Wish I'd Said It

Weeds are flowers too - once you get to know them.

- A. A. Milne

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Roots (#231)

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.


Anonymous said...

Good story Frank, thanks for sharing. You might want to try running it again this summer when the sun is scorching everything. Reading about hauling ice, and the cold winters your great grandparents endured might cool us off some. Now that you're not going off to the cabin every chance you get, I'm looking forward to more posts from you. :) Nita

Rick Rosenshein said...

Thank you for sharing that story with us Frank. It reminds me of the hardships that my Grandparents had to go through, when they first arrived in this country. It is good to honor their memories in this way.

Leah J. Utas said...

Thanks for this, Frank. We forget, if we can even imagine, how hard out grandparents worked just to survive.

Hilary said...

A great family story. I've heard you mention Gigi through the years (and about Big and Little Baba) but not so much about the hardships your family endured. You have every reason to be proud.

Pauline said...

How strong your forebears were! You're lucky to have such hardy folks in your background - it gives you a rock to stand on.

We forget, who live in relative ease, how hard life used to be for our grandparents and great grandparents. I've let my family story telling lapse. You've encouraged me to get back to it.

Stace said...

Wow. We've got it pretty easy these days. You know people now complain bitterly if they have to be offline for an hour, or about their boss asking them to do a simple thing that isn't part of their job description! People are so petty these days, and it's very refreshing to be reminded of when people just did what they had to do, when times were tough, and people were grateful for small things. We take too much for granted!

Christine said...

I was thinking about this very story (I have the copy that you gave to my mom) about 24 hours before you posted it. Weird family ESP maybe?

Thanks to you it now has a much wider audience - good job.

Cay Sehnert said...

Even great true stories require a perceptive and skilled writer to bring them to life. Excellent.

Reb said...

How wonderful that you were able to preserve these memories for us to read. We take so much for granted these days, indoor plumbing and heat being the most important and most ignored.

Frank Baron said...

Thanks Nita. And now that I am pretty much settled in for the next few months, you just might get more frequent blather coming from this corner. ;)

Glad you liked it Rick. Thanks for the visit and taking the time to say so.

Puts minor irritants in the proper perspective, doesn't it Leah?

Thanks, Hil. I might have to write a few memories of my Babas one of these days too. They were special women.

I'm lucky indeed, Pauline. Many times, when my own path became difficult to walk, thoughts of their hardships kept me putting one foot in front of the other. Tell your stories. Your kids may not appreciate them much now but they will in time.

We do indeed, Stace. Perspective is everything.

Thanks, Chris. Family ESP is as good an explanation as any. Works for me. (Say hi to your Mom for me.)

Thanks, Cay. We always want to edit though, don't we? As I reread, I was wishing I could tweak it here and there....

True, Reb. Not to mention flicking a light switch and turning on an oven with a push of a button or turn of a dial.

Thanks all. :)

Tabor said...

Makes me wonder how the hell I am where I am today. Would I now be dead if I was born during those times? Do I even begin to deserve a tenth of what I have??

Ray Veen said...

Really remarkable stuff, Frank. I'm tempted to make my kids read your post, but that would probably be too much work for them.

Frank Baron said...

Tabor, adversity tends to bring out the best in people (ideally, anyway). I think you'd manage for the same reason they did -- it was necessary.

Ray, I sat my guys down with the book. But I'm pretty sure they skimmed....

June said...

Hard, hard lives... Sometimes I think life was meant to be just that hard . . . that we were built to have to rise to difficulties like that . . . that it's healthier somehow.
I guess it's the same kind of thinking as, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mostly, I'm oh-so-very-glad the dog came back!

Dianne said...

love, laughter and life - sums up what is truly important
lovely stories Frank, you have reason to be proud :)

Charlie said...

Last night my wife and I were using many colourful metaphors to express our feelings about our balky satellite TV remote control....

Perspective is everything. Thanks, Frank.

Skunkfeathers said...

And proud you should be, Frank. You sprung from the heartiest of stock.

