The 1st in a Series ~ Volume II
Prompt: I’d Like to Meet
My first thought while considering who from my thousands of ancestors I’d like to meet was “I have to pick just one?” A seemingly impossible task for I want to meet them all.
Still, for the purposes of this exercise I curbed my need to apologize to the non-chosen and noodled on just who might be the one. For some reason my great grandmother, Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959), came to mind. I imagined us sitting down at the kitchen table having a little chinwag over a cup of Red Rose tea and homemade shortbread from her own recipe. And then a story began to unfold. Something like this …
We studied each other for a moment. The room was silent as if holding space for magic. No words exchanged, simply a sense of recognition ~ what I saw of myself in her; what she saw of herself in me. Of course, our physical structure was quite different ~ Granny Gordon was bird-like compared to my relative bear of a frame. Still, there was recognition there. Then our big, dark, brown eyes met. Wide-open windows to the soul. The spell was broken, or perhaps it had been cast for we both giggled.
“You’re just like my Alice,” Granny Gordon purred in a genteel lyrical Scottish lilt. She smiled and reached for her freshly poured cup of tea. “It’s in the eyes.”
The eyes again. So she saw it, too. And then I recalled the baby photos of granny Alice and I and how much alike we looked as newborns.
“Thank you. I loved Granny Alice.”
“I know. And she loved … loves … you. Love does not disappear after we depart this place.” More gentle silence as Granny Gordon put a piece of shortbread to her lips and bit into it. I held my breath. The recipe was hers and more than 100 years old. Had I done it justice? A morsel dropped into her lap. She dusted it onto her tea plate, sipped more plain tea, and whispered across the table as if whatever she was about to say was to remain our secret. “This is very good, granddaughter. Just as I remember it.” And she winked and gave an affirming smile.
Exhaling a sigh of relief I watched with satisfaction as Granny Gordon nimbly took another wee bite. Pleasing this diminutive yet formidable matriarch was important to me. “Thank you, Granny Gordon. I’m so glad you like it.”
“Ach, why so formal?” She gently admonished. “Call me granny.” The corners of her mouth curled into a whimsical smile. “Perhaps you know by now that we’re not big on ceremony in this family. Just respect, but you have to earn it.” Oh, she had my respect. “Life isn’t a big planned ceremony. We’d never get anything done if it were and we’d be endlessly disappointed. If there’s one thing I learned during my 76-year sojourn on this wee planet it’s that very little ever goes according to plan.” She took another sip of tea and hummed with satisfaction. “Golly, it’s been a long time. Still warms me.” Another smile.
We sat for a moment in comfortable silence while Granny Gordon’s sharp eyes loosely studied me again. Then she put down her cup and saucer and got straight to the point. “Do you have any questions for me, my dear?” She looked ageless. Prim without being fussy, dressed in a smart navy suit and white blouse with white collar, and a matching hat that looked like a prototype for a frisbee. Little fabric flowers and netting adorned the brim. Her black leather handbag and gloves sat neatly in her lap. Classy. Even after all she’d been through she oozed gentrified Glaswegian sophistication tempered by the rough and ready fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants rigours of pioneer life in northern Alberta. I wanted to ask her about that.
“What is it, dear?” Granny Gordon asked, for I was hesitating. I was curious, but was any of it any of my business? “You can’t shock or upset me, if that’s what you’re wondering,” she assured. “I’ve seen it all.” Our eyes met again and there was an understanding ~ I sensed she wanted to share about her life as much as I wanted to understand it. So, I asked the first, and what turned out to be the only, question of this sitting.
“Was migrating to Canada everything you’d dreamed?”
“Not even close,” she answered without hesitation. She flattened her skirt and adjusted her hat to disperse some unwanted tension. “You know we walk into dreams all starry-eyed with a happy ending in mind and forget the effort it takes and the challenges we’ll face along the way. Your great grandad, my Bill, was such a strong, virile man. A whaler, a steel smelter, and a fine soldier; respected by everyone he met, but when he decided to take advantage of that Soldiers’ Settlement Scheme in Canada for the sake of the children’s future many people thought he ~ we ~ were either very brave or incredibly daft.” Granny Gordon came up for air. “We weren’t the only ones who did it, but we were certainly among the oldest. I was in my mid 40s with only a couple of years under my belt since our last bairn was born. As you know he didn’t survive past two weeks, so in a sense I was still dealing with all of that. Perhaps that made me restless for change, too. Bill was almost 50 with shrapnel in his leg and suffering from bouts of malaria from his WWI service, and our seven living children ranged in age from five to 21. At times I thought we were foolish, but we saw a future in Canada and once we’d made the decision to go there was no turning back.”
