Memoir writing, like memory, can be tricky. No two people raised in the same family will view or remember events the same way. If you are interested in writing your memoirs, the best advice I've heard is to write in episodes, rather than beginning with, "I was born..." and working forward. As you remember events or people, write about them and worry about organizing them later. At one workshop, the leader suggested writing a bit of a disclaimer, for example, "This is the way I remember things."
So, with that in mind, here are the stories of my two grandmothers, beginning with my mother's family...."the way I remember things".
Leah Probert Hurst, John Wesley Hurst, and their children, Beatrice and Wesley. This photo was taken in early 1916, just before my grandfather sailed overseas. I wonder what they were each thinking? Everyone looks so sober, even the baby, my mother !
A Hardy English Rose
In 1997, my grandmother's home was sold. My uncle, her son, had continued to live in it until his death. On the bitter winter day that I took a sentimental last walk through the barren rooms, an unseen force drew me through the kitchen door to stand in the back porch, overlooking her beloved garden. As I turned, chilled, to go back into the house, something made me raise my eyes, and I spied several horseshoes nailed above the door. No one had noticed them through all the months spent emptying and repairing her home. Some of them now hang, right side up to keep the luck from spilling out, above our front door. The rest I have shared with my granddaughters for their horse barn, a tangible link to their great-great grandmother, another farm girl who loved horses.
She was born in the country of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, and her life could have been the subject of one of their novels. An English rose of flawless complexion, with long auburn tresses, Celtic blue eyes, a tiny waist, and sweet smile, she was born in the village of Chaddesley Corbett, Worcestershire, the daughter of a shepherd. With her eight siblings, she bloomed on the farms of the gentry, and in a quaint little village school, and thrived in a green and leafy England at the height of its Victorian power and influence. To the end of her days, she was tremendously proud of her English heritage.
Leah Probert, like the rest of her siblings, was short of stature, but her backbone was made of solid steel, and that made all the difference. Her father, a strict, hard man, allowed no foolishness or frivolity such as cards or popular music. However, she fondly remembered a maternal aunt who would visit from the nearby city of Birmingham and teach the children the latest music hall songs. She claimed to be related, through her mother's family, to the great star of the day, Lillian Russell.
After the turn of the century, as their prospects dimmed at home, Leah, three sisters and three brothers found more fertile soil in Canada, while two sisters remained in Worcestershire. It appears they emigrated in twos or threes, some establishing themselves and preparing the way for the others. Leah arrived around 1910 or 1911 and worked as a domestic in homes and at a hospital. She fell in love with the handsome Englishman, John Wesley Hurst, and they married in July, 1912. One year later, her first child, a son named Wesley Probert Hurst was born. During her pregnancy, Leah was afflicted with German measles and the baby was so sickly at birth that the attending doctor covered him up and told her to leave him be, that he wouldn't last long. Thankfully, after the doctor departed, the attending nurse did everything she could to help the baby thrive, and thrive he did. As a young man, he was a champion gymnast and weight-lifter.
Two years later, in 1915, Beatrice was born. Wesley became her protector, and as their father enlisted in the army a few weeks later, he assumed the role of man of the house, a mantle he would wear for the rest of his life. Brother and sister were always inseparable, and with their doting mother, Leah, they formed a strong and devoted triumvirate until her death.
Leah's marriage was brief but apparently loving. Although they had little, John was generous with little gifts and attentions. While waiting to be shipped from England to France, he used his leave to visit her family and wrote affectionate postcards with scenes of her village and places she knew from her childhood. If he wrote from the battlefield, those letters have disappeared.
Her three brothers were part of a specially formed battalion for men under five foot four, called The Bantams. Leah was left in anxiety and uncertainty, with the other women of her family, to raise her babies as best she could while all the men she loved were slogging through the horrors of muddy battlefields in France with no end in sight.
In January, 1919, a several times wounded John Hurst was discharged and there was a joyous reunion. However, it was short-lived, as not long afterwards he disappeared. The mystery of what happened to him is central to the narrative of our family and was the most important factor in the development of his young children's characters and how their adult lives unfurled. As a result, the fall-out of this tragedy was felt into the next two generations.
Leah spent many years searching for her husband, even taking a job as a practical nurse at a military hospital in Cobourg, Ontario, for a couple of years, probably in the hope of learning something of his possible whereabouts. It is a good possibility that he suffered from what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and was wandering somewhere. It is also possible that he just abandoned his family. Leah decided at some point that life would be easier for her children and herself if she presented herself as a war widow, and that was the story they told the world. However, she continued her search right into the 1950s. Because she could not prove he was alive or dead, there was no pension from the army to help her raise her children.
