Family Matters: Rose Clark comes for Easter Dinner

I’ve had this oversize plastic bag with the Zeller’s logo on it for several years now. I think it was given to me when my favourite aunt died partly because I am the family member who keeps track of the family history and partly because no one else knew for sure the identity of the persons whose photographs were in the bag. There were three women and one man. For several years the bag remained in one closet or another and, because it was large and awkward, it would occasionally pounce upon me from above my head as I tried to retrieve something else of more general “use” about the house. Each time it fell I would look inside the bag and think that something should be done about the contents: the pictures were quite old and one or two very badly damaged by water before I even became the guardian and they were becoming more and more brittle and small chunks of pressed cardboard material would break off the corners and edges when they were handled or, more likely, when they pounced upon me.

On one of these occasions I removed the photos (they averaged 15 inches by nineteen inches in size) and tentatively identified the persons. I concentrated at first on the one photo of a young girlClara Steele about 10 years of age: it had been shaded and lightly coloured with pastels and the young lady(see right) looked somewhat dreamy-eyed or romantic if you will. I thought she might be my grandmother but the features were not quite right. The other folks were older: a woman in her late twenties or early thirties perhaps and a woman in her fifties or early sixties and a man probably in his sixties. After searching through the materials I had collected on the family I determined that the young woman was my great grandmother, Rose Clark and the two older adults were her parents. The young girl was a sister of my grandmother and so a great Aunt of mine. I was fortunate to have all their names and their birth dates and more.

So what to do with Rose, Harriet, Robert and young Clara? That was the question. I took the pictures to a nearby commercial establishment that both sold art and did framing. What I had thought might be the best answer was to use a dark oval frame and a convex glass without a matte. The glass would not touch the surface of the photograph and thus protect it from any further damage. This would be a fairly expensive venture: each photo would cost approximately $400 if the same frame and glass were to be used for each. Well, four at once was prohibitive and so I chose to have my great grandmother done first.Rose Clark I had known her personally as she was alive for the first 13 years of my life and I went on Sunday afternoons to visit her with my grandfather. I remember her in her kitchen with the old trap door in it through which my grandfather would go to check when there were plumbing problems or to get wood for heating. I also remember the dining room and sitting there in the winter time and the little desk with a cloth curtain in front of the bottom shelves where there was an odd collection of books and a few toys in a basket that must have belonged to my grandfather’s nephew. I would sit on the floor and go through these items while my grandfather would talk to his mother. I wish I could remember just one of those conversations. I am sure some were about local politics and taxes and such like.

I think these big pictures, at least three of them, might have hung in the front parlour (a quite small room for such a dignified designation) which we never sat in but were allowed to go in and sit on the stiff old horsehair chairs.

I went by the house very recently. It is now unrecognizable except to someone who was once a visitor. It has been completely covered with a light coloured siding and several of the windows have been replaced and trimmed in a magenta coloured paint. On the back of the house there has been a small extension added, probably to make a more practical entrance. Below the house an area has been dug out and leveled and a 2-car garage has been constructed. There was once a chicken/pigeon house although not quite so far from the house as the garage is now. There was no sign 0f it with its Victorian trim around the second story painted in a dark green. It seemed so strange to think that the people who live there or the people who walk by have no idea of how it once looked and how it looks in the photographs I have in my album.

When I left the art shop with my great grandmother wrapped carefully in brown paper, I felt good about taking her home and hanging her up on my dining room wall in time for Easter dinner. I feel especially good about having removed her from the Zeller’s bag and put her back into a family setting. Her parents, one set of my great great grandparents, I will perhaps have packed in acid-free foam board and sealed up to protect them while I gather the financial resources required to get them framed. My great aunt’s photograph(the young lady above right) I will try to pass along to a direct descendant whom I have traced to the town in which my grandmother lived most of her life. I am hoping that descendant will welcome his great grandmother into his home.

Family Matters: Sightings in Grocery Stores

This posting is mostly about a childhood memory, one that is very clear after almost sixty years. My grandparents shopped on the same night every week after the work day was done for my grandfather. Before I was born I know the shopping was done differently because my grandmother told me how she would take the childrens’ wagon and one or more of the children and walk downtown. It was actually a long walk and went down a major hill and then up a major hill. It was definitely a mile and probably closer to a mile and a half. The groceries were brought home in the wagon, of course, and the children probably had to walk beside and prevent things from falling out. In the late forties and early fifties, however, the shopping was done by automobile on Thursday after work (5 p.m.) and I often went along. My aunt worked as a cashier at the A & P store so it was almost a family event. My grandfather carried all the money and always paid the cashier. I don’t recall any disagreements about what was purchased so that is a positive thing. I do remember the rolling hardwood floors in the store and the meat department men with blood stains on their white aprons.

The memory I have concerns my paternal grandmother. My parents had separated/divorced two or three years after the war and my brother, mother and I lived with my maternal grandparents. One day we had done all the shopping and brought our cart to the cash register to be checked out. And suddenly, my grandmother grabbed my sleeve and said in a rather loud whisper “Don’t look now but that is your other grandmother over there.” Of course, I looked.

I can still see her standing there in the grocery aisle. She was wearing a full length cloth coat with a partial fur collar and a hat of felt, perhaps with a veil attached over the front of it. I do not recall a colour although the coat and hat seem to be black in my mind. She was not smiling. She did not wear glasses. She was looking right at me. She had on black heels appropriate to a grandmother in those times. My maternal grandmother was heavier and wore black shoes with heels and laces. I am guessing this “other”  grandmother might have been about 60. If I could draw, I could reproduce the face because it is like a photograph in my memory.

The memory is like the picture of my father that I saw only once: it was like a passport photo and it fell out of a little green strongbox in which my mother kept papers of importance. One night she had it on the bed and was looking for something when I caught sight of the photo. It is engraved on my memory like the sighting of my “other” grandmother in the grocery store. My father had reddish hair, distinctly parted on the left side, a matching moustache well groomed, a medium high forehead and what seemed like blue or green eyes. He was young in the picture and his face was narrow but not too narrow. I think he was wearing a white shirt. I never saw the photo again and I never saw him either. With hindsight, there is a possibility that my mother was searching through her papers for something she needed to get remarried but I, of course,  was blissfully unaware of this at the time.

My father  had a sister and I recall her being outside my grandparent’s house one day; she wanted to see me I believe. Before my parents divorced I imagine she used to play with me and no doubt an attachment had developed. My cousin who was staying with us told me to get under the kitchen table and hide. The atmosphere was one of fear with a dash of excitement but my father’s sister never stepped off the front sidewalk towards the house.

What remains in our memory from our childhood years fascinates me. I can go through old photograph albums and, of course, the photos trigger memories of people and places. But these sightings like the one in the grocery store and that of the small photo lying on a bed amidst other papers or the one of myself hiding under the kitchen table are quite different: they are not concrete items in an album that I can go back to time and time again for verification. They are, however, more vivid than the photos, in fact, they are almost video clips. I have no actual photographs of my father or any members of his family.

Family Matters/Expectations of Grandpa Jack

Jack (my grandfather) was born in August of 1889. He grew up on Spencer Street and his mother was Rosie  and his father was Joseph : Rose was born in Wayne County, Michigan in 1868 and Joseph was born in 1866 in Harrington, Oxford County, Ontario. They were married September 4, 1888.  Jack (officially John) had a sister Mary who died as an infant and a sister Lilly born 2 years after him who died in 1928. His brother Thomas Henry was born in 1895 and died in 1941. Jack’s father, Joseph, lived until 1946, longer than three of his children. Rose died in 1954. Jack married Mary Ellen on August 15, 1914.

I never heard much about the courting except the story about how the couple would go ice skating at the arena. Mary Ellen used to talk about how Jack/John would walk all the way from his home to her house, a distance of probably close to two miles, then they would go to the arena, probably another 3/4 ths of a mile and then he would walk her home and then walk home himself. I cannot remember hearing any other stories like this.

John’s father Joseph worked for the CFM (Canadian or Canada Furniture Manufacturers or Manufacturing)which was later taken over by Wood and Mosaic and Jack also worked there for a time. For one year, Joseph was transferred to work in Fenelon Falls, Ontario and Jack went with him.Fenelon Falls 2 Ever after that time, Jack took his mother and father to Fenelon Falls every year by automobile and after they died, he continued to go himself every year. He kept the picture at right on his dresser and after Jack’s death his grandson kept it on his dresser and then passed it to Jack’s granddaughter (me) when he died in February 2007. Now it sits on my dresser. On his trips, Jack made a regular stop at Lindsay, Ontario at a restaurant where the owners expected his visit. In Fenelon Falls he always visited “Mac” and Harry in the haberdashery shop which was right beside the lock.  Below right there is a picture of the bottom of an ashtray autographed in 1947 by the men who ran the haberdashery shop.ashtray 1 Jack’s children, Mary Ellen and his son Bob’s wife were passengers on some of the trips  and later his son Donald and Don’s wife Florence and a granddaughter (myself) and grandson of his youngest daughter would accompany Jack on the annual day trip.

I have heard my mother say that Jack’s mother Rosie was something of a tyrant. She was a very short woman who was sturdy but not overweight. Her eyes were piercing now that I think about it and she wore her iron gray hair in a bun on the top of the head. After his father died in 1946, Jack visited his mother regularly several evenings a week and always once on a weekend. They would sit in the kitchen. I was often there but can’t summon up any of the conversations. The little house had a trap door in the kitchen and my grandfather would sometimes have to go down and check something, perhaps a furnace or the plumbing? I don’t recall if he cut the grass there or not but I suspect he did. His nephew Jack was there some of the time but he was not viewed in a positive light as I recall. There were conversations about nephew Jack’s mother Lil who was married to Jack’s brother Tom who died the year I was born. There seemed to be considerable concern about both Lil and Jack. Looking back I wish I had been more curious about the conversations.

Jack (my grandfather) was a worrier. Did this stem from his father’s relationship with him or from his mother’s way of being. His nephew had not been very successful in his life and Jack felt a responsibility there. Both his sister-in-law and his nephew lived in the little family cottage for a chunk of time. Was that home mortgage free? My grandfather was always the one who did repairs and/or called a plumber etc. No one there had transportation but I don’t remember whether my grandfather took his mother for groceries or to the doctor or dentist. When his family was older and during the war years he took groceries every week to his daughter-in-law’s row house where she was raising five youngsters. So doubtless he saw that his mother got to a grocery store too.

When his boys grew up, he drove them to the barracks set up in the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto when they had leave to come home. His oldest daughter probably needed help although she had a full time job and her husband went overseas after 1942. His son Bob was in the air force and his wife and children received the groceries mentioned in the above paragraph every week. His youngest daughter, my mother, came home to live with her two children after the war ended. And his own mother lived until 1954. So Jack had his hands full taking responsibility for and care of a large number of people. Jack picking cherriesAt home he dug and planted a very large garden, raised a batch of chickens every year, selling eggs and killing the chickens for food as needed, and cut his own grass with a push mower. No wonder the screen door didn’t get fixed sometimes! Viewed like this it is impossible to begrudge him the night out at the Masonic Lodge  which was the only break he had from all these responsibilities, not to mention the stresses and strains of a job as a floor supervisor in a large textile factory. Those meetings and polishing the automobile he owned after the war were his greatest pleasures.

It is so easy with hindsight to look back at our grandparents (and our parents of course) and make judgments about how they were and what they did and then, when we ourselves get older and take stock, we realize or should realize how heavy the demands of family (extended family) sat upon the shoulders of men like my grandfather. His mother didn’t have the option of a retirement home or a nursing home, his sister-in-law and nephew did not have access to the wide range of social services we take for granted, the only automobile in the extended family was that of my grandfather.  He suffered from serious migraines in his later years and became pretty difficult at times. Interestingly enough, he never stopped calling his own living children on Sundays and, as a grandchild who had lived in his home although now married with a child of my own, I received a long distance call every Sunday evening. The bar he set for himself was very high but he reached it.

Family Matters: Addendum to The Loneliness of Mary Ellen

After I published the first segment about Mary Ellen, a friend with a history background pointed out an interesting fact about medical costs in the mid to late forties here in Canada. At the time that my grandfather prevented my grandmother, Mary Ellen, from following a regimen of regular visits to the doctor’s office, it is highly likely that he had to pay for each visit as well as for any prescriptions required. I also remember that my grandmother never had money of her own. Each week they went to the grocery store together and he paid at the cash register. They also took with them the children’s wagon until they got an automobile. I remember Mary Ellen telling us one story when she had to go to the doctor after getting the groceries and she went to the upstairs office herself while my grandfather waited below on the main street (no doubt waited “anxiously”).

