Lois Harding’s stories as told to her nephew, Peter Harding. Lois was Peter’s father’s eldest sister.
The first-born females in the Harding family for generations were always called Lois. My Grandad had a sister named Lois and an aunt named Lois. My sister was the first to break that tradition. Her name is Jane Lois.
These stories were told when Lois was aged 91 to 102. Her younger siblings, Esther, Eunice and John, were all dead when Lois was 91, so Lois lived on as the only surviving member of her generation for more than ten years. It wasn’t until after they were gone that Auntie Lois really found her voice.
1.The one that she shared most often as she got older and closing in towards her last days was when she was traveling to England with her mom and dad when she was a few months old. They sailed in the summer of 1912, just months after the Titanic sank, and her dad was really intent on taking his first-born child home to his family. Apparently, the crossing was very rough, and my grandmother was very sick with motion sickness, so Granddad had to take care of baby Lois. Auntie Lois delighted in telling me how she imagined her father enjoying caring for her as a little baby while his wife was under the weather. She always had a smile on her face when she spoke about that. Of course, she would only have remembered that story being told to her by various people. And there was a journal of notes that my grandfather took when he was caring for her on the boat going back to England in 1912. He kept a daily diary of his comings and goings.
2. There was a woman who cared for my grandmother while she was convalescing on board ship, named Esther. Esther was a Christian woman who went through her life telling people that she was called Esther, but she wasn’t Jewish! My grandmother loved Esther so much that when her next daughter was born, she was named after this woman who helped back on board the ship. We never met Esther because she lived quite a distance — in Quebec somewhere, but my grandmother and she maintained a relationship, either through writing or maybe when the telephone came, throughout her life. There were also stories in my grandfather’s journal about this woman Esther, and how close she and my grandmother became.
3. The next one is quite similar, in that they were again traveling to England – this time when she was twelve and my father was just months old. Granddad had had three girls, Lois in 1911, Auntie Esther in 1913 and then Eunice in 1920. My father was born in 1923 — the son and heir, the Crown Prince – and Granddad had to take his family home again. Auntie Lois was doing a lot of caring for her younger sisters, and she always remembers how proud my grandfather was of my dad. It seemed as though that wasn’t always a happy feeling. I’m not going to say there was envy because Lois always loved my dad, but there was a change in her relationship with her parents when my father came along. It never manifested in any aggression towards my Dad. She just upped her anti as a caregiver in the family, because she was relied on by my grandmother to take care of “the children”. As she would say, “Someone’s got to take care of the children”, and the children in her mind were all of those south of her in line. And so she was conscripted into being a caregiver, and that became her life. She never married, and she cared for my grandparents in their old age. It always felt to me that she was hurt by it, that there was a wounding. It was never overtly shared, but was always an innuendo towards this notion that maybe she just wasn’t good enough as a girl.
4. This one occurred at the same time. When they were in England, there was a family photo taken and on the back side, are all the names of the people who were in the picture. But there is one person that she referred to as Aunt Polly, but she wasn’t certain who Aunt Polly was — whether she was Uncle Harry’s sister. She would always comment that there was no family resemblance between Polly and Uncle Harry, and Polly was a lot younger than Uncle Harry, so she wondered whether they were really siblings. She was always puzzling about that, and certain that this mystery would become clearer and she was going to “crack the case”.
5. Lois got sick as an eight or nine year old; she was diagnosed with double pneumonia and pleurisy. She would say periodically that when they would go back to school in September, they would always notice who had returned and who hadn’t, because that meant that there would be some children who had died over the summer. She always quoted the doctor, “Mrs. Harding, tonight she will go one way or the other”. She would always tell that story very seriously, and she would talk about how frightened my grandmother was, and how long she cared for Lois. All of the kids had their own “sick cup”, which was a bone China cup that had a whistle in the handle, so when they were ill, if they needed help, they could blow the whistle. That whistle was a comfort to her. I think it was a story about how that shifted her valuing of her own life. Those of us who have near-death experiences live life differently than those of us who don’t. That significantly changed her because she would care for herself like crazy. She took vitamins before anybody else was taking vitamins.
6. She contracted alopecia as a young woman, and losing her hair was just terrible for her. It didn’t affect her whole head but it appeared in patches, so she was able to keep some hair and cover the bald spots. Then she discovered that her condition responded well to multi vitamins, and so she became a voracious consumer of vitamins and kelp tablets. She credited the kelp tablets with restoring her hair. By the time I knew her — she was 44 when I was born — she had a really dense head of hair. You would never have known that she had lost any of her hair as a younger woman.
7. The next story was about how she lost her English lover during the war. His name was Bill Gough. She didn’t have a picture of him, or really anything to show, but she fell in love with a young Englishman who was sent to Canada to train. He spent about a year-and-half in Montreal where he met Lois and they fell in love. He was subsequently called back to England, was sent to Europe and never came home. It took her about three years to get someone from his family to respond to her pleas and letters asking for news. She finally did get a letter from Bill’s mother to say that he died. She had tried to connect with the Home Office, and they kept telling her that she wasn’t family, so she wasn’t entitled to news. She implored the Canadian Forces to intervene on her behalf, given that my father was also a veteran of the war. She tried to leverage a whole bunch of different angles to get news but never got any official response. Just that one letter from the Gough family. I always imagined feeling the dawning awareness that the news can’t be good and the desperation of not being validated by anyone in her grief.
8. My grandfather forbade her from going back to England to live with Bill, because he remembered England as a place where people were starving and you had to struggle to survive. He saw Canada as a place of abundance and safety. He would not allow his adult daughter to do that. So, when they were talking about the possibility of marrying and going back to England, he couldn’t let go of his idea of an England that existed at the turn of the century. This story provoked anger, resignation and to a certain extent, some relief. As she grew older, she appreciated her family being around her. She never had any children herself — who knows whether she and Bill would have had kids together — but it wasn’t a possibility for her to disobey her father. And as it turned out, of course, Bill never came home, so she would have lived a completely different story. But she wondered what might have happened. This was always the story that never got lived.
9. Lois’ mother emigrated from Germany with her mother and grandmother, who never learned any other language other than German. But Lois’ mother first learned German, then French and then some English by the time her father came around. Her father was unilingually English, being an Englishman from Gloucestershire, so the language of the house was English. Lois’ grandmother lived with them as early as she could remember, but her father forbade her grandmother from speaking outdoors because of her very thick German accent. Neither she nor her siblings were allowed to learn or speak German in the house, even to their mother or grandmother. They cooked only English dishes, and there was never any sauerkraut or garlic or things like that, because if those smells got out and somebody has to smell a whiff of them on the street, it could be dangerous. Lois remembered feeling the brunt of the prejudice towards them. She had memories of other kids teasing and trying to hurt them because of their German heritage.
10. Lois lost her hearing in one ear completely when she was in her twenties due to an illness. It started to go in her late 20s and by the time she was 31, she recounted a story when she and her sister Esther were on a street car. Esther started speaking to her and she didn’t hear anything. Esther admonished her and said, “Lois, I’m speaking to you!!”. She realized at that point that she was going deaf. She lost her hearing gradually over the rest of her life, and by the time she died, she was profoundly deaf. She sang in the cathedral choir from around the age of 18 until her early thirties, when she acknowledged that she had hearing loss and the cathedral choir was a huge loss.