Through tremendously hard work and with some assistance from her siblings, Leah gave her children the opportunity to become well-educated, to earn a good living, and to be honest, caring people. She encouraged them to bring their friends home for parties. She acquired a house with a large lot, which was her joy, as she was a consummate gardener. Young couples often gathered their wedding flowers from her garden. And despite her father's early teachings, she loved a good game of cards.
Wes and Bea were her life and her reason for being. It's possible she became reluctant to see them leave the nest. Bea married in 1941 at the age of twenty-six, relatively late for that era, and Wes never married. Friends later indicated that when Wes became engaged, Leah interfered with his plans because of her fear of being alone and of what would become of her. At that time, there was no old-age pension, and she had no pension or benefit from the army. I wonder if the reason Bea didn't marry sooner was that her many previous suitors were leery of having an interfering mother-in-law. Her mother never did entirely warm to Bea's choice of husband.
She was an adoring, doting grandmother to her two grandchildren, my sister and me. As the first grandchild, much love and attention was focused on me. I can only write of her as I experienced her. When we lived out of town, she always brought me to Toronto for the Santa Claus Parade. On other visits, we would go to Eaton's Toy Department, where I could pick out a small toy, and then we would proceed to the lunch counter where one of her friends worked and she could show me off.
As I grew older, she would include me in her baking, preserving, cleaning and gardening. The mid-day whistle at a nearby factory often reminded us to stop for lunch. At the end of the day, with dinner on the stove, she would sit by the living room window and watch for Wes to come around the corner on his way home from work. Monday evenings, meant watching I Love Lucy, her favourite show. Her neighbour, Mrs. French, always came in to watch Lucy with her. Afterwards, I slept in a little cot in her bedroom and listened to the streetcars braking on Broadview Ave. This sound was always reassuring to her when Wes worked nights.
She was a Victorian lady, and she prized lady-like behaviour in others. She taught me, for example, that "A lady never leaves home without her gloves." She addressed her women friends as "Mrs. Wingrove", 'Mrs. Harrington", and "Mrs. French". I would be surprised if she ever used their Christian names. She would say, "Children should be seen and not heard." She wore sensible laced-up Oxfords, a stayed corset, bloomers, dresses, never slacks, broad-brimmed hats, and of course, always gloves.
She wore no makeup but her skin was beautiful. I loved it when I could brush out her grey hair which fell to her waist. Every night it was unpinned and received about a hundred brush strokes. Every morning, it was brushed again, braided, and coiled on the back of her head. Sometimes, I could pull the strings of her corset to do her up. I still remember the smell of her hair, her corsets, and the shape of her hair pins and nets.
A country girl, she was full of interesting superstitions and told me, for example, when I had a wart, to write my name on a piece of paper and then burn it. She claimed to have had the gift of fortune-telling with cards which made her a popular guest at parties, but she had to abandon it because her accuracy made some people resentful.
One day, when I was about twelve, I did something that made her leave the kitchen, sit in the dining room and quietly weep. It was shocking and utterly without precedent. She didn't explain what I'd done, and maybe she couldn't. Within a couple of years, she was utterly changed by dementia, and perhaps those tears were an early sign. At some point she and Wes, and Bea and her husband, my parents, bought plots together in a newly opened cemetery. It overlooked the Don Valley Parkway, and Leah chose to be on a little knoll from which you could see the cars on the Parkway. She like the idea of people and traffic being nearby! After a long and slow decline, she was buried there in November,1961, at the age of seventy. Fittingly, at her funeral fellow members of The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the British Empire paid tribute. As she taught me to sing long ago, “Rule, Britannia, Brittania rule the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Not if they are made of the same stuff as Leah Probert, a hardy English rose.
Margaret Lawson, nee Boyle 1887-1963 "Ninny"
Margaret Boyle Lawson and James Lawson Celebrate their 50th Anniversary
She had eighteen grandchildren, and one of the earliest ones gave her the name she would always carry, "Ninny". It was meant to be Nanny and thankfullywas often shortened to the kinder" Nin". She was born Margaret Boyle, in Scotland, a child of Irish immigrant parents. Her son, my father, said you could easily tease her by calling her "Meg", and they would laugh to hear her annoyed, accented retort, "My name is nutmeg!"
