Category Archives: Family

Bits and pieces

My mother was asked if her RCAF uniform could be used in a display in connection with the upcoming publication of a book by PEI historian Katherine Dewar about PEI women who served in the Second World War. Katherine and Lois Brown, who was with the Canadian Women’s Army Corp in the Second World War and is a lively 97-year-old, came up last week to take the bits and pieces my mother has.

My mother’s air force blue uniform is nearly complete, except for stockings and shoes, which she used after the war and wore completely out. Her khaki uniform has always been a bit of a mystery to me. She always called it her summer uniform, but I believe it was what she was wearing when she ended her service on January 9, 1945, as her last meal card and clearance certificate (incorrectly dated as 1944) are still in the inside jacket pocket. As she ended her military career in Halifax, in January, it would have been far from summer weather! I hope to get more information from PEI Regiment Museum curator Greg Gallant about that uniform.

I also gathered up various pins that were scattered around the house in different little boxes. She would have received or bought most of them during the war, the General Service Badge would have been worn after the war (probably by my father, but not sure), and another is one of many pins she’s been sent periodically by this or that group honouring different battles and anniversaries.

RCAF (WD) poster

I imagine Katherine’s book will touch on the fact that women who had served weren’t regarded as real veterans immediately after the war. Women had been recruited to supporting roles to free up men to assume combat roles, so their service wasn’t considered to be the same.

While both of my parents were in the RCAF during the Second World War, neither of them served in Europe, spending their time in Canada or Newfoundland, which was considered an overseas posting as a British colony. My father was always viewed as being the “real” veteran in our family, even though his role as an RCAF mechanic put him in no greater danger than my mother. They were both involved in the background of the Battle of the Atlantic during their time in Newfoundland, he at Gander and she at Torbay, and I’m sure both of those stations were on the German hit list for a possible invasion of North America, which thankfully never happened.

My father mistakenly wore my mother’s medals all his life, and it was only after his death, when I was asked to help with an award nomination for my mother, that I found out she had been given an extra medal (The Defence Medal) because of the length of time she had spent in Newfoundland, and my father’s time there hadn’t qualified.

I don’t believe for a second that my father even knew what he had done. I suppose when the medals arrived in the mail (ex-service members applied to get them after the war and they were mailed in a little box, no dramatic presentation by a senior officer as portrayed in movies), he just assumed the three were for him as he served for nearly 5 years and my mother for less than 2.

So my mother had worn my father’s two medals, never knowing the difference. When I brought this error to her attention, I didn’t think she would bother to start wearing her real ones, but she did, and still proudly wears them to Remembrance Day services and other official events. And now, because she is one of the few veterans left, people sometimes thank her for her service.

2021 is the new 1946

It didn’t say what they did at the Georgetown PO to keep the mail-seeking crowds away, but a polio outbreak meant strict public heath measures were in place across PEI 75 years ago. Vaccination has nearly eradicated polio worldwide, but there are still a few cases every year in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

I had a great-uncle who had polio, which left him with with he called a “crooked foot” and unable to do many things. He would have an interesting perspective on COVID-19 anti-vaccination protests.

Charlottetown Guardian September 12, 1946

Digging clams

Our river once had abundant soft-shelled clams, and you could dig a bucket in a few minutes. There was no fishing license required, but you could only take ones over a certain size, so we carried a homemade gauge to ensure we only took legal ones.

I wouldn’t eat them as a child, but grew to love them later, and I spent many hours swimming and playing in the water while my mother dug them. Most people dig on the beach at low tide using a garden fork, but this wasn’t my mother’s method as she said too many get broken that way, and that’s true. Another less common method was to use a homemade plunger made from a section of a car tire attached to an old broom handle, and dig them in the water, which was less destructive. But she was the only one I knew who dug them the way she did.

At our favourite spot, just a 5-minute row from our house, my mother would walk with bucket in hand in knee-deep water, looking for the holes that clams make with their siphons. She would then sit in the water and pat a hole with her hand, creating a vacuum that moved the sand and would start to excavate a larger hole. When she felt a clam, she would pull it out, examine it to see if it was alive and the right size, and then put it in the bucket beside her that was kept in place first by the volume of seawater it contained and then, little by little, by the clams.

