I lost both parents 52 years ago this past Christmas season. My mind travels back to ponder ways I am like them due to the genes we share and my long exposure to their influence throughout childhood and youth.
As a young man, I was not wise enough to ask my parents many questions and write their answers down to save family lore. But their children (three older siblings, a ten-year lapse, and then me and my younger sister, Eunice) retained enough insights to patch together often-repeated highlights of their early days.
As well, Carol, our niece by marriage, has shown keen interest in our family history and her research has added to what we know.
My parents came to Canada from Lancashire, England, choosing to settle on the sparsely populated prairies in the West. My father arrived alone in 1904, one year before Saskatchewan was declared a province.
Imagine the resolve and courage my father and mother must have shown. At 20 years of age and not long married, Dad left my mother behind, boarded a ship in Liverpool, and sailed across the vast Atlantic Ocean to Halifax at the eastern ship approach to the young country of Canada.
In Halifax he boarded a train of turn-of-the-twentieth-century vintage and endured what must have seemed an endless journey of two thousand miles into something like oblivion—the unknown and largely unsettled prairies of Western Canada.
He landed in Roche Percee, where there was a developing coal mine in the southeastern region of what was about to be incorporated as the Province of Saskatchewan. His design was to put his coal-mining skills to work and thus provide for the arrival and support of his wife, Esther Jane (née Millington). She was able to join him five months later.
He had good reason to begin his life in Canada as a coal miner, because back in England at fourteen years of age he had been taken into the Lancashire coal mines to work full time with his father. This was permitted by law, and so by the age of 20 he was well qualified, having spent stretches of six years underground, digging coal.
Although he had completed only five weeks of schooling before being taken out of school permanently, he soon graduated from coal mining in Saskatchewan to become a market gardener and later a merchant. In today’s parlance we would say he had no education at all and few “marketable skills.” But he had ideas and vision and endurance.
He was also intensely motivated. This showed to the end of his life. Hard work was a challenge, not an insult or imposition. I remember him as restless, always moving, thinking of other possibilities. To the best of my knowledge he wanted to get out of the rut of the working poor. It was that, I believe, more than anything else that pointed them toward Canada.
His behavior and interesting brogue never let his family forget that he was a Lancastrian by birth and acculturation. In one sentence he might speak of the ’air on his ’ead. In the next his subject might be the hair in the hatmosphere. He never confused the patterns.
For my mother’s later journey to join him she had the association of some other family members. But she also had the added challenge of an ocean storm that kept the ship rolling in rough seas and the passengers secured below deck for several days. Then she had to face the same tedious railroad journey into the far reaches of the developing Dominion of Canada.
My mother’s family also was poor but she had a certain sense of propriety in her manner. She was the disciplinarian of our home. She had the notion that children should obey always never be “cheeky” with adults, and believed that laziness was an offense and would be sure to lead to the poorhouse. She read the Bible to us daily and I think that’s where she got some such ideas.
As immigrants from England to Western Canada, they had no savings to fall back on and no family behind them to rescue them. They knew that if they were ever to come to a place of reasonable security it would be by their own ingenuity and hard work.
I look back on their homesteading venture as noble. They were not complainers, but occasionally they gave us glimpses into how exacting their pioneering life had been. Once my mother spoke of a time of drought early in their days in Canada when she walked three miles across the prairies to the nearest neighbor to exchange turnips for a few carrots so there could be some variety in their diet. All of this helps me to understand why they lived so frugally right up to the end of their lives.
When I think of the early chapters of their lives as immigrants I am filled with awe at their courage and determination to establish themselves in the New World. They both lived to be 83. With a few weeks more than six years of education between them, they established themselves as self-supporting, responsible citizens.
If they were alive today they would blush to learn that I write this way. They were humble people, aware of their imperfections and those of their offspring. But God had put in them a flame of energy to achieve and they exercised it with a will. I treasure their heritage.
Photo credit: foundin_a_attic (via flickr.com)