- by Lori-Ann Caswell

My mother’s mother fed and clothed and kept a roof over the heads of her four children, tough to do with a mostly out-of-work husband during the dirty thirties. Food was scarce. She gratefully took the remnants of food left behind by patrons of the Station Hotel, a thank you for cleaning their rooms after a week’s stay.

Once it was a quarter pound of bacon. She rendered off the fat and used it to fry smelts my grandfather caught far out in the sound, well away from the mucky waters of the nearby harbour. When the fat ran out, she boiled them in watered-down milk, as milk was scarce, too. Decades later my mother would tell me how white they were and thought them a special treat, not knowing at the time her mother had to improvise.

Vegetables grew on every inch of the yard of the tiny, rented house steps from the train tracks. Even with six mouths to feed, she invited the neighbourhood children to reach through the picket fence that they, too, could enjoy a handful of green beans or tomato.

Every week there seemed to be some function at her church needing desserts. The number of pies she baked and gave to her church community throughout the whole of her life – well into her eighties – is incalculable.She was a member of the temperance movement, a staunch non-drinker married to an alcoholic, suffering under the weight of being unable to support his wife and children.

She capped the bottles of beer my grandfather brewed in their cellar. She may not have seen the irony of what she did: poverty doesn’t leave much room for scruples. His clients included the mayor and chief of police who looked the other way until they couldn’t. She dressed her girls in their finest and hauled them off to the city jail, held them in front of her skirt, pointed to their father behind bars, and warned them that this is what happens when you disobey the law. Even at such a time, she could still stand up and preach a life’s lesson.

She remade clothes, taking apart and turning worn, wool coats that they would have a second life. She hemmed dresses and altered suits. She even fashioned fur coats from pelts-to-pretty for the town’s rich ladies and gents. She was a bonafide tailor but was labelled seamstress, her employer then able to pay her less. She did alterations on the side, nights and weekends, for decades to help make ends meet. She was a basic cook but could make something out of almost nothing.

She started up a small catering business in the 1960s with one client, a local factory where pretty much everybody in my family worked at some point. With no car, or driver’s licence for that matter, she walked to and from the factory five days a week using a small cart in the summer and a sleigh in the winter to haul her supplies — coffee, tea, milk, homemade cookies, and sandwiches she made late the night before and wrapped in waxed paper. Her ham salad sandwiches were legendary. Nobody knew she stretched the ham with “Spam” to increase her profit margin a smidge.

Family feasts ended with her apple pie except at Christmastime when it would be mincemeat pie and Christmas pudding – called, curiously, carrot pudding. Yes, there were grated carrots in it but also grated potato and raisins and citron peel. Why carrot pudding? I should have asked.

She was frugal. Had to be. What money she could set aside, she invested in Canada Bonds. Every Christmas she would clip the coupons so that she could give each of her eleven grandchildren $5. While the money was appreciated, I always looked forward to the handmade gifts – typically a pair of knitted mittens. One year she gave my older sister and me red velvet pincushions, stuffed with her nylons, and trimmed out with a blanket stitch of white embroidery floss. More than half a century later, it still floraoldserves me well.

She was informed and political. She consumed every article in the local newspaper, listened to the radio, especially the serious stuff, and faithfully watched the news on her small black and white TV. She couldn’t afford books and didn’t have much time for trips to the library but she subscribed to Reader’s Digest and read it cover to cover. Not sure why but she gave my father a subscription to the magazine every year.

She was the model of resilience. No matter the circumstances, she always came through for her neighbours, friends, family and for herself.

My mother’s mother didn’t get much applause, if any, in her lifetime but she sure impacted the lives of many – especially her daughters and those women and girls who came after her. She certainly left her mark on me in so many ways.

In gratitude, I am Flora’s granddaughter.

images: a young Flora, and as I knew her, arthritic but capable hands that made so much and a cane at the ready.



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