Once her bucket was filled, we would return home, but we never ate the clams right away as they were gritty with sand. My mother would tie the bucket to the railing of the stairs that went down the bank in front of our house and leave the clams submerged in the bucket in the river overnight to clean out, expelling the sand that was in their system.

The next day the clams were placed in a large enamel pot with no water or anything else, just steamed as they were until they opened. Those that didn’t open were discarded, and the rest piled into a big bowl and placed in the middle of the dining room table. Everyone got their own bowl of melted butter, fresh homemade rolls and maybe potato salad.

We might dig a feed of clams every couple of weeks in the summer, and there never seemed to be any fear of them being overfished. Then commercial fishers started working on our river using mechanical vacuums a couple of decades ago, a similar idea as my mother’s manual method except they could dig out an entire bed in a few minutes. The last time we tried digging clams would be over 10 years ago now, and there weren’t any left, just empty shells. It will probably take decades for them to return in the numbers that existed before the commercial harvest.

You can buy clams, but they never taste as good as my memory of them. It was the whole process: rowing to the digging spot, having a swim, hearing the neighbour’s cows or dog, watching the clouds passing overhead, waving at a neighbour in a dory coming home from fishing oysters, looking back at our house, the little waves lapping the shore, the birds, the sun. The tang of our river, deeply salty and briny, alive with eels and lobsters and crabs and fish. The feeling that this harvesting had been done forever and would go on forever.

Mom and I digging clams somewhere on Foxley River, 1969

99

Not many get to decorate a cake for a 99th birthday, but I was fortunate enough to do so for my mother’s birthday today. I made the buttermilk birthday cake from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess as it is foolproof, deliciously moist, and works well with gluten free flour.

I’m definitely not the baker that my mother, Vivian, was and still is. She is known for many culinary treats: butterscotch pie, lemon meringue pie, coconut cream pie (any pie, really!), orange chiffon cake, fudge, and lately, cookies, because they are easily made and just as easily given away. Any estimate of how many items she has produced over eight decades of baking would probably never come close to the true number. And, as we were only three in our immediate family, the majority of her baking was given away to our huge extended family, friends and neighbours, and for bake sales. At least once a week during my childhood, my mother would be baking for some charitable event or other, making sandwiches and sweets for a meeting, having people over for supper.

My mother has never complained about having to cook a meal, ever, and that’s not an exaggeration. True, she hasn’t worked outside the home for many years, but even when she and my father owned a general store, where she worked just as hard as he did, she cooked a hot noon meal for the two or three clerks they had working with them, six days a week. Dining out has never been a big thing for my mother, probably because we just never had many restaurants close by, so she has cooked most of her meals, and she prepares generally healthy things, which is probably how she has reached 99 without diabetes or high cholesterol!

She has been an effortless cook, an enthusiastic hostess, and a generous lady, even today sending a relative off with some brownies made yesterday. She baked cookies for a children’s event at her church this week, and next week has offered to make cookies for our local environmental group’s day camp.

Always looking outwards, finding a purpose for every day, never idle, always grateful, day by day by day for 99 years. It all comes back to her on days like today, with a steady stream of visitors showing her so much love, joining in the magic of a long and impactful life.

December 1875

My great-great-grandparents were Martha (Ellis) and George Washington Sharp. They had 10 children, including one set of twins, my great-grandmother Eva and her sister, Florence.

It was only this evening that I realised Martha and George had three little girls who died within a few days of each other. They also had two boys aged 7 and 2 who survived. They went on to have five more children.

I had no idea what the girls died from, but I just found a death notice for the three little girls in the December 20, 1875 The Examiner newspaper out of Charlottetown. What unbearable pain.

The Examiner December 20, 1875 p3
Martha Sharp (1848-1928) circa 1927

Freeland WI

My mother attended her Women’s Institute’s annual meeting last evening, and they decided to disband after 99 years of continuous service. My mother joined in 1942 when she was 20, right before she enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division for service during the Second World War. She has loved being a WI member.

I think at one time almost every school district on PEI had a Women’s Institute to support the school and community, and pretty much every rural community had a one-room school, so that was a lot of WI groups. They were both a fundraising group and a social outing at a time when most rural woman were working at home. They would fundraise to keep their school in tip-top shape, and when consolidation in the 1960s and 70s closed small rural schools, many WIs bought the buildings from the government for a dollar and turned them into community halls. There were at least 22 WIs in our area, but that number has slowly dwindled and now 2 remain, Poplar Grove/McNeills Mills and Port Hill.

