Tag Archives: Mom

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.

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.

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.

Wash Day

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.

Homemade lye soap, made by my great-uncle Elmer Hardy in the very kitchen in which my mother used to do dishes. Hard on your hands, but cleans like the dickens!

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.

All this rambling from a broken egg.

Modern soap shaker/swisher. You can just hold a bar of soap in your hands, of course, but this makes more bubbles and has a nice rattle.

Relapsed Presbyterian

By coincidence, today finds me being more Presbyterian than I have been in, well, forever. I was baptised and confirmed in that denomination, and my mother remains a steadfast adherent, but I stopped going to church in my teens when I received unsatisfactory answers to good theological questions. That was an upsetting decision for my parents, and I’m sure my mother hopes I will return someday. I can’t see that happening, but I learned, probably too late in life, to never say never.

In my ongoing whittling down of the stuff in our basement, I decided to send some copies of The Presbyterian Record from the 1950s and 60s to a better home. The national church archives had a complete set, but a church museum in Toronto said they could use them. These sat in the basement of our old house for four decades and in this house for nearly twenty years, and no one has even looked at them. It has taken all my willpower to not start reading them as I box them up as I’m afraid I will find some reason to keep them.

In other Presbyterian activity today, my mother’s church forwarded their annual report to her via my email. My mother has happily been the treasurer of one of her church groups since 1947, and her short report tidily sums up her long memory, the quiet deeds done by people of faith, and the once-in-a-generation-or-two impact of this pandemic.

Hair Done

My mother and I drove to our hairdresser’s house this morning at 8:30. The five minute drive takes us past almost all the places my mother has ever lived: her father’s house; the house she and my father built between her father’s house and their general store; her grandparents’ house at the corner of the Barlow and Murray roads. It was a gorgeous spring morning and our little EV slid along by farm fields and water.

We were our hairdresser’s first customers since mid-March. Mom and I donned our jaunty new cotton masks and waited in the car for Joy to wave us into her house. We sanitized our hands, ticked some boxes on a form saying we were not ill and hadn’t travelled outside the province, and descended the stairs into the salon. It’s always clean and tidy, but today it was absolutely sparkling! We had already washed our hair at home, as requested, so she just spritzed us with water and started cutting.

I’m not really that wrapped up in how I look – I am all about comfort, and my hair felt horrible and messy – but even I will admit it was great to look like myself again (Steven said my hair looked a bit like Jim Jarmusch’s earlier this week, so that needed to be fixed!). After we left, our hairdresser would have to clean all the surfaces we touched and get ready for the next customer, over and over all day. She is happy to be back to work, and we are grateful she has stayed in business.

Moving Day

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.

Only one of two photos of my grandmother, Thelma Rose (Hutchinson) Hardy, taken on the Conway Sandhills, 1922.

Aprons Without Strings

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.

Four generations: Eva, Martha, Vivian, Wilbur, 1927

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.

Ella Oatway and Eva Hardy in their aprons on the cookhouse steps, Hardy’s Channel Sandhills, 1941.

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.

The apron, which deserves a vintage wooden hanger (even though it was likely stolen by my father from the Chateau Frontenac in the late 1960s…je m’excuse.)

Vina

My mother, Vivian, says her time serving in the RCAF Women’s Division during the Second World War was one of the happiest periods of her life. That might sound bizarre to us now, but even those veterans I knew who fought in Europe only told stories of the funny things that happened, both to keep buried as deeply as possible the horrible events they saw, and knowing those who hadn’t been there could never understand what they had been called upon to do and witness.

Before enlisting, my mother had never travelled more than a few miles from home, grew up without running water or electricity, had been keeping house for her father and brother, and working hard on their farm. She served in Canada and Newfoundland, far from the battlefields, so the war really gave her adventure and freedom from drudgery. There were dozens of other women in her group, and she made lifelong friends.

Amazingly, my mother is still in contact with one of the women she trained and served with, a lady named Vina Trowsdale who lives in North Bay, Ontario. They write to each other frequently, sending long letters and newspaper clippings on things the other might find interesting.

I was just searching to see if there was anything online about Vina and found this great interview from 2015. I just showed it to my mother, and she said this is basically her story, too. Thanks, Vina!

Vina Trowsdale, 2015
Vina and Mom
Vina Trowsdale and Vivian Phillips, Foxley River, 1971, 30 years after meeting in Rockcliffe, ON