Lately, I’ve been thinking about my Granny. Her small stature disguised an indomitable spirit. She was a western Canadian pioneer, just like those so many of us have in our family trees. They were a hardy lot, capable of facing and overcoming challenges.
Granny was born in Manitoba in 1903, to parents who were the first Canadian-born generation in my family — homesteaders who entered the western wilderness in 1878. When Granny was three, her family moved to Saskatchewan, where they bought a farm 24 km (15 mi) west of the newly incorporated city of Saskatoon. They lived in the Grandora district, so named because the first homesteader to arrive there had turned to his bride and remarked, “Isn’t this grand, Dora?” Where others saw untamed expanses, our optimistic ancestors saw beautiful potential.
Although Granny’s family experienced economic success, they had their share of sorrow, as well. Granny’s little sister died of blood poisoning and her teenage brother suffered a fatal a gunshot wound. But Granny was a hardy soul; she helped out wherever she could. As a girl, she even took on the unusual responsibility of beekeeper on her family’s mixed farm.
Granny grew up and married the man she loved, though he was Catholic and she was Protestant. None of the couple’s parents approved of the match and none attended their wedding. Granny agreed to raise her children in her husband’s faith, despite the fact they were taught that she would go to hell as a non-believer. When she was seven months pregnant with her first child, Granny fell down the steep stairs in her home, causing the premature delivery of the baby. A devoted mother, she kept the tiny infant alive for two months, a true accomplishment given medical capabilities in 1927. Told she would never have more children, she went on to bear 11 healthy babies in the next 21 years. She loved and nurtured each, doing her best to shelter them from her domineering and sometimes abusive husband.
During her lifetime, Granny had to adjust to alterations in many aspects of her culture. She witnessed unprecedented technological advances. Born into a world of horse transport and steam-powered trains, she saw the advent of automobiles and airplanes, and even rocket ships and space travel. And yet, there was a period where she did not have the opportunity to leave her husband’s family farm for an entire decade. Granny also had her values challenged; her generation’s strict adherence to religious tradition gave way to reform and secularism — some of her children even divorced their spouses. Changing women’s roles over the years were signalled by the clothes she and her family wore. She transformed from little girl ringlets and petticoats to the bobbed hair and lean styles of the flapper era; in the tough years, she mended and made do; then, she watched her daughters transition from bobby socks to mini skirts; and eventually, she saw her granddaughters don pantsuits and sport shorts. She experienced social revolutions of many kinds.
Granny also witnessed some of the most difficult times humankind has experienced: the Great War, with its killing fields that consumed innumerable young men; the influenza pandemic that followed and struck hardest at the same youthful generation; the Great Depression, when the soil itself became a dark storm that swept the parched land, and hunger shadowed every dawn; and the Second World War, that brought genocide of an unprecedented scale, and was terminated by the invention of a weapon that threatened to annihilate all life on the planet.
Granny survived it all: grief, disease, isolation, poverty and change. But when I think of her, that’s not what springs to mind. I remember her twinkling eyes and soft giggle, her aged hands gently clasping mine, her surprising strength as she lifted a massive pot of vegetables off the stove for a family meal, and her small form sitting primly in her special rocker, while she “rested her eyes” on a warm summer evening. She was a kind and loving soul.
When I was born, Granny was 64 years old and she died when I was 18. During my childhood, I was unaware of the details of her life, but her aura of inner strength and wisdom was plain.
Now, I remind myself that I come from sturdy stock. Whatever I must face today pales in comparison to all that Granny endured. Our very existence testifies to the courage and perseverance of our ancestors in the face of adversity. We have inherited their fortitude, endurance, and resilience. We will prevail.
This article was originally printed in THE BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.