There was such a wonderful response to Martha Baird’s interview that I’m going to give you another. In 2009 I sat down with Alice Clarke, nee McIvor, introduced to me by my dear friend Bessie Saunders. Alice is another speaker whose voice needs no interference from me, as she shares her recollections of growing up at the Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children.
Alice [McIvor] Clarke
I came to Gowans Home when I was three and Martha [Baird] was about 15 and she was one of the older if not the oldest girl there at the time. She was assigned to look after me and I’ve always regarded her as sort of a mother figure and we’ve kept in touch over the years. I can’t really remember how old I was when Martha left, but I was eight when my parents had their first furlough and I had two younger sisters who had gone out to Africa with them. They all came home and I was with them for a year in Toronto for that furlough, and then they came back and we were left… Mother and Daddy came home on furlough when I was eight and again when I was 15. They were home for almost two years then, and I’m not quite sure why. They were running a leper colony (Oyi River leper colony) before they came that time and I think they had to gather a lot of equipment and supplies together
The first time my sisters were left at Gowans Home—this was after my parents’ first furlough—Miss Buchanan, who was in charge of the younger girls at the time, came in and said, “It’s time for supper.” And my younger sister said, “Where’s my mommy?” Miss Buchanan said, “Oh, your mommy is gone.” Mother didn’t’ say goodbye—she hadn’t prepared the girls. I knew what I was getting into because I’d been there before. The girls had not been prepared for something like this…
Alice McIvor Clarke with two others, 1935
Miss Kaercher was there, Linda Kaercher and I loved that woman. She was just darling. She was a single woman and from my perspective, as a little kid, I didn’t think she was doing anything spectacular, she was just there. She was a warm lap if you cut yourself. She used to paint apples on our knees with Mercurochrome if we fell down and scraped our knees—she’d paint you a big red apple and you felt really proud of yourself. They don’t even use Mercurochrome anymore. Too much mercury in it.
I remember one of the older girls told me once, if you swallow your chewing gum your spit will dry up and you’ll die. I was in the yard having hysterics because I’d just swallowed my gum and Miss K came out and gave me a red-and-white-striped candy and she said, “You’ll find that this will restore your spit.” And it did. She was such a nice person, so comfortable. She was a nurse and whenever we were sick, which you know the usual childhood complaints—measles, mumps, chicken pox, we all had them at varying stages. There was always some kid with a contagious disease. Miss K used to put a pillowcase on her head, you know like the English nursing sisters? Tuck it behind her ears and it would stream down her back and that was her nurses cap and she would run around. I think it was her idea perhaps of cleanliness because she didn’t have a nurse’s uniform per se but she’d just put this pillowcase on her head and it’d look just like those caps that British nursing sisters wear.
So, having been at the Gowans Home from the age of three, it was just where I was. The very first thing I can remember about Gowans Home, before I remember Miss Kaercher or Martha even, was somebody scrubbing the kitchen floor and to me it seemed an enormous expanse of floor. It was brown linoleum. I remember when I went back there in later years I thought; this is actually quite a small room. I sat on the floor and they had two cooks there then, Mary Lou and Margaret Rice, they were Mennonite girls from town and I was very spoiled, I think. I was the youngest there for a while and I had my own humpty-dumpty mug and they used to let me lick out bowls and things like that. I kind of roamed around on my own…Martha used to take me for walks and so on. She always claimed that I would ask her who everybody was who lived in the houses and she’d say, “Oh, I don’t know.” And I’d say, “How can you love your neighbour if you don’t know who they are?” Because we had that sort of thing drilled into us every day.
I never had any resentment—I know some of the others suffered from feelings of abandonment all their lives. I think again, it was maybe because I was so young, I just took it for granted that this was my lifestyle. The only time, I think, and this is silly, I ever felt real resentment was when I was in the Christmas pageant, I was in Kindergarten, and a bunch of us were angels and we had cardboard wings with silver sprinkle on them and little tinsel halos and everybody’s mother was fussing over them. And I was kind of just standing there. Another girl’s mother came over and said to me, “Oh you poor little thing,” and she started crying. And I remember thinking, I am not a poor little thing! I mean I was really mad and I just stood their very meekly. That was just about the only time I can remember that there was a real sweep of resentment. I was very young and I don’t think I even knew why I was so mad. But I was. I was very angry.