Granny Gordon paused with remembering. “Now the eldest, your aunt Jean,” she reminded me, “was already in Canada ~ Toronto ~ because of an asthma condition our doctor said could only be remedied in a drier climate. She worked for the Massey family as a maid and often wrote home happy letters about her life there. She’d also send the occasional parcel filled with fun and unfamiliar things that got her siblings imaginations running and thinking that they too wanted to move to Canada. I won’t deny that the constant yammering about it so distressed me that when the Scheme came up Bill and I just kind of looked at each other and the decision was made. We were going as a family into a new adventure. The kids were so excited; the extended family just shook their heads. But what were we to do? The thought of our family fragmenting further after all we’d been through was too much.”
She fell silent for a moment and fidgeted with the handle of her purse. It was a story that seemed to both thrill and fluster, yet I detected a distinct gleam in her eyes demonstrating something akin to a healthy pride regarding what they had, in the end, accomplished. I knew there was more she wanted to say so I waited.
“Finally the day, April 27, 1927, arrived and it was time to leave everything we’d known behind us. Our comfortable home in Motherwell; our dear friends and family. We packed as many trunks as we dared, bid a melancholy farewell and boarded the Metagama for the voyage to Montreal.” She paused and shuddered just a little. “We were so sea sick, all except for Bill, that is. Nothing got to him. He’d been through a shipwreck in his past and was familiar with the power of the sea. No, his focus was making sure we were all okay. I was concerned about his malaria, but fortunately he was spared any attacks en route. That man was so strong.” Granny Gordon’s voice trailed off following her wandering thought. She obviously loved him. “Oh, this is taking a while. Are you bored yet?” She asked.
“Not at all,” I answered. “Still, we can stop any time if you’re tired. I’m hoping this won’t be our last such meeting.”
Granny Gordon nodded and smiled. “Any time, my dear, any time.” She sipped tea and resisted another shortbread. “They’re so good, but I must be disciplined.”
This made perfect sense. I doubt she could have succeeded as a pioneer without the comforting boundary of discipline. “How would you like to finish our conversation today, granny?”
She hesitated for a moment, and continued. “Well, we arrived in Montreal in early May and got straight on the train heading west for Alberta.” She sighed with remembering. “It was a Colonist train. So primitive. Women and children crowded together, each assigned to our own bay of wooden bench seats and taking turns to cook our meals on the communal wood stove. There was a separate room reserved for the men. Bill refused this preferential treatment and instead, because there was no room with the women and children, rode in the cattle car the entire distance.” Another sigh. “That’s across four provinces, you know.”
I did a quick mental calculation ~ more than 2,000 miles in a rickety cattle car with only the occasional stop along the line to grab a breath of fresh air. I could only shake my head in disbelief. “A man who’s survived Gallipoli can survive just about anything, I guess.”
Granny Gordon nodded. “You don’t know the half of it.” She became thoughtful for a moment and then continued. “After six days in what became squalor we arrived in Edmonton. We all smelled pretty sweet by then, but my hinny, oh … he blew the roof off!” She giggled. “It was harsh, but we all laughed about it. That’s how we got through the tough times.” She wrung her hands. “We stayed with my sister Isabel who’d emigrated to Edmonton with her husband years before. It took us a couple of days to get acclimated and then, all chomping at the bit for the next stage of our adventure to begin, we boarded a northbound train with all our worldly possessions and headed to our new life.” She stopped for a moment, a cloak of weariness seemed to cover her. “And that, my dear, is a story for another day. Bill is waiting to take me to dinner.”
Enthralled by her story as I was it was time to end our conversation. Reliving memories in their variety can be draining. “Thank you for sharing,” I reached over and softly put a hand on her now folded ones. “I do hope we can visit again soon.”
“That would be lovely,” she smiled lovingly and stood to leave. As we walked to the doorway I slipped my arm through hers and whispered into her ear.
“Happy birthday. January 12, isn’t that right?”
Granny Gordon stopped and turned to look at me. “Aye, that’s right,” she beamed. “Thank you. Such a remembering!”
“Oh, I’ve been paying attention.” I winked. “How old would you be now?”
Granny Gordon became thoughtful. “Now, let’s see, 2023 minus 1883 is … well, goodness, it would be my milestone 140th birthday. Imagine that! It’s funny … I don’t feel that old.” We both erupted into giggles. Then she became a little more serious, “And look at this special experience I had to celebrate.” She reached up and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Thank you.”
“Oh, it’s been my pleasure. And by the way, age is just a number,” I quipped.
“My dear,” Granny Gordon said with a twinkle in her eyes, “age is irrelevant. It’s what’s in your heart that counts. Still, it’s fun to honour the big birthdays.” With that she took my hand and squeezed it and disappeared into the ether.
The Final Word
Well, that was a fun exercise. In truth, it wasn’t until I was almost finished writing that I realized Granny Gordon’s birthday was just around the corner, so her coming to mind as someone I’d like to enjoy a conversation with seems to have been synchronistic. There’s nothing that says we can’t meet again, still there are so many whose stories I’d like to unpack under a similar setting. I guess we’ll just have to see where we land on that score. ❦