I never joined the WI. I was too young when I left for university, and when I moved back 20 years ago, there were no members my age, so I just didn’t join. I now feel like I have missed out on something important.

But I fondly remember the WI meetings that were held in our home when I was a child. I would sit in the corner and watch and listen to it all, the reports from the different committees, the education program on different topics of interest to country women, the discussions on what fundraiser they would hold next: a goose supper, a variety concert, make a quilt and sell raffle tickets on it, a bake sale. There was always tea and sandwiches and sweets and lots of chitchat after the meeting ended. It was up to the hostess to make “the lunch”, and my mother was a generous and excellent cook, so it was always a good feed! I would pass the plates of sandwiches from great aunt to great aunt to neighbour to cousin, all of them calling me “Thelma dear”, smiling, laughing. They would discuss who was sick and who had died and who was taking a trip, the price of things nowadays, wasn’t it hot/cold/mild/windy/dry/rainy.

The WIs in our district banded together to prepare and serve the suppers at the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival for many years, working out of a less-than-ideal kitchen attached to the old rink. They turned out beautiful lobster suppers, complete with salads, rolls, pies and sweets. It was thrilling to be in the midst of this cyclone of competence and energy, each woman knowing exactly what to do, working quickly as if they were line cooks every day of their life (which in some cases, with the large families that were once the norm here, they were), but almost always in good cheer and with a buzzing sense of unity and camaraderie. I feel fortunate to have learned so much from these resourceful, powerful women.

I texted a friend who is a member of one of the two remaining WIs in our area and asked if my mother could join them, even if just in an honorary way. “In a heartbeat,” she texted back.

Report on a WI meeting held at my great-grandparents’ lobster cannery from The Charlottetown Guardian, September 3, 1927. My mother went to live with her grandparents in the spring of 1927, and would have turned 5 that August, so she was likely present for this meeting, lurking at the edge of it like I used to do.

Hog Wild

The Steven Mayoff Film Festival opened with Steven’s second film, Happy Birthday to Me, so it had to end with his first and only other film appearance to date, Hog Wild. It stars Tony Rosato of SCTV fame. It is a terrible movie. And although he appears in the credits as “Chubby Cadet”, Steven was actually nowhere to be seen! It could have been him in a bathrobe in a hallway near the beginning, but he can’t remember, and it was such a brief shot it was difficult to tell. I watched the whole thing to see if he would appear, but no Steven.

Real Professional Actor Matt Craven was also in both of those illustrious movies, so that’s something, I guess. Craven was also in the single-season TV series L.A. Doctors with my NTS classmate, Rick Roberts. I wouldn’t have dreamed that I had at least two tenuous connections to Matt Craven.

Life is precious, so do not watch Hog Wild.

Pituamkek

A beautiful new video from L’neuy about plans to create a National Park Reserve on Pituamkek/Hog Island and the Sandhills that are just a couple of miles from my house. This initiative is important for the Miꞌkmaq and all Epekwitkewaq, because the Miꞌkmaq have lived and gathered food there for millennia and deserve the right to determine their future use. The Sandhills protect the shoreline and are important resting spots for migrating birds and nesting areas for the endangered piping plover.

Those sand dunes are the wildest place I’ve ever been on PEI, raw, stunningly gorgeous and powerful. I was lucky to visit with my parents many times as a child, and rarely would you see another person, miles and miles of beach and dunes and pounding surf. Such vivid memories of long summer days over there having picnics, playing in the cold water, beachcombing to find shells and starfish. I would always fall asleep on the boat ride home, through Cascumpec Bay and Foxley Bay, right up to the shore in front of our house, cradled on the waves, epekwitk.

My father and I in the water on the Sandhills, 1968
My father and I beachcombing on the Sandhills, 1968
Heading home with Toronto visitors after a long day on the Sandhills, 1970
Asleep in the speedboat, 1969

Happy Birthday to Happy Birthday to Me

The made-in-Canada-but-starring-Americans slasher movie Happy Birthday to Me was released 40 years ago today. Even through I’m not a horror movie fan, we watched the whole darn thing tonight, wall-to-wall gore, buckets of blood, screaming teens. I did the classic wimpy thing of covering my eyes when the yucky bits came on.

