George Post: Where did you get these amazing qualities, Helen? From your Dad, from your Mom, is it genertic, is it learned?Which qualities?George Post: The quality of being able to write clearly, the determination to work hard, get the job done…
Well, I think some of them are selfish objectives. I like to play, so I know if you work hard, you can get your job done and then you play later. My mother always said to us, “You work hard, and you do your job, and you play later.” But I never got around to play later very much. She was wrong on that account, because if you worked hard it all went on to something else. So I would say, probably many of these things you learn, when you really analyze it, it’s the atmosphere in the home that you grew up in, and some people that inspired you. But it’s interesting that you should ask who really was a role model who inspired me. I couldn’t really think of anybody special, I guess it was a number of people.
George Post: Would you regard your mother as a very determined person? Was she a major support to your father in his business, and his success?
Oh yes. She was tremendous, but she was very quiet about it. You wouldn’t say that she was a very aggressive person, far from it. But she quietly went around, and she quietly got things done, and she quietly told people what they were to do and so on. And you know in my generation people were strapped and spanked, but we never were. We were always told very clearly if anything was wrong. And she was a real model of a person that could bring up six children, all of whom were reasonably successful.
George Post: What do you know about her family, her dad and mother, and her ancestors?
Well, she, as I said, was born in Kfar Mishki. She came over when she was three years old, with her mother. Her father had died. And she lived at her uncle’s home, Kalil. He was a very well-to-do businessman, I think making suits or something was his business, and so she grew up there. But she didn’t know the luxuries. From what she said they made her work very hard, because she was there living off them. Well, her brother was very good, Kalil, but his wife made her work very hard, from what she said. So it wasn’t a very happy upbringing and that was why, when she had an opportunity to elope with my father I think she wanted to get out of it.
George Post: Would she have gone through high school?
No, no she didn’t. I don’t think she finished grade school. No.
George Post: And was brought up with the expectation that she would be a housewife.
That’s right. And that was not uncommon. There was no compulsory education. And it’s too bad. But she was so determined to learn, and she really was self taught, what she knew of her reading and writing skills and so on.
George Post: And clearly wanted her girls to have an education and a professional training. You mother wouldn’t have resisted the idea of you going into nursing school.
No, and it was my father as well, because he felt that we all had the opportunity. And in his will, I am jumping a bit but he had, “share and share alike.” And you know, many of the Arab men brought up would have the boys would have two thirds and so on. But, he put the same emphasis, we had the same opportunities as our brothers did. There was no distinction. And that was very good for somebody who was brought up in his culture, although he was just 16 or 17 when he escaped. But he learned quickly, he had a bright mind. I didn’t think he was so bright when I was small, but I look back now and I realize that he was very bright.
George Post: And I don’t know whether I asked you if he had finished high school or not?
No, no he hadn’t. I don’t know how much. Oh, in Lebanon, he left at 16 but he apparently had gone into a religious school and had learned to read and write Arabic, and also he had learned some of the basics of English. So very often when we asked him something that he couldn’t answer right away, because he translated from Arabic to English in his head, you could almost watch him doing this, it was something that required thought. Because I remember when the Fraser Valley flooded over, the Great Flood, and we came home. We were talking, and I remember saying to him, “When was the last flood for the Fraser River?” and he paused for a minute, you could almost see it going on, he added it in Arabic and then he translated it into English for us. And Arabic is a rather difficult language. I can write my name, that’s about all, and I can speak a very little bit, but the writing is difficult. It is all symbols going from left to right.
George Post: Would you describe your father and mother as literate people? Was there a lot of literature, books, magazines, newspapers in your home when you were young?
There were, of course, because my father was in politics, and he got all the newspapers. He always had a set, just one set of Arabic books, that’s all. He enjoyed reading although he didn’t do a lot, but he was an action person. In their later years of course there was television, they really liked that. But I would say that they were not highly literate, although they could have been if they were given the opportunity.
George Post: And your mother, did she read and write quite easily in English?
Yes, not too easily. She could read easily, but writing was more difficult for her, I don’t know why that would be. But you know, both my father and mother, when they wrote they wrote their English in sort of the script of the Arabic. I meant to ask the Ambassador when I saw him, we have a new Ambassador to Lebanon, to ask him why that was. He would probably know. Because their English letters seemed to take the shape of Arabic letters, which is rather interesting.
George Post: It probably has something to do with the patterns that are laid down in the brain very early on.
Yes, because one goes from right to left and the other is left to right.
George Post: And your grandmother who lived with you, did she read and write in English, or just in Arabic?
She could speak English, but she didn’t to my knowledge write in English or read English. And she wore one of these scarves that the ladies of the Middle East wore. Mother and Dad kept trying to get her to take it off. And every time she took it off she got a cold. I think she did it on purpose. It really looked quite elegant I thought. I will show you the pictures of the family that are up on the wall in the other room, so you can place them.
George Post: It certainly sounds like a most interesting and dynamic family, because when you think of the change that both your father and mother would have gone through from their own earliest childhood, which was quite traditional, to creating a successful family in the new land. Quite amazing.
Yes, and you see there was nobody to talk with, they were the only family out there (in Maple Ridge) that I know. For example if you came here (Ottawa) from Lebanon, there’s a little Lebanese community, but they had no one out there, which I suppose in a way was good because they had to be integrated into the culture. But they had no close friends. Now, occasionally, relatives would come from the east.
George Post: Everybody has mentors and role models, it would be interesting to know who the people were, who would have influenced your father as a young man, to do the various things he did.
Well, he speaks in his book of a Mr. Haddad, that he said helped them a great deal, but I don’t know any more than what I have read in his books, what he wrote. He was amazing, well it was the Deputy Superintendent for Education that wrote his life. I still feel that he didn’t capture as much of Dad as he could have, it was very bland what he wrote down. One can be critical, I don’t think I could have done any better.
George Post: Was he a bland man, your father? Or was he an emotional man?
Oh no, just the opposite. He spoke with great authority and he was just the opposite of bland. He even walked straight. When he gave speeches, whether it was at a convention or a political gathering or whatever, he spoke with great determination. He always prepared himself well though, I must say. He would always go to his room at night, and now I realize what he was doing, making little notes. But he often wrote them in Arabic, you know. We found all these little notes after. Somebody has thrown them all away. It is too bad the things that are thrown away.
George Post: Was music an important part of your family? Were there any of your parents or siblings who played instruments?
Mother decided that Mary, my sister, and I should have a piano, and have piano lessons. She told Dad one day when he had a little too much to drink, she told me. She made him promise. I would never see him in that state. She sent him to the bedroom or downstairs. And he promised, and so we got a piano, and my sister and I both took lessons. Neither of us were really talented, but my younger sister Lil is really very accomplished, and she has got a musical ear. And we would be practicing our scales, one after the other, and then this little sister would come along. And she would pick up a tune like O Canada or God Save the King, or whatever it was that came in those days, she would just play it. She had this musical ear. And I don’t. I just have to work hard at it. I appreciate music and love concerts and going to them, and I think we are so lucky in Ottawa with what we have, so close at hand.
George Post: Your father, was he musically inclined?
He used to sing, when he felt like singing. Usually, as I said, he was in a state when he’d had a glass or two of wine, that’s when he loosened up. And he had a very good voice, and he could also dance some of these traditional Arabic dances. He used to show us, and he wanted to teach me, and mother saw him teach me and she said, “Don’t you teach her those dances.” She thought we mustn’t do anything of the old land. Since then I can see now why she was so, she just had this goal of bringing us up as Canadians, as my father did too, and really passionate about it.