I think the one thing the life we had leaves with you is…sort of a free-floating sense of isolation; that you’re always on the periphery of a group. It took me years to get over that feeling, always, that if I injected myself into a group, I was imposing because I didn’t have the same background as everybody else. I wasn’t up on all their current fads.
Alice McIvor, centre, with other children, front porch steps at Gowans Home, 1935
Most of the kids were school age when they were left at Gowans Home and I was left— it would have been ’38—WWII was on then and I don’t know for sure but I think that may have been the reason I was left there. I think they were uncertain about what was going to happen. I came over to Collingwood from England, Liverpool was [the Mission’s] port of departure by ship, with Guy Playfair and his wife; he was the director of the mission [SIM].
My parents had been stationed in Africa when I was born. I was born in a place called Ogbomosho [Nigeria] and we came back to England, and my sister Jean was born in Ireland and Irene was born in England. I don’t know why I was brought to Canada, because I remember Mother saying that her parents would love to have kept me in Ireland. I think [SIM] wanted the kids, if possible, sort of centralized…so that they could be indoctrinated (chuckle); not that, so that they could be raised—this is my idea, it’s not definite; you know, with Christian principles and things like that. I think this is why, because I remember another girl, close to my age, when she came, I remember her mother telling me that her [grand]parents wanted to keep her with them and the mission said no. They wanted them sent to Gowans Home.
I think there may have been [hard feelings from families] but I never got any of that. My father’s family were Scottish and they wrote fairly regularly, but I didn’t really know them. I felt I knew my mother’s family better and that my Irish grandparents were very faithful about writing. They wrote to me a lot. But when I was about five, and a lot of my father’s relatives settled in the States, and I went to Detroit to spend— I don’t know how long it was—I spent some time with some of my aunts and uncles there. And when I came back it was determined that I should not go to visit any of the relatives again because I came back saying things like “gosh” and “darn”. If they could hear my vocabulary now!
My father’s side of the family thought my parents were a little bit crazy and even as an adult, when I visited Scotland with my parents, they still regarded them as slightly nutty for having left me. But you know, everybody does their own thing, this was their attitude. My mother’s relatives felt it was strange but quite normal considering…because I’ve often felt I had an almost Victorian upbringing and yet it certainly wasn’t Victorian times. We were very much brought up with “children should be seen and not heard” at the dinner table. I mean we really had excellent table manners; you can’t believe that can you? Miss Buchanan used to say, “Your hips can touch the back of your chair but your spine and your shoulders never.” So, we sat like this at the dinner table, you know, until we forgot something and were brought up short, slumping. But my mother’s family, I think they understood that my parents felt God had called them to be missionaries. I think it’s very much now, in a sense, like Doctors Without Borders and things like that. People think, How can you go into places like Somalia and places like that? Because they feel called, not necessarily a religious calling but certainly a moral or an ethical calling to get out and help people. I grew up on stories of David Livingstone and Mary Slessor [pioneer missionary to Nigeria; d. 1915]. I regarded that as a pretty normal thing for people to want to do, and yet, as an adult I look at my kids, I have four, and think, I couldn’t leave my babies.
Nigeria was British West Africa then, and they had a Colonial government with British district supervisors and things like that. Very few Africans themselves were in positions of authority or in middle management. They would be lower clerks and things like that in those days, in the 30s and so…people who were in the colonies went out there and the kids were sent back to school to England and it was considered very normal because there were, certainly there were vaccinations and things when I was a kid but everybody seemed to have malaria. I had to take quinine from the time I was born, practically. There was always the thought that Africa was, you know, the Dark Continent, and there certainly were no schools set up for white kids. There are now, the later generation.
Do you know what the motto of the Sudan Interior Mission was? “By Prayer,” just two words and my parents lived their entire lives by that, they really did. If they ever questioned anything it was always, “We’ll pray about it.” And they did. I think my mother had stronger faith even than my father. And she was a very sweet woman, very gentle. But boy, her faith was absolutely rock solid. I understood from a very early age that she loved me and would liked to have taken me with her, but couldn’t because I needed my education and so on.
As far as schooling, we were expected to achieve but I think most of the kids’ parents; I think a lot of it was genetics. I don’t think, I mean if they couldn’t cope with the language when you went out to the mission field then I think they sent them home. I remember somebody’s parents got sent home, because they couldn’t master the language. They were very difficult dialects to learn, much more difficult than French and things like that and I studied Latin and French in high school and I don’t think I could have coped [with Nigerian dialects]. Both my parents had a facility for language; they picked it up quite easily. But there were a lot of different dialects, there’s Swahili and Nama and a lot of different ones. So, I think that the parents, most of the parents were relatively intelligent people and most of them had had post-secondary education of some sort; bible school or an equivalent of a BA, if not an actual degree.
