Kicking Ass Since 1913: Conversation One

I’m currently working respite with a lady while her family is out of town on vacation.
Technically, all I’m really doing is hanging out with her and reminding her to take care of herself, as she’s “ferociously independent,” as her daughter put it. I arrive at 7pm and leave at 9am for 6 days in a row this week.

Her life on this Earth is too good for me not to document it.
(I’ve changed the names of the people for privacy reasons.)

Martha was born in 1913 in a small town outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Today she’s 101 and a half years old and she’s trying really hard to out-live her mother who also lived to 101 and a half – though she would never admit her competition.
She is the oldest of ten children. Because of this, she never got to go to school properly like the rest of her siblings because her mother would pull her out of school for two weeks when another child was born. She said that her mom would lie in the kitchen and explain to her what she was supposed to do to cook meals. I think pregnancy was pretty different back in the day.
This also means that she was a pretty great cook when she was still able to cook meals for herself and others.
When she was nine her dad made her a baking counter thing that she could place on a chair to roll out dough, because the table was too high for her. It just goes to show the importance of her role in the family.

Her grandparents on her mom’s side lived in Vancouver. She said her grandpa was the kindest man. She laughed a lot when she talked about him. However, her grandma was really strict and independent (like Martha) and wouldn’t let her grandpa do anything around the house. When her grandma got older, she couldn’t do everything anymore, and he didn’t know how to take care of her. Martha seemed embarrassed when she explained that her grandpa was just learning how to put water on for tea by the time Martha’s mom went out to Vancouver to help out.

Now when Martha’s mom left to go to Vancouver, Martha had to quit her job to take care of the family, even though it was just a short visit. (I’m assuming Martha worked instead of going to school, or she had already gradded high school). When her mom came back from the visit, she saw that her mom had a round-trip ticket in her purse, and not a one-way ticket. She was scared to see that because she really wanted to save up money by working, which she couldn’t do if she was gone. Her mother explained that buying a round-trip ticket was cheaper than buying a one-way ticket. This worked out well, because it was decided that Martha would be sent to Vancouver to live there with her sister and take care of her grandparents.

Her grandma had a lot of money, and her family from the prairies had very little. Her dad was a blacksmith and was an award winning horseshoe maker. He ended up quitting that and was a school caretaker for like 30 years or so. She mentioned that when her father died when he was 71, they closed the entire school for his funeral. He didn’t stop working until a month before he died.
Because she had been taking care of her siblings all her life, she was really good with kids. So she wanted to go to university to be a maternity nurse.
She went to her grandma one day and explained to her that she had been taught to be honest and straightforward with people about what she needed and wanted. So she asked her grandma for the $300 needed to pay for a 4-6 year degree to become a nurse. (Can you imagine if tuition was that cheap today).
Her grandma said no. Her reasoning was that Martha had “been working hard all her life,” and deserved to marry a rich man that would take care of her. Martha laughed when she said this and explained that she was only 22, so how could she have lived long enough to earn that. Martha’s grandma wanted her to marry a guy named Walter. She said, “Walter, he was a lovely fellow… but wasn’t for me,” which I appreciated.

Martha married Peter. – I still haven’t figured out how they met.

Cut to 1938, Peter and Martha were already married for a year and a half. Their wedding consisted of only 7 people, unlike her sisters’ large weddings, because the war was already underway. Martha wore a white suit, not a dress like her sisters, and her grandmother wasn’t there for the wedding, along with most of her family.
She and her husband went to dinner with another couple. The husband asked her husband if he had heard any of the rumours of conscription flying around. It was said that there would be mandatory conscription in the Fall for all young men. Martha explained to me that if you didn’t sign up before the official enlistment, you wouldn’t get a say in where they would place you in the army. The friend’s husband was in artillery, and he told Peter that if he didn’t sign up soon, he would be likely to end up in infantry. So he signed up – but I’m not sure where he served. Probably not infantry.

Martha explained that her brother had never met Peter, even though they were now married, because he was already in the army. (Peter and Martha were in Vancouver and her brother was in Manitoba, remember). She told me that on one night, a few of Peter’s friends were opening their letters from family overseas. She said that they were such close friends that she guessed they even shared letters with one another. The guys passed around these pictures of people from home and one of them had her in them (the guys were friends with Peter and other girl friends of Martha’s back home). They got passed to her brother, and he saw Martha in the picture and recognized her as his sister.
So Martha’s brother met Peter for the first time while fighting in Europe somewhere in the middle of the Second World War.

