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Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Woman's Money

Teaching in Newfoundland is an occupation where men and women are paid equally for work of equal value. In fact, your place on the pay scale depends on years of education and experience up to a maximum level. As teachers, my husband, Rick, and I were accustomed to financial equality but when we paid off our mortgage, we were disappointed.

When we moved from Buchans to Grand Falls, Rick took a part time job rather than commute to Buchans every day. We bought a house with both of our names on the mortgage. When we took the mortgage, we supplied our incomes and answered personal questions. Rick's salary was less than mine.

After two years, Rick secured a full time job, our daughter was growing up and we wanted to save for her education. We decided to pay off the mortgage quickly and put that money into Claire's future. Meanwhile I completed my Master's degree which put me on a higher salary scale than Rick. We lived on Rick's salary and for the next five years, put my entire salary on the mortgage. Within five years of this plan, we paid down that mortgage in the days when interest rates were astronomical, at one point, seventeen per cent.

You can imagine my reaction when the letter arrived from the bank congratulating Rick alone for paying down the mortgage. I was disgusted!  Nothing the bank personnel said made up for that moment.

Despite the equality in the profession which provided the money for the house, the bank brought us back to the reality for women in western society. The mathematics that balances the books is the least of the many things young women must learn regarding money.

Sunday 29 March 2015

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

In elementary school every autumn, we wrote What I Did on My Summer Vacation. For most of us, there were no unusual experiences, trips to exotic places or different adventures. Most children did the same thing every summer, playing with friends, visiting relatives, fishing, swimming at the local pond or beach, picking berries, camping if you were lucky. The only thing that was different every year was the teacher.


Long after those years, in the late summer of 1984, I had something to write. I had started my Master's degree at the University of Ottawa. At that time, I was principal in a small all grade school in Buchans, Newfoundland. Though married and a mother at the time, the first summer I went to Ottawa, I went on my own and stayed in residence on campus. This was an entirely new experience for me because I lived home while attending Memorial University in St. John's. I was late to the university residence experience.

Not only was staying in residence a new experience but traveling to Ottawa on my own, getting to the university from the airport in a taxi was quite scary. Ottawa was a big city compared to what I was accustomed to as well.

                                                              Self Doubt

However, the hardest part of the experience was the self doubt I had about my ability to do the Master's program. While I did not have difficulty in school or university, I worked hard. I had no idea about what was required in this program and was afraid that I could not handle it. I doubted my academic preparation, wondering if Memorial, my Newfoundland background and small town experience had prepared me for what was to come. I reminded myself that I was admitted to the program, hoping that meant I could cope with the academic demand.

Getting to the university and settling in at residence was easier than I thought. However, I did not know anyone and there were much younger French immersion students on my floor, who had full class and social schedules. The first week was very lonely and I missed Rick and Claire terribly. The weekend was the worst, especially Sunday. This was in the days prior to cell phones and pay phones were the means of communication, making it hard to stay in touch with my family.

                                                              Settling In

In classes that first week I sat back and listened. Other students were very vocal and contributed to the class discussions which were led by the professors. As I listened, I realized that I agreed with some but not with others and that I knew as much as the rest of the class. Could I write as well? However passing back the first assignment, the professor asked two students who wrote the best papers to read them in class. Mine was one of those papers. It was a revelation to me.

After that first week, I met other Newfoundland teachers who were at the university that summer as well.  As so often happens, finding others from home made it easier because there was familiarity in our shared Newfoundland experience. In addition, I made friends with others in my class and sometimes socialized with them as well.

The experience in Ottawa that summer helped me tremendously and it had nothing to do with book learning. The course content was not where I learned the most useful information. Confidence both academically and personally was the outcome. My education and experience were as good as the rest of the students from much larger places in the country. In fact, I now knew that Newfoundland teachers did a great job, with far fewer resources than much of the rest of the country. My provincial inferiority had no basis in fact. I had the ability to do this program. Attending the principals' meetings the next year I was a different person, more confident in myself and my ability.

