“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.
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.