Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Canadian Story - Part I

Those reading this on Facebook will recall that, on the day my Grandmother passed away recently, I said I might write down some of the stories she shared with me. I've been putting it off, perhaps because I fear not doing the stories justice, or that I'll forget parts, or tell them incorrectly. At the same time, part of me knows that if I don't write these, nobody else will, and these stories will be lost. Forever.

So, for better or for worse, here's my best shot. The stories are short, but, to me, tell of important points in our collective, Canadian, history.

My Grandmother, Mary Lowe (nee Chic) lived the life of a Prairie child, sibling, then wife through the early part of the 20th century and lived right through to the early part of the 21st century.

She was born, literally, in the bush near Selkirk, Manitoba in September of 1910. Her birth certificate reads November, however, that is simply when her father finally made it into Selkirk to register her birth. Her mother was 15 years old, and her father was not much older. Her parents were Ruthenian immigrants who'd arrived a few years earlier.

Theirs was a tough sort of existance. The home was a sod-roofed log structure common to the time and the place. Here's an image from the Manitoba Archives of a Ruthenian home c. 1910.

The 1916 special census of Manitoba, Saskachewan, and Alberta shows her family. As mother tongue they listed Ruthenian, as place of origin Austria (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and their religion as Greek Catholic. She would later be excommunicated from the church for marrying my Grandfather, a protestant. You'll find my Grandmother, Mary, on line 38 of this census document.

This story begins two years after that census, in 1918 when the Spanish Flu was making it's worldwide sweep, killing millions of people. This flu, unlike most influenzas targeted the young, not the old, and affected, primarly, those between 15 and 40. As a result, in farming communities, those most responsible for farming and all the duties that went with it, were those most likely to be stricken.

In Selkirk, that is precisely what happened. The Ruthenian community of the day would have been tightly knit, bound by language, culture, and ancestry. It is certain that Mary's family knew all the other families in the area - the 1916 documents show that everyone in the area was Ruthenian from Austria.

An so, it is this community of scrub bush and farmland carved out of the bush, that Mary, eight years old, found herself to be the oldest, healthy person when the flu arrived. Everyone else was sick.

This meant that this little eight year old would spend months in the early part of 1919 waking before the crack of dawn, to do all the chores on their farm -milk the cows, feed all the livestock, take care of her younger brothers and sisters, and parents.

It is hard for me to image an eight year old doing that. I don't think I could keep that up for long. And yet, she did it because there was no-one else left to do it. It simply needed to be done, and she was the one who had to do it.

Remarkably, no one in my family had aver heard this story until I began to retell it. And I was lucky to hear it at all. In fact, it was one of a few stories we heard from my Grandmother when Gail, my wife, and I spent some time with her in Austin, Manitoba, the summer of 2000 in between trips to and from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. She was still in her little house in Austin (she and George - my Grandfather - had long since sold the farm near Carberry) and the early signs of Alzheimer's, while present, were not yet great enough for the family to send her to the MacGregor Nursing Home.

That visit was my first and last visit as an independent adult - free of parents and siblings myself. I'm glad we spent those few days with her, and it's those memories that I'll cherish. To close this story, here's a photo of my Grandmother, probably taken in the 1930's.

So, thanks for reading. In the coming days I'll post part II which continues with another story from the days of the flu pandemic.