Interview with Gwen Varcoe

An Interview on March 16, 1988 with Gwen Varcoe (granddaughter) and Martha Sturdy (great granddaughter)


Over there were big water pipes, radiators, and I remember they had great big marble tops on them, sort of like a mantle.


My, what a small room! These rooms always seemed much larger when I was young. Beside the bed was a dresser. A great big, tall thing with a long mirror and a little shelf down below and a little cupboard on one side and maybe a big drawer on the bottom. We used to play "alleys" (marbles) on the floor, right here. (Points to floor near the doorway in the centre.) They had a patterned rug that had little divisions in it, perfect for alleys.


The door to Grandpa's study was over there. (Since filled in.) Yes, there was a door here and it went into a sort of box room. The dogs were farther back (handicapped washroom) and there was a tin wash tub in that room to bathe them. It was raised up. I was sorry that there wasn't a dog when I was here. Grandmother used to tell me wonderful stories about the dog.

The ceilings are higher than normal. I've been looking at apartments and their ceilings aren't so high.

There wasn't a stove in here when I was here. There was a creamy wallpaper with yellow roses and stripes. There was also a radiator over there (points to under the window). It was never cold here.


This is the "kabuuf" which means "cupboard under the stairs". We had to keep our school coats and rubber boots in there. (Sort of like a mudroom?) Yes, that's what we'd call it today. We came in through that door. There was a Chinese cook while mother was here, but not while I was here. He was a big Chinaman; she (Gwen's mother) did something to annoy him and he chased her with a knife. I think that's when Grandmother got rid of him.

When Grandmother, Grandfather and Auntie Anne went to California, they left us with a woman who got into a lot of trouble. All kinds of policemen came and evidently she had borrowed one of my aunt's ball gowns and had worn it to some do and wrecked it. She must have been in some kind of a fight because it was all covered in blood. I remember this, too. I guess I saw it and as a kid no one paid attention to me. There was a grill up there (in the ceiling). It was a wonderful place, if you were upstairs, to listen in on conversations below you. Kathleen remembers mother and her two sisters having an argument because mother had been down and had bought something--Kathleen remembers what it was, but I have forgotten. Anyway, Anne and Tilly were giving her hell because it was not the "thing". I think it was something to wear. And of course, they were "mod" and she was old fashioned and married. It was just the wrong thing to do; I don't remember what it was.

Grandmother had to go to court when Anna Henrietta died ( in 1889). They thought she had poisoned the child. There was a lot of sadness then. Then the second Auntie Anne was murdered in the hospital and that was a terrible trial because it spoiled Christmas from then on because she was born on Christmas day. And it was very hard on Grandmother.

A table was here. (Points to the east window between the outside door and the kabuuf.) Grandfather sat at the head of the table.

Can you imagine working in a kitchen where the only counter space was beside the sink over there. There was a great big "Magestic" iron stove over there. (Points to the northwest corner of the kitchen). There was a warmer on top, and a great big over door. I don't know if it had a hot water warmer on the side though.


That doorway was not there (point to the rear entry to stairs doorway). Here was where a meat safe was. (Points to window in rear entry.) There must have been a big cupboard there to hold the dishes. (Points to the west wall near the doorway to the kitchen.) And right here was a lovely blue coffee grinder (beside the dish cupboard); it had a wheel and a little drawer at the bottom. You'd put the coffee beans in the top, turn the wheel and when you opened the little drawer, the ground up coffee would be in there, enough to make a pot of coffee. I remember her putting in egg shells to settle the grounds. We didn't always drink milk; my sister and I drank milk-coffee. There was always coffee. Grandfather bought the beans from the same man as the Hotel Vancouver; he knew the chef there, I guess, and he got the same beans as they used. It was really good coffee.

Grandfather loved Limburger cheese. There was another cheese that was stone hard; he had a fine grater and would grate it at the table. It was almost as hard as a stone, and when it was grated it was very fine, almost like flour. And it would go in a dish and he'd spoon it out to us. He also liked steak tartar.

Grandmother made lots of preserves and stored them in these cupboards. I don't know if it was Grandmother and Grandfather who supervised the picking of raspberries, but we had to do them the right way. You picked only the ripe ones, none of the pink ones. You didn't dare break a little frond off the bushes and you had to pick the ones in the back, as well, because he (grandfather) would come and inspect afterwards. And then we had to pick gooseberries. Oh, how I hated picking them. And afterwards, you know, to heel and toe the gooseberries, we got in on that job, too. And then there was gooseberry sauce and pies. There was a large Damson plum tree. I loved the picking of the plums because the boys brought out big sheets, and one of the boys, well, these would be my uncles, would get up into the tree and shake the tree and then the plums would fall to the ground.

