The life of a woman who may well have been White Rock’s oldest citizen is to be celebrated this Sunday – Remembrance Day – at Crescent United Church.
The date set to pay tribute to Margaret Mainwaring is fitting, given she served as a nurse in the Second World War and helped knit socks for soldiers during the First World War, among other things.
Star Hannah, who noted she lived with Mainwaring for five years, described the senior as quite the character, “always interested in what was going on around her.”
“In fact, we usually found her in the middle of it all,” Hannah told Peace Arch News by email, in a request to share some of Mainwaring’s own writings as part of the newspaper’s Remembrance Day coverage.
Hannah noted Mainwaring – who was 107 when she died in August – was encouraged by her daughter and friends to put her memories to paper. The senior had decided a century ago, at the age of seven, that she wanted to be a writer, but gave up on the dream because she was told she was “too stupid to be a writer,” Hannah explained.
PAN spoke to Mainwaring in February 2011, shortly after she turned 100 years old.
At that time, she shared details of growing up in Toronto, on a ranch 12 miles out of Fort Steele, B.C., and graduating high school in Cranbrook.
In the writings shared by Hannah, Mainwaring details First World War memories including of her parents preparing parcels “to send overseas to men they knew in the service.”
“My Mother sewing Christmas cake and puddings in muslin for safe carrying through the mail, and Dad sending tobacco products for the men,” she writes.
“My girlfriends and I collected tinsel from chocolate bar wrappers and cigarette packages, also bits of metal to turn in to be melted for bullets. All the women in our village were knitting socks for the soldiers and these were given to the Red Cross.”
Mainwaring trained as a nurse at Vancouver General Hospital School of Nursing and started her career in the heart of the depression.
She remembered, after the Second World War broke out, “being told when France fell to the Germans.”
“A lot of nurses were thinking of joining the Armed forces, I was one of them,” she writes. “I left Nanaimo hospital on New Year’s Eve 1942 to go home on a 48 hour leave before traveling by train across Canada to Halifax.
“Arriving we were put on board a ship in the harbour. There were seven thousand troops on board. We expected to sail shortly but the days kept passing. We watched envoys of freighters sail out and days later return with huge holes in the sides. These were the ones that didn’t get sunk. It was Spring of 1942 and the German U-Boat war was at its height.
“Finally we left and were eight days crossing the Atlantic and arrived in the North of Scotland, March 8, 1942, in the River Clyde. It was there I saw my first submarine with only its tower exposed.”
Mainwaring’s writings also tell of having to make Christmas decorations in 1942, “as unnecessary items in the war effort were no longer manufactured.” She and other nurses transformed their hospital ward into a “very realistic” snow scene.
“Everyone in the hospital came to look at our ward which we named the White Christmas ward as at that time the song, White Christmas, had just hit the air waves and was very popular,” she writes.
“It is an example of what you can do with very little when you apply yourself.”
Mainwaring also describes how she and another nurse were detailed to a first aid post at the edge of the battle field.
“When we arrived we found the doctors and orderlies very busy with casualties brought in from the battlefield. Some doctors had been operating steadily for 36 hours and kept going by taking Benzedrine to keep them awake. The ambulances kept bringing in wounded and a large number of them died.”
Mainwaring served in various countries throughout the war, working in England, North Africa and Holland. Her last posting was in Italy, at the #7 Hospital from Montreal where, according to her writings, penicillin was developed.
“We were among the first nurses to give penicillin to the wounded,” she writes, noting it “smelled like manure.”
“It had to be given every three hours intramuscularly day and night but it got results.”
Mainwaring also recalls happier wartime memories.
“The British people went out of their way to make us welcome and we were invited into their homes. I also visited historical landmarks and sights,” she writes.
“I remember one night at Paddington Station seeing a group of English young people seeing their soldier friends off to the front after leave. They were singing, ‘When the lights come on again all over the world, and the ships sail on again all over the world. There’ll be time for things like wedding rings and sweethearts will sing. When the lights come on again all over the world.’ It was very touching.”
Holland was liberated during her stay in that country. She told PAN in 2011 that the party that followed “lasted two days.”
Mainwaring settled in White Rock 42 years ago, and married her second husband, Malcolm, in 1992.
At 100, she described herself as having been “lucky” in health, and said values she considers important include treating all people as equals.
Her more recent writings share a similar sentiment.
“I think all the individual can do is love our neighbor and try to promote peace in our own community.”
Hannah said she learned much from her dear friend, and the friendship that Mainwaring formed at the age of 105 with a man one year her junior, Norman Keith.
“I learned from them that age is simply a number, not an attitude. That past is past, and future is unknown, they lived fully in the present and made every moment count,” Hannah told PAN.
“Having learned to do so in the most tragic of conditions and times, to make the best of what was in front of them, and to face life bravely and hopefully!”
Sunday’s celebration of life is set for 2-4 p.m. The church is located at 2756 127 St.