So the cost and considerable inconvenience of being ill would have been another burden to a man already loaded down with responsibility (they had four children). Early in their marriage they lived about half a mile from my grandfather’s employment and over a mile from his parents’ home. In their teens the two boys and one of the girls worked in textile factories and brought their money home on pay day to Mary Ellen and were given back a share as spending money. What she did with the money she never said: my mother passed on this story.

So when we consider the attitudes of our parents and grandparents, we must remember that the world they loved and lived in was not the same as the one we take so much for granted. Physical comfort and well being were not givens in their daily lives. Nor were classes or courses or even church meetings unless child care was easily available. My grandfather went weekly to a meeting downtown and also met with cronies at an Italian fresh fruit and vegetable store with a real pot bellied stove and with huge bunches of bananas in the window. Mary Ellen spent her time at home with the children. She made and cared for their clothes and preserved fruit and jams and pickles. My grandfather, Jack, wore work shirts and a tie every day so ironing was a major weekly chore.

I wish that I could see them sitting at their kitchen table in their house by the CPR railroad tracks or, later, in their upper apartment over the variety store operated by a man called Buggs whose name became synonymous with the store, talking about the day and/or the escapades of the children, or a financial crisis facing them. But I wonder if they ever did that….talk I mean about such mundane matters. Did he just worry and get migraines and did she just watch over the children and crochet trim for pillow cases or rip out trouser hems and extend them or iron two more shirts? They might have gone to church now and then but Jack had a disagreement with the minister and he wouldn’t attend after that and so she didn’t go either.

I wonder if she read when the children were at school or did she always sew and crochet and knit? I know when I was small my mother would go to John White and Company department store and study the store-bought clothes and then buy the material and my grandmother would make the outfit for myself or my cousins or my brother.  My brother had diamond socks and I was the first girl in elementary school to be sent to school in slacks with five pockets and I remember my mother having a talk with my Grade two teacher, Miss Richardson, who thought the slacks were just the greatest things for girls to wear to school.

Mary Ellen didn’t get to a public library so I wonder what or when she read. At my great grandmother’s house there were some old books on the bottom of a small desk but I think they belonged to a nephew of my grandfather. When my mother joined the Book of the Month club and brought home the occasional magazine (Ladies’ Home Journal perhaps) maybe that was when my grandmother gained access to books. She helped me with my homework and had endless patience listening to me recite poems: I remember in Grade Six learning to recite Pauline Johnson’s The Cattle Thief and she listened to that night after night after night. I realize now that she must have known it by heart too. Perhaps she recited it while she was ironing shirts and I was away at school. I like to think that this might have been so.Pauline Johnson

New Feature/Family Matters: The Loneliness of Mary Ellen

This is a new thread I am beginning today: something in a more personal vein and something I have been pondering during this memory-laden month of December. I have had cause to revisit my relationship with parents (only one in my case) and my grandparents (maternal) while thinking about what I actually learned from them. At certain ages I think we look back in different ways i.e. sometimes stories of interactions with particular persons, anger brought forward by such memories, particular sayings or actions we associate with individuals, grief at a loss, etc. I find now that I am passing the seven decades marker, I am starting to realize in more detail the inner lives of people who once took care of me and the similarities between their lives and my own.sunflower

Mary Ellen was my maternal grandmother. Her home is the only childhood residence that I retain a memory of since my mother lived there with my brother and me after she was divorced which I am guessing was in 1949 or 1950. She remarried in 1952 and my brother moved to another house with her and our stepfather. I chose to remain with my grandparents although I joined my mother and brother frequently on weekends and other occasions.

I wonder what it meant to my grandmother to have a divorced daughter and two grandchildren return to living in her home in the late 1940s? I know a little of her anger but I don’t know at whom it was directed. She would take me grocery shopping at the A & P where my aunt was a head cashier and we might see my paternal grandmother in the store. My grandmother would say to me: “Don’t turn around, your other grandmother is watching you.” She would be speaking harshly in warning tones. I have a picture of that grandmother in my head but there are no emotions attached to the picture.  My grandmother used to tell the milkman who went to school with my mother that she didn’t know how my mother could get remarried (she was seeing my stepfather at the time) because my mother didn’t know how to boil water.

