For one Port Alberni woman, Canada’s war records brought new understanding of the patriotic roots of a father she knew only in his later years.
Sproat Lake resident Paula Peterson was a Prince Edward Island schoolgirl when classmates informed her that the woman she knew as her sister was actually her mother.
The shocking news meant new mystery for a young Paula, but it was actually helpful, Peterson recalls seven decades later.
“It was kind of a relief, because my sister was the person who did all the looking after of me as a girl,” Paula remembered in an October interview.
Her mother, Mary Evelyn Noonan (known as Evelyn), was raised in a traditional Catholic household, the family farm in Prince Edward Island, which produced hay for milk cows, and that PEI staple, potatoes.
Irish Catholic, Evelyn secretly dated a handsome Protestant boy with family in the neighbourhood who drove truck for a soap factory.
When Evelyn got pregnant with Paula, the idea of her marrying a Protestant of Scottish descent was even more shocking and unthinkable to her family than a baby out of wedlock.
“There was no way there was going to be a wedding between those two,” Paula said.
On the shores of PEI, the beginning of the Second World War meant fears of the Battle of the Atlantic on the homefront. Paula learned early to keep the blackout curtains closed, and there were warnings of German submarines in the Northumberland Strait, which separated PEI from mainland Nova Scotia.
Paula was cared for by her “sister,” but saved by guidance provided by her kindly grandfather, William Wallace Noonan, a ferryman on the route from PEI to New Brunswick.
“He was so good to me, he was just wonderful. He was a happy Irishman who just loved kids,” she said.
“He had this big black coat he wore in the winter, for the walk from the farmhouse to the ferry. And when he came home, he would always have something in his pocket for me, oranges or a chocolate bar.
“On Sunday night, we’d walk up the lane to count the boat cars – that’s how I learned to count,” she said.
“He told me I was the smartest little girl in the world, and I believed him.”
Paula’s twelfth year was something of a watershed.
That’s when her best friend said “I know something you don’t know!”
The secret: that her friend’s father’s cousin was Paula’s birth father.
So now she had a name to help fill in the puzzle: Austin Alexander Howatt.
His mother, the widow Bertha Howatt, was a Rosie the Riveter who sold her PEI farm and moved to Massachusetts to work at a munitions factory. She told her three sons they had to serve their native Canada in some way. One sold war bonds, one was in the Army.
Austin had enlisted in the Navy in 1941, serving as an able seaman radar watchkeeper aboard the HMCS Swansea, the most successful U-boat hunter in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War.
Swansea sank four German U-Boats, and was in the waters off Normandy, France on D-Day on June 6, 1944.
When Paula was 12, Evelyn married a kind man who had served as a codebreaker in the Second World War. Thomas “Sandy” Gordon McTavish would be a good stepfather. The newly formed family moved to Goose Bay, Labrador, where Sandy worked for the Department of Transport.
When Paula was 14, Evelyn bore another daughter. The good news came with another rejection.
“I said to my mom, ‘Is Sylvia going to call you Mum?’ She said yes. I said to her, ‘Can I call you Mum?’ She said no,” Paula recalled.
(Eventually, Evelyn must have found some sort of reconciliation. When Paula was grown, Evelyn would sign greeting cards “Mum,” Paula recalled.)
As for Austin Howatt, he married, eventually divorcing and remarrying. His second wife, Gert, had no children of her own. She contacted Paula and arranged a meeting for father and daughter.
Paula married for the first time, and transferred with her Air Force husband to Comox. Then Paula Anderson, she was 28 and the mother of five, living on the West Coast, when she met her birth father for the first time.
The longtime Amherst, Nova Scotia resident filled in the blanks for the daughter he’d never met.
“He talked about trying to see me when I was a few months old, but they wouldn’t let him see me,” she said.
When Paula met her paternal grandmother, Bertha Howatt, she felt deep kinship for the family she never knew growing up, but resembled in personality as well as in appearance. She learned her grandmother had hoped the star-crossed pair could form a family, and had offered to bring her mother under her wing.
“My grandmother on my dad’s side was a very loving type of person. When I met her, I felt really good about that. I often look at pictures of her and think I look like them. I think I was blessed with her nature,” Paula said, adding that she has passed the values of her father’s family on.
“I want to be like her. I have children that are very kind, caring people, and isn’t that the goal of every parent? They don’t have to go off and fight wars, they just have to make a difference where they are.”
Paula lived across the country from her birth father, but got to visit him several times before he died at age 78.
“We got along just fine. Every time I saw him, he’d have lobster for me – he knew I really loved lobster,” she recalled.
Gert Howatt was a positive mother figure who made a lasting impression on Paula.
“She was a lovely lady. She taught me how to be a good, loving step-parent,” she recalled.
In 1986, following a divorce from her first husband, Paula married a second time—to Jerry Peterson—and moved to Port Alberni where she worked at Thunderbird Insurance, and hosted a midday open line radio talk show on the local radio station, CJAV (now 93.3 PEAK FM).
“I’ve had an amazing life,” she said.
“Everyone has a story. Walk up to anybody on the street and they have a story that can be interesting,” she said.
Now 77, Peterson thinks often of her East Coast roots. Part of her family farm was appropriated to serve as the base for the Confederation Bridge., which connects PEI to Nova Scotia. The first farmhouse drivers see on the PEI side is on her family home.
While Austin Howatt didn’t talk much about his military service, Peterson applied to the Canada’s Defense department to secure some of his military records, and she cherishes them with great pride.
“We need to remember the sacrifices a lot of people made so we could sit here and talk. We wouldn’t be what we are today without the sacrifice of those people,” she said.
Port Alberni-born Jacqueline Carmichael is a Port Alberni-based writer who is working on a volume of poetry about her grandfather’s experiences in the First World War.