Group unravelling a mystery

Group attempting to piece together the story of a woman who died earlier this year, leaving few traces about her history.

  • Dec. 15, 2011 3:00 p.m.
Participants Okhee Nordal (left)

Participants Okhee Nordal (left)

Who was Esther Whittaker?

That is the question baffling a handful of grandparents who signed up for what they originally believed would be an early literacy program, but turned into a mystery.

Dawn Renaud, the assistant literacy outreach co-ordinator for Literacy Now South Okanagan-Similkameen, said their Grand Times program was designed to offer grandparents and grandchildren dedicated time to share their mornings over crafts, followed by lunch and separate activities in the afternoon. While children tour the museum, their grandparents embark on genealogical searches of their family tree.

“We were looking for something that preschool-aged children and grandparents could do together, and the museum offered to provide the space and get on board with it,” she said.

But the program took a different direction this fall, after some unique reading material arrived on the doorstep of the Penticton Museum and Archives in two old suitcases.

Museum manager Peter Ord said they received a phone call from a nurse at the Penticton Regional Hospital after an elderly female patient had died.

“There was no next of kin, no family, no friends, but there were these two suitcases. All her worldly possessions are in these two cases,” he said, holding up two old cases, one small and one large. “We’re trying to piece together a little mystery.”

The grandparents of the Penticton program were set to work reviewing the items, which were as varied as eye glasses, passports, Bibles, hymnals, science texts and even a hand-embroidered christening gown for a baby. Documents and certificates were separated from photographs and albums.

A cursory investigation unveiled a name: Esther Florence Whittaker. Records show she was born on March 5, 1921 in Victoria, B.C., to her father Arthur Bray Whittaker and mother Charlotte A. Whittaker. So far as they could tell, Esther was an only child. She attended primary school in Duncan, but lived in Vancouver at some point.

After school, Whittaker signed up to be a nurse with the Red Cross. Inside one of the cases was a faded, well-worn book called Human Physiology. There are also certificates that deems her fit to administer “first aid to the injured” and one from the Civil Defence Department that certifies her as a volunteer worker.

While her passport features an array of stamps from various countries, the team of grandparents have determined Whittaker set sail in 1946, after the Second World War concluded. Envelopes of photographs document her travels and individuals she met along the way, but the specifics of where she went, what she did and why are difficult to discern.

An old Rembrandt cookie tin with ornate decorations conceals a stack of albums inside. The bottom of the tin is imprinted with Dordrecht, Holland: Did she buy treats while visiting one of the Netherlands’ oldest cities?

“I find it a mystery that you’d get her early life, but then a big gap of about 50, 60 years,” grandparent Don Wood said.

The inquisitive grandparents unearthed four names on photographs they believe to be Whittaker’s nursing friends: Lillian McKenzie, Florence Chase, Ethel Sutterland and Doris Lucio. They wonder whether they are still alive and could provide missing pieces of the puzzle.

Despite knowing little about Whittaker, the grandparents harbour to guess the woman was passionate about life.

“It didn’t look like she had children, a spouse or even a boyfriend. There’s lots of pictures of handsome men, but not with her really,” grandparent Betty Cahoon remarked.

“But she had a full life,” Wood added. “She loved what she did, and travelled around the world for her work.”

The trail Whittaker left of her 43-year career as a Red Cross nurse went silent, and all the neophyte historical investigators know is she moved to Summerland, from which she was placed in extended care.

“She must have had a neighbour or some friend who would come visit her. I’m sure her doctor could tell us a bit more,” Cahoon said.

The grandparent sleuths have ceased their investigation for now, as the program wrapped up its fall session this week, and Renaud said a spring session will depend on whether Literacy Now obtains additional grants next year. They are hoping to expand offerings to an evening program next year, that would help working grandparents connect with their grandchildren and assist those supporting their kin access the valuable resource.

In the interim, Ord said the museum is hoping a volunteer will come forward to further archive the photographs, documents and certificates to better trace back Whittaker’s roots. Cahoon said the weekly excursion proved to be fascinating.

“It’s been wonderful. We met other grandparents, and this has been great. It’s really interesting,” she said.

They are also hoping to spread the word and invite anyone who knew Whittaker in Summerland or in her role as a Red Cross nurse to contact the museum at 250-490-2451 to help fill in the blanks.