                                                          Learning for Life

However, my most important learning was the realization that I could get along in the world alone. I did not know that I needed to learn this fact. Living home when I went to university, working for a year while living in a teachers' hostel, then getting married had been a straight path in a life I set out for myself. It did not happen to me, I chose it. However, I had not known my own ability or my own mind prior to settling in to my adult life. I was always a happy person but in Ottawa that first year, I realized that every day I choose how I will live that moment, that day. I knew implicitly from that experience that my life, good or bad, was in my own hands as I chose how to handle whatever happened. I have lost sight of this path periodically, but I always come back to it.

When I was young, I did not understand how I made the decisions I did, but they were good decisions. Looking back, my experience of family, friends, schooling, my Newfoundland home, gave me a great start and I was wise enough to follow my heart. 

As I age, my writing is more along the lines of What I Learned During A Lifetime. Thankfully, the writing is easier now. Ah... that was the teachers' goal all those years ago!

Thursday 26 March 2015

March Reverie

Our island home is covered in snow

     Prince Edward Island  NASA Photo 2015

But it is easy to forget today.

On this beautiful spring day, it is pleasant to sit on the deck,

Warm in the glorious March sun. 

Surrounded by snow, the sound of trickling water is relaxing

As it flows from the roof.

Closing my eyes, I imagine the fields and trees 

On Confederation Trail in summer.

Nearby a snowmobile skims over the fields

Breaking the reverie.


Tuesday 24 March 2015

Principal Incentive

When I was twenty-nine years old, I became principal of a small all-grade school in Buchans, Newfoundland. I loved many things about this little school, especially its all grade nature. Having the Kindergarten to Grade Twelve students under the same roof created an atmosphere where everyone knew and looked after each other, making the school feel like a family. It was a microcosm of the communities whose children we taught.

     Younger Marie

One of the least pleasant things about the job was the principals' meetings which I attended. However I learned a great deal at these meetings about policy and administration of the school which were not my natural strengths or knowledge base at that time.

There were few women at these meetings and I was the youngest present. Sitting there listening to the other principals and school board personnel, I knew that I needed to have more education. I certainly did not have the confidence to speak up during the meetings. Often I asked questions for clarification afterwards. I decided that a Master's degree might give me the knowledge I needed to be a better educational administrator.

The next year I started a Master's program and soon realized that a degree in Educational Administration was not for me. I remember sitting in a class on educational finance and thinking that I had no interest in this topic. I wanted to know the amount per pupil I had to spend on programs, more practical and people-centered concerns, rather than the administrative issues at work behind the scenes. I switched to Educational Counseling.

But that is another story...


Sunday 22 March 2015

Seniors' Moments

It is a spring afternoon and here we are; four seniors sitting in a living room communicating with each other via their Apple devices. We have seen people sat around tables in restaurants using their electronic devices to communicate with others located elsewhere. We scoff because people do not actually talk to each other anymore. For us, technology use is a bit different however.

          Hiltrud, Rick and Carlo

In this picture, my husband, Rick, is on Skype with our friend, Carlo, who is seated across the room. I take the picture of the group to email to our friend, Hiltrud, who smiles and waits for the picture.

People often refer to a senior's moment being the temporary lapse in memory which we all experience as we get older. I like our interpretation better. This one is much more fun.

Thursday 19 March 2015

My Grandmother's Hands

I saw them today, my grandmother's hands. She has been gone a long time but there are her hands in the picture with our granddaughter, Caitlin.

I remember those hands. They cooked, baked, tended a house, garden and animals, turned salt fish, picked berries, hooked rugs, knitted and sewed. She raised three children during the Depression.

They were large hands, full of sun spots from the hours spent working at fish and in the garden. Those hands did not experience suntan lotion or creams, just hard work. 

The age spots on my hands are also from sun damage in the early years. However, my grandmother and I had entirely different experiences. I raised one child, my gardening was recreational, housework was easier due to the modern conveniences. The only thing I ever lifted was a pencil, pen, chalk or marker at work outside my home. Though the experiences were different, the result was the same. 

Today, I saw my grandmother's hands.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Child's Play

There are those who contend that children will show us their career paths by their play throughout childhood. Considerations such as whether they prefer solitary work or work with others will become evident through their play. This idea makes me think about our daughter Claire's early years, when she 'nursed' many family members. 

               Claire and Nanny Pretty

The medical kit was a favourite toy. Claire tried all the equipment on everyone she encountered.

   Claire checking Pop Pretty

 All she required of her patients was for them to sit or lie still. 

    Claire checking great uncle France O'Brien

Our little girl loved working with people, taking care of them.

Through her experience in high school, Claire decided nursing was for her. She focussed on that goal and continues to work as a nurse today.

                 Caitlin at the computer

Now there are two other little girls playing in our family.

              Sylvie playing sleepy plane

 I wonder what their play indicates about their career choices?

         Our ballerinas

   Uber driver and daredevil

Sunday 15 March 2015


He was a locksmith in the days before the blanks and key cutting machines were so readily available. He spent hours filing and fitting keys, working on locks. But his ability went beyond keys and locks. Ern Smith was a handyman, saving bits and pieces of things broken and of seemingly little value. You just never know when you will need that part.

An example of Ern's ingenuity involves jars of baby food. On a visit home to Corner Brook, Newfoundland, his daughter, Janet, and her husband, Peter, had their oldest son, Robert, with them. 

        Peter and Janet

Robert was eating baby food at this time and Ern eyed the small jars and lids, saving them in his workshop. Eventually he nailed a piece of plywood to the wall, attached the lids to the plywood and filled the jars with nuts, nails and the like, attaching the jars to the lids on the wall. Several years later, a similar storage device could be bought at local hardware stores which someone had invented. 

This is very familiar behaviour to me; I am married to one of Ern's grandsons after all. My husband, Rick, grew up in the same community as his grandfather Smith. Rick loved spending time with his grandfather and learned a great deal from him. Working on items, figuring out how they work and repairing them with pieces long saved from another time and often another item, are common practices at our house. Rick learned this procedure from his grandfather.

However, the training did not stop there. Ern's son, Melvin, was Rick's father and he continued Ern's tradition. Melvin also saved things, repaired items, found uses for things others would have discarded without a second look. Rick learned from the best. Ern taught them well.

It would be interesting to know if any of Ern's other grandchildren or great grandchildren have the smithy gene as well.

Thursday 12 March 2015

The Treatment

To say he had a varied career is an understatement.  Ern Smith worked at the pulp and paper mill in Corner Brook, as a relief worker, an undertaker, a locksmith, fire chief. He was paid for this work but his efforts in the medical field were unpaid. Ern fancied himself able to diagnose and advise his family, friends and acquaintances on medical matters. He had seen enough during his time as a relief worker that he thought he knew as much as the local doctors.

The reality of it was that Ern was a capable man and he had seen a great deal of suffering during his working life. He could have been a medical doctor if he had the opportunity during his early adulthood. He was intelligent, perceptive, intuitive and an avid reader. He could have been a good doctor. Regardless, as he aged, Ern put his vast experience to use and was quick to advise everyone about their health issues. 

Neighbours came to Ern for help rather than pay a Doctor. On one occasion, a woman from the neighbourhood came to him about her son who was having an asthma attack. Ern went with her to the boy who was in a panic, trying to breathe. He directed the mother to get steam going and helped the boy calm down. 

Another time, the youngest Smith daughter, Marie, had a sore throat and a rash. Ern called the family Doctor and reported that his daughter had scarlet fever. The Doctor called in a prescription to the pharmacy for Marie based on Ern's diagnosis.

Ern had his own treatment for cuts which he used on everyone. Once his wife, Bessie, cut the heel of her thumb so badly that the flesh was hanging on by a thin strip. Ern put molasses on the cut and stuck the skin to it. He wrapped it with old flour sack material. The cut healed perfectly. 

Doctor Jim Yarn of Corner Brook was a family friend of the Smiths and Ern's doctor. On one occasion when Ern was in hospital near the end of his life, his daughter, Marie, was headed in to see him. As she entered the hospital, she met Doctor Yarn on his way out. 

              Dr. Jim Yarn

"How is Dad doing today, Jim?"

"Oh, he's starting to feel a bit better. He's treating all of the patients on the ward today."

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Career Choice...Not

Health care was for me. That's what I thought initially anyway. I loved biology and chemistry, science really. Health care seemed like a good match because I also liked working with people. Why not sick people? To check out that possibility, I joined the candy striper program at Grace Hospital in St. John's, Newfoundland, did the training and volunteered on weekends. 

        University Years

One of my first placements was dermatology which should not be too stressful for a young person. However such was not the case. I entered a room where the patient was a Russian sailor, a man who was burned on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland and brought to St. John's for treatment. The poor man was bandaged from head to foot. I remember standing in the room, feeling helpless. I left the room and the floor and went home. I was wary of any assignment I was given after that occasion and happy when the year ended.

I learned through that program that I could not work, in any capacity, with people who were hurting physically. It was a valuable lesson for someone who considered nursing or medicine as career possibilities.

Years later, our family lived in Grand Falls-Windsor and our daughter, Claire, went to her first hockey game with her friends. Rick and I listened to the game on the radio. Part way through the game the announcer said, "And there goes the puck into the stands. looks like someone has been hit...a young girl maybe."

Rick and I looked at each other and said simultaneously, "That's Claire!"

Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later, hospital staff phoned; Claire was hit in the forehead and required stitches. We went immediately to the hospital where our family doctor waited for us before stitching up Claire's head. When we went into the treatment room, Claire, forehead gashed open, pale, was stretched on a bed. The doctor started to sew up her forehead and I had to leave or hit the floor because my knees got weak. Rick, steady as always, stayed and held Claire's hand. 

Exposure to occupations which may interest young people is a great way to narrow down areas of career interest and save time and money in education and training. The hospital volunteer program helped me learn what to avoid. The quest for my career path started with a science degree however, a good beginning to my journey.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Harriet Oakley

The last night of my mother's life, we discussed my desire to research family history. Mom told me that there were Oakleys in my father's ancestry, having heard it from my grandfather Pretty years ago. We did not know that Mom herself was so close to death.

Over the next several years, I discovered that the Oakley in our family tree was Harriet Oakley Pretty, from Greenspond, Newfoundland, who married my great great grandfather, Samuel Pretty of Dildo, Newfoundland.

The last few weeks brought me to Harriet's family, originally from Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England. Thomas Oakley is the earliest ancestor to be found there in 1671. Amazingly, over four hundred and forty years later, and many generations, two of Thomas Oakley's descendants discovered each other. I found a relative, through the Facebook page of the Greenspond Historical Society. She is a distant relative in generation and place, living in British Columbia while I live in Prince Edward Island.

Modern social media has made it possible to connect with distant relatives, so distant that the connections are long lost with time and geography. However, Harriet's story can be traced back to southwest England, on to Greenspond, Newfoundland and from there all over the earth.

Part of the reason that this discovery is so meaningful to me is because it is information about one of our foremothers. Long just a name, now Harriet has a history herself. I am thrilled with the discovery.

Thursday 5 March 2015


House sitting can be an interesting experience, especially when you have an animal friend to care for as well. Such is the case for my mother-in-law, Sylvia, as she spends a few weeks in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Her animal companion is a cat called Oreo.

As you can see, Oreo is a beautiful creature, who rules her domain with the certainty ensured by her feline genetics. She knows that Sylvia is her minion and gives a haughty look down her nose when she wants to go out. Oreo has the run of the neighbourhood as well and comes and goes to suit herself, assisted by her door person. Oreo rules her kingdom with the sometimes benevolent though often indifferent demeanor of her imperial cat self.

Recently, on a storm day in Corner Brook, Oreo was galing. She ran around the house like a wild cat, speeding through the premises, jumping on furniture and counters, only to take off again. She created a gale inside to match the one outside.

When Sylvia described Oreo's behaviour, it reminded me of the animals on my grandparents' farm years ago. Like other Newfoundlanders, Granda knew from the animals that a storm was approaching long before he heard the weather forecast. The horses were often galing prior to a bad storm. But the best harbingers of bad weather were their Manx cats.

Nan and Granda always had Manx cats, and when they were galing, in the barn, stable or in the yard, you knew to prepare for a storm. These cats were not house cats but mousers who lived in the barn and were great weather prognosticators. The cats were always named Puss and each one ruled the barn with feline authority. They were working cats, friendly to the people who fed them but not otherwise. They did great work on the rodent population, working for their keep.

Meanwhile, Oreo, a cat of different lineage, gales during the storm. She does not have her forecasting skills refined yet. However, like all cats, she does her thing in her own good time.

Tuesday 3 March 2015

Winter Daydreams

Stood at the patio door, the sun feels warm and brilliant as it approaches the vernal equinox in a few weeks.

In moments like this, it is easy to forget that the snow is piled high below the deck. Looking out, the orange markers are visible, indicating where the vegetable planter box is located. 

It is buried under mounds of snow, the most ever on this island, so planting in that box seems light years away.

While dreams of the vegetable patch seem so unrealistic today, the strength of the sun gives me renewed hope.

I can see it now, the tomatoes, herbs, green beans from the vegetable patch, or the rhubarb and grapes from around the base of the patio.

And while some food requires new plantings, the rhubarb roots and grape vines are hidden there under the piles of snow, just waiting for the opportunity to embrace the sun again. 

They will be waiting a bit longer this year it appears.

This island, covered in record snowfall, awaits the spring melt now, not with anticipation but rather with dread. What flooding may await! People here, equipped with sump pumps in their basements, are accustomed to eliminating water every spring. However this year will be a test of that drainage system. All we need is a rapid melt to take the situation from manageable to a disaster. A power outage with a quick melt would be catastrophic.

So, the daydreams of planting and growth are tempered today with thoughts of massive snow melt and water damage. My life in eastern Canada has made me acutely aware of the environment and its potential impact on our lives.

Prince Edward Island will be an interesting place over the next few months! I'll keep you posted.

Sunday 1 March 2015

The Fall

It was not a huge set of steps, though enough to injure anyone who fell over them. And that is what happened! My seventy-seven year old mother fell down the eight steps in her apartment. She opened the outside door and brought the basket of laundry onto the landing. Somehow, Mom lost her footing and down she tumbled, laundry, basket and all. She hurt herself badly but did not break any bones.

        Mom in her last years

There was a closet at the bottom of the steps where Mom hung up her outer wear. However she also had a bin in the bottom of the closet where she kept vegetables if her fridge was full. When Mom landed at the bottom of the steps, her head hit the closet door which came off track and fell on her. When she finally stopped tumbling, her head was on the floor of the closet.

"What a knock I gave meself," she told everyone. She had injuries to her head, legs and arms. One cut bled a great deal. She was battered.

When Mom told me about her fall it reminded me of the time I was preparing for one of Claire's birthday parties. Walking down into the family room with my arms full, I was unable to see the steps. I tripped and my head went through the wall. I had a huge bump on my head and I saw stars. There was a huge hole in the wall as well.

So I asked Mom, "Did you see stars after you hit your head?"

"Stars? Stars? All I saw was turnips," was the reply.

That was Mary Pretty, our mother.