They were always there. They were there before I was born. They were there after I was born. They were part of my world as much as the sun, the moon and the stars.
My mother was seventeen when I was born. She wrapped me up warmly and took me to watch the King and Queen ride down Portage Avenue. I don’t remember it. I expect I was asleep. I know I was there because a few years ago as she was sorting out her belongings before going to Betel, she showed me a newspaper and the front page story was about the King and Queen’s visit. She said, “You were there with me.”
We stayed at my grandparent’s house for a few days. My grandmother was small boned, always busy, always looking out for my best interests. I expect that started the first time she saw me. I’m sure she held her hands to her cheeks and in her thick lrish accent said, “What a beautiful baby.” I’m sure she was afraid because both her sons had died when they were small children. Died of birth defects that today would have been prevented with diet and what is now minor medical treatment.
My grandmother, brave soul that she was, packed up her belongings in Ireland and, by herself, took a ship to Canada to marry my Irish grandfather. How brave she was. How typical of all the women who risked everything for a better life. Irish, Icelandic, English, Scottish, Welsh, Ukrainian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, an endless list of women who risked facing the unknown for a better life for the children they had or hoped to have.
She loved me as only a grandmother can love. With no reservations. She helped me learn to read, knitted clothes, sewed, kept me at her place on holidays and took me to places only the city could provide, art galleries and museums, places like Assiniboine Park, later, found me a summer job, let me stay with her when I went to university.
In Gimli, when my mother took me there to join my father, there was my step grandmother, Catherine. Widowed and left with four children, a house but no money, she was resourceful, uncomplaining, grew a garden, found part time work, cooked for restaurants, took in boarders, and loved us all. She raised, under the most difficult circumstances, a family that did well in life, didn’t just survive but prospered. And under the umbrella she created, there was room for many others and one of those was me.
My mother. What can one say about a girl who became a mother in 1939? World War II had just begun. Life was fractured. Soon there would be shortages. She was an inventive cook and baker, creating dainties from white bread dipped in chocolate and rolled in shredded coconut. This city girl plucked and cleaned ducks. She managed my father and me and my brother when he came along four years after me. Like her mother, she knitted and sewed and quilted. Quilting frames sat over the dining room table for weeks as she and her friends and relatives gathered to make each other quilts.
How many meals did she make? How many clothes did she wash? How many dishes? We should calculate it and then pile them all up in one place so we can say, “My mother did this?”
However, she did more. When my father asked her to take care of the credit union’s books, she agreed to do for two weeks. Twenty years later, she retired. Her story astounds me still. She had grade ten. She had no training in bookkeeping. She had to learn everything on the job. At first, she went to annual general meetings, she was the only woman there. There are things I often tell people such as, she never hired a man. There were opportunities for men. Hardly any for women. She believed in women helping women.
There was no prouder day in her life when a young professional woman came up to her and said, “Rae, you inspired me.”
There were, though, other women, if not so intimately in my life, still in my experience and my mind. Think small town Manitoba between 1940 and 1970. Travel is still difficult. There is little money. Prejudices and rigidity prevail. Yet, there are women like Lara Tergesen. My mother told me that Tergesen’s store, now so famous, would have ceased to exist if Lara hadn’t doggedly gone to keep the store open in hard times. Or Gwen Geirholm who ran Geirholm’s Hardware Store while her husband travelled about putting in tin ware and furnaces and myriad other tasks that needed to be done. Or my great aunt, Violet Einarson, becoming a real estate agent when real estate agents were men. It was known that God had ordained men to be real estate agents. Violet wasn’t all that impressed by ordinations. She had her own real estate business and insurance business.
I think that my experience in Gimli, watching these strong, independent, determined women was why, when I was offered a teaching position at a private women’s college in the United States, I had no hesitation in accepting the position. It seemed quite natural that I should work to help young women get ahead.
There were others. However, these were the ones in my firmament, the ones whose path I saw. They often lived with tragedy and grim determination. They made do. They made a life for their families. There are thousands, tens of thousands of women who were like them. They never got any medals. Medals are a men’s thing given by men to men. They are often deserved. But they ignore the women who made those triumphs possible.
On International Women’s Day, and on other days, often at night when all is quiet, I think about these women and others, and say thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Not just for me personally but for me and for the friends I grew up with and for the community.