Claire Adelberg Talks about New Beginnings and Second Chances

Claire Adelberg (b. 1915) shares memories of seeing the end of World War I, working at Woodward’s, and finding love again where she least expected it.


Claire Adelberg: One of the memories that I have as a very young child—I had to be 3 years old, because the War ended in 1918, and I was born in 1915—and we were standing in the doorway of our house, which was on a courtyard. The barns were there, the chicken coops, and the houses. And the neighbours were standing there because the Armistice was signed, and everybody was so happy. We just started greeting each other, congratulating each other—the War had ended. So I didn’t really know at that time about it, but, in my memory, I think back to that day and I know that was the reason, because I think we spoke of it even after that. But it was a very special day, the Armistice.

Crowds in Vancouver celebrating the Armistice – November 11, 1918
Image credit: M. James Skitt Matthews, public domain

I was married in ’40, and we came out here in ’45 and I had my first child—he was 17 months old. I loved Vancouver. I have to say, coming across mountains—coming from Winnipeg, there isn’t a hill anywhere—here I felt a little bit shrouded in, and I learned to love them. Of course, Vancouver is so beautiful, especially that we came in late August; everything seemed to be in bloom and, compared to what Winnipeg was at that time of year, it was a real treat to come to. We came because my husband’s sister had already moved here, living here.


I was very heavy when I was young and I hated myself, and, consequently, it sort of ruined my life in some way.


Bonnie (Claire’s daughter): Slightly obsessive.


Claire Adelberg: But all’s well that ends well. I can’t believe that here I am, 99 years old, and I still do aerobics twice a week and Tai Chi twice a week, and I do everything for myself, except that Bonnie is my blessing. I have to tell you: I don’t know of a mother that’s had such a good daughter.


Bonnie: The thing I tell mother and I tell Lennie is they don’t ask me to do things they can’t do. And they don’t seem to be able or want to do some of these things. It’s not like it’s deep, but they don’t understand some of the ways things work.


Claire Adelberg: And then my husband got a bright idea that he wanted to buy a business out in Richmond, which I tried to talk him out of, because it was a grocery store, it was really like a little general store.


Richmond, at that time, we referred to as Lulu Island, we never even called it Richmond. And I hated ditches, because I was born on a farm, and we moved into Winnipeg proper when I was already 8 years old, so I remember the streets. And I used to worry that we were gonna fall in a ditch.


However, he talked me into it, and we went. But, once he’d gone into the business, he hated the small penny… women worrying about every penny, which I do, too. And so we stayed there three years. And I did everything I could to earn, because my husband, in the meantime, had a heart attack. He had asthma pretty badly, and it was very tough on him. So I looked for work; I applied to Woodward’s. At that time, it was very popular. I got hired there, and I worked in the credit office there for 10-and-a-half years.

Woodward’s Department Store
Image credit: M. James Skitt Matthews, public domain

Bruce Macdonald: So what decade was that? The ’40s and ’50s?


Claire Adelberg: Yes, it would be the ’50s by now, I guess. Anyway, I didn’t mind the job. You know, I hated having to work with two kids to raise; I feel they were neglected up to a point, because you can’t be working a full-time job—which I did, very much, and I rented out every inch of space we could in the little place we had.


Anyway, I decided, finally, after complaining about this manager—you know, he was the kind of guy that, if he wanted to reprimand you about anything, he wouldn’t do it privately in the office. He’d make sure you were where everybody else was (100 people, sort of), so he could reprimand you in front of everybody. And that used to bother me. Not that he did it to me, but he’d do it to others… So, finally, I guess I’d complained about that at the supper table, you know, when I’d come home, and the kids and my husband would come after me: ‘Quit!’ And I’m the kind of worker that I’m so reliable; I mean, I have to do what they expect from me. Which I shouldn’t have done. I remember she phoned me one day, crying—she didn’t feel well, and I couldn’t leave the office at Woodward’s. They didn’t look at family lives that much. It could be that there was that manager, but you couldn’t do it.


One of the women—her daughter was getting married in Hawaii, I think, and wanted the mother to come to the wedding, and they wouldn’t let her take a week off! I remember she was so unhappy. But she needed the job, so she couldn’t go. I remember he thought he was the nicest, best guy in the world, but he was so mean!


Bonnie: And nobody ever told him to go jump in the lake?


Claire Adelberg: Everybody needed their job, I guess. By that time, I was a widow. I had lost my husband, Bonnie’s father. I was a widow for about three years.


I had a very bad back. For most of my life, I suffered, and I had been in the hospital after I quit Woodward’s, to get my back surgery. It took a while, but I started to feel better, and, the first day I was going out to the dentist, a friend phoned me to meet her for lunch downtown, because she had a cousin at the Mark, and she wanted to get a blouse or something from him.
So that’s what I did. And, while I was with her in her cousin’s office, a guy poked his head in—his neighbour— and said: ‘If you girls are looking for a suit or something, I’m sending my samples back, but you can get them before I send them back.’ And I had to shop with my back being sore for what seemed like ages, so I said to my friend—she was looking at the blouses—’I’ll go in and look at the suits, and you come in when you’re finished.’ And I loved the suits he had. And he started to proposition me. He was a real… hard to express… a personality guy.
Of course, I’d mentioned I worked only in the morning, so I come out, and there he is, in a big limousine, waiting to take me to lunch. So that started a little romance, and, three months later, we were married. Actually, I never thought he wanted to get married, and I said I’ll never get married again. But he had a sister living in Montreal. He didn’t listen to me, he phoned her and he said: ‘Dorothy, I want you to talk to the gal I’m gonna marry.’ I hadn’t said ‘yes’ yet! Anyway, we really had a lot of fun, a good marriage.


Unfortunately, I came in here, into the seniors’ home, because of him. We really had 30 years… no, it was less, because, a few years after he lost his eyesight, he lost his hearing eventually. But, before that, we traveled back East twice a year, because he represented a ladieswear line, and then we went to Palm Springs every winter, which he had already been doing for 30 years before he met me. So it was a good life, but when he got so… I couldn’t really look after the house and him, we moved into the Terrace.

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