But my parents’ generation, my father, certainly, had very much that colonial attitude as far as the people they were working with…My father always said, “God made them differently and their jaws were articulated differently. Otherwise, how could anthropologists tell if they were Caucasian or Negro?” I used to argue with them on that. I read a lot of Margaret Meade at one point. My mother saw them as God’s children, everybody was God’s child. She didn’t seem to have that colonial attitude, but my father had it in spades, I think. He had a military background. He joined the Scots Guards; you know the bearskin hats and whatnot? He had a very military bent and boy, I mean the mission admitted, he whipped that settlement into good shape and made everybody take a mattress outdoors everyday and shake it and air it out and, you know? My mother did the nursing bit. She was not a trained nurse but she had read and read and read. She had taken courses in tropical medicine and whatnot so she was as good with experience and a lot of problems were things, she just solved herself. Like big gashes and so on—she’d just take a piece of stout thread and sew them up. There was nobody else to do it. And a lot of their problems were parasites. She had lovely stories of worms, which I hate to this day.
My mother always said you couldn’t save anybody’s soul by injuring their stomach. She did not believe in running around with an open bible preaching to people. She felt that you needed to feed them and if she possibly could, give them a way to earn an income or teach them to do something before you started preaching. She said then they would say to you, “Why are you doing this?” She would say, “My God told me that I needed to do this.” But some people had a slightly different approach than that—if you shouted loud enough, it would save these people. Then I guess it was up to God to provide a living for them. But you know, that was my mother’s attitude anyhow and it was my father’s attitude too. He believed in what he called “Muscular Practical Christianity”. In other words, you get mad. He always used to say, “It’s no good being so heavenly minded, you know? What’s the use?” And I agree with that wholeheartedly. To be honest, I truly don’t think my father believed he was working with equals. I think he felt that these were the children of God, but they were misguided and slightly inferior.
We had church before church every Sunday and then we had church and then we had Sunday School and then you had the 7 or 7:30, I can’t remember what time it started and we all went to the Baptist church, and a lot of the Gowans kids were Presbyterian. My mother, for example, was raised Anglican, my father Presbyterian, but the Baptist church was chosen, and of course we all had to go to the same one, you couldn’t have all these kids scattered around town. So, religion, which is a word I hate, I prefer it when people say someone is spiritual or something, or faith I guess, was really a very important part of my life from the time I could sit up and say my alphabet and God, I remember telling my local rector at home, one time he said, “When did you decide that God was a useful adjunct to your life?” And I said, “Well I don’t know. I think it was when I was nursing, first of all, because God was like Kleenex, you know? If you needed one you picked one up and blew your nose.” And he laughed, he said, “I’ve never heard it described like that.” And I said, “But that’s what it was like, it was so much a part of my life it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be there, or that you could walk away from Him.” Which, I don’t think I ever did. I think when I was in nursing, I began to see that there was a power greater than me and a power greater than everybody around me, and that in fact is what I call God, but I don’t think it was until I was you know, 19 that it really hit me. They used to have Revival Meetings all the time, the Mennonites would have camp meetings in the summer and if you felt God working in your life you went forward and got saved. Well, my friend would go to every meeting and she’d say to me, “Why don’t you get up and go?” And I’d say, “Because! That’s, you know? No! To me your faith is a personal thing.” I couldn’t do it. It’s like, I don’t know, it would be like taking your clothes off in front of a total stranger. I mean if somebody says to you, “How did you get through that bad time?” And you say, “Because of my faith.” Fine. But I think it’s such an intimate thing that you can’t go around with a placard saying, “I’m saved! I’m saved!”
Gowans Home girls: L to R – Alice McIvor, Anita Proctor, Evelyn Dancy, Beth Percy, and Marlene Germaine
I never felt as though I was in a different boat from the other kids, we were all in the same boat. Some of the kids handled it differently. I think it was easier for me because I came when I was so young but I’ve had people say to me since… “I don’t know how you can possibly have a normal family life when you didn’t grow up in a family.” And I say, “It’s not hard. I think I did okay.” It was an extended family in one sense and I felt that.