Today, the failure of a cell phone leaves a youth totally crestfallen and bewildered, having if only momentarily lost their ability to text meaningless syntax.

How little my and younger generations tend to appreciate what it took to deliver us to today.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful family treasure!

Frank Baron said...

June, I'm sure that saying arose from folks weathering hard times. And I'm sure glad somebody mentioned the dog! While posting it, I felt sure that Jackie's return across the frozen Red River would be referred to most often. It just goes to show ya' - you never know. :)

Thanks, Dianne. I'm sure most of our ancestors could tell similar tales of hardships overcome. So, we can all be proud.

My pleasure, Charlie my friend. And you're 100% right.

Skunky, we need to encourage our elders (those of us who still have a couple) to tell their stories, as well as the stories their parents and grandparents told them. Then we need our children to hear and read about them.

I assume you mean the book, ladyfi. Or maybe the lessons learned and memories generated. In any case - yes. :)

Anonymous said...

Frank, I hope you write more of your family history. It would be a shame if those stories were lost forever.

Sandi McBride said...

The history of a family is a beautiful thing, often lost in the fog of time, but recovered bright and shining for the future to read and learn from...that is a miraculous thing! This was as good a post as I have ever read and so deserving of the POTW!

Unknown said...

How wonderful for your family that their life is part of a book on the area and how wonderful for you that you were asked to write it. The hardships must have been horrible but the stories will endure.
I love that Jackie came back home.

And congrats on POTW!

Daryl said...

what a wonderfully told story ...

Cricket said...

Great stuff. I love memoir - there's just something about it. For myself, I find it the hardest to write but the pieces I like best in the end.

Personally, I like the dog coming home best. Heh, heh.

Congratulations on your potw.

Frank Baron said...

There's still quite a few stories to tell, kcinnova. Thanks.

Thank you Sandi. You're very kind.

Thank you, Jane. I'm glad too. :)

Thanks Daryl.

Thank you Cricket.

Out on the prairie said...

These are the stories I take and write stories I post. I enjoy still hearing about strength in families which has dwindled with our changing economy and world we live in. We still have some stragglers who carry on these traditions.

Bhaswati said...

I join the choir above to extend a heartfelt thanks to you. Your snippets provide such an authentic glimpse into an era gone by, while also reminding us how incredibly lucky we are to be living in the times we do.

Barrie said...

Incredible story! I'm not sure I would've survived all those hardships. You do come from brave and hardy and persistent stock.

Grayquill said...

Thank you for the link! I wish I had gotten here earlier.
Grading with horse – I wonder how they did that? Like plowing I guess, only with a blade? Hmmm
50 cents a cord – Yikes! And no chain saw.
I have no idea what real work is. My father is 87 this year. When I was a boy I remember watching him swing an ax and use a shovel. Both was like watching an artist who seemed to never tire. His hands I remember were rugged and calloused.
This was a great read and a wonderful post. What a story! The tragedy they lived with was overwhelming. Burying four children, that seems like it would be too much to bear.
Thanks for sharing. It was a very hard, interesting, enjoyable read.

Sandra said...

A wonderful story, Frank. You are indeed blessed to have had such ancestors. Just another reminder of what a short time ago life was so much harder. Thank you for sharing their story.

Sandra said...

A wonderful story well told.

Frank Baron said...

Yes we do, Out in the prairie, and good for them. Thanks for the visit.

Yes Bhaswati, it's easy to find blessings when we contemplate how life was, not so long ago.

Barrie, hardship often reveals the steel beneath. You would have find ways to cope, I'm sure. :)

GQ, I'm glad to hear your Dad is still with you. My grandfather, Pete, was also an immensely strong man. If a cow was reluctant to move, he'd put his shoulder under her hindquarters, lift her a couple feet off the ground and change her mind immediately. Thanks for the visit and for prompting me to dig out that story.

Thank you Sandra. You're very kind.

Thanks all, for taking the time to read and comment. :)