Archive | March 2013

Raising a Family

Tom and Mary Wood farmed in Mentmore for eight years. In 1918 they moved to 2-14-17 in Cordova, the farm that became the family home until they retired early in the 1950s.

2-14-17 (2)

The Wood family home (2-14-17) in Cordova district, Manitoba

Before her first wedding anniversary she gave birth to her first son, Arnold Austin Wood. Three more sons, Cecil, Johnny and Arthur, followed in quick succession. Then, in July 1920 she gave birth to twins: George and Gladys, my mother. They arrived prematurely and were born on the farm.

Grandma was very ill afterward, unable to leave her bed for nearly four months. The doctor warned her that another pregnancy could cost her her life and that she should have no more children. He advised an abortion if she got pregnant again. He gave no information about preventing a pregnancy (something that would have been illegal at the time.) Perhaps the doctor assumed she would simply abstain from marital relations. So just a year and a half later, Muriel was born and the doctor warned again that any pregnancy would be very high risk.

It appeared that Grandma had given serious thought to an abortion, but having no means of acquiring good information, thought it should be done fairly late rather than as early as possible in the pregancy. She delayed too long. The following year, armed with better information, she did terminate a pregnancy. She was also told she would likely not have another child for several years, and this also proved to be the case. Her last child, Lucille, was born in 1930. Grandma was now 41 years old.

The Wood family, 1923Only Grandma's oldest (Grace) and youngest (Lucille) daughters are not in this photo.L toR

The Wood family, 1923
Only Grandma’s oldest (Grace) and youngest (Lucille) daughters are not in this photo.
Back row L to R: Cecil, Grandma, Johnny, Arnold, Granddad, Arthur. Standing in front L to R: Gladys, Muriel, George

However, she did participate in raising still one more child: her granddaughter Rosanne, who was born in January 1942. Muriel had been working away from home and had returned, unmarried and pregnant and (perhaps because of her mother’s experience) determined to keep her child. Muriel and Rosanne lived on the farm for eight or nine years until Muriel married a farmer from Invermay, Saskatchewan and they moved there.


Grandma Wood–Early Years and Marriage

Grandma Wood

Mary Isabella Wood (née Howell)

“The first time I came to Gananoque, I came by stage coach.” Grandma was reminiscing about a trip made 70 years earlier when she was only 14, as she and her daughter, Muriel, passed through Gananoque on a bus. Of all her nine children, Muriel was the closest to her, and I am relying mostly on Muriel’s reminiscences of her as recorded in Pancake Ranch.

Pancake Ranch

My maternal grandmother was the only one of my grandparents born and raised in Canada. The family farm was located near the village of Strathcona (formerly Napanee Hills) outside of Gananoque, Ontario.  The story goes that on arriving at Strathcona, Thomas Howell was shocked to find there was no library, and holding that no town should be without one, immediately arranged to have one opened.  So it is no wonder that Grandma was also an avid reader.

She was born in 1889 and named Mary Isabella, the fifth of six children born to Deborah  (née Martin) and Thomas Howell. Grandma had no clear memory of her mother as Deborah Howell died of a fever when Grandma was only four and her younger sister, Alice, barely two.  So she was raised by her older sisters, Lena, Gertrude (Gertie) and Margaret (Maggie) until they married and settled in their own homes. When Maggie married in 1903, Thomas Howell decided it was time to leave their long-time home in Strathcona. He sent Grandma to live with Lena, Alice to live with Gertie, and he and Jack, the only son, headed west.

Grandma remained with Lena, helping with children and chores for about four years. She was young and completely innocent of sexual knowledge (something scarcely credible now, but not uncommon in days before mass media, especially television). She enjoyed the attention and affection given her by her brother-in-law, not knowing what it was leading to. At seventeen, still unmarried, she gave birth to her daughter, Grace. Incredibly, nothing was said or done. She was never asked about the father. Perhaps the family assumed it was a bachelor friend of her brother-in-law who visited frequently. Some time in the next year or two, she left Lena’s and took a position with another family.