In my mind's eye, I see a tiny, gray-hairedwoman, her back slightly bent with age, arms crossed, one hand fingering her lips in a worried manner. Her hair is neatly permed, her eyesbright and blue, and her thin arms display sinewy muscles. She is wearing a shiny gray dress with a white Peter Pan collar, pearls, and a narrow belt around her little waist. By the time I was about twelve, she had dementia, like my maternal grandmother, but she had a very strong heart, perhaps theresult of a life of hard work. Unlike my chatty maternal grandmother who told me many stories of her early life, Nin rarely spoke. I cannot remember a chat with her and so never learned the details of her life until I began doing family history.
When I was very young, my family lived close to Nin and Gramp and all those cousins, aunts and uncles, and for a few months, while my father was building us a new home, lived with our grandparents in their large old home in Niagara-on-the Lake. I remember celebrating my sixth birthday in their large garden where there was a huge old tree so big that the circular bench built around its trunk could seat several people. Despite the fact that I have a prolific memory of early events in my life, the only thing I can remember about Nin was that she was just there, always in the background and quiet.
At the age of six, I found myself moved to Toronto and so saw them all less frequently. Families did not just hop in the car for weekend visits as easily as they do today; for one thing, in winter, arrangements would have to be made for a neighbour to keep the furnace stoked and the house warm. Roads and cars were not as reliable as they are today, and despite the fact that the Queen Elizabeth highway opened in 1939, it was a tedious journey at best, often made longer by having to wait at the Burlington bridge and other bridges en route while a Great Lakes' ship slowly passed beneath their open spans. I hated the waiting, especially in summer; while we sat in a stiflingly hot car, time seemed to stretch to eternity . It was worse when not one but several ships in a row inched their way through.
In time, Nin and Gramp moved to 90 Gage St., a tiny, two-bedroom house next door to their former roomy one. In fact, it was so close, that a child could barely walk between the walls of the two houses and I don't imagine adults tried. When we visited for a weekend, my parents would have the second bedroom, and my sister and I would sleep in the living room; one would have the couch, and one would sleep on two large chairs pushed together to make a small bed.
There was a huge old-fashioned stove in her kitchen, and I loved the mismatched set of fancy dishes used when we ate in the dining room. Each piece seemed special. What I don't remember is whether or not Nin was a good cook or had any particular specialties. However, one of her recipes lives on in our family and is still loved by my children and grandchildren; that is her recipe for shortbread, which we make every Christmas without fail. I always swore it was the only authentic shortbread because the recipe came from my Scottish grandmother. I was a shortbread snob, I admit, and thought my friends' recipes which differed were not the real thing. Years later, I was shocked when my mother mentioned she thought Nin got the recipe from the Ladies' Home Journal!
We loved those visits, as we loved our grandparents, and certain traditions seemed to prevail, which we two children enjoyed but of which the adults were probably completely unaware. In a certain kitchen cupboard, Nin kept a jar filled with candy-coated almonds, and we were always offered those. Gramp was a connoisseur of old cheese from a local shop that shipped around the world, and we loved that cheese, too. On Friday nights, Nin, Mom, my sister and I would walk downtown, a distance of about four blocks to the main street of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Some of the stores were still open, and we would go to the five-and-dime, pick out some small item, and then stroll home under those enormous, ancient trees that line the streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The town was the first capital of Upper Canada until it was decided that parliament would be more safely situated far from the border and was moved to Ottawa. The original parliament building still stands near the lake, and most of the homes are an old colonial style. Some are set back with lovely surrounding gardens but many are of a style in which the front doorstep and the house meet the sidewalk with no lawn in front. The town is still magical to me; although it was then a sleepy little place and now the Shaw Festival has transformed it. At that time, Gramp, who had been a farmer, was working at the BP station, pumping gas. The last little tradition of our visits was that, as we left on Sunday, he would pull a quarter for each of us from his pocket.
Some of the homes in town, mostly owned by American millionaires, were mansionswhich, with their immense gardens, took up half a block . One such home was directly across the street and my grandparents kept an eye on it in the owners' absence. It was an adventure to enter it with Nin and see the furniture covered with sheets as we wandered from one grand room to another, upstairs and down. A few pieces of furniture and small trinkets in Nin's home came from that mansion, as tokens of appreciation from its owners.
As Nin's dementia became more severe, Gramp had to leave his job at the gas station in order to care for her, which he did admirably until her death, at age seventy-six. At that time, they'd been married for 56 years. Margaret Boyle married James Lawson in 1907, in Blairgowrie, Scotland, some distance from their native village of Methven; the tiny bride was a year older than her tall, handsome groom. Why they married in Blairgowrie is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps Gramp, who was a ploughman, had work in that area. Another mystery is that they married in a Presbyterian church, which was Gramp's religious upbringing, whereasNin was Catholic. Could it have had something to do with the fact that the bride was already expecting their first child? Perhaps, but I'm not so sure that in those days, in an agricultural society, a pregnant bride was such a scandal.