So why watch a scary movie when you don’t like them? Because my husband is in it, that’s why! Yes, now that I’ve mentioned it, you’ll remember his pivotal role as “Police Officer.” He has an entry in IMDb and everything, even though he’s called Stephen there and not Steven. I needn’t make fun as I don’t have any movie credits, and he has two (he was “Chubby Cadet” in another Canadian classic, Hog Wild).

Happy Birthday to Me starred Melissa Sue Anderson, who played the older sister Mary Ingalls on Little House On The Prairies, and Glenn Ford, who was in tons of classic Hollywood movies including Gilda, The Big Heat and Blackboard Jungle. Ford was born in Quebec, so must have gotten a kick out of being in Montreal for the shoot. (Or he just needed the money. I bet he probably just needed the money.) If Wikipedia is to be believed, Anderson later moved to Montreal with her family and they all became Canadian citizens, so she must have had fun, too.

The rest of the cast is filled with names and faces you’ll recognize if you watched Canadian TV in the 70s and 80s. Most of them probably did at least one episode of Street Legal or King of Kensington. And a lot of them were theatre actors who welcomed small parts in dumb American movies shot in Canada, because that’s what pays the bills. Frances Hyland was a much-beloved Canadian theatre star. Lenore Zann had at least one season at the Charlottetown Festival right after this movie before eventually entering provincial and now federal politics in Nova Scotia. Ron Lea had been at the National Theatre School with Steven, and I worked with the lovely Lesleh Donaldson on the play How Could You, Mrs. Dick? David Eisner, Matt Craven, and Louis Del Grande are all in there. Even Maurice Podbrey, who founded and led the Cenatur Theatre in Montreal, had a role in this goofy film.

I tried to interview Mr. Mayoff about his experience on set, but he didn’t have much to report, no gossip except that Mr. Ford didn’t want anyone watching him film his scenes, so the set would be cleared. Steven said Frances Hyland said something nice to him, but he doesn’t remember what it was. No reports of fist fights or how good craft services was or anything. Oh well.

Beyond Steven’s star turn, there weren’t any really outstanding performances. Hyland gave it her all, and managed somehow to retain her dignity. I actually enjoyed the movie much more than I thought I would. It’s a pretty terrible script, but it was so ridiculous that it was funny.

I’ll leave you with photos of Steven delivering his one line, in both Spanish and Japanese subtitles. He was hired as an extra, given a line, and the rest is Canadian movie history. There are no small parts, only small actors with big hats that hide their faces.

Spanish subtitle of “Sir, you better come outside.”
Japanese subtitle of “Sir, you better come outside.”

Retention Rate

My father, Harold, served on the regional school board for western Prince Edward Island from 1975 to 1987, and was chair for seven of those years. He and my mother sold their general store in 1971, so both had ample time for volunteer pursuits. For a few years, my father was in meetings nearly every day as the school board worked on the creation of a new amalgamated high school.

That school, Westisle, was created to achieve many goals, both educational and fiscal, but one my father often cited was to improve student retention rates. I had never known exactly what those rates had been, but he gave an idea in a speech he made at the fourth Westisle graduation in 1983:

I would like to very briefly outline some of our achievements since the completion of the MacDonald “Drop Out Study” in 1974. 10 years ago, this study showed our retention rate to be only 31% (for every 3 children who entered grade 2, only 1 completed grade 12), whereas most recent figures show it now to be the reverse, which is very close to the national average.

Westisle Composite High was built to accommodate 810 pupils. However, due to the great flexibility of this facility in being able to offer a fairly comprehensive program to our young people, our high school enrolment reached 872 this past year, compared to 610 [at the three separate high schools] one year before Westisle opened.

Of all the things my father accomplished as a school board trustee, keeping young people in school for as long as possible was the most personal and made him most proud. He had to leave school at grade eight and always regretted not having been able to further his education, so he was happy to have helped others achieve that dream.

Hon. George Henderson, Unit One School Board Chair Harold Phillips, and Hon. Robert Campbell (aka The Great West Wind) turning the sod for what became Westisle Composite High School circa 1978.