congo in August 1960. Christmas Day I received an urgent cable that she was seriously ill. I returned and was able to spend some weeks with her in Winnipeg. She remained quite ill but her condition became stabilized and I returned to New York to be posted once more to the Congo as head of the UN Information Service there.
On March 17th I was visiting the Irish United Nations Peacekeeping unit at Kamina in the east-central Congo. Plans had been made to celebrate the day fittingly for these fellows far away from home. The Irish soldiers had become interested and involved in the work some of the missionaries had been doing with the children in half a dozen villages close by, mixing some of the educational work with boy scout and girl guide training and songs and dances from their own tradition. So the soldiers invited the children to share in the celebration and a couple of hundred came.
I received the news of Mother's death that afternoon. It had not been entirely unexpected but nevertheless came as a crushing blow. My immediate reaction was to withdraw to be alone with myself. And that's what I did. But then I thought: it's hardly fair to absent myself or to impose my grief on my hosts in their day of celebration. So I went to the bonfire. The Chaplain sang "Oh Danny Boy," and some of the boys performed. And then the little Congolese children took over the show. They sang, alternating the songs they had learned from the missionaries with their own music. And they danced, beating the time with drum and cymbal, with an elan and a joy that could hardly be equalled by children from the west. And the Irish were delighted and applauded and cheered and afterwards took them to the mess hall where the cook had prepared them a meal. It was a marvellous, joyous celebration. Mother would have loved it.
Page revised: 20 July 2009
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