Their first three children, Mary, my father James, and Jack were born in tiny Methven, in Perthshire. When Margaret was born in 1914, the Lawsons were living in Toronto, where Gramp had joined the police force. However, they soon resumed the farming life in Shanty Bay, near Barrie, but then Gramp went off to war, and Nin and her children moved to Bayfield Street in downtown Barrie, close to Kempenfeldt Bay. I have often wondered how such women and children, new immigrants, fared during this time of war and what courage it took to wait for their men. This was also my maternal grandmother's story.
After Gramp returnedfrom overseas, the family moved back to Scotland; it's not known whether this was due to homesickness on one of their parts, or a mutual decision. They might have wished to be with aging parents. Nin gave birth to their youngest child, Kay, in Methven, where they remained for several years before eventually returning to Canada. On their second arrival in Canada, Gramp had a job waiting in the Niagara region.
I have learned that Nin's father, a refugee from the Irish famine, was a hard man, and what you might call a scamp if you were being very, very, kind. Like most girls of her time, she was working as a domestic by the age of fourteen, but until then she had the advantage of schooling. Growing up in a large family, life was about survival, plain and simple. When she married, then emigrated, saw her husband off to war, returned to Scotland, andmigrated again, did she have much say about what her desires might be, or did she just follow what her man decided? Was she happy? Did she love her husband? Did she enjoy her children? She might have answered those questions as I once heard another old person answer, "We didn't have time to think about whether or not we were happy. We were too busy trying to survive." My father told me that during the depression, he and his brother, Jack, worked on a farm and every Friday night, Nin and Gramp drove there to pick up their paycheques. Imagine parents trying that today!
My dad was her second child and first son, named after his father, but it would appear from a couple of sources that he was not his mother's favourite child. My sister remembers being told that once, as a young man, he had saved enough money to buy himself a new suit, and his mother took it and gave it to his brother. Could there be a rational reason for such a mean-spirited action?
She was likely superstitious in an old-country way, too. My mother told me that once while we were living with Nin and Gramp, I was four and very ill with pneumonia. I'd been given some of the first penicillin available to civilians after the war. According to my mother, Nin flushed those pills down the toilet!
On several occasions, she gave me Catholic religious medallions, for example a St. Christopher medal, which I can still envisage, and which I quite liked. However, I would have to keep these hidden from my other grandmother, who was staunchly Church of England. It is difficult for children today to understand the Catholic-Protestant hostility in some places. For example, I was told never to tell my Catholic playmates in Toronto that my father used to be Catholic, or else they would think my mother and father weren't truly married (implying that I was illegitimate), in which case my friends might not be allowed to play with me. Imagine my surprise when years later, I discovered that in their village of Methven, Scotland, ecumenism had arrived half a century earlier. The Catholics, having no church of their own, worshipped in the Church of Scotland, led by a priest who came from Dundee every Saturday. Both Catholics and Protestants, including my ancestors, are buried in that church's cemetery. I was impressed by the civility of it all. At the time of my wedding in Toronto in 1962, it wouldn't have been unusual if some of my Catholic guests had still needed their priest's permission to enter a Protestant church.
On the Lawson family's return to Canada in 1926, Nin and Gramp wrote to relatives in Scotland about how good life was here and managed to entice two of her brothers and their families to join them. I'm sure this meant a lot to her, as they visited often and seemed very close. I treasure pictures taken when she was in middle age, her children grown and married, her life more her own, because she is smiling so often. There is one in particular, taken in Atlantic City by a boardwalk photographer, where she and my Aunt Mary, both looking quite chic and wearing stylish cloche hats, are obviously having a jolly old time. I imagine Aunt Mary took her there as a special treat.
Because I was the tenth of those eighteen grandchildren, there are older cousins who would remember a younger Nin and have their own stories about her, and there are younger ones who don't remember her at all before dementia set in. I think the reason I treasure those old photos in which she is smiling is because I don't remember seeing many smiles. I know I was the recipient of kindly smiles and hugs on many occasions, but what I remember more is the worried look that hung about her before I knew she had dementia and which may have been caused by her knowledge of what was soon to take over her life. My Nin's strong heart finally gave out in July, 1963, a month after my first child was born. I took my daughter, Heather, to her great-grandmother's funeral, and afterwards, we took our first four-generation family photograph of Gramp, Dad, myself, and my new baby. I wonder if Nin might have smiled had she been in that picture?
"Gramp" James Lawson photographed while in a Military Hospital, overseas, W.W.I