Gwyneth (Allen) Smith

For those of you wanting “Nuts and Bolts”, here it is:

Attended CS Chengdu: 1948-49

Education: Registered Nurse, Royal Victoria Hospital, 1955

Married in 1957. Three sons and two daughters. Four grandsons ages 1-6

Worked in nursing intermittently until 1985. Became a Realtor in 1978

Retired January 1, 2007

Presently live in Escondido, CA about 30 miles northeast of San Diego

Interests: Gardening, music, travel, current events, politics

Anyone with an interest in the long version, here goes:

It was in January 1948 that I first attended the Canadian School in Chengdu. I was one of the few there who was lucky enough to have spent some time, a little over a year, at the Canadian School in Jenshow during WWII. Sister Phyllis would soon join me, having stayed behind in Shanghai due to a stubborn ear infection.

I had a room of my own as, at age 13, I was the eldest girl resident. There were just three of us in High School: Bill Willmott, Marion Walmsley and me. They were both in the 11th grade, I think. I was in the 9th. Sam Wong joined us later in 1948. We had a couple of classes together; History and English. Mr. Newcombe taught history, Mrs. Willmott, English. All the rest of the classes I took were one on one: Math, Latin and French, Music. I truly would not have passed the grade if we had not had such small classes. I had barely passed 8th grade in Montreal. I think the class I was in there was over my head. Now it was impossible not to pay attention and do my homework.

The classroom was close to the dining hall and particularly on Wednesday’s from 11:30 on, the delightful fragrance of our noonday Chinese meal cooking, made concentrating on studies very difficult. That was, without doubt, the best meal of the week for many of us. The second best was mien which we had on Thursday nights.

I always liked English and found it easy. I learned quite quickly that Mrs. Willmott liked “flowery” prose and poetry. While studying alliteration I decided to pull out all the “stops” and wrote a poem I knew would please her. She was delighted. It wasn’t often that I pleased my teachers. I’d love to read that poem now.

To the contrary, I went to the Sparling’s home, about a ten minute bicycle ride behind the school, sat with Mrs. Sparling at her dining room table and struggled through Latin and Math, a particularly difficult subject for me. She must have had great patience! But one time she said abruptly to me: “Aha! I knew you were cheating and now I have proof of it! You’ve been checking your answers with the back of the book, haven’t you?” I had to admit that I had. “You had the right answer to that long division question but you changed it to match the book. THE BOOK WAS WRONG!” I had done the problem to five decimal points a number of times and the last digit was always one off. I figured I’d just change the number to match the book. Never again! But I learned a very good lesson from that encounter.

Each evening we all studied together, supervised, in the library where it was warm. The boys’ bathroom was directly above the room, the water there being heated by the stove below. We each had a designated bath night and were excused from study hall for that purpose. One night one of the younger students began singing in the tub: “Kiss me once, and kiss me twice and kiss me once again….” and the library was filled with laughter. I think it may have taken him a long time to live that down.

I studied piano with Mrs. Wilford who lived very close to the school. I loved music and especially playing piano. Practicing was fun and I often had an “audience” of one or another of the students. In the spring of 1949 Mrs. Wilford had me give my own piano recital. Some of the group of missionaries came, bringing bouquets of flowers, and one of the dentists made a mold of my hands in plaster. I felt like a celebrity. It was fun being at the school as we all did things together; swimming, tennis, games, sports day, studying, eating, music, Maypole dancing and midnight feasts. Not so much fun was a two week stretch in isolation when Phyllis and I had measles.

However, by the summer of 1949, there were no longer classes provided for me. In August Dad put me on a plane in Hong Kong bound for Montreal. It took five days to get there after stops in Okinawa, Tokyo, Wake Island, Honolulu, San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto. How I got there safely is a tribute to the airline staff. I was met at the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal by my Aunt and sister Margaret, with whom I spent several days shopping in preparation for a year of boarding school at Stanstead College in Stanstead, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec province. The town was right on the border of Canada and the United States.

Stanstead College is a coed school providing kindergarten through grade eight to the local English-speaking children. The High School was exclusively for boarders. Again, I liked it very well, a schedule of activities being provided most of the time with a few hours on the weekends when we were allowed to go to “town” to the soda shop, movies and church. We had dances both formal and less so. School again was well disciplined with the teachers giving extra help as needed. Again, I was involved in sports and music. For awhile I thought I might major in music but I wanted to be a concert pianist not “just a teacher”. I began to realize I did not quite have the talent for that, there being music students better than I, right there at the school.

By the time I graduated in June of 1950 a more important decision was where I would spend the summer. It was decided I would spend the time with my aunt, a commercial artist, living in the U.S. We were at the Inn and cabins of friends in Connecticut. My aunt painted most days after dropping me at the beach. We went to art galleries and a couple of summer stock productions.