I suppose that my grandmother was ashamed and embarrassed. Her other children were still married to their original partners. Happiness was not a factor that I was aware of when she spoke of any of them.

My grandfather was an anxious man: an anxiety that manifested itself in migraines. It was not unusual for him to spend entire evenings lying on the studio couch in the front porch (a closed in verandah) in the dark and going upstairs to the bedroom around 10 p.m. and not moving about at all until time to get up and go to work again in the morning.

My grandmother had type 2 diabetes diagnosed, I think, when I was in elementary school. She took insulin by injection and my grandfather administered this but perhaps he took that over later because I don’t recall seeing him do that when I was younger. There came a point where he would not take her to the doctor anymore.Mary Ellen 2 There must have been an argument at some time when I was not at home. She went without the medication and began to eat what she wanted including large quantities of ice cream. Then when I was in my early teens I became more aware and she began to experience blackouts and I had to know when to get her orange juice with sugar in it and call the doctor to come to the house. Eventually it was straightened out and it was then that my grandfather began to administer the injections in the mornings. My grandmother must have been in her early to mid-sixties them. The  uncared for diabetes and years of fine  needle work caused her eyesight to deteriorate to such a degree that she could not read in  her later years. During some of this period I was away at university, began to teach out of town and then got married and moved to Windsor.

My grandparents visited one time…they could never stay overnight because my grandfather was not able to do that. I had made an appointment for my grandmother to have her hearing tested and I did not tell my grandfather. They accompanied my husband and I to the appointment but when we returned home there was an extended and heated exchange. The gist of it was that he would not have anything to do with this and although my husband offered to pay for the hearing aids my grandfather put his foot down. For the first time ever, I received a letter from my grandmother several days later in which she stated that she would have to go along with his decision. She did not say why but, of course, it was not hard to deduce.

How discouraging and disappointed we were for Mary Ellen. There was, however, nothing we could do. We continued to visit often but nothing was ever said again about her hearing or any other health issue. She eventually became bedridden and was at home for several months but my grandfather would not allow any of the home care organizations to visit. My aunt went in daily and sometimes I went and stayed for several weeks at a time taking my wee girl with me. I once told my grandmother that I would be going back home to Chatham for awhile and I have never forgotten the conversation.

“Why?” she said.

“Because I need to be there to get proper meals and get the house in order etc.” I replied.

“No, ” she said, “you don’t need to be there.”

She never asked; she never said she needed me; she never spoke unkindly. I realize now that she did not want to be left because then she would be truly alone. My grandfather sometimes ignored her calls for help (he was exhausted I know but that was no excuse since he had refused help) and a family member would come in and find my grandmother mired in wet clothing and putrid bedclothes. How terribly sad. The move to a nursing home was difficult: Mary Ellen believed she was there because “they” were going to operate and remove her breasts. This was not the case but she was terrified.  My grandfather went every day for several hours and was even said by some to be a nuisance but what did they know?

How lonely Mary Ellen must have been. How much she must have wished for her own mother or, eventually, for anyone with a kind word and a soft touch. What did her life amount to in the end…how did she see it? I remember having to be obnoxious on a visit I made because she had been trying to get help ringing her bell for what felt like forever to her. The care workers on duty would have been glad to see the back of me. Not that I cared about that but why are we punishing and depriving our elders so (I have had much more recent experience with such matters and we are still doing it although conditions have improved a little in nursing homes).

Did I learn loneliness from my grandparents? They were both very lonely. Communication was not something that had been modelled for them by their parents and/or grandparents. Marriage was a “forever” thing and, even if they had considered changing their status, what difference would that have made? What did I learn about health issues? About being in control of one’s own health? Why was my grandfather afraid of doctors? How lonely it must have been to be trapped inside a social convention as well as a society which gave over control of one’s own health to one’s partner and/or to medical authorities etc. etc. My grandmother had one or two very good women friends in the neighbourhood but they all died before her and the friendship was dependent upon these woman remaining healthy and able to come to her. Have things changed much? How much? Or is it a case of the more things change the more they stay the same?

My regrets? I never read to her in her last years nor did I ask her if she wanted to be read to and, of course, there were reasons, but I still regret not being more aware at the time and more loving in ways that would have improved the quality of her life. If you are fortunate enough to have someone in your circle that you can do this for, do consider it .