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

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