By fall, Mother, Phyllis and Marion had returned from China, leaving Dad behind. I had decided to enter Nursing School but needed Chemistry and Biology which I had not taken at Stanstead. I enrolled in Grade 12 at Westmount High School, equivalent to first year University. When I graduated from there in 1951, I was still too young to enter Nursing School, the required age being eighteen. So in September, I went to work in the Claims Department of the Sun Life of Canada Insurance Company. Summers were spent as a counselor at camp; first the Old Brewery Mission Camp in the Laurentians and secondly, the Camp for Crippled Children at Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Through working, I was able to save the $500 I would need for three years of training at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal.

The training program was rigorous, thorough and though difficult, in many ways was again, very enjoyable. I surprised myself and my parents by finishing sixth in my class of more than seventy students in August of 1955. I favoured Paediatrics so applied for employment at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. They had a wonderful rotating program that included, on a six week schedule, going to each of the wards as Assistant Head Nurse and also a stint as Junior Night Supervisor. It was a great learning experience. Unfortunately that was changed when we relocated to the Old Western General Hospital, just across a park from the Forum in 1957.

Late in the spring of 1955, I met my future husband, Frank O’Brien, an American medical student. We were married in December of 1957. Our first son, Ron, was born in Montreal in September of 1958 and we moved to Washington DC upon Frank’s graduation in June of 1959. After completing an internship there and continuing studies in Prince Georges County, MD just outside DC, we drove across the country in December 1961 to Santa Barbara, California, for a General Practice Residency at the Santa Barbara County Hospital. By then we had a second son, Arthur, born in DC in October of 1960. Third son Peter arrived in March of 1962. Daughter Carolyn was born there in February of 1964 and daughter Rosemary was born in the Salinas Valley of Monterey County.

While I knew a lot about the United States, now I was getting first hand experience. Each place was different and interesting in it’s own right. In Washington we found we were attending the same church as the late President Eisenhower. He would arrive after everyone was seated and would leave first. He rode in a blue convertible with the top down in good weather and waved in a friendly fashion to all. We joined the young couples group, among who were many working in various capacities behind the scenes in government. At one meeting we were addressed by a Congressman who told us about the US Government’s policy towards China. It was very negative and condemning of the Communist Regime. We all lined up to shake his hand after the meeting and I, having first hand experience in China, was anxious to meet him. As I introduced myself, he grasped my hand and I told him of my background. Still holding my hand he asked who my father was. When I told him, it was as if he became a block of ice. He dropped my hand, with a grave look on his face, and turned quickly to the next person in line. It was clear the he had heard about Dad and wanted nothing to do with me. Dad had chosen to stay behind in China for a couple of reasons. First, he felt it was not honorable, as a Christian, to leave his post, just because events were turning out of favour, Second, he had been through the hospitals in North China as an envoy of the Canadian Government and felt that he might be useful to the new regime in his capacity as a medical person. Of course that did not prove to be the case as, shortly after Mom and the girls left, Dad was subjected to a hostile interrogation, imprisoned for thirteen months and then deported. He returned to Montreal in February of 1952.

I augmented family income doing hospital nursing until the move to Santa Barbara. One of the biggest surprises I experienced was arriving at the Night Supervisor’s desk to receive my night’s assignment and discovering a student nurse perched on the edge of the supervisor’s desk, wearing dangling ear rings and coloured nail polish on long, long nails. Quite a change from the strict rules in Canada at the time!

Except for a brief period in Canada early in 1970, I have remained in California. Frank set up a General Medical practice in Santa Barbara but, being very competitive there, we decided to move to Monterey County and then in 1970 to the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1973 my husband was disabled with ongoing Bipolar Disease which led to the breakup of the family. I resumed nursing full time but quickly realized my salary would not provide for us all. Had I followed my father’s advice and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing, I would have had more options. Neither time nor money allowed for further education. It was then I turned to Real Estate Sales, noting that many men supported their families in that way so why couldn’t I?

We were divorced in 1976; I moved to the Los Angeles area with the children and I remarried in 1977. Beginning the occupation of Real Estate in 1978, I discovered that I was able, with hard work, to be successful enough to complete satisfactorily, I hope, the job of parenthood. After surviving two serious downturns in the economy, I was lucky to retire in January of 2007 to the idyllic surroundings of North San Diego County.

I consider it a wonderful privilege to have been born and raised in China. The adults who surrounded us were exemplary in many areas, giving of themselves to us as if we were their own. The experiences of daily life and travel gave us rare insight into the lives of others in a world that has grown much smaller. I believe we, therefore, are able to have a much greater understanding of the whole than many. It is with awe that I hear of the lives of those who attended the Canadian School and I am so glad to be one of them.


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