This month, I turn 45 years of age. If my grandmother was still alive, she would have turned 120 years old. While I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, she did live to the age of 91. In some ways, I wish I could have known her better. She couldn’t really handle her own affairs by the time she was in her mid-80s and I was 16 years old when she died. By that time, not only was she out of her mind, but I think she weighed only 82 pounds. She was quite a lady and lived a life I can’t really imagine.
Lil was born in 1893 in Frodsham, England. She had an older sister, Sarah Ellen (Nel) who never married and who scowled at my teenaged father over her glasses when she visited from England in the 1930′s. She had at least two brothers. Peter was killed in WWI. Albert was kind of a shyster minister who changed churches and denominations often. Lilian grew up and received an education. She had a head for business and while the brothers were off serving in the RAF, she traveled all over England on trains and was more successful representing the family’s drapery and millinery business than the boys, only to be shunted aside by her father when the war came to an end. She did some volunteering at a hospital where soldiers were convalescing once the war was over (by that time she was 24 years old) and met a most unsuitable RAF navigator whose plane had been shot down over Normandy. So many things wrong with him according to the parents… He was Anglican, they were Methodist. He was a lowly Saxon (those heathens!) and they were Normans, tracing their lineage back to the invasion of England by William the Conquerer in 1066. Nonetheless, she was smitten and strong-willed. They even tried to tell her that she had a “weak” chest and that she wouldn’t survive in North America is she moved there with my grandfather, Harold, who was born in Collingham, England but had left for opportunities in Canada as a young man, returned to England when he volunteered for the RAF. They married in 1918 and left for Canada shortly thereafter. First for Manitoba and then on to Saskatchewan. My grandfather who had grown up the son of a farmer and butcher in England became a wheat farmer in Canada. My grandmother, who’d grown up in a city, probably with water closets and bath tubs, followed her husband to a land without plumbing or lights other than lanterns that had to be filled with kerosene and lived in a rather primitive shack distant from neighbors and a full day’s wagon journey to go to the closest town of any size. My father was born in 1920, but by the time he was six years old, she was determined that they moved somewhere that the boy could go to school. With the move from Saskatchewan to Wisconsin, Harold transitioned from wheat farming to dairy. Lilian must have learned what she needed to and helped out along the way also keeping house and having another child late in 1926. Harold died in 1950 leaving Lil to as a widow for quite a long time since she never remarried. She went to work sewing which was good for her since she worked enough quarters to qualify for Social Security and Medicare.
In some ways I’m like my grandmother. As a child, I had very dark brown hair. Almost black. I’d seen a picture of her when they emmigrated to the United States. The picture was black and white and her hair was quite dark. In the description it said, “Hair: Black”. I never knew her to have anything other than silvery white hair. In my mid-20′s when some of my hair started turning grey, especially at my temples, I was pretty pleased that it was the same silvery white hair she had…not that it stopped me from dying it until a few months before I turned 40. I’m also kind of stubborn, though I make no pretense of holding a candle to this lady. She put up with more hardship in everyday life than I do voluntarily on the weekends. I’m sure that carrying water was an everyday occurrence in the Canada years and that laundry involved a washboard and maybe a wringer. We’re also great big bunches different. She wore dresses all the time and I don’t recall her ever leaving the house without a hat to protect her skin from the sun. I mostly wear jeans and I’ll wear a hat paddling or doing farm work but not for anything else. She didn’t ever learn to drive and she didn’t drink. I’m guilty on both counts but not at the same time. I’m also pretty sure she didn’t use any kind of strong language. Guilty again.
Since she had to move out of her house in the 1970′s, it was rented by people who kept chickens in the front yard and didn’t paint the walls, it’s been a gun shop, painted beige inside and out, with bars on all the windows. My favorite thing that it has been was a potter’s studio. A long time ago, I thought maybe I would buy it, but honestly, it’s not on enough land, things are getting too crowded around that little town which used to just have around 1,510 people and the barn and most of the land had been sold off years ago to someone else from the town. Our history with that piece of land isn’t that long anyway. Walking around the State Forest there with my dad, I learned that several of the farms they were on as tenant farmers were gone and part of the forest now. Good thing too, or they might be treeless subdivisions with lots too small and houses too big, with or without golf courses.
There are plenty of things I’d like to have learned from my grandmother, but since she turned 75 years old the year I was born, I’m lucky to have known her at all.
*This post is accurate to the best of my ability regarding both things I’ve been told over the years and things I personally remember. I sure did love those yellow pants when I was four years old. That I do remember.*