On July 30, long-time resident Aileen Gentles passed away.
Gentles played a pivotal role in the arts scene in Sicamous. A listing of her accomplishments does not reveal the kind of person she was. I went to talk with her daughters and husband to find out about Aileen’s talent and work. And most importantly, how she fitted everything into her busy life.
Aileen’s artistic/academic life began in England, where she wrote plays for radio. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in history, she attained a Canada Council Scholarship to come and finish her master’s degree in Canada.
Aileen worked as a nurse’s assistant to scrimp and save the money to go to the theatre, a concert, a play or a recital.
As a child, Gentles worked hard on her own, and was goal-oriented from the time she was a kid in a wartime middle-class family. At age four, she survived being torpedoed on a ship, as well as a bombing. After the war, the kids from the 1930s were the kids that nobody noticed – they just got on with it and that is what Aileen did. As a child, she had injured one of her hands which got slammed in a door, and it ruined her secret dream of becoming a concert pianist. She did achieve a high level of playing however.
Aileen joined a B.C. touring group as an actor, and travelled around for a year performing from Prince George to Fernie. This is when she met Mike, her husband – another British expat. They got married and Aileen lectured for a while at different universities. But she gave it up to give herself wholeheartedly to the new army life. She had shifted her focus to becoming a mother, and she astounded and impressed her kids at how disciplined she was.
Aileen wrote skits for school evenings, was a leader in the community and supported other young wives in the Army.
She wrote plays for the high schools her kids attended, and they kids participated in them. She always had amazing ideas and creativity, and she would make it all come about – producing her ideas and motivating people to do things they did not know they could. Aileen would badger them and hound them. She loved working with teenagers and seeing “the light” come on.
Up to her last days, Aileen had music in her head. She had the discipline to get up early in the morning, and was always interested in what her kids were doing. Not an easy task, being creative and raising a family and doing both very well.
Aileen was a community booster wherever she went. And in the army there was a lot of transfers and moves.
Singing in a choir was a must for Aileen, and she and Mike joined in several choirs in Canada, and three different choirs while posted in Germany. There was a huge production in the town of Wainwright, Alta., and she got everyone involved in that, including the local hockey team.
When Mike retired, he and Aileen built their dream home along the Eagle River, doing almost all the work themselves. This time it was Aileen’s time to shine and Mike supported her. She surrounded herself with local artists and became a prolific writer of successful plays and musicals. Her composing skills were amazing. Helped by her daughters, she transitioned from writing music by hand to learning how to compose with the help of a computer. There was no stopping her now.
Aileen wrote several musicals, and also started the wonderful Monashee Chamber Choir with some of the best voices in the Shuswap. She created choral works for the choir as well.
Aileen was instrumental in the Monashee Mountain Arts Society productions of Gamuts, outdoor Farm Theatre, and Shakespeare workshops. Somehow there was always a production on the go, which did not leave enough time to do more travelling – something on her “to do” list. But it was not important because creating plays, writing poetry and composing music was a more important part of her everyday life.
Once, during a visit with her in the hospital, Aileen told me that she had been riding in the car a short while ago and it was raining. She noticed the noise of the winter tires on the road. Even though she was in pain and recovering from hip replacement surgery, she was full of enthusiasm over this rhythm she had discovered and told me it was in B-flat, and hummed a few bars, tapped out the rhythm and told me it was in 4/4 time. And she was going to do something with this music that was now going through her head.
Years ago, Aileen related stories to me about how she would get absorbed in creating either plays or works of music, and that she would lose track of time. The potatoes would burn or she would have to rush to save something else from the stove. She wrote the following poem about it:
They stared down at the cake
Cooling on the rack
All shrivelled and cracked at the edges.
The composer hunched a shoulder
“I was at the piano,” she said,
“Working on that chorus.”
Notes still did their urgent dance in her head,
Stepping, turning, touching, parting,
Stuttering a staccato,
Tugging, tugging at resolution.
He said with a smile,
“It’ll be good in the middle.
Our community has lost a dedicated, astoundingly talented person. And I am proud that I have known her. She will be missed.