About 28 years ago, my maternal grandparents were asked to record some memories of their early life in Manitoba, Canada. It was for a centennial project, a book commemorating the 100th anniversary of the rural municipality of St. Clements.
At the time, they were in their 70s and had lived in Ontario since the late 1940s. I was the Designated Writer of the family (cousin Clive Thompson came into his own a few years later) so Gramma (Mary) and Gigi (Peter) asked me to interview them and write their story for the book.
Recently, I read a couple of blog posts by a very perceptive, intelligent and handsome man (who just happened to buy my book) named Grayquill. The posts featured stories about and by an uncle of his who kept a journal for much of his life. The journal entries provided a fascinating peek into what life was like in the first half of the 1900s.
GQ’s posts prompted me to rummage around the house until I found my copy of the centennial book. For the first time since 1984 I reread the story I’d written on my grandparents’ behalf. Theirs, and especially their parents’ lives, were difficult in ways that seem almost incomprehensible today.
A few excerpts:
In 1902, my great-grandparents (Peter’s parents) John and Catherine Karandiuk arrived in East Selkirk from Starawa, Austria (now part of Ukraine) with one child, $2.50 and a dream of a better life.
Within a few weeks, their child was dead, possibly of diptheria. The funeral cost $1.50 and the dream wasn’t turning out as hoped. John found work in a sawmill and bought three acres of land in East Selkirk. He and Catherine built a house of woven willow branches covered with clay. In all, they had five children, four of whom died. In 1907, my grandfather Peter was born, healthy and strong.
A few years later, John and Catherine (who we came to know as “Little Baba”) moved up in the world and bought a seven-acre parcel of land which had a brick house on it. Not believing anyone could stay warm in a house made of bricks, they tore it down and built a log cabin chinked with mud. That winter, they nearly froze to death.
In 1924, at the age of 17, Peter got a job maintaining the roads that linked the various townships. He and his team of horses were paid 23 cents an hour for working on ditches and grading. That was 8 cents more than men working without horses.
In 1926 Pete married his childhood sweetheart, Mary Bozysko whose family came to East Selkirk from Ukraine two years after the Karandiuks. They moved in with Pete’s parents.
In 1929 John Karandiuk died and Pete had to look after his mother Catherine and his own growing family.
During those Depression years, everyone had to work if a family was to survive. Besides working on the roads, Pete spent the winters cutting and hauling wood for the Selkirk hospital for 50 cents a cord. He and another man would cut huge, 1,000 pound chunks of ice from the river with cross-cut saws and deliver them to the hotels and stores in East and West Selkirk. (Imagine how cold that job must have been!)
Mary worked their farm and minded their four daughters, Madeleine, Janet (my mother) Katherine and Hallie.
Pete’s mother Catherine would load railroad boxcars with cords of wood for $1.00 a day and gather scraps of grain from the cars to take home and feed the chickens.
In 1932, the Karandiuk’s were forced to sell the family dog, Jackie, to Indians across the river who wanted him to haul fish. Mary needed the $5.00 to buy winter coats for the girls. But when the Red River froze, Jackie crossed the ice and came home. The girls kept their coats.
In 1933, Catherine slipped down the stairs while carrying a coal-oil lamp. The house burned to the ground. The family was safe but lost everything except clothes on the clothesline, including their $90.00 life savings stored in their mattress. A few weeks before, Mary cried bitterly about sending out the $10.00 insurance premium because there were so many other ways the family could use the money. Thankful now, they collected $1600 and started over.
In 1936 technology, in the form of a motorized grader, arrived in the municipality. It was Pete Karandiuk’s pride and joy but it was a brutal machine to operate. Pete had to stand on a metal cover directly over the engine and burned his feet badly. But he was being paid 35 cents an hour and usually worked 18-19 hours a day. The municipality feared it would go bankrupt when he submitted a bill for one month for $90.
Between 1940-44 Pete worked at the Cordite Plant, an ammunition factory, and farmed 400 acres of rented land. In 1945-46, because of a market glut, farmers could only sell one bushel of wheat per acre. Pete had 6,000 bushels. Although the government paid the farmers for the wheat, the payments were staggered and ill-timed, making the bills mount up.
By 1947, the Karandiuks had had enough. They sold everything and moved to a farm in Ontario taking two boxcars full of 500, 90-pound bags of potatoes, three horses, two cows, three pigs and several turkeys and chickens.
Mary summed up life in those days. “It was a hard life - of bone-breaking work - but full of love and laughter and life.”
Peter, Gigi, died soon after the book came out in 1984. Mary, Gramma, couldn’t live without him and died several months later. They’d been married for 58 years.
I loved them dearly and am proud to come from such stock.