Grandma was always a voracious reader and an avid correspondent. One of her  letters was published in the Lonely Hearts page of the Family Herald,  and brought several responses from lonely young men in the prairies. In 1910, one of her correspondents came to visit her and within two weeks they were married and she was on her way to homestead with him in Mentmore, Manitoba. It was thirteen years before she saw Ontario again.

There was a sad undercurrent to this otherwise joyful event. Thomas William Wood refused to take her daughter with them. He persuaded Grandma that it would be best to allow her childless employers (who delighted in the little girl) to adopt her. Grace’s existence was supposed to be a secret, but it was not a well-kept one. Grandma kept up a correspondence with her first child all the rest of her life, and visited her whenever she could.  Several of Grace’s half-siblings, including my mother, eventually met her.

Hear the pennies dropping!

Thoughts of Sunday School and Sunday School songs brings to mind two amusing stories.

I said in my last post that my favorite hymn was This is my Father’s world.  Near the beginning there is a line which reads “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”

At five years of age, the word “sphere” was unknown to me. I learned a few years later that it referred to a ball shape (which gave me the impression of planets singing as they rolled their way around the sun). But it was not until I was in university and reading Dante that I learned about the Ptolemaic cosmology and discovered the true meaning of the phrase, “music of the spheres”.

All that was in the future though.  As a five-year-old, trying to make some sense of the line, I fastened on the vague auditory similarity of “sphere” and “fairy” and decided it referred to fairy rings.  So for sometime, whenever we sang that hymn, I would visualize a natural setting in which fairies danced and sang.  Sometimes that still seems more appropriate than the intended meaning.

Hexenringe, fairy ring,fairy circle

Fairy ring,fairy circle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The other story concerns my sister, though she doesn’t recall it herself.

Pennies in those days were important currency for young children.  They were almost the only coins we got to handle ourselves, and nine times out of ten, they were spent on penny candy.  It was one of the few purchasing decisions we were given and I well remember the intense calculation as to whether to get blackballs (3 for a penny) or spend the whole coin on a single licorice twizzler or candy cane.  It took immense self-discipline to save up the five pennies it would take to purchase a chocolate bar.


The other use for pennies was as Sunday School collection, a fact alluded to in the best-known children’s offertory hymn of the time.  As the plate was passed around we sang it with gusto!

Hear the pennies dropping. Listen as they fall.
Every one for Jesus, he shall have them all.
Dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping
Hear the pennies fall!
Every one for Jesus.  He shall have them all!

Any way, the story goes that Nadine, then about three, listened in horror, clutched her pennies and protested “No, not all.  He can’t have them all.”

I don’t know if the story is true or not.  Like my walking backward into water story, it seems to be a free-floating meme that attaches itself to whoever is handy.  In this case, exactly the same story appears in my uncle’s family memoir, Pancake Ranch, but the young protestor is my Aunt Lucille and the time is a decade earlier, in the 1930s.

Pancake Ranch

Sunday School

Neepawa United Church, 2010Photo credit: Jeanette Greaves

Neepawa United Church, 2010
Photo credit: Jeannette Greaves

Neepawa United Church was the place where Nadine and I first attended Sunday School, though the 2010 picture above is probably not what it looked like in 1946.

Personally, I took to Sunday School like a duck to water.  Probably because I loved to sing.  And I loved all the common Sunday School hymns of the time: Jesus Loves Me, God Sees the little sparrow fall, When he cometh and I am so glad (How I loved to belt out the chorus on that one!)

But my truly favorite hymn was This is my Father’s world.  Our children’s version did not include the third verse, which I learned only many years later. Perhaps the line “Although the wrong seems oft so strong..” was deemed unsuitable for the young.  Here is the way I learned it.

This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world,
the birds their carols raise,
the morning light, the lily white,
declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world:
he shines in all that’s fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.

These words were often my personal meditation as I sat under a tree or beside a stream.  And certainly every time I felt the wind blowing through the grass.

It was also at Neepawa United Sunday School that I had my own first moment of ephemeral glory—along with the boy who lived next door to us.  It was a Hallowe’en party and our mothers decided to create an Indian chief and Indian princess costume set for us.  And we won first prize for the best couples’ costume.