As I stumble through life, I often gain reassurance from the mental image of my genes descending from a long line of noble women and men. That was due to the persuasive words my maternal grandmother spoke to me at the cusp of my womanhood. She often reminded us: “Now always remember, you come from good blood.”
When Grandma Letitia May (Wood) Kincaid said this, the words were not necessarily an admonition to uphold a good family name. They were a beacon, lighting my way during life’s difficulty and uncertainty. If the truth be told, it was probably Letitia herself, and not her words that guided me. For she was strong without ever trampling on the toes or the dignity of anyone. She was calm but she confronted obstacles with a quiet, deliberate, determination.
North Bay . March 1938
The baby was due any day. It would be her tenth since 1917.
Letitia May, before her 1916 wedding, & the 1938 birth of her 10th child
“I’ve been having babies for twenty years!” The thought suddenly stunned her as she placed a neat pile of newspaper in the kitchen wood stove to sterilize them. She had waited until the wood burned down to flaming embers.
Letitia May was making ready for her home-birth. A half hour later, she used her oven mitts to remove the hot papers and insert them into cotton cases. This would make the papers more comfortable to lie on, when her time came. And when her water broke, the padding would protect her bed. May knew well enough to be properly prepared for the inevitable combination of bodily fluids – the blood, urine, feces and amniotic fluid, all natural results of child bearing.
Other preparations were necessary, as well. She would call Nurse Ryckman, the midwife, who would come for May’s confinement. Even though she was a trained midwife, Nurse Ryckman would not deliver May’s baby. May always called the doctor to carry out that procedure.
May laughed at the old-fashioned term, ‘confinement’. There really was no such thing any longer. “And thank heaven for that.” she thought.
She remembered when she had the first few children, she was confined, imprisoned really, in her bed for two entire weeks. Medical experts of the day, advised that it was unhealthy to be up and about any earlier than that. “Day three is when the milk comes in. On the ninth day, there is a danger of hemorrhage”.
This time she would be up and about, but she would take it easy for a week while Nurse Ryckman tended the baby’s bathing and dressing. Her job would also entail helping May with her bed baths, and cleanse her bottom to reduce the possibility of infection. She would do the daily laundry and prepare meals for the family. But, feeding the baby was May’s responsibility.
“I’ll lay down as I always have when I nurse”, May thought. “It’s the only way to get some rest especially when sleep is in short supply.”
Over the past weeks, May prepared a layette. She refused to allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing her new baby with a new wardrobe. Hand-me-downs would begin later. Purity Flour bags and Atlantic Sugar bags were plentiful and made of sturdy cotton, but several washings softened the fabric so it was suitable for a newborn. An imaginative housewife could find a plethora of uses for those cotton bags, May thought with more than a little pride. She used the bags to make pillow cases. Then she delicately embroidered lacy scallops around the open end. She then ironed them without a wrinkle. She made these often. Every bed in the house had pillow cases made just that way. And it was these flour bags May used to cover the newspapers that would pad the hard kitchen table, or protect her bedding when ‘her time’ came.
Letitia’s beautiful crochet edge
The layette she worked on would consist of six soft flannelette nighties with gathered necklines, two dozen new diapers, and six receiving blankets.
May sat in her comfortable wooden rocker, the colour of tea not steeped over-long. This was where she sat to create her handwork. The rocker came from Ernie’s parent’s first home in Sturgeon Falls, Northern Ontario, back in 1883. May was ‘feather stitching’ the neckline of the nighties. It was quicker and easier than smocking. The pink and blue threads would extend across the front of the wee nighties.
“To cover both possibilities!”, she thought.
As her hands flew, the smooth, silver embroidery needle punctured the soft cotton with sureness and precision. The three strands of pale embroidery floss created meticulous, V stitches like rows of crossed-wooden fencing punctuating a snowy field. While she decorated the first nightie her thoughts indulged in rare flight from the harsh and exhausting demands of the present. For unknown minutes she luxuriated in remembering random snippets of her past.
“At sixteen, I was off to North Bay to become skilled in a trade”, she laughed to herself … “A tailor’s apprentice. Then came my first position in Mr. Duncan’s Tailoring shop.”
“Never mind” she thought, “the training has held me in good stead. This new baby will have a well made layette and the older children are learning to do neat, even stitches.” She laughed to herself, recalling the recent pouts when her girls, Jean and Mable, were told to rip out their less-than-perfect stitches and begin again.
Her thoughts wandered to the wedding picture of Ernie and herself up on the piano. Their wedding, performed by the Presbyterian minister, took place at her mother, Sophia Wood’s home in South River, a small village without sophisticated businesses, like photography studios found in larger centers. So, two weeks after the wedding, May and Ernie had a commemorative portrait done at a studio in North Bay. In it, Ernie sat, looking dapper and well-groomed. He wore a black suit with a white shirt. The stiffly starched collar arced down like a birds wings cradling the wide silver tie. It was knotted precisely, then bunched out softly below. May recalled that Ernie had purchased the tie from Mr. Duncan for the occasion. Mr. Duncan always brought in handsome ties from Eaton’s in Toronto, to go with the suits he tailored in the shop. Some were modestly priced. Others were made of fine silk.
“Ernie looked quite like Prince George – attractive and dignified”, she mused. May considered that more than a decade later, her husband was known as ‘Duke King’. His railroad buddies on the TNO Railroad (Temiskaming & Northern Ontario) called him Duke because he was so sharp and well-groomed. They had even jokingly presented him with a prize for being the best looking man on the TNO. The prize was a briar pipe nestled in a black case lined with red felt.
Her wanderings returned to the wedding photo, to the image of herself standing behind Ernie, just over his left shoulder. She had sewn the white organdy blouse, as gossamer as a butterfly’s wing. It had a small, rounded collar and it tucked in to her long black skirt made of the finest worsted. It fell in soft folds from her narrow waist.
She remembered the mixed emotions of that day and her commitment to doing her best with whatever life would impart.
“And impart it did”, she thought. “Here I am, 20 years later, about to have my tenth child. I dare not even think of how tired I am.”
May began stitching the second nightie. Her delicious solitude would extend until two-year old Inez woke up from her nap. Then everything would begin to happen at once. The end-of-school-bell at Brook Street School would ring, releasing scurrying children like a river from a dam. Six year old Jack would announce his arrival followed by Mable who was nine and Jean, ten, each banging doors behind them. Next, would be the senior contingent – her High School children, full of mischief and baloney. Alvin, in Grade nine, Don, sixteen and Viola seventeen. May’s oldest two children were women now. Evelyn, was nineteen with a good job at Patton & Kennedy’s Real Estate office.
“And here I am”, she thought, “having another baby when several of my children are old enough to be doing the same. This is one of those thoughts best not to dwell on!”
How their lives were changing. How satisfying it was to be raising this clan of bright, responsible beings. But too, how tiring it all was. Though May did not allow herself to complain, even in her mind, or a smoothly run household would be an impossibility. She dared not consider, am I happy? Am I making a difference? What is this all about? May believed that self-indulgent thoughts such as those were counter productive. They robbed you of the steel in the belly you needed to carry on with life and the living. They prevented you from helping those worse off.
So she never dwelt on happiness, whether she was or she wasn’t. She simply did what was required, to feed and raise a large family and she did it competently. She thought that if she did dare take a moment to consider her own happiness, she supposed she would say she was happy. Happiness was a choice, after all. And she had long ago decided that the alternative was unacceptable. Besides, this was the path she had chosen. Now, her task was to make it a smooth path with order, contentment and perseverance.
“To thine own self be true” she advised her children and your decisions will be right for that time and in that place. She had lived by that belief and it had stood her in good stead. It was a guiding light, like knowing she came from good blood, from stalwart, stoic women who did what needed to be done in their lives.
May surveyed her handiwork on the second nightie. Feeling the softness with her finger tips evoked a longing for the child that soon would be here. She folded it lovingly and put it aside. She picked up another and as she stitched, she planned the logistics of twelve people living within the walls of this home. Soon, two adults and ten children, would be contained within this small area. In her thoughts, she mulled over the situation as it now was and what changes would have to be made.
“The five oldest girls have the largest bedroom upstairs. The three boys have a smaller room facing the garden. Ernie and I will have little Inez and the new baby in with us in the third and last bedroom. After Myrtle’s wedding, two year old Inez can move in with the rest of the girls and the baby will stay with Ernie and I.”
That settled, May continued to embroider the baby’s nightie as the aroma of stew wafted up from the kitchen. Today was Monday, so that meant left-over roast from Sunday. At noon, she had chopped up the beef, plenty of fresh potatoes, carrots, onions and celery and placed everything in a large covered roasting pan. She poured the wonderful gravy from yesterday over everything and put it in the hollow legs of her family.
As she stitched, May considered their busy lives at home and in the community. Ernie often worked double shifts at the TNO and May did the cooking, laundry, sewed household linens and clothing for the children and herself, as well as breast-feeding and caring for each baby that come along.
In addition to their school work and their jobs, the girls cleaned the kitchen, bedrooms and living areas. The boys chopped the firewood and carried it to the basement. They emptied the ashes and took them outside.
Outside of the home, May belonged to the Women’s Circle at church and Rebecca Lodge which advocated ‘Friendship, Love and Truth’. Ernie was an Elder at Calvin Presbyterian Church with all the duties that entailed. He was committed to Oddfellows’ Lodge whose motto was ‘Educate the orphans and relieve the distress’.
May considered those philosophies and the ethics inherent in believing them and putting them into practice. So many families were suffering financial hardship in the aftermath of The Great Depression, still taking its toll. Even with his own nine children to feed, Ernie took time off work when an emergency arose. She remembered his recent visit to a newly widowed woman to chop wood for her so she could keep her house warm. She recalled meetings with lawyers on behalf of widows whose husbands died without wills. With money supplied by Oddfellows’, Ernie bought groceries for needy families. “And,” May thought, “We don’t have a car, so he walks!.”
As she considered all these good works, she worried about his capacity for evil. She felt ambivalent about this man who was her husband. She was proud of this part of him, but was horrified at other beliefs he held.
A few years before, her strongly opinionated, WASP husband joined an organization, a brotherhood new to Northern Ontario … one that she had long heard about in frightening stories originating in the United States. There wasn’t much information about this new group but Ernie felt the ideals of the Ku Klux Klan aligned with his own in regards the ever-growing, ever more vocal, French community in North Bay. May expressed surprise that there was a Klan group in Ontario. She didn’t know much about them but thought they were only in the States. May thought their philosophy was at odds with the other community-minded, benevolent organizations to which Ernie belonged.
“We’re against the Frogs, not against the Niggers.” he explained, as though that made it alright – as though it justified his beliefs and his joining the Klan. It just made May feel sick.
May and Ernie had words several times about this, but to no avail. In the bottom dresser drawer, lay the hated, tell-tale, white cotton uniform. May cringed at the thought of it being in her home. She was mortified when her husband became involved. She knew many of his railroad friends felt as he did but May could not accept this. It ate at her. She decided for her own sanity and for the children, she had to keep her head high and keep up an illusion of family unity. But she hoped Ernie would come to his senses before anything alarming happened to impact their family.
She thanked her lucky stars, the day he was frightened into quitting the group. He had thought the local members were an harmless bunch … until he read in the paper that a man had been murdered in the Bracebridge area. The murder was attributed to the Klan. Suddenly, Ernie realized that this was much more than he had bargained for. He did not believe in going to those extremes to show his disapproval of the French population within his midst.
Even as she stitched for the new life within her, May shuddered. She took several deep breaths and soon began to relax knowing that sad part of their history was mercifully over.
May looked at the nightie now decorated in pink. She switched the thread in her needle to blue and wove in and out creating precise tiny stitches. Both colours ensured the gown would work for whichever gender the new baby would be. She knew she had to clear the cobwebs of scary thoughts from her head and heart. She had to focus on the good in their lives. Her thought wandered to the routine matters of the family.
She had always been frugal. It was a lesson well taught and well learned. But she considered their family fortunate nonetheless. There was plenty of food on the table and good leather shoes to wear. That thought made her chuckle as she visualized Ernie’s weekly Saturday routine. Always meticulous, he lined up shoes for the entire family, near the furnace in the basement. Then he polished each ’til they shone like new pennies, all ready for church the next day.
May was thankful that Inez continued to sleep. “It must be the cool, fresh air coming in the window.” she decided.
She stopped stitching, laying her hands in her lap for a minute while her thinking and planning continued in the quiet of the afternoon.
“Considering everything”, May thought, “We’ve done well. So many worries. So many people to consider in our family. And I am proud of every one of them.”
She recalled the plethora of sayings that had become Ernie’s mantra. She thought she should stitch them into a sampler and hang it for everyone to see:
“Honesty is the best policy”
“Experience is your best teacher.”
“Your reputation is much easier lost than gained.”
“Honour thy father and thy mother.”
Ernie brought laughter to the table when refusing a plate of lamb, saying,
“The wool gets caught in my teeth.”
His intolerance was clear when he admonished the older children,
“A girl that smokes will do anything.”
He exhibited gruffness as he spewed,
“When you wear lipstick, it looks like a horses ass inside out.”
“Veal is nothing but unborn calf.”
But May also thought of Ernie’s gentleness, when he saw that one of the children was sad.
“Smile,” he would say, “you look like a motherless foal.”
And when he once talked of his own death, he told the family, “When I die, don’t everyone dress in black. Wear your bright colours. Red will be fine.”
May stirred her own values into the morality soup as well.
“You are the captain of your own fate.”
“Never criticize a man ’til you walk a mile in his shoes.”
“Judge not, lest you be judged.”
May felt this one had particular significance to her, in light of Ernie’s past association with that dreaded organization.
May wanted her children to feel pride in themselves, in their family and in the traits they had received from those who had come before.
“You come from good blood”
she regularly reminded them. May hoped they would carry that knowledge with them through life. And her favourite, Shakespeare’s immortal words,
“To thine own self be true.”
Laughter bubbled up from within, as she thought of the words of wisdom she imparted to her daughters,
“Keep your knees together and you won’t get into any trouble.”
Despite, or perhaps because of their child rearing techniques, the children were happy and responsible human beings. That was most important to May.
May heard Inez beginning to whimper in her crib. Solitude and stitching had come to an end. She folded her embroidery, pleased with the progress she had made this afternoon, not only with the embroidery on the six nighties, but with the plans she had finalized in her mind. The burden of resentment she often felt for Ernie’s dangerous escapade, began to roll off her shoulder. She felt free for the first time in a couple of years to accept the man she had married, with all his flaws and all his goodness.
She knew that, together, they could continue to face all the challenges and enjoy all the blessings that life would offer. She knew too, that soon, when the baby’s difficult trek into the world began, Ernie would take his usual place, as far away as he could from what was transpiring upstairs. He would sit motionless on a wooden chair in the cellar, hunched over, elbows on his knees, his hands over his ears. In front of the grey iron furnace and the coal bin, he would wait, hope and pray that all would be well. He would hope too, that the cries of agony would not reach down the two flights of stairs to his solitary perch. May knew this was where he hid out. Don and Alvie had teased their father about his escape the last time, when Inez was born.
A smile crossed her face.
“Everything is ready. I can go into labour now. Tonight, I’ll take a couple of heaping tablespoons of castor oil in a tall glass of orange juice. Then I’ll ask Myrtle, Evelyn and Vi to go with me for a long walk. That will get things moving!”
“Soon, we will be twelve.”
Letitia and Ernie with their ten children.
There is no intention to be disrespectful in the use of terms within this short story. Many of those words were commonly used at the beginning of the last century. And ‘political correctness’ was unknown until the last two or three decades. Language has evolved, and some people have become wiser, but in the interest of conveying that time and place … that small, rather isolated, tough railroad town, I chose to use the language used by some people when I was a young child .
Letitia May was gentile and considerate. I never heard her speak a harsh, derogatory or slang word. Ernie, however loved to bluster and shock, when he wasn’t being a thoughtful neighbour carrying out his many community services.