Thursday, 5 November 2015

Girl

In his letters he called her "Girl". There were many letters. Letters from Sarcee Camp, where he trained. Letters from the front. Postcards from Belgium while he waited to come home. Later, letters from their home to her parents' homestead where she spent every summer. And much later, long lonely letters from the Far North where he worked. He signed himself "Boy" or sometimes just "B".

She told me one day she planned to write her life story.

She never did.

It was an epic romance. A quiet beautiful girl from a pioneer family and a lonely charming British orphan. Wars and hardship. Compromise. A woman in search of adventure. A man who wanted nothing more than a home and family. A love that lasted.

He was a banker in Lake Saskatoon. She wanted to be a nurse, but instead became a homesteader with her family in the Peace Country.

One day he came to call on horseback. The horse bucked him off and he lost his gift of chocolates and mandarin oranges. He said that newcomers found them and felt they had come to a promised land where oranges and chocolates grew.

World War One. He signed up immediately, joining the Peace River Contingent of the 66th Battalion. They were married while he was on leave. He gave her a beautiful ruby engagement ring. She lost so much weight after he joined up that he had a keeper ring made for her, a ring with the number 66 on it. A ring I wear to this day.

He went to war. She followed. I don't know how she afforded passage but somehow she made her way across the continent and onto a ship and into Britain. A couple befriended her. The only passenger who didn't suffer from seasickness, she sat at the captain's table for dinner.

England. Once she got lost in the streets of London. Terrified and afraid of the dark, she ran for miles until she found a familiar place. Her leather gloves were drenched with sweat.
Back row, far left.
She worked in a munitions factory and lived with my grandfather's people. One day the factory was shelled and huge chunks of glass fell onto the women below. Her neighbour, a refugee from eastern Europe, was struck in the back of the neck by falling glass, saved only by her enormous braid of hair which was sheared off completely.

She was good at her job and soon was promoted from making shells to inspecting them. One sits on my desk.  One of the millions of women who stayed behind, trying to do their part in times of fear with limited resources and a shortage of labour. The women of my grandmother's generation didn't just "keep the home fires burning." They kept their country working.

He was wounded and returned to England to recuperate. Soon he returned to the front to fight another day. Then the armistice. It took her some time, after the war, to secure return passage. It took him even longer. But eventually they both made it home.

Delia, Alberta
They moved from one prairie town to another. Their first child was born and then the second. She sewed fabulous dresses and doll clothes. She nursed my mom through meningitis. It was the Depression. She learned to make anywhere she lived feel like home. She picked the gold embroidery out of her gorgeous flapper dress stitch by stitch so she could make a new dress for my mother.

My grandmother loved her two children fiercely in her own quiet way. A neighbour miscarried her first child. "How horrible," the ladies said. "Losing your first child!" "Oh," my grandmother said, "Losing your second child would be so much worse. Because then you know what they are like. You would know what you missed."

Every summer she returned to the family homestead with her two girls by train or by car. She was an excellent driver and could maneuver almost any vehicle out of snow or mud. Granddad remained behind, writing his letters to his darling girl. She rarely wrote back.

In Edmonton
They moved to Edmonton, where he was known to juggle plates for dinner guests, much to her alarm. There were countless visitors from back home, especially when the second World War began. Their daughters grew up, went to university, got jobs, married and had kids. My grandparents retired back to the Peace Country just meters away from the family homestead where she could raise horses and chickens and and cats and visit with her sisters.

My father, before he was my father, came for a visit. "I've never liked the name George," she said. "It reminds me of someone walking on gravel."  And "Never mind about the porridge. If you don't like it I'll just feed it to the cats."

Granddad worried about money. In retirement, he relieved for bank managers across the Far North. Inuvik. Aklavik. Fort Smith. More letters home from "Boy." No letters from "Girl." His letters described his loneliness and asked why she did not respond.

On the farm
Toward the end of their lives, my grandfather wanted to move to town. They rented a suite at the seniors lodge. He loved chatting with the people in the lodge. Every chance she got, she drove back to the farm, once getting snowed in for a week. He relented and they moved back home. To her dying day, she was still searching for a piece of land to homestead on.

On the morning of their 60th anniversary, Granddad was grouchy. "I got up this morning and went to thank your grandmother. I sat on the side of the bed and told her how much I loved her and what a wonderful wife she had been for the past 60 years and she just rolled over and went back to sleep!"  My grandmother smiled. "I didn't hear you. I didn't have my hearing aids in."

My grandfather died. My grandmother stood in the kitchen. Her stalwart pose dissolved and she wept. "Whatever will I do now"? she said. Late one winter night, returning from tea with her sisters, she stepped in front of a truck and she was gone.

My grandparents were married for 62 years.