Grandma Wood through the years

Grandma was 17 when she gave birth to her first daughter, 21 when she bore her first son. Ten years later she gave birth to the twins, one of whom was my mother, and another ten years later to her youngest child. The earliest picture we have of her is a formal family portrait taken when the twins were 3 years old. (Both George and Gladys are wearing dresses; my mother is the one with the bow in her hair.)

Wood Family Photo 1923. Back L to R: Cecil, Mary (Grandma), Johnny, Arnold, Thomas (Granddad), Arthur. Front L to R: Gladys (Mum) Muriel, George.

I don’t know if no pictures were taken earlier, or if earlier pictures are held by my aunts and uncles, but all the pictures we have of Grandma on the farm with her children only include the four youngest: Gladys, George, Muriel and Lucille.

When Grandma left Ontario in 1910, she did not get back for a visit until 1933. Only the 3-year-old twins went with her. Perhaps that visit sparked some return trips. Her older sisters Lena and Gertie visited her in 1942 and Gertie came again in 1944. Here is a rare snapshot of the three sisters together.

The Howell sisters: L to R Mary Wood, Lena Ferris, Gertie Bowen

The Howell sisters: L to R Mary Wood, Lena Ferris, Gertie Bowen

Most of the pictures we have of Grandma Wood include some of her grandchildren.

Of course, we can’t omit the next generation.  Here is Grandma with some of her great-grandchildren.

Here is one of my favorite pictures, and a rare one:  Grandma relaxing all by herself.

Mary Isabella (Howell) Wood 1952

Mary Isabella (Howell) Wood 1952


Memories of 2-14

One of the advantages of living in Neepawa was that we could visit our grandparents’ farm frequently.  No one visit stands out in my memory, only numerous impressions that cannot be fixed to any one year.  Some, no doubt, are actually from a few years later, when we returned from Saskatchewan for a visit. So this is my verbal impressionistic image of visits to the farm.

I remember one occasion when many of Grandma’s children and grandchildren had gathered for some festivity—perhaps Christmas—and there were not enough beds available for everyone.  So several of Grandma’s handmade quilts were spread on the floor, to make a common bed for all of us children in our pyjamas and nighties, literally snug as bugs in a rug!  We thought it was great fun.

Speaking of quilts, Grandma made many.  She didn’t try for any set pattern, just fitting scraps of material from worn out clothing together as best she could, so they were all what were known as “crazy quilts”.  Sometimes Grandma, Mum or one of my aunts or uncles could tell me something about where particular pieces of the quilt had come from.

On another visit, when there were fewer people, I was assigned a place on the living room sofa for the night.  I remember being groggily aware in the early dawn that I was very cold. At that moment Uncle Cecil came in to get the fire going in the pot-bellied wood stove.  He asked me if I was cold and I nodded yes. “No wonder,” he replied, “you’ve lost all your quilts on the floor.”  And so I had.  I have never forgotten how good it felt to warm up after he put them on top of me again.

There was always plenty to do on the farm.  I remember watching the cows being milked, sometimes by my mother (though I never learned to milk myself).  I remember milk splashing into a pail to be fed to young calves to wean them.  And I remember the cream separator in the summer kitchen and watching as two spouts poured out cream into one pail and skim milk into another.  I don’t remember ever seeing Grandma or Aunt Muriel churn butter, though I know from my mother that they did.

English: Cream separator at Kloster iron work ...

Cream separator at Kloster iron work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember picking peas or other vegetables from the garden. I remember feeding chickens and gathering eggs, and feeding pigs.  Surely, I must have gone sometime to bring the cows in from pasture, but I don’t remember that.

I do remember the barn, a huge red-painted building and one of the best in the district.  One internal feature was a real stairway (not just a ladder) into the hayloft.  And a slanted roof above it, which we used as a “hill” for many games.  Of course, the real fun of a hayloft was to swing on a rope and drop into a mound of the soft, sweet-smelling grass. Or just to lie in the warm loft reading a book.

My mother and her little sister, Lucille, 1936.  The great red barn is in the background.

My mother and her little sister, Lucille, 1936. The great red barn is in the background.

I remember a very old well, next to the summer kitchen. It had no wall around it, just a flat, wooden cover.  And over it, a wooden winch to which a bucket was attached by a rope  It was sometimes used as a cooler on a hot day.

On the other side of the house was a small windbreak of trees and beyond that a pond, or, as it was called in that region, a slough. That was a good place to go wading, if one didn’t mind the insects too much.

And I remember the reservoir, the artificial pond created between two banks of earth, which was the main source of water for the livestock, the fields and the gardens when the rains held off and the slough dried up.  I remember skipping stones across the smooth surface of the reservoir and watching dragonflies hover over it.

Strangely enough, my memories seldom include adults—not my parents, nor my grandparents.  But then, I was a child who often liked to be alone.  But pictures show what has faded from memory.  And I can’t help but feel that the warm, comforting memories I have of the farm owed a great deal to the warm and loving woman who welcomed us so often.

Nadine and I with Grandma Wood at 2-14. Summer 1948

Nadine and I with Grandma Wood at 2-14. Summer 1948

A feisty woman in a man’s world

Granddad was a typical Victorian patriarch. He expected to rule his household and for the most part, he did.  But, however innocent and docile she was as a girl, Grandma developed a feisty streak as she grew more experienced.  One of my favorite stories about Grandma well illustrates her methods.

The pincherry tree


Not far from the farmhouse there was a pincherry tree.  For those unfamiliar with pincherries, they are a very small fruit, no bigger than currants, and not at all easy to pick.  They are also not much good for anything but feeding birds and making jelly.  But one day as he came in for dinner, Granddad noticed a fine crop of fruit on the pincherry tree and demanded that they be picked that very day before they went to the birds.  Grandma considered pincherries belonged to the birds and also hated working in the hot sun.  So once Granddad was back in the field, she got an ax from the wood pile, chopped down the tree, and hauled it into the shade where the children could help her strip the tree of its tiny fruits.  Muriel was still by the tree when Granddad came in for supper.  “Who chopped down the tree?” he asked.  “Mum.”  “Why?”  “To pick the pincherries.”  And nothing else was ever said about it.

The Eaton’s catalogue

Eaton's catalogue

In a similar vein, one year as the depression deepened and money was becoming scarce, Granddad decided that before he handed over the cash to pay for an order of household necessities from the Eaton’s catalogue, he would first look over the list to see if anything could be removed.  He removed two items and gave her cash to cover the rest of the order.  Grandma, furious because she believed everything on the list was a necessity, decided on a strategem to be sure she got everything she needed.

The next time, after listing all she needed, she looked through the catalogue some more and added two more items before giving the list to the ‘boss’.  He quickly stroked off two items, the very ones she had added and gave her the cash for the rest of the order.  She got everything she actually wanted.  But Granddad was no fool.  After going through this routine a few times, he began simply looking at the total and handing her the cash. When she asked if he did not want to look over the list first, he merely shook his head and waved her away as he went back to reading his newspaper.

The collision of devotion and friendship

One other story remains with me about Grandma’s determination to do things her way.  Grandma was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, a sect which sometimes practices the internal discipline of shunning a member whose behaviour has been unacceptable.  Once when she was about 60, her local Kingdom Hall declared one of their members persona non grata and called on other members to shun him.  A few days later, when she and Muriel met him in the street, Grandma greeted him as usual.  Muriel remonstrated with her, but Grandma replied:  “He’s been a friend for 30 years, and I won’t pass him by on the street without saying hello, no matter what anyone says.”

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.