Monday, May 01, 2006

I've always considered myself to be a pretty independent person. I moved out of my parents' house when I was 18 to go to university two hours away and haven't been back (save the occasional summer) since. My self-congratulations on being independent is laughable in comparison to my grandmother's life. Compared to her I look like a pathetic, coddled kid.

She grew up in the tenements in Glasgow, Scotland. The only time she spent outside the city was during the war when she was moved out to the country and worked on a farm with her siblings. Officially the cities in Britain were evacuated due to the threat of German bombers, but my grandmother has always maintained, that the city folk were essentially slave labour on farms in the countryside to keep the pots on the homefires full of food so the war effort could continue.

While most of her time during the war was spent in the countryside as free labour, she also spent some time volunteering at a canteen for foreign soldiers in Glasgow. Like many of her peers, young eligible women from the city, she met and fell in love with a Canadian soldier.

My grandfather grew up in Alberta and came to Glasgow on a break from the war in Europe. He was a twenty eight year old private in the Rocky Mountain Rangers, and his path crossed with my Grandmother's at the canteen in Glasgow where they fell in love. In August of 1945, they were married on Victory in Japan Day, just days after war had ended in Europe. She was nineteen years old the day they were married.

From what I know of it, the wedding itself wasn't fancy. My grandmother borrowed a dress to wear from a neighbour. Another friend who worked in a florist shop managed to nick some flowers for her to wear. My grandmother relishes telling me that because the war had just ended and troops were coming home, there was a run on flowers to welcome them home and not many to be had. A few roses and ferns in a corsage were all she could get, which was more than most other war brides got. She wore her mother's pearls. There was only one photo of their wedding.

Shortly after their wedding, my grandfather returned home to meet up with his brother and start a farm so they would have a place to stay.

Once he had arranged everything, my nineteen year old grandmother came across the Atlantic alone on the Queen Mary. She was six months pregnant, and was headed onto a boat that would carry her miles away from the only life she had ever known. She was leaving behind her parents, her siblings, and friends to a place she had only ever been told about. She left city life for life in rural Ontario.

I wonder how she felt getting on the boat. Was it excitement? Worry? Fear? If I'm anything like her, a small part of her was wondering what in God's name she was doing. I'm sure she had a healthy level of excitement about the life she was about to start, but I can't help but think there would be some fear in her mind about what she would find on the other side of the Atlantic. When would she see her family again? Would there be mines in the North Atlantic? Would she get sick along the way? Would she have problems finding her way to my Grandfather once she got here? Where would she be living?

I can only imagine how scary it had to have been for her.

The farm they settled on was first started by my great uncle. It was in Central Ontario, smack dab in the beginnings of the Canadian Shield. I won't presume you know Canadian Geography, but will presume that when I explain the Canadian Shield to be a ribbon of thick granite that runs just inches below the soil you too will scratch your head at the thought of starting a farm there. I'm at a loss to explain why my great uncle thought it would be a good place to farm. On top of the granite was a thin layer of acidic sand which cemented the location as one of the least hospitable areas to start a farm. Unlike the life she had known in Glasgow, there was no running water, no indoor plumbing, and they were miles away from any other people. I don't think they even had a car to get to town, several miles away. Life in Canada compared to life in Glasgow would be as different as night and day.

I'm often amazed at the changes the world has seen in the years since my gran was born. Worldwide communication is instantaneous now. Travel now is nothing like it was then. Food is plentiful, refrigerated, laid out before you in big sprawling grocery stores, and not rationed.

I think the experience of coming to Canada as a war bride shaped her life tremendously. When my grandfather used to tell me over and over again to be careful when I was leaving their house my grandmother would often scoff at him, saying in her thick, still-on-the-boat Scottish accent "ooch I was younger than she is when I got on a boat and traveled half-way around the world to be with you, I think Heather can endure the half hour drive home." He always looked sheepish after that admonition and it usually kept him from telling me to "be careful" again within earshot of her.

My gran has lived what I'd consider to be a pretty remarkable life. It's one I am only beginning to appreciate and understand more fully. Before my grandfather died a few years ago we used to talk about how they met and their early years together often. We haven't much lately, I think because it brings back memories for her that are bittersweet now that he's gone.

As I wrote this it occurred to me that I need to take every opportunity I have to get to know her better. Today was her 82nd birthday.


sunshine scribe said...

What a remarkable woman with a remarkable story. You are lucky to still have a grandparent in your life and posess such clarity to know that there is much to learn from her. Thanks for sharing tha wonderful post.

Izzy said...

What a fantastic post! Your gran sounds amazing. And you're right. Things are so different (and easy) now. You should print your post out and share it with her for her birthday!

mama_tulip said...

Wow. This was such a great post. Your grandmother sounds like a truly amazing woman.

Heather said...

Sunshine Scribe: I am VERY lucky. I had four grandparents until I was 22 years old, and still have three. I even had two great grandparents most of my life. Thanks for the compliment.

Izzy: Thanks. Not sure she'd be into the whole Internet thing (my parents recently got her a cordless phone and I think that is the extent of her comfort with technology)

Mama_tulip: She's definitely been through lots in her life. I should have added that when she arrived in Toronto after her journey here she met my grandfather who had a bunch of flowers for her. When she asked why he had bought them for her he told her "everyone else had bought them so I figured I should too." Always the romantic, she was still mad at him when she told the story more than 50 years later.

TB said...

You look like her, you know.
This is a lovely post. Really, you brought tears to my eyes.

Heather said...

TB: I look like my dad (gran is his mum), but have never been told I look like her. Thanks :)

sweatpantsmom said...

What a great story, and a loving tribute to your grandparents. Happy 82nd to your grandma!

(thanks for visiting my blog!)

Sara said...

yeah dude, you totally do look like her.
especially the eyes.

Sara said...

Oh and your dad looks like a perfect blend of them... and actually she looks alot like your mom (which I reailse doesn't make genetic sense)

Heather said...

Sweatpantsmom: Their story is pretty cool, isn't it? I think if any of my friends had told me they met a dude and were marrying him and leaving the country I'd talk them out of it, but I guess sometimes it works!

Sara: I'll agree my dad looks lots like his parents, especially his dad (though dad's face is slimmer and less squared). Guess we're all short(ish) and pastey so we kinda blend in. :P I still don't think I look much like her but I'll show you a picture my parents took of my sister and I with her and you can tell me what you think. I definitely look more like my dad's side of my family and my sister looks like mum's.

wordgirl said...

That is a truly wonderful story. I enjoyed every word.

Heather said...

wordgirl: thanks!

cladbe said...

You write nice

Heather said...

cladbe: thanks!