Dozens filed into Cloverdale United Church on June 28 to remember Barbara Atchison, one of the parish’s finest.
“When given lemons, she truly persevered to make lemonade,” Doreen McLennan, Barbara’s sister, said during the service. “She was feisty, amazingly determined and she simply didn’t know the meaning of giving up.”
Barbara passed away on June 12 in a White Rock care home. It was a peaceful death, McLennan said, and one that Barbara was prepared for.
But throughout her life, she had always been a fighter.
Barbara was born in Minniska, Man. on Oct. 18, 1929. Her mother went into labour at the same time as one of her close friends.
“The doctor spent the evening rushing back and forth between the two houses, not sure which baby would arrive first,” McLennan said.
It was Donnie Tibbatts, known affectionately as Barbara’s “twin” throughout their school days, who was born an hour earlier. They were friends throughout their childhood and teen years, and beyond.
In school, it was Barbara’s intellect and determination that shone. She beat out Charlie, the smartest “town boy” in school, skipping Grade 9 to graduate with a senior matriculation (the equivalent of high school plus a year of college) at 16.
It was around that same time that Barbara met her future husband, then an Ontario-based farm-boy who was contracted on her parent’s farm. Zina Atchison drew Barbara’s attention the first year he was there, McLennan said.
In 1947, the family moved to Surrey, B.C., and in the spring of 1948, Barbara and Zina were married. This is McLennan’s first memory of Barbara.
“I was two and a half, and I was supposed to be the flower girl,” McLennan said. “Apparently, I was too shy to walk down the aisle ahead of her, but not too shy to slip up behind her during the ceremony and pull on the pretty blue ribbons extending from her sailor-type wedding hat.
“Needless to say, Barb had to keep grabbing her wedding hat to keep it on her head.”
|Barbara Atchison (front right) with other employees at the Bank of Montreal.
(Courtesy of the Surrey Archives/SM.144)
After marriage, Barbara continued to work at the Bank of Montreal in Cloverdale, and she would later claim to be the first woman in Cloverdale to work after being married.
Barbara would also go with her husband on hunting trips. Zina was notoriously bad at directions, and would take Barbara with him so they could easily find their way out of the woods.
But one day, they couldn’t. Barbara’s sense of direction drove them in circles, and when they got home she went to the doctor.
It was then she found out she had multiple sclerosis, a disease that damages the insulating covers of nerves in the body. Symptoms vary from one person to the next, but often result in vision loss, balance problems, speech issues and a loss of muscle control. She would live with MS for the next 60 years.
Barbara’s daughter Sandra prepared a speech to read during the service, but was overcome with emotion. McLennan read her words on her behalf.
“She was always strong,” Sandra wrote. “She didn’t let MS rule her life; she ruled the MS.”
Following the birth of her children, Barbara became a stay-at-home mom, taking care of her son Wayne and her daughter Sandra. She was always there at recitals and practices, Sandra remembered, and was always available to help out those in need.
She was an active member of the Cloverdale United Church, helping publish the Evening Women’s Association’s collaborative cookbook, a good dancer, and a voracious reader. Whenever she felt down, she would turn to a Georgette Heyer book.
“If anything could make her laugh … it was reading one of those books,” McLennan said. “They were laugh out loud ones for her. And she just loved them.”
|Zina and Barb Atichson’s A&G Sporting Goods store in Cloverdale in 1982.
(Courtesy of the Surrey Archives/SACR2002.001.439)
In 1972, Barbara opened A&G Sporting Goods with Zina. She did the books with scrupulous accuracy, and became extremely knowledgeable about every products.
“She could also take a bit of knowledge and expand it pretty readily,” McLennan said. “In those days of course, she was much more physically able, so she would do anything.”
One time, Barbara was at the store when a customer came in, wanting to purchase a gun. He kept asking to talk to the “boss,” not believing Barbara would be able to answer his questions about the guns they had in stock.
“Barb realized there was just no way he was going to depend on her advice, so she started asking him all kinds of technical stuff about the guns that he was thinking of getting,” McLennan said. “He had no idea what she was talking about. He just sort of looked at her like, ‘Really? She really does know everything about them.’ And he was just dumbfounded, because he thought it had to be a man in there.”
Barbara and Zina owned and managed the store until they sold it in 1996. It was then, during their retirement, that they had to opportunity to indulge in their love for travel.
In 2006, Zina passed away, and three years later Barbara and her beloved cat became two of the first residents in Cloverdale’s Bethshan Gardens.
She remained an active member of the Cloverdale community, volunteering with United Church and the MS Society. In December 2017, she moved into a full-time care home in White Rock. Six months later, she passed away peacefully.
Through her life, Barbara thrived in spite of her MS, and she helped others to come to see their diagnosis in the same way.
The MS Society had Barbara’s phone number listed for people who had been newly diagnosed. She received up to two or three calls a week from people. Once, when McLennan was down visiting, Barbara had a call from a middle-aged business man who had just found out he had MS.
“I think she talked to him … and told what she had down and how she could manage it,” McLennan said. “Of course, it doesn’t run the same … for everybody, but she just told her experiences.”
“She probably talked an hour and a half at least to him,” McLennan continued. “Whatever we were supposed to be doing it was secondary importance. We could still do it, but she needed to talk to this fellow.”
“She was always there for those people.”
According to McLennan, Tai Chi was one of the things that helped Barbara take control of her diagnosis. It gave her the strength to keep walking until a few years before her death, and helped her drive until she was nearly 80. (Although the mobility in her right hand was compromised by MS, she was able to drive cars that had the stick attached to the dashboard.)
But ultimately, it was Barbara’s spirit that helped her live life so successfully.
“She just didn’t allow things to limit her,” McLennan said. “Certainly not anything to do with the mind.”