We have all been deeply moved by Belinda's chronicling of her family history. It was my Aunt Edith's birthday this past week, and after starting this post, I thought I would do a bit of a series on "Life Changers", people who have inspired me, or affected me deeply in some positive way. Now that I've completed this story, I have a whole new appreciation for how much work Belinda has put into those family histories she has been writing! Thankyou Belinda. You're inspiration, too!
Maybe it was because I was looking at some old family photos the night before. Or maybe I just sensed that "this" was the day. But either way, I woke up on Wednesday morning with thoughts of Aunt Edith dancing in my mind. I was at least five minutes into my memory bank before I realized it was her birthday. I was back amid the brightly patterned quilts and crisp cotton sheets flapping on the line, later to be pressed crisp with a set of flatirons which were left on the woodstove to get hot. Aunt Edith would touch her spit-moistened finger to a hot iron and decide by the sizzle if it was warm enough to do the job, or would be left to cool down for a minute so it didn't scorch the cloth. Sometimes, if I begged long enough, and promised to be careful, I would be allowed to iron Grandpa's brightly coloured red and blue cotton handkerchiefs that were bought in packages of three at the five and dime on rare visits into town. Rows of peas and beans and beets as straight as a ruler and without a weed in sight. I remembered sitting with her at the kitchen table with bowls of fat red raspberries in front of us, fresh from the garden, covered with cream and then sprinkled with brown sugar. I thought of how her eyes and voice had softened when she took me into the darkness of the barn early of a summer's morning to catch the wonder of a suckling goat in the stall nuzzling its mother.
That's when I realized that today her birthday. That stirred my emotions deeply, and only caused me to dig deeper into the archives. I thought about games of Scrabble - endless games of Scrabble - on the big kitchen table, surrounded by an assortment of mismatched press-back chairs. And the colouring book and crayons kept in the drawer of the corner cupboard for when children came to visit. I thought about the Family Herald, (every weekly issue subheaded "Canada's National Farm Magazine"), and how, when the work was finally done, in the late afternoon, I would be invited to climb up onto her lap and she would turn to the second last page - the children's page - and read out loud the story that was always there.
Years before I was born, when she was just nine years old she had developed an infection in the bone of her shin - osteomyelitus was the big word we learned to master as children when we asked questions about the long wide scar on the side of her leg, which she would sit and rub when the weather changed, and more and more as the summer days shortened and a crispness would beging to settle with the setting of the sun.
She was the youngest of six children, the sister of my grandmother. Her sister Verly died of a ruptured appendix at the age of 10, leaving just the five children in the family, and a set of parents who became more than a little over-protective of their youngest daughter, who never fully recovered from the infection that ravaged the bone in her leg. She required surgery and a trip to the hospital in Stratford to remove the diseased portions and allow it to heal. My mother, who was born when Aunt Edith was just 12, and was more like a sister to her than a neice, told me that there had been suitors, one of them very serious, but Grandpa was convinced that no-one would be able to provide adequately for his sickly daughter and he turned them all away. So she stayed single all of her days, and remained home to look after her aging parents instead. Grandma was crippled by osteo-arthritis, and though loved by her, I only ever knew her as an invalid who stayed night and day in a daybed in a corner of the parlour, and who needed the help of her "sickly" daughter to lift her on and off of the chamber pot that was kept under the bed between usings.
Aunt Edith was fifty years old when Grandpa died some nine or ten years after Grandma. The house they had lived in and where she nursed her parents to the end reverted back to the farm which Grandpa sold when he retired from farming twenty years earlier. The agreement with the buyer was that the house was theirs, Grandma's and Grandpa's, to live in as long as they lived, but upon their death, it again became part of the farm. Grandpa had made that agreement with his son-in-law in good faith, not knowing then that the young man would despair of farming a few years later and would sell it to more distant relatives, who in turn would sell it to complete strangers who did not have Aunt Edith's welfare at heart. She was set up to be left destitute and dependent on the charity of her siblings when her parents were finished with the house.
Grandpa died in October and in the spring of the following year, all of her parents' earthly possessions were spread out in the yard around the house and auctioned off to the highest bidders. Some of the buyers were family, but most were antique dealers or perfect strangers looking for bargains. It was the proceeds from that sale with just enough held back to furnish a bedroom, that was all that remained of the life she knew on the farm, indeed the only life she had ever known. After being dependent on her parents her whole life, she was suddenly without resources. She had her sisters, who fussed and worried over her as she waited to decide where she would live. Everyone expected her to continue her life of dependency, but God had other plans.
Aunt Edith had a Grade Four education, having left early partly because education for girls in those days was considered an unecessary luxury and partly because of her delicate health. She was in no position to offer much in the job market in those days. She decided that she would be happiest working in hospital, and encouraged by my mom, she applied at several. The first one to call back was K-W hospital in Kitchener and suddenly Aunt Edith had a new identity. She went from being dependant to independent when she donned the blue striped shirt and white pinafore of a nurse's aid. She had been prepared for this job in many ways by her life experience with her parents and the new lifestyle fit her to a tee. I remember her spending much of her time off work in those days starching and ironing her pinafores into stiff white boards, and applying liquid shoe polish to her white lace-up nursing shoes until every last spot was covered and she made them look like brand new. She took to wearing a tensor bandage over the weak place in her leg, and when she came home at night, she would take the bandage off and rub and rub that spot on her leg, but you would never hear her complain.
A few years later, the hospital decided that they would be fading out the nurse's aid position and would replace it with academically qualified Registered Nursing Assistants (RNAs). Aunt Edith was given the opportunity to take the courses and upgrade, or face unemployment.
It felt to me during those months, as though everyone in the entire family was holding their breath. No-one was sure of what Aunt Edith would do if she lost her job, but they needn't have worried. She simply applied that Mennonite work ethic which she grew up with and carried throughout her whole life, to this new turn in the road. She studied hard, passed her exams, and the photo taken at her graduation, with her holding her new credentials, was a cherished treasure of my mother's. We were all so very proud of her, but Mom, I think was the proudest of all.
Because she had no family of her own, Aunt Edith belonged to all of us. She was everyone's favourite aunt and considered a member of each nuclear family . She painstakingly remembered every single birthday of every single neice and nephew and their children and their grandchildren. If you didn't get another single card, you could always count on one envelope arriving with writing so tiny that is was difficult to read. Even in her handwriting, Aunt Edith's shyness prevailed.
In spite of the rigours of her strict Mennonite upbringing, Aunt Edith had a great sense of fun. I rember Uncle Ed telling us once, about how Edith and her sister Edna (his wife) had begun to dismantle the flowerpot centrepiece of their table. First they drew out the flowers and then they began to eat the soil. He was aghast until they could no longer contain their giggles and he realized the "dirt" they were eating was made of crushed oreo cookies and the potted plant was actually meant to be dessert.
Because Aunt Edith had never had children of her own, I was determined to honour her love of children, especially babies, and her commitment to all of us by using Edith as the second part of our oldest daughter's name, hence "Elizabeth Edith Ann Stewart". Beth remembers her well, and is honoured to be carrying her name.
If Aunt Edith had not faced the drastic changes in her life with such courage, I would never have had the confidence to start my own post-secondary education at age 47 and to enter the working world after 27 years at home with my kids. And what I would have missed!
Happy birthday, Aunt Edith. You led by example, and your courage, to this day, encourages me.