I can remember during the War (WWI) when we were living here all the time. Uncle Bill went over early, he was in the trenches, and oh, it must have been bad. Uncle Bill never wanted to work when he came back, and he lived mostly on his boat. But Grandmother would--the other boys would go hunting. Uncle Gus was stationed over in North Vancouver so they would go hunting over on Lulu Island and they would always get their limit which was 20. And then for some reason, Grandmother would do the plucking, and then she would preserve them in jars. And the family--Grandmother, the aunts and mother--would knit socks, wool socks, for the soldiers who were walking around in muck up to their ankles. I can still see a jar of ducks that Grandmother preserved. She'd wrap the socks around the jar and they actually got those in the trenches. I don't know if Red Cross did it, but they must have had a better postal system then than we have now. I remember that and that was a lot of work.


I wasn't always allowed to be in the Parlour. That was where my Aunt entertained. In the entry, there was a great big coat rack with a large mirror, and my sister, who was sickly, would be sent to cough out there.

There was a wooden thing (looking at fireplace) with brackets and curly-cues and shelves. The windows are the same and because the wood is soft, Kathleen and I would carve in it with our fingernails. We weren't very popular when it was discovered. I don't remember Grandmother getting after us; it was always Auntie Anne and Aunt Tilly and mother, too. You see, Tilly was 10 years older than I was, so when I was here I was 6, she was 16, and you know how bossy 16-year-olds are.

There was a chesterfield over there (points to bay windows) and a piano over there (points to the northwest wall), a Heintzman upright. And I had to practice on that piano. Do you know what I said to mother? I remember saying to her, "You know, mother, if you would give me a nickel for every time I practice, I wouldn't mind practising at all!" Course, a nickel was a fortune in those days.

The lamp light was some elaborate thing that hung down in the centre. There was coloured carpet on the floor, but it wasn't a deep pile.

Uncle Bill had pigeons upstairs, and he was in bad trouble because he had them flying out where the curtains were hung to dry (storage rooms).

I remember Auntie Tilly entertaining her boyfriends in here. One of them had a first name of Chesterfield. "Chesterfield was on the chesterfield!" We thought that was real funny. Of course, he was called Ches, but we discovered his full name. One day we were in here and he wanted to get rid of us, obviously, so he said, "Would you girls mind going out and closing the door on the other side?" He got rid of us. We were quite indignant that he had thrown us out.


There was a beautiful potted palm right here by the window (east wall), and we "improved" on it by slitting all the leaves. I think that's the only time I remember Grandmother losing her temper. She was pretty cross about that. We didn't mess around anymore with Grandmother's plants.

There was a little picket fence out there with ivy growing on it and a gate. Two beautiful lilac trees were on either side (of the gate).

During the war (WWI), we had problems because Grandfather was a German, even though both his boys were over there fighting. Even Grandmother had to leave the church, St. John's Church. She was Dutch-reform, so the nearest thing would be Presbyterian. She was ostracized from the church. Grandfather never went to church. He wouldn't sit still long enough to go to church. He used to go down to the shop on Sunday and often we would go for picnics, down to Blaine or Bellingham in the Model T Ford. He had a Star after that. Everybody would get busy first thing in the morning. Grandmother would get the roast chicken out of the oven, or maybe she did it the day before. Anyway, there would be no sandwiches. Grandfather didn't like sandwiches, but there would be a real meal with potato salad, chicken. And then we'd be all ready and we would wait and wait and wait. And then finally Grandfather would come. He always came through the front door and he'd say, "Where is everybody? Come on, none of this waiting around here!" Of course, we had been waiting around for hours. We all got bawled out for not being right there with the baskets.


Yes, I remember the closet here.

BEDROOM #1 (Office)

This was Uncle Gus's room; what a box.

BEDROOM #2 (Girl's room)

This was Auntie Anne and Auntie Tilly's room. Their double bed was here (north wall between the doorway and the closet doorway) Kay and I were sleeping in it on November 11 when the Armistice was signed. I remember looking out the window and seeing the paper boys yelling "Extra! Extra!" and the bells in the churches. I don't know why we got the news at night.

