Dr. J.M.G. Ewing, my grandfather

It wasn’t until I heard Stephen Page, formerly of the band The Bare Naked Ladies, talking on the CBC about his depression and bipolar disorder that I realized my jerk of a grandfather had been mentally ill. We now know more about mental illness, and I hope are more sensitive to it than former generations, but it had never clicked for me that the black holes and weeks of icy silences created by my grandfather in his home meant he was suffering as well as his family. We also, in this age of attempting to address the damage caused by residential schools in Canada, realize that events from 100 years ago affect generations today.  All the more power to my mother (and grandmother) then, for living with a mentally ill father, yet surviving and shielding her children from its effects.

My grandfather, Dr. Gordon Ewing, was born in the Victorian age, the youngest of twelve children in a professional family in Northern Ireland. He became a doctor like his brother John, (and I think his father and another brother) and served in the colonial service as a doctor in the West Indies where he met and married my grandmother Enid Carol Hazell, also the youngest of twelve, a gentle, sheltered, loving woman quite a few years younger than he.  Their daughter Cynthia was born in St. Vincent in 1915, but The Great War separated the two: after Gordon became a physician on board ships in the merchant navy, Carol returned to her childhood home in Kingstown where she and her daughter remained until the end of the war. Then Gordon became a schools doctor in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carol and Cynthia joined him in England.

My grandmother was not a forceful woman and found herself unprepared for her life in England, although she had gone to school there, and had a valued friend in her former headmistress, Miss Lefroy.  She had to look after her daughter and her household without the wealth, family, and help she had known from childhood, and although she had servants, she was not effective in managing them, doing household shopping, or living in this new dark, cold, country. Her 4-year-old daughter wasn’t impressed with the change either, and remembered the disillusion of realizing the ‘lovely surprise in the morning’ promised her was this unfamiliar man sharing her mother’s room. So life may not have been rosy for Gordon, with a small child he considered spoiled, and a wife not successfully coping with her new responsibilities.  One can hope that there were happy times as well.  Diagnosis at this point with only secondhand stories to go on is uncertain but I assume from what my mother said that he suffered from depression. He would go into black silences for days, which naturally affected the household. The reason my mother characterized him as a jerk to us is that at the same time as he was putting his family through the guilt, uncertainty and misery of his gloom at home, he could be jovial and outgoing with friends outside the house: “joie de la rue, doleur dans la maison”.  It wasn’t until I heard Page talking of putting a good face on it that I recognized what my grandfather might have been feeling, while his wife and daughter thought he could have helped his behaviour and was punishing the household. 

He loved, indulged, and educated his daughter, but controlled her.  She wanted to go to university and read English, but he told her she was to get Domestic Science qualifications because that would ensure she always had a job.  Until she was old enough to be admitted- 18, I presume- she did a secretarial course which also was of value to her in the future.  She did enjoy the cooking, and did an extra year in High Class Cookery at Northern Counties, but he insisted she go into teaching as a career rather than the nutritionist/demonstrator field she would have enjoyed more.  Cynthia was small, only 5 foot, and when she started as a Domestic Science teacher in Sunderland, her students towered over her, and she couldn’t understand their Geordie accent!  She did well, but I don’t think she enjoyed teaching the way I did.

In the summer of 1939, Cynthia went on a visit to the New York aunts and cousins. I had not heard of Cynthia’s American trip as anything but a holiday, but from the disapproving hints in Bobby Sheedy’s letter, obviously other possibilities were considered, perhaps because of the attitude of the American Hazells towards the up-coming war. [Letter dated 25-6-39]  She had a wonderful time- her three New York cousins, Millie, Marguerite, and Mona, were a bit older than she was, and married or approaching it, but that only gave her a pattern to follow.  Her passport shows she entered New York NY July 25, 1939, and there’s a stamp for Niagara August 1st, so she did visit Canada however briefly.  And, like Their Majesties visiting Canada and the USA that summer, she returned home again to face the long dreary sad war.

When the Second World War approached, gas masks distributed, preparations for children being evacuated made, Gordon discussed the possibilities with his family. There was his family in Ireland, and Hazell relatives in the West Indies, Canada, and the USA, and should England be invaded, the idea was that Cynthia would drive her mother (with petrol hoarded for the eventuality) across to the west coast of England, get to Ireland, and go to the New York cousins.  He, Gordon, would not be there, as he wanted to do his bit and, I think, joined the merchant navy as a doctor again, although the idea of a man who hadn’t practiced since 1919 offering medical services to anyone gives you a sense of the desperate straits England was in.  Still, I had the impression, obviously along with Cyn’s friend Bobby who had, with his brother Denis, grown up next door to the Ewings, that “Rolling Stone Ewing, alias ‘Gordon the Con-man’” … setting out once more for distant lands’ wanted to get away from home and would enjoy himself.  [Letter dated 18-4-40]  Teaching was a reserved occupation so Cynthia could not join the forces as she wished to do, but had to continue teaching; evacuate for a time with her school, share fire duty with her colleagues at night, which meant staying awake and patrolling after a day of teaching; and in later years, after coming back to Newcastle with the school, return for a cold meal cooked at noon by her mother (who got to do all the queuing for rations) waiting congealed on the dining-room table for her after her commute.  Sometime before the war ended Gordon came home; Bobby and too many others of his generation did not.  

The war was like six years of pause in life with little changing for my mother- except perhaps her relationship with her father.  In 1944 Cynthia managed to transfer to another teaching job in Cambridge, left her parents’ home, and started life on her own.  And, I think, Gordon’s mental state deteriorated.  Three years later, his wife Carol left him to live with Cyn in Cambridge, and then within a year or so, he seems to have been institutionalized.   He had hardening of the arteries of the brain, and so the mental illness had now combined with a physical one and he was cognitively affected- positive proof of this to his family in the North of Ireland was his conversion to Roman Catholicism!  Cynthia thereafter only ever refers to him in letters to her mother as ‘my father’, quite a change in tone from the 14-year-old writing to Darlingest of Daddies 20 years earlier.  She visited him when she went to Newcastle to see friends, and then after her wedding to say goodbye before she and Cec left for the US and Canada, but he never met Cec, and she never saw him again after emigrating, although she wrote and sent goodies and occasionally got a reply.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: