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.
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.
I have had to wash my “barn” jacket after I put an egg in the pocket and then managed to squish it before I got it into the basket. I know better, but it was going to be there just for a second. A handful of slimy egg and broken shell is an unpleasant discovery, and it was -12C at the time, so it started to freeze on my hand. Yuck.
I told my mother what I had done, and said my first thought was what her grandmother, Eva, would have said if she had witnessed my folly. My mother said I would have been scolded, for an egg in February was a rare thing. Eggs were preserved in a solution called water glass in the fall, and were only used for baking over the winter. I don’t remember people preserving eggs, as by the time I was born in the mid-60s, most people had electricity and refrigerators, and mostly bought their eggs from a store.
I once visited a Second World War exhibition at a museum in Ipswich, England, and they had a section on food on the home front. Unfortunately, the egg preservation experiment hadn’t worked properly and we arrived just after they made that discovery, and the smell of rotten eggs was certainly evocative of another time.
I asked my mother if gathering the eggs was one of her chores as a child, and she said it wasn’t. The hens were Eva’s domain and she probably didn’t trust my mother to not drop the basket. Stuffing eggs in your pocket would have been bad form.
My mother said her chores were looking after her own bedroom, keeping her little brother out of trouble, and sometimes doing the dishes. On the day when The Family Herald arrived, Eva would read all afternoon so that when my mother came home from school, the dishes from the noon meal (called dinner, never lunch – lunch was a meal before bedtime!) would still be on the table waiting for her to wash them.
And how did you wash dishes in rural PEI in the 1920s? In an enamel dishpan at the kitchen table. You took the dishpan off a nail in the pantry, took it to the woodstove, and decanted hot water from the tank on the side of the stove. You would swish a bar of homemade soap in the water to make suds, wash and dry the dishes, and put most of the dishes back on the table for the next meal. The dirty dishwater would be poured down the sink in the pantry in winter, or perhaps out the back door onto a plant at other times. Nothing wasted, ever. Water was pumped by hand from a hand-dug well, so it was precious.
Those water conservation methods have passed down to me through my mother. I don’t use a dishpan every day, but have used a dishpan during very dry summers and poured the dishwater on flower beds. I will throw water from washing floors on the front porch to clean it off, or onto a flowerbed. I don’t have a dishwasher, so when running water to do dishes, I usually collect the cold water that comes first in a watering can for plants, a kettle, or in a jug.
And I moved from using liquid dish detergent back to swishing a bar of soap in the water a few years ago. I don’t see much difference, except for the lack of bubbles, which I have read come from chemicals added to make you feel like the cleaning part of the soap is working. I use a vegetable glycerine soap from Bulk Barn that has no wrapping and almost no scent, and my dishes seem clean enough. I sometimes add slivers of soap from the shower or sink to the glycerine soap in soap shaker I have.
I was surprised to see the precipitation observations I report every day as a CoCoRaHS volunteer being taken as gospel by Environment Canada, as per this info box in an article about the latest snowstorm in The Guardian:
Later I read that CoCoRaHS volunteers are “Environment Canada-trained” (we aren’t, or at least I’m not) in this CBC PEI article:
It seems the source for all this officialness is an Environment Canada daily weather summary for PEI, and there’s my 12cm in Foxley River once again:
Environment Canada does not operate CoCoRaHS, though they are able to access the data, which is free and open to all. They do say at the bottom of the report that it “may contain preliminary or unofficial information”, and that would be me, the Foxley River unofficial official.
I know that at least a couple of the PEI CoCoRaHS volunteers are highly trained, one a former military meteorologist and another a NAV Canada air traffic controller. I suspect the rest of us are just weather nerds with a little time on our hands.
The CoCoRaHS volunteer training is self-directed, a handbook, articles and videos all available on their website. To be a volunteer, you have to commit to submitting observations every day, ideally at the same time each morning, and you need to purchase a rain gauge from them. If you are going to measure snow, you need a ruler and a snow board to take the measurements from. That’s it.
I have a couple of diaries my great-grandfather Ernest Hardy used as the keeper of the Little Channel Lighthouse. He had to record the time he extinguished and lit the light each day, and he also recorded the weather. He was sort of unofficially-official, too, like me.
I woke before sunrise this morning. As I write this, it is calm and cool as the sky begins to glow in the east. Sometimes on such a morning, when I step out on the back step to smell the fresh air, I can hear the roar of the ocean a couple of miles away, but today it was silent.
