The Date was January 19…
The date was January 19, 1913, and it was a typical, very cold winter day on the plains of Alberta. The scene was a small wooden, two-room cabin, and the new arrival was a beautiful baby girl. Later, when her dad went to town to register her birth, a name hadn’t been chosen and her birth certificate showed her name as “Female”. “Female” was later given the name Marion Edna.
Little Marion was the first of eight children, seven of which were born in Alberta, one later in Michigan. Dad was a wheat farmer who loved to play baseball and to hunt and fish. Mom was a new bride who had just arrived to Alberta in the spring of 1912. They were good people from Ontario, educated and hardworking, trying to make a living through homesteading.
Marion and her siblings would often talk about their childhood, recalling it with humor and fondness, and giving one a picture of a life that the following generations cannot even imagine.
For instance, when the snow came through the gaps in the wall of the small cabin and landed on the baby’s face, Mom insisted that they get a better house. It took awhile, but, as the family grew, they eventually had a nice two-story house with a big front porch. The cabin remained as part of the landscape, though there wasn’t much to the landscape…the big house, the cabin, a barn and small out-buildings, no trees, and the land flat as far as the eyes could see. The big house was set back from the road and eventually there were poles bringing in the hydro power.
The house had an indoor bathroom, but the toilet plumbing usually froze during the winter so they just went back to using the outhouse.
The big house had three rooms upstairs, one of which provided a playroom for the children. Dad had painted a wall in that room which could be used as a chalkboard, and Marion loved to play ‘teacher’ with her younger brother George being the student. She would reprimand her misbehaving student with a slap on the hand using a ruler. However, she often ended up smacking herself when he quickly moved his hand away.
Dad had fenced-in part of the acreage for a pasture for the horses, but at one point the fence had been damaged. Before it was repaired, young Marion was told early one morning that she needed to help Dad when he was rounding up the horses. She was told to stand along the fence line and wave her arms if the horses came towards her so they would not go through the fence. Marion, however, was terrified of the horses. As they came running towards her, instead of waving her arms, she simply stepped aside and let them run past her. Needless to say, Dad was not very happy with her and smacked her on the fanny with a switch. As she laughingly told this to me years later, she also said that she never got out of bed in the morning until after she knew the horses were rounded up.
Her brother George had absolutely no fear of the horses. Even as a little toddler, he could be found walking up to, under and among the horses, even kicking them to get them to do what he wanted. His favorite horse was Babe.
The stories we heard gave us images of cowboys just like we would see in the movies. Parents taking turns ‘wagon-pooling’ (an early version of car-pooling) the area children to school in winter with all of them huddled together under covers to keep warm. Packs of howling wolves near the house at night would scare the children.
The closest doctor, Dr. Woodcock, lived 50 miles away. When it was decided to have the children’s tonsils removed, the children in the community lined up in groups of five (oldest to youngest) at the town hall. Dad helped the doctor as the anesthesiologist by simply holding a cloth over their face to ‘knock them out’ as Marion told me. She was the youngest of her group, and remembers seeing the blood. The next thing she remembers was being on her back as Dad put the cloth to her face.
When they eventually had a vehicle to drive, Dad had to make four trips from town just to get a pane of glass home in one piece to repair a broken window.
When there were prairie fires, Dad would plow a wide circle around the house as a firebreak, and the family would be outside beating back the fire if it approached the house.
They had a ‘rock sled’…two wooden runners covered by boards and pulled by horses to carry the rocks off the field. As rocks were gathered, they were put over the grave of Dad’s little brother Charlie to keep the wild animals from disturbing it.
Farming the plains was a brutal existence, often resulting in poor crops and financial hardships. Dad was encouraged by relatives to bring his family back east, but Mom was reluctant at first. Finally, in January of 1924, with the temperature hovering at a bone-chilling minus 52 degrees Fahrenheit, Mom and Dad packed up their seven children (the youngest was only five months old) and began the long trip east.
The family eventually settled in Michigan, and Marion went on to graduate from high school in 1931 with the distinction of being the first female class president from her school. She was smart, she was pretty, and she went on to work as a school secretary…lucky to have such a good job during the Depression. It was there that she met Al, the love of her life. Al was a physical education teacher, as well as a basketball player and coach, a factor which would be a major part of their life together.
There’s so much more to tell about her…some heart-breaking, but most heart-warming. Her outlook on life was an inspiration to everyone around her. She loved all the children that came into her life, setting an example of grace, caring, humor, and generosity. Time spent with her was always fun…she had a way of making work feel like play. She was talented…an amazing silversmith who made beautiful jewelry, a painter, a gardener and flower arranger. I want to be just like her when I grow up!
So, where am I going with this?
Marion is still amazing! Al passed away a few years ago at the age of 102, and Marion is still alive and well, living in the home they shared in New England since 1949. She isn’t as tall as she once was. Her eye sight and hearing aren’t as good as they used to be. She’s so thin that a brisk wind would probably knock her over. But she takes no medication except for eye drops. She is a cancer survivor. She still scoots up and down the basement stairs to do her own laundry. She has survived six of her seven siblings. And she is still an avid basketball fan, sitting right up close to the television so she won’t miss any of the action during the games she watches.
Last Saturday there was a birthday party for this wonderful woman…her 100th birthday. I live about 600 miles from her, but had the honor of witnessing the love that was bestowed on her by the friends, neighbors, and townspeople that have become her family. It literally left me in tears.
Happy birthday, Aunt Marion! You are my hero.