Elaine’s Stories

These are the stories of Elaine, as told to her daughter

1.My mom would often tell stories about her family.  Her Dad’s family was from a small farming community near Pembroke, Ontario — Beachburg, in the Ottawa Valley. She spent many summers there in the village and at their cottage on the Ottawa River, visiting with cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents and she would tell many stories about her time there.  She would get very animated,  and she made it sound like an idyllic childhood with lots of adventures and good times. She would talk about when, as youngsters, they would go from the river to the village shops to buy licorice pipes and horehound candies. She was very close to her cousin Lois and as teenagers they would often ‘get up to no good’ as she put it, riding around the village in the back of pick-up trucks and going for town to town to square dances.   They both worked at a lodge on the Ottawa River, waiting on tables. And as adults, they went in search of details surrounding a great uncle who was convicted of murdering his wife. She said this had to be done on the sly because it ‘wasn’t talked about’ by the family. 

2. One of the stories we heard many times was about her Uncle George – her Dad’s brother.  I think she found him an interesting character.  He was the oldest son, and the assumption was that he would stay on the farm, tend to the farm, and look after his mom and dad.  His dad died early, and while the other children went off to college or university, George stayed home and his mother strongly discouraged him from getting married so he was a bachelor all his life.  He would always have candies for the kids, and he would hide them in the tree out back and they would go and search for the candy.  He was always cheerful and never complained. He never seemed resentful, even though his mother could be a little difficult.  He kept diaries, and my mom would often pull out the diaries and read from them.  We would be a captive audience listening to her. They weren’t terribly interesting — mostly accounts of the weather, and sometimes about people dropping by, but mostly about what he did in the fields .

3. My grandfather was educated – he went to Queens in 1927 — and he encouraged his kids to get an education.  When my mom was eighteen — just graduated from high school —  he encouraged her  to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in Alice, On,  near Pembroke, and she  boarded with a family from the area.  She had no experience, and she talked about being pretty nervous about the whole thing.  The school had children in grades one to eight, and they were all from a rural community, and many were poor.  As a teacher in those days, she taught the lessons to  all grades, cooked them lunch on the wood stove that heated the school house (often canned pork and beans or soup), and supervised recess and activities outside.  It was quite a big thing for her and she recalled it often and vividly — a great experience.

4. One interesting story was about the school inspector who came twice a year.  The day he came, she was giving a history lesson, and this would have been in 1951 after the war, so she started talking about Hitler and all the devastating things he had done.  There were some kids in the class who were German, and they said, “We’re not supposed to hear anything bad about Hitler”.  During his assessment with her, the inspector said she hadn’t handled that one very well!  At that point she wrote her father and said “I really want to go to University. I don’t want to teach”.  So off she went to Queens!

5. She was a political junkie. It was a rare  moment when she and my father weren’t talking politics at home! Maybe that started when she was on the debating team at Queen’s. At that time, in the early 50s, there were not many women on the debating teams, but she and one other woman debated two men on the topic: “Is world peace an idle dream?” in the competition.   They won and she was pretty proud of that.  But at the same time, she was not pleased  by the fact that it didn’t get the coverage she had hoped for. Years later after some sleuthing on her part, , she could only find  a small on- inch square story  in the Queen’s Journal, whereas the men’s team, who didn’t win, got a lot of coverage.

6. It always felt like a history lesson when we went places with mom. She studied English Literature at Queen’s but history was a passion of hers. We took many family road trips over the years and the villages we past or historical facts about the towns and cities we passed.  Of course, as kids in the back seat  it was harder to see and we were not really that interested, but she made us look out the window so she could recount stories of the places and sites .  My parents had a very peripatetic lifestyle – I lived in at least seven places before I was in grade six and they went on to accumulate over 25 over the years.  Several of them were in Toronto, so when we would go on car rides, and my mom would insist on touring all the places we lived and the history that went along with them.

7. She had one particular letter that she would pull out from time to time and read. It was from her father who had suffered quite severely with depression for many of his adult years. This one was when he was in the Kingston Psychiatric Hospital .  In the letter, he talked about their relationship and how much she meant to him.  She felt that he was not being treated properly in the hospital.  For example, he was getting shock treatments, which was not uncommon at that time, and was given LSD, an experimental treatment also being used at that time. He drowned in Lake Ontario while at the hospital and it was unclear exactly what happened. She was very close to her dad and she would get extremely emotional every time she read the letter or talked about him.

8. She talked about her parents married life quite a bit — when they were younger, and when he wasn’t ill — their social life and his athleticism.  They played bridge, went to lots of dances and had quite a few friends and my grandfather played badminton and tennis. Because I am a tennis and bridge player she would say to me that her father always said to her that if you play bridge and tennis you will always have lots of  friends. (so true!).  My  grandfather passed away in his mid 60’s so my grandmother was on her own for over 30 years after that. After that my mom talked a lot about her mother, admiring her for her independent lifestyle.  She said that she didn’t have a lot of money but she never complained.  She just got on with life.  She had so many friends and created a new life for herself.  She was a hard person to get close to, my grandmother, but my mom admired her a lot.  As my Mom got older, she would talk about her mom more but in a different way.   More recently,  when she was ill herself, we were encouraging her to tell people about her diagnosis, but she was insistent on not doing that.  She kept saying, “Well, my mom was sick and she would never tell people about that stuff”.  Also, she would stick a Kleenex in a sleeve because she always had a runny nose , and say her mom always used to do that because she also had a runny nose all the time. Oh, and when conversations came up about money, she would say, it’s nobody’s business and “My parents never would talk about money or what they earned” .

9. She told a story about her brother Jack, who was given money at Christmas to buy presents, and he took the money and went and bought cigarettes instead, and a packet of Chiclets, and he gave them each a Chiclet for Christmas!  She was the youngest so she always talks about her older brother and walking to school and how he didn’t want to have anything to do with her because she was too skinny.

10. I think my mom wasn’t entirely fulfilled  in her life. While she loved her family, she would say that she always wanted to be a lawyer, and that was her intention when she went to Queen’s.  She met my dad and they got married quite young. She was pregnant when she was 21, and again 6 months  later, so she didn’t pursue any more post-secondary education until after her third child. While this wasn’t unusual for women with children in the 50s, I think that was something that was always important to her.  She did try to go back at one point as a mature student and that was a real challenge for her. While she didn’t work full time outside the home when we were young, she did have many challenging jobs afterwards. She was proud of her job as the returning officer in the provincial election in our riding in Toronto. This was an appointment by the conservative party and she recounted the story about the incumbent part member who tried to encourage her to not work too hard at getting people to the polls who weren’t his supporters.  She was incensed by this and refused to do so and was later complimented by the NDP candidate on what a great job she did running the election. She loved her job at the Department of Justice in Toronto and she was also vacuum cleaner salesperson for a while, bought and ran a rooming house and when they lived in Northern Ontario, she started a small cottage industry business making of purses and dolls for boutique shops. These are just a few of her endeavours.  

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