Consistent with what the research shows, a significant number of Gwen’s stories were about her first two decades. Here is the short version of the stories she told in the last year of her life.
1. Her father was a railroad section-master – meaning that he was responsible for the integrity of a section of track in Northern Ontario, for meeting the trains going through a small crossroads town, and for loading and unloading cargo and passengers. He had a job throughout the Depression, and was the father of five daughters. And so the family was well-known in the small town in which she grew up — known for being polite, sticking together and looking out for one another.
2. Gwen was the second oldest in the family. She had responsibilities toward the younger ones, but she felt aware of her place in her older sister’s shadow. The eldest was by all accounts the smartest, the swiftest, the prettiest, and Gwen was grateful just to be allowed to tag along.
3. While the Depression years were stable for them, she was aware of the many men desperately riding the rails and looking for work and food. Although there was often just barely enough to feed the immediate family, her mother extended hospitality to anyone who turned up, and shared what they had without judgment.
4. With five girls, you can imagine there were some spats, some hurt feelings, some resentments. They were never allowed to go to bed mad. They had to get things ironed out before problems got too big to reconcile.
5. Her father was in charge of a mixed group of labourers, many of whom were immigrants. At the time, European workers were paid less than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Apparently, he insisted these new Canadians be treated the same as the locals (who let’s face it, were only a generation or two off the boat from Britain). Years later, she was at a dance at the Italian Club, and heard this story for the first time – about how her father had stood up for the Italian labourers. She was moved by the impression he made on the community for this fair treatment.
6. She told of going away to school – leaving a small northern community where they were known and revered, to train as a nurse in Toronto. It seemed that everyone else in Toronto stepped off the streetcar and ran to the curb, knowing exactly where they were and where they were going. So she ran too, often having to stop a block away and figure out where she was, and perhaps backtrack to head in the right direction. She was self-consciousness of her lack of city-sophistication, and the classmates from the city who extended her a welcome into their homes became lifelong friends.
7. She emphasized the value placed on education, and the expectation from her father that although neither parent had completed high school, she and her siblings would all be educated to the full extent of their potential.
8. She talked of the kindness of the nuns who trained her, the confidence they helped to develop in her, and the realization that she could be successful and independent.
9. Jumping ahead a decade or two, she told of her own two children talking and laughing together. She remembered sending her son, younger and smaller, to walk her daughter home from evening activities. It wasn’t clear what she expected him to do if they were faced with any difficulty, but at least they would be together.
10. She talked about the mother of a childhood friend, who belittled her husband and was scathingly critical of her daughter. She hoped she had never talked to others about our shortcomings.
Gwen’s stories span four decades from the 1930’s to the 1970’s. They are not unusual or exceptional stories – in many ways typical of her generation and location. Themes from these stories appear to be about the importance of family, loyalty, sticking together and looking out for one another. There is probably also a message about sharing and hospitality. There seems to be something about kindness, inclusivity and fairness, and the fact that we are known by our deeds. Finally, I hear a message about the opportunities and privileges associated with education and a stable home life.