Martha is my homegirl because she spent 25-27 years commercial fishing with her husband and knows the difference between a Coho and a Spring salmon. She showed me a picture of her first catch and it was huge. She said it was around 22lbs but I didn’t believe her, it was too big. I asked if I could look on the back when she said that the weight is written on back of the black-and-white photo, and I was right, 38lbs of Chinook.

She and Peter decided to spend a year fishing because Peter “looked fine, but he wasn’t okay after the war.” I’m guessing he suffered from PTSD, like any human being who had seen the unjust bloodshed of thousands of young men in war.
She used the savings she earned when she worked through out the war (still need to ask her about how women ruled Canada in WW2) and they bought a boat and went fishing along the coast of Vancouver Island. There were only supposed to be gone one year, to “sort themselves out” but Peter knew she enjoyed it as much as he did, and they decided to fish a second time. (At the time, each fish earned about 20 cents a pound.)

Martha knows the raw West Coast. She’s had a lot of experience with First Nations people – you can see it in her home. Her house has woven baskets and pictures of First Nations art. She said she lived in Bella Bella for 7 years with her husband.
She told me she met Bill Reid. For your information, Bill Reid is an amazing First Nations artist who’s art is seen and proudly displayed across Canada – even on tea towels, for example, like the one in her kitchen. A picture of one of his sculptures is also on our Canadian $20 bill (click here to learn more about him). She and Peter were fishing along the Queen Charlotte Islands when a major southeasterly storm came through and they ended up on a beach with him and a few other people.
Her daughter, Sue, was on the boat with them at 9 months old. I thought Martha was kidding when she explained that you could tell by the way Sue walks. She actually walks differently because she had to learn how to balance on a boat as her first baby steps.

Martha and her husband never fished in the winter. They always drove down to Mexico during the winter. She has forgotten how to speak Spanish, but she can understand it. She has a lot of stories about meeting people in Mexican trailer parks who were also Vancouverites.

Peter passed away in 2004. When she told me, she hadn’t realized it had already been 11 years since he’s been gone.
In 1997, she and Sue realized something was off about Peter. His behaviour was really off and it turned out he had dementia, that later may have been Alzheimers. I think she called it vascular dementia, brought on by a series of small strokes (something like that). I asked her if in all the things she had experienced in her life, if seeing her husband like that had been one of the hardest things, and she nodded, slowly without blinking.
They moved to Kelowna to be closer to Sue when they noticed Peter slipping away from them. They had to lie about a number of things, or make up stories when he asked about them. She told me that Peter used to come out when she was in the living room and say, “Martha, this is a really nice house that they have, but can we go home?” Martha believed he thought they were house sitting for people and she had to ask him to sit with her while she explained that it was their home now. He always took it well.
She said that sometimes it was too much to bear, and people would come over to look after him for a day. He always needed to be watched because he would leave the house and wouldn’t know how to get back. She said that he was very well tempered and that he wouldn’t need help eating or anything.
I can’t believe how similar this is to my Oma and how my family had to treat her when she had Alzheimers. She forgot who my dad was; her own son.
After a visit, she would follow us out of the nursing home to come home with us and my dad had to lock the door behind him while she banged on it.
I won’t ever forget the face of a man who had to turn his back on his beautiful, hardworking mama and shuffle his kids into a car and drive away.
I can’t believe how sad dementia is and how it comes in like a fog and leaves the shadow of the person behind.
I have so many more topics to ask her about!
It’s such a gift to speak to someone who has seen more than anyone else I have ever known. Her memory is so sharp. I didn’t expect her to remember my name, but she even remembers to add the ‘h’ at the end when she spells it.
More to come over the next week!

One thought on “Kicking Ass Since 1913: Conversation One

  1. This is one of the most amazing blog posts I have read in a while. Martha reminds me of my grandfather, who is almost 93 years old. He has lived through so much and so many wars. The fact that he is older than my country by a bit over a couple of decades fascinates me. I can’t wait to read your second conversation.

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