SUNROOM (Sewing room)

This was the sewing room and the sewing machine used to be right here (points to the west wall below the window). Behind it was a little settee (against the east wall). Mother used the sewing machine and Grandfather gave Kathleen and I little Singer sewing machines, toy ones that really worked, with a single thread, no bobbin.

Mother was crazy about hats, and she really wanted to be a milliner. But Grandfather said, "No daughter of mind is going to work!" That was stupid because she was already working here, helping Grandmother because Grandfather would bring all these men from the office home for lunch, and you can imagine having to put out a big meal for four to six men every day of the week.

Grandmother was really not a prig at all, but she didn't approve of what the boarders were doing over at Barclay Manor (young men); they would go to Mass in the morning and then they would come home and sit on the front steps and drink beer.

You see, it was a holdover from her childhood, when she was in Heligoland. She had a friend who was a Roman Catholic and was about to be confirmed and wear the white dress. So Grandmother (as a small girl) came home and said she wanted to do this with her friend. Her mother said, "You'd have to become a Roman Catholic." Then her Grandmother got into the picture and said she'd like her to read this book before she made up her mind. It was all about the Spanish Inquisition. So she did not become a Roman Catholic.

The door going out to the patio was bevelled glass.

COMMON AREA (Boy's room)

I remember Walter had left town when I was a child, but he used to come home and borrow money. This was his room. He had a very strange family history. His mother died when he was born and his father, who was a musician, went off his rocker and left the baby.

Walter was just a vague person that came once in a while, in my memory. He never lived in Vancouver, I don't think. He was a machinist, a very clever mechanic. He'd do anything with his hands. But he was unstable, you know, he couldn't keep a job. And he didn't have any money. He spent it when he had it.

STORAGE ROOM (Collection room)

This was where we played dolls. It was a deal little room (the storeroom close to the bathroom). There was a window seat over there (points to east window) and we had a beautiful doll house. I think Grandfather probably made it; I have no idea where it is now.

This was the maid's room (Storage #1) and then when there was no maid, we got to play in it.

(Looking at picture of Bill and family at Horseshoe Bay.) That's Uncle Bill, that's Auntie Tilly, that's Myra Wardell, this is Viola (looks like our Carolyn Kittle), this is Auntie Anne and this is my sister and me. I don't know who that was, I've never known who that was.

Viola took up religion, and we haven't seen her since. She had two children, my cousins Lorraine and Dolph. Dolph is about to retire from his job as a librarian in Toronto. His full name is Adolph; he may call himself Bill because he had his father's name--William Adolph. Lorraine is like and mother and has gone into this religious business. She has one son, Larry. We haven't had communication with that side of the family.

That's Grandfather's writing on the back (picture of bindery). That's Grandmother in the back, and Emma and Grandfather in the front and four apprentices. There is a man who lived up on my street in Robert's Creek, a block away from me, who's name is Mr. Hornet. Mr. Hornet apprenticed with Grandfather, and he learned the trade from Uncle Gus. When he left them, he said he could have gotten a job in any print shop. He worked there in the late 1920s'.

COMMON AREA--FILES/PICTURES I have the dining room suite, that's the only thing I got. Madeline got everything else. My grandson Jordon got the sideboard because I couldn't fit it in my place. No, he doesn't throw anything away. Grandmother was living with Madeline when she died. I'm not sure, but maybe Gus and Madeline were living on Drummond Drive. (Talking about getting any furniture from Grandmother and Grandfather.) Why this happened I don't know, but I don't have anything.

Grandfather had a beautiful desk in his study and it had cupboards to hold his National Geographics, that he had bound himself. Do you know where the National Geographics are? They are at UBC; Madeline donated them to the library. I have one great big book that he bound, you know, of pictures, famous pictures of the world's great art galleries. I'd give it to the house.

Grandmother knew the Week's (referring to Week's House at the end of the street). Ha, ha, ha. There's Grandfather with his big nose! (Looking at Roedde portrait.) I don't remember his nose being that big. He usually didn't have his homburg (hat) half on the back of his head. Maybe he had a couple of drinks. You know, there was always drink in this house. But I never, ever remember anyone being inebriated. We had wine always with Sunday dinners and I suppose the boys (uncles) did, too.

December 12 was Grandmother's birthday, and Grandfather's was January 7.


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