When I began the search for my ancestors, it wasn't long before I realized that it was really difficult to get information on the women in the family. The women, after marriage, were impossible to trace back for the most part. The women were invisible, shrouded by their husbands' names. That's part of the reason I'm writing the stories of our family. I want to have a record of those women that I've had the privilege of knowing and loving.
The name is different, depending on the place, culture or tradition. Where I grew up, Nanny or Nan was the common name. In Pei, Grammy and Gram are the vernacular. Whatever the name, it conjures up images of warmth, patience, time, food and love. At least it does for me.
I only ever knew one grandmother. (Dad's mother died when he was fourteen). Her name was Monica (Hearn) O'Brien. She grew up in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland; born in 1902. She graduated high school at a time when very few people did. She wanted to be a teacher and had a job somewhere around the bay but her parents weren't satisfied for her to go there. Instead she eventually went to Boston and there married my grandfather O'Brien. He was from Maddox Cove, Newfoundland, just a mile away from Petty Harbour along the shore. They didn't stay in Boston very long but moved back to Maddox Cove to raise a family.
Before my parents bought our home in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, we lived successively in St. John's and then Maddox Cove. When we moved to Mount Peart, there were few children my age in our neighborhood. So in the summer, I spent time in Maddox Cove with my grandparents and uncle France, who lived with them.
Summers in Maddox Cove were idyllic. The ocean, river, gardens, fields, animals, friends and family were everything a child could desire. The days weren't long enough to do everything there was to do. I never remember rain but there must have been some because the vegetables and grass always seemed to grow well. I had a dark suntan, as the skin damage I have now testifies.
My grandmother was at the heart of the Maddox Cove experience. She was stern but loving and very practical. She knew the exact size piece of wood needed to cook a batch of bread in the wood stove. Her bread was rustic, cut into thick slices and covered with fresh butter and sugar or molasses if it wasn't meal time. Pastry was thick and crispy, filled with whatever berries she had picked or available from her stock in the pantry. Her meals were basic but delicious. My grandfather (Granda), as a fisherman and farmer ate plenty and Nan kept the stove going and the cupboard stocked. Surprisingly we didn't eat a lot of fish but the occasional whole cod, stuffed and baked was a real treat. Salt fish, brewis, potato and drawn butter were also delicious, especially with pieces of fried fat back (scrunchions).
I think now that Nan worked non-stop but in my child's mind I didn't know that. Everything was harder than it is today. The old wringer washer that I remember had replaced the scrub board in the river. Even using that washer was a chore, having to be positioned from the storage spot at the back of the porch and filled with water pumped by hand. Nan always seemed to have clothes on the line. I guess with Granda fishing and farming, she had to keep ahead of the laundry. Also, the wood stove was always going, winter and summer, for cooking and baking. The heat was suffocating but what other choice was there. The ocean breeze provided some help if all the windows were open.
My Nan was very afraid that I would drown in the ocean. She didn't have the same fear for the "pool" that we made by damming the river that ran through their land. The ocean was her greatest fear. I had lots of friends in the Cove and we spent a great deal of time on the beach. Mom gave me a bathing suit but Nan didn't want me to go swimming at the beach. She always warned me about tidal waves. She described what would happen to me if one should come ashore. She neglected to mention that she and the house would be gone too and I didn't realize that at the time. To help me out, my Uncle France would sneak my bathing suit out of the house for me. I changed in the barn and hid it under my clothes. I'd swim all day and change again, leaving my bathing suit to dry on the trees down in the woods. That deception was always a secret that my Uncle and I kept until I was an adult. Nan didn't realize that it was happening.
Now, as a grandmother myself, I understand Nan's concern. She was too busy to go with me, so she wanted to keep me safe and away from the water. Today I would be with Sylvie and Caitlin, our granddaughters, if they were in my care at the age of five or six and at the beach. Other children being present would not be enough to reassure me either.
Nan always wore hats when she went to church, a wedding or any place fancy. She always had several and took great pride in her hair. It, like my mother's, didn't go gray until she was in her late seventies. Mom's only grayed at the temples. My hair went gray early but thanks to my hair stylist, I'll be just like mom and Nan! So much for the genetics in that regard though. Nan always liked to wear gloves too. She wore them winter and summer, at the same time as she wore her hats. She always felt undressed without her gloves. I feel the same about gloves when it starts to get cold every autumn.
Nan O'Brien 1976
As a mother, Monica sewed all the children's clothes, turning collars on coats and shirts to make them last longer, making-over coats for the children, sewing many things they wore. She, with the children, Ned, Mary (my mother), and France, tended the gardens and picked the berries. I helped out with weeding when I was old enough and I loved to pick berries too. There were lots of berries to pick. Wild blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries and partridge berries were the most common. We always picked lots for jam or freezing. Pies and cakes were the favorites, though fresh with cream was delicious too.
Granda and Nan always had animals as well. I remember horses and chickens. My mother remembered cows and sheep as well. Her family usually had fresh meat and Mom hated to see which of the animals had made it to the table. I remember getting eggs in the morning for breakfast. It didn't get much fresher than the warm eggs which made it to the stove for cooking.
While she wasn't a 'warm and fuzzy' grandmother, I always knew how Nan felt about me. We didn't have any cross words between us. I respected her and listened to anything she said, well almost everything. I spent time with her, washing dishes, tidying up, weeding, picking berries among a number of other things. We talked and laughed and were very comfortable together. I loved her and it was returned.
I remember one Christmas when he was six or seven, my brother got a pop gun for playing with his friends in the woods behind our house in Mount Pearl. It had a piece of cork on a string that popped out of the gun when you pulled the trigger. When my grandparents and uncle came for Christmas dinner that day, I took the gun and aimed it at Nan. I said something silly and pulled the trigger. The cork shot straight at Nan and hit her in the forehead. All Nan did was laugh quietly and shake in her usual way. Later she told me that she really thought that she had been shot. Needless to say the gun didn't have much play value after that incident.
As I got older I spent less time with my grandparents. By the time I was twelve, I was staying home in the summers. However, we visited my grandparents every Sunday or they came to visit us. As time went on I saw less of them. When I was in university, Granda died. Over the next number of years Nan became less active and lost interest in going places and doing things. However her mind was still good. In 1975, I went teaching in Buchans, in central Newfoundland. I wanted to go beyond St. John's since I had lived at home while I was in University. I got a letter from Nan that year. She told me how glad she was that I was working where I wanted to work and that I was a teacher. She felt that I was living the dream that she had so many years ago.
Nan had a stroke within the next few years. She was never the same again. I don't think she ever really understood who my daughter was. She referred to her as a 'dandy little baby.'
In the winter of 1986, when my father was dying with cancer, I was home for a few days. Mom and I bundled up Dad and took him to see Nan for the last time. I will never forget the scene in Nan's kitchen. I sat on the couch with Nan on one side and Dad on the other. Nan was intermittently coherent. Dad looked nothing like himself; hair gone, swollen from steroids, feeble, fragile voice.
My grandmother kept saying, "That's not Sam."
Dad would repeat, "It's me, Mrs." As long as I can remember Dad called Nan Mrs. He could still speak enough to reply to Nan.
I sat there with tears in my eyes, not wanting to speak for fear of upsetting either of them. Two of the people I loved most in the world neither looked nor sounded anything like themselves. They were dying. The thought of that realization can still make me cry. It was as if I grew up at that moment. I was thirty-two when I finally grew up. Getting a job, getting married, having a child didn't do it for me. I finally realized what life was all about in that instant on that couch with Nan and Dad.
Dad died a few months later and Nan in January 1988. However, the warm memories of my Nan made the loss easier to take. I'll write about Dad another day.