Aunt Shirley

Aunt Shirley was with Aunt Carmel when she saw Bobby Hill, the rodeo clown, perform at Frontier Days in the 40s, and both went home and started practicing their roping. They shared a bedroom at the top of the stairs, along with their older sister Juanita, and there must have been competition between them as they sharpened their skills. Carmel once told me that Shirley was the better roper when they were girls. Here’s a shot of Shirley doing a trick with two ropes that you probably won’t want to try at home.


They kept on practicing and in the 50s, as I recounted in an earlier post, Shirley and Carmel led The Swift Current Boys Band to victory at the Calgary Stampede:

When she was 17, Carmel started a career in show business that stretched through many decades. I’ve told that story in three more previous posts starting with this one:

Much to Carmel’s chagrin, Aunt Shirley gave up the ropes and chose a different path.

Shirley and Carmel

Why give up something for which she had such talent? According to Shirley, her body made her stop. Even by her early 20s her back was giving her problems. Carmel herself once told me that jumping up and down for so many years had pounded her spine to the point that she was an inch shorter than when she was younger. So why was she so critical of Shirley? Because she believed Shirley actually gave up roping for a man, and if there was one thing Carmel couldn’t stand the idea of, that was giving up anything for a man.

mom and dadVital Monette was barely a man when he met Shirley: only eighteen, she being the older woman. Carmel had already run off to join the circus, so he didn’t have to deal much with her direct animosity, but there was still the rest of the Gowan family: Irish Protestant Orange stock who were more than a little suspicious of his French Catholic roots. In spite of the less than enthusiastic reception, they married and moved into my father’s house, then still my grandfather’s house, where the family could keep a close eye on him. They likely suspected he was one of those fabled latin lovers who would run off and leave Shirley the first chance he got.


If so, they were wrong. Shirley and Vital bought some land and ranched a few miles from the farm where I grew up. They had three kids: Cindy, Roy, and Carol. I remember visiting them or them visiting us on many a Christmas Eve and other family celebrations. Last summer I saw them at Mom’s memorial, and while Aunt Shirley and Uncle Vital had slowed slightly, they had as much of that vitality contained in his name as ever. Shirley even demonstrated that she doesn’t always like having her photo taken.


10 thoughts on “Aunt Shirley

  1. Your family lived 12 miles south of where I lived in Beverley. When I was 10 I bought a horse in Bassano AB and borrowed your Grandfather Nelson’s horse trailer to fetch it. After I got the horse I spent every chance I got riding to Gowans and often stayed for a week or more. I never met a more talented bunch. Howard could make guns, Juanita could paint, Shirley and Carmel could rope and torment me, Joe was a gifted taxidermist among other things. I was 10 and I think the youngest was Carmel and she was 15. They put up with me and taught me so many things. I would have moved in if my parents would have let me. All those kids could have been anything they wanted, they were all winners. Too bad opportunities were so limited at that time.
    Barrie Qualle


    1. Hi Barrie, Wonderful that you found the blog. I hope you had a look around. I grew up in that house and was always curious about those times. I actually got a chance to read your account of buying that horse because my Mom passed it along to me. I believe you had sent it to Dad. I was particularly intrigued by the portrait you painted of Nelson, my grandfather, as a prickly fellow to say the least. Would love to hear more stories about Dad, Howard, Carmel, Shirley, and Juanita. Keep in touch!


  2. What a surprise to see my Vancouver Sun article on Carmel and Kim on this website. I’d seen her name in a circus ad and called in to see if she recalled my interview with her at the Blackpool Tower Circus (England) in 1959, when she was “first on.” She did and introduced me to Kim. Sun lensman Dan Scott took that great pic of them together.


  3. Thank you for sharing your family’s story! I’m so glad I found your blog. My father is your grandmother Gladys’s half brother. When Gladys came to visit we cherished the time we spent with her. She had a sense of humour that would leave me in stitches, especially when Aunt May Hayden was with her. Please feel free to e-mail me. I would love to hear from you.


    1. Thanks, Kathy! You are Lewis’s daughter? Great to hear from you. Gladys did have a great sense of humour. Are you in British Columbia?


      1. I am Charlie’s daughter, I live in Beaverlodge, Alberta. Love the pictures you posted, i can’t believe how much Shirley looks like Aunt Gladys. By the way, my sister’s name is Shirley!


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