My mother, Vivian, told me yesterday that April 15 was the day her grandparents, Eva and Ernest Hardy, would move from their home in Freeland to their lobster cannery on the sand dunes that run along part of PEI’s north shore. My mother and her younger brother, Edgar, lived with their grandparents from 1927 until 1938, after their mother, Thelma, died of tuberculosis in March 1927. Their father, Wilbur, was unable to care for two small children and operate his farm and sawmill, so his parents took them in.
My mother’s description of the “moving to the Sandhills” day is like something out of a history book. It began with a horse and wagon drive a couple of miles out the Murray Road from their Freeland home, probably through lots of mud, down the Mickie Allen Shore Road to the water. They would row across the Conway Narrows in a dory, then walk down the beach of the Sandhills to the cannery, or perhaps take another horse and wagon that would already be over there.
You can walk across the Narrows at low tide at a couple of places, so the dairy cow would be walked and, where it was deeper and her legs couldn’t touch bottom, floated across. A pig would somehow be maneuvered into a dory, and Eva’s hens would be crated up and rowed over to spend the summer pecking at the sand. Their few articles of clothes would be in steamer trunks along with bedding, everything stinking of mothballs.
I’m thinking of my mother as a tiny four year old on that first cold April morning 93 years ago, waking up next to her 20-month-old baby brother. They would hear Eva making breakfast: oatmeal porridge, beans, bread and butter, tea. Hear their grandfather and uncles in other shanties or perhaps heading out in their boats to fish for bait that would be salted and used for fishing lobster over the following months.
Less than a month after her mother had disappeared slowly and painfully and she had to leave her father and home, my little mother was waking up on a straw-filled mattress basically right on the ocean, at sea in more ways than one.
Since I sometimes digitally clip bits and pieces from old newspapers and then file them without good descriptions, I shouldn’t be surprised when I ask myself questions I could already answer.
Earlier this month I mused about my great-grandmother’s prize-winning entry to a contest in a fishing magazine. I wondered how she remembered the exact details of a fish caught by her sons long after the event and where she got the photo that accompanied the story.
Seems she had already alerted the media to this story in 1936, and I had already read it and filed it away with the very descriptive file name “Guardian_Aug24_1936_fish”. Thankfully I stumbled upon it this morning.
News from the Atlantic Veterinary College of a necropsy recently performed on an ocean sunfish that washed ashore on PEI last November reminded me of a story my great-grandmother submitted to a Bluenose News contest and was published in their July 1948 edition. Bluenose News was a small free magazine published by the Drummondville Cotton Company of Montreal, makers of fishing twine.
Cecil and Everett were two of her seven sons, five of whom were fishermen (the other two were my grandfather, Wilbur, who was prone to seasickness so became a farmer and box mill operator, and Elmer, who was a renowned market gardener and poultry keeper).
I’ve always had many questions about this piece. How did Cecil and Everett “give chase” in the slow boats they had pre-1948, and how fast is a sunfish? How did Eva get her hands on a copy of the December 1940 edition of Australian Wild Life in tiny Freeland, PEI? Did Eva have a diary where she recorded oddities like the exact measurements of strange fish caught by her sons and, if she did, where the heck is that diary now?
As I examine this story more closely, I realise that this is probably not a photo of the sunfish caught by my great-uncles, as Eva says “they gaffed a fish like the enclosed picture.” The fellow on the left doesn’t really look like any of my family, and cameras were still pretty rare in the 1940s and certainly not carried around while people were working by the ocean, so I guess this is just something she found somewhere.
Eva loved to read. My mother remembers that when the weekly Family Herald arrived, Eva put her work aside until she had read every word, then she would tell everyone the tales and tips she had learned. Beyond her family’s memories, I only met one woman about ten years ago who remembered going to the Hardy house as a little girl to hear Eva telling stories.
Having a story published must have been a big thrill for Eva and receiving the handsome sum of $10 would have been most welcome, too! I’m sure she told this story again and again.
While sitting quietly before a yoga class this fall, I thought of the enormous privilege I had being in a warm sunny room with nothing to do but breathe and think only of myself.
I looked down at my hands and realised that no matter how hard some days can be, I am at the easy end of a line of women who worked hard and had difficult lives, a line that reaches back and back beyond what I can imagine. I can name many of these women six or seven generations in the past, but beyond that, the women fade away. But they do exist in the lines and size and shape of my hands.
When I hold my mother’s hand, I can reach back to 1848, when her great-grandmother Martha (Ellis) Sharpe was born. Here they are together, likely around 1927, a year before Martha died. My mother, Vivian, would be about five.
