Give Until You Can’t

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When I was six, my mother and I lived in a lovely little town on the shores of Lake Ontario, Canada. Port Hope is known for having the best preserved main street in the province of Ontario.

https://www.visitporthope.ca/en/index.aspx

We had come from the northern reaches of British Columbia, and it was a change for me – I had spent two years in the wilds, learning about trapping and tracking animals from the man my mother worked for as a housekeeper, and then I was in a town, with streets and traffic and it was a true culture shock.

The school was okay as I loved to learn. The teacher was nice. No matter that I got lost when leaving the school the first day or so to go home, as I was used to marking my way by following the signs in nature, not streets and buildings.

Our first home in Port Hope was above a bakery on Walton Street. The delicious aromas of baked goods floated up to us early in the morning. At Christmas, the town decorated the streets with lights and beautiful holiday themed ornaments.

But…there was music – Christmas music – for hours throughout the days.

It was quite unbearable after a while.

We were poor. My mother was lame – one leg shorter than the other, and I came to her late in life. By then, she could no longer support us by working, and we lived on the small income provided by welfare.

Christmas would have been a very sad time for us except that the local organizations provided food hampers and Christmas gifts for those in need.

Can I tell you how this mattered to a six year old child?

It made our Christmas shine and the memories I have, of the knock on the door and those volunteers bringing in a box of food and some colourful wrapped presents is something that I still treasure, sixty years later.

So – my thoughts are these. If you can, give. It doesn’t have to be a lot and it doesn’t necessarily have to be dollars. You can give of your time and your good thoughts.

Because, I can tell you, that as a child on welfare, I sensed even then, the stigma of my not being ”deserving” or ”good enough” of being ”a freeloader” of being ”lazy”.

Not true. Children do not choose to be poor. Mothers do not choose to live in poverty, afraid that an abusive partner will somehow find them. They do not choose to be physically unfit to work.

Give then, of your means or of your understanding, for the next poor or homeless person you see. Please know that these situations are not by choice.

As we enter this Christmas season may you and yours have enough – enough food, enough warmth and shelter, enough love and caring – to get you through this time, when things are so uncertain.

We need each other.

That is what makes us human. What makes us able to carry on, no matter what.

And – thank you to that fraternal organization in Port Hope, in 1959, that gave my mother and me a wonderful Christmas and a special memory.

I wanted to find illustrations for this post, but I couldn’t. I searched for ”poverty” and ”childhood” and so on, but nothing seemed right. I guess there isn’t a ”just right” graphic that I can share to show the life I knew.

From Bad to Worse

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Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

When Chris turns seven or so, I find that Jeff often behaves in a menacing way towards him. I fear the worst – that Jeff will be an abusive parent, since his stepmother abused him. It seems that I am constantly stepping in to prevent that from happening.

Chris, at nine years old, has a temper and a short fuse.
“Just like you,” Jeff tells me.
One evening, Chris has a meltdown in the living room. Jeff walks over and grabs Chris by the ankles. He pulls him from the sofa, onto the carpeted floor. Chris continues to scream and cry. I stand up, and step between Jeff and Chris. I don’t know what Jeff is planning to do, but I have to intervene.
Chris gets up and runs to his room.
Jeff stares at me.
“What do you think you’re doing, dragging him to the floor?”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t touch him!”
“Oh yes you did!”
Jeff shakes his head. He doesn’t realize what he’s done, and that scares me.
One night, Jeff and I have a big fight. I attacked his behaviour when I was in B.C. all those years ago. The argument becomes very heated, and like Chris, I get loud and angry. Jeff reaches out and punches me in the mouth.
I run to the bathroom and see that I have a bloody lip. Not only that, but one of my front teeth, which was very crooked, has moved, so that it is straighter in my mouth. I cry. Jeff goes to bed.
I can’t go to work the next morning. My mouth is swelled. I call in sick and do so for a few days. When I return to work, I am very self conscious, afraid that someone may notice my still slightly fat lip. I try to hide the evidence with carefully placed makeup. No one says anything.

When Jeff is given the opportunity to move to Medicine Hat, to be the partsperson at a heavy truck shop, I encourage him to take the job. We can get out of Calgary and live a better life.
No longer will I “have to” work. That will alleviate some of the stress in my life.
Jeff will go on ahead, and find us a house and work Mondays to Fridays. On Friday night he will come home to Calgary for the weekend.

I will need to drive to work and home again, for a month, until we all move to Medicine Hat, so I need to get my driver’s license. I’ve had a learner’s permit for years. I have trouble learning to parallel park, and when Jeff takes me for the test, I fail only due to that.
I tell him, “I’d be very happy to agree to never try to parallel park, if they’d give me a license for everything else.”
I catch a ride to work that week from a coworker and try for my license again. This time I pass, so I can to drive to work myself. I have my stepdad come out to the garage with me, every morning, as I am afraid someone might be lurking around the building.

I thrive on the receptionist position – I love answering the phones, and being busy, typing up quotes for the various salespeople.
Friday afternoons are usually quiet. I sit at my desk in reception, and have little to do except read a book. I hear a male voice making funny comments while I sit there, and sometimes I giggle. I know this is wrong, but at the same time, it seems perfectly normal, to hear a voice, with no one about.
I continue to deteriorate mentally, but don’t recognize the symptoms.

During the week, in the evenings, I pack, for the move. Mum and my stepdad are packing too.

Jeff leaves on a Sunday night, and he has not been gone for more than perhaps, two minutes, when the phone rings.
I pick up and hear a guttural voice say something. I can’t quite make out the words, but it sound like, “Do you want to f-”?
I am shocked, and slam the phone down. It rings again the next Sunday when Jeff leaves. Again, I answered.
“Do you want to f-?”
I slam down the phone, and he calls right back. Again I hang up.
Now I am angry. I make a call the next day at work to the phone company. They tell me tap the phone receiver with a pencil, and say, “Attention, security. Please trace this call.”
It seems like a dumb idea, but sure enough, the phone rings as soon as Jeff drives away, and I do as instructed.
The caller hangs up and then phones right back.
“What was that?” he demands.
“I was told to do that by security.” I tell him. “It was a stupid idea.”
I hang up.
The next moment, my stepdad enters the room.
I tell him that I’ve had one of those calls again, for I have told mum and him about the harassment.
“That’s funny,” he says. “I didn’t hear the phone ring.”
That announcement spooks me.
Surely I’m not imagining things?

As soon as he leaves, another call comes in. I answer, and I ask the caller if he has a sister.
“Yes,” he says.
I demand to know what he would think, if someone called his sister the way he’s been calling me?
Then he asks me out! I tell him that I am “very married” and “off the market”.

I hang up and don’t get any more calls. If they ever happened at all.

I am glad when the end of the month comes and the big moving truck arrives to haul our belongings to Medicine Hat.
This will be the beginning of a better life. The obscene phone caller will not be able to harass me anymore.

Writing Excerpt: Arriving in Alberta: 1964

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We arrive in southern Alberta after four days on the train. