Vivian Grace Ash: 1933-1999

Vivian was born in 1933; her mother was a sex worker. Little is known about her first 2 years of life, except that she was born with syphilis and was treated for this. At age 2 she was placed in foster care. In most of her foster home placements, she suffered physical and sexual abuse. When she reported this abuse to her social worker, she was told that she was “a dirty little girl, just trying to get attention”. In fact, her social worker was an alcoholic who regularly physically and verbally abused her.

At age 14 she was placed in foster care with Jessie and Jack Mitcham and their 5 children. In contrast to her previous placements Vivian found the Mitcham home to be a loving and safe environment. They took her in as their own. The Mitchams wanted to adopt Vivian, but couldn’t due to an archaic system of regulations which stipulated that any foster child born with a sexually transmitted disease could not be legally adopted, and was kept a permanent ward of the province. This was quite a blow to Vivian, and may have led to her first noticeable “nervous breakdown”, launching a long history of mental illness. She remained with the Mitcham family, enjoying the security of a loving and secure family. At the age of 18 she was legally adopted, and became Vivian Grace Mitcham.

In her early twenties, she met Donald Ash, who had recently completed a term of service with the Royal Canadian Navy. They were married in 1956 and started their new home together in Montreal. For most of their married life Don was employed with CN/VIA Rail. Together they had three boys: Paul, David, and Peter.

Vivian maintained a productive career as a Nurse’s Aid during the first 15 years of her married life. At one point she was employed for about five years at a school for the physically handicapped. She also helped organize, and was a founding member, of an advocacy organization for the visually impaired (both Paul and Peter have been visually impaired since birth).

Paul remembers having a relatively “normal” childhood until he was about 10 years old. By age 13 it became clear to him that his mother was living with a severe mental illness. She was often hospitalized for weeks, and even months, at a time on the psychiatric wards of Montreal hospitals. Peter remembers visiting his mother on a psychiatric ward when he was four years old, and being very frightened at the odd behavior of the patients surrounding his mother. These hospitalizations were an ongoing reality for the entire family for the next several years, along with frequent drug overdoses and suicide attempts. Her sons remember fondly that, through all this, their mother still managed to show them maternal love, affection and encouragement. David remembers playing on a football team and seeing his mother enthusiastically cheering for him as he ran for a touchdown. Peter remembers his mother taking him in her arms, assuring him he was very special, as he tearfully recounted how he had just been teased and harassed by the schoolyard bully. Paul remembers how his mother frequently went without so that Christmases and birthdays for her children could always be special. Buried beneath all her pain and torment, was the heart of a truly loving and caring mother.

After Don’s death in 1983, Vivian moved in with her oldest son Paul and remained with him for approximately 2 years. Her increasingly aggressive, neurotic and manipulative nature soon became too much for him to bear. She reluctantly moved out, but remained close geographically to Paul and Peter until about 1991. During this time there were regular visits and ongoing contact between Vivian and all her sons. As time passed Paul, Peter and David were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain any type of normal contact with Vivian. She would often yell and swear at them, insisting they really did not love her or care about her. Paul remembers receiving phone calls at 2:00 AM with Vivian recounting bizarre and paranoid stories of events allegedly occurring in her life, such as: “everyone was out to get her”. She was losing control, and quickly going downhill mentally.

The final eight years of Vivian’s life involved a journey of erratic relocations to various Canadian cities, keeping her whereabouts and identity largely a secret from her sons. The few contacts she made with her sons were completely irrational and often highly abusive. She was drifting further and further away from anyone that cared about her, and moving toward living on the street. Periodic reports would surface revealing Vivian’s run-ins with the law, evictions from apartments, and stays in locked psychiatric facilities. David recounts the story of the last time any of her sons saw her alive:

The last time I saw my mother was May of 1997. . . . I was in Edmonton looking for office space for my company. As I drove through a downtown intersection on the corner I saw a woman who looked a lot like my mother, I looked again and sure enough it was my mother. You can imagine my surprise as I had no idea she was in Edmonton at the time. I quickly pulled over, parked and then followed her into a restaurant. When I approached her she was very defensive and cool . . . I ended up visiting with her for a few hours, left her with some money and a promise from her to keep in touch. That was the last time I saw or heard from mum.

Shortly after this, she moved to Halifax. During the last 2 years of her life, Paul received a couple of letters from her which consisted of random unconnected sentences which were virtually unintelligible. Vivian’s mother Jessie also received similar letters. The last confirmed contact anyone had with Vivian was with an emergency room doctor on June 21, 1999. She was found dead in her room ten days later, and authorities surmise that she had been dead for several days. The coroner determined that she died of natural causes, most likely heart failure.

Despite the immense pain that Vivian was forced to endure from her earliest childhood days, she lived a life that reflected a commitment to never give up despite the odds. In this she was a remarkable living example to her three sons, all of whom have gone on to very happy and successful marriages and occupations. Paul and Peter have earned Master’s degrees, and David has become a highly successful entrepreneur. Vivian is survived by three beautiful grandchildren who will one day be blessed with the rich lessons of perseverance that she taught her sons.

It is appropriate that now – finally, Vivian’s voice be truly heard and that she have the last word. In tribute to her lifelong struggle we quote from a poem she wrote entitled “My Life”, published in the April/May 1998 issue of Street Feat,

Please judge us not but give us hope,
To rise above our pain and despair.
Take action to help us fight our fight
And change our plight and know someday
We will win against the pain we feel within.

Our hope returns, our dreams come true.
Our pain will turn to joy once more
And we will fight the fight
for all who came before.

Those like me will overcome our foe
And those who fight along with us
Will never let our circle be broken.
We will win the fight.
Of this fact I know.

- A Warrior