The woman standing on Martha’s right is my great-grandmother, Eva (Sharp) Hardy. Eva’s son, my grandfather Wilbur Hardy, is the fellow in the back. His wife, Thelma, died in 1927, and my mother and her younger brother went to live with Eva and her husband, Ernest.
Stories my mother tells of life with her grandparents are a big part of my story. Eva died in 1952, 14 years before I was born, but if she walked through my door right now, I know I would be able to start up a conversation with her as though we had been together forever.
She lived a simple and humble life and didn’t have many possessions. Eva and Ernest had a small house with tiny closets, really just a couple of hooks behind a door. Her two or three everyday dresses would always be covered by an apron. She cooked every day, of course, baked bread, fed hens, gathered eggs, kept a wood range filled, so an apron was necessary to keep those precious dresses clean.
In trying to live more lightly on this earth, I am really just trying to live more like Eva. It has been a long process. I do not live her simple and humble life, and have far too many possessions. I’ve never been hugely into fashion or having lots of clothes, but I once had many more than I do now. My goal is to only have what I really need, take better care of what I own, and buy clothing either used or, if new, produced ethically, sustainably and locally, and only when necessary to replace what is worn out.
I happened to be in Summerside before Christmas on a day when Emily and Amanda, the lovely women who are Ureshii, were having an open studio. I have gotten to know Amanda from another one of her ventures, and we have followed each other on various social media for years, but this was the first time I had looked at their beautiful clothing.
I bought a lovely t-shirt with a block printed strawberry on it, and a pair of their famous (and very comfortable!) underwear. Then I asked if they made aprons, describing what I wanted without using the actual word of what it is: a pinafore. Yes, they did, and after many measurements were taken and fabric options discussed, an apron was in the works.
As busy as they are, the apron was finished in just a couple of weeks. I popped by to pick it up a couple of weeks ago, and it fit beautifully, perfectly. Emily, who is the seamstress of the pair, noted that she had sewn and not serged the edges, thinking I would appreciate it. I certainly do.
After a bit of guidance on how to don the apron, I managed to pull it over my head and they stood back and checked that everything was just right. We all declared ourselves pleased, and off I went to run my weekly errands.
I put the apron on when I arrived home from town, and begrudged taking it off that night to put on my pjs to go to bed. I wore it while I made soup the next day and have worn it every day since. It has a beautiful big pocket ready to hold some eggs from the nesting boxes or a tomato or two from the garden, to shove my hands in when I’m pondering something, to hold some scissors or a little snack. It feels timeless, like I could be here in 2020 or back in 1820. It is perfect.
Unexpectedly, it wraps lovingly around my back. The apron hugs me, keeps me warm, and when I put flour-covered hands on my hips to consult a recipe, the apron is there to keep me clean. Unlike a chef’s apron, there is also no tie to cut me in half (and to be a tut-tutting gauge of how large or small I am at any time!).
My mother and I talk often about her grandmother. We wonder what she would make of this modern world that is so convenient, where laundry isn’t an all-day affair, where you are free to spend your time doing yoga if you feel like it.
Aprons aren’t really necessary now as fewer people cook at home, laundry is a daily occurrence for many, clothing is cheap and almost disposable. But maybe we need aprons, a practical costume to ground us to the tasks at hand, to help us make better decisions about the clothing we wear.
Eva wouldn’t recognize many things in our house if she did walk through the door right now (oh, how I wish she would!), but she would feel very comfortable with this beautiful apron. It connects me to her, and to the women of my past who allowed me to be here, wearing an apron just because it is beautiful and I want to. Thank you Emily and Amanda, and Eva and Martha, and on.
I’m preparing a presentation for tomorrow evening, the third one I have given this year on the general topic of “I’m saving and sharing stuff and you should, too!” The first two talks were in my Tyne Valley/Ellerslie neighbourhood, but this one is in Summerside, so I am switching it up a bit.
I’ve just added a clip from audio interviews I’ve done over the past few years with my mother, Vivian. She was raised by her paternal grandparents, Ernest and Eva Hardy, after her mother died in 1927 when my mother was four. They had already raised eight children, including my grandfather, Wilbur, their oldest child. How good it was of them to take on my mother and her younger brother, Edgar, so that Wilbur could continue to farm and make a living.
Eva and Ernest died long before I was born, but I have heard so many stories about them from my mother and her aunts and uncles that I feel like I remember them. The act of telling stories about someone keeps them alive. Many of my memories are not of things that happened to me but of things I’ve been told so often they are now mine.
I especially love this story about Ernest as it make him sound like Matthew Cuthbert off to Carmody for puffed sleeves! My mother was 91 when this was recorded, and she has been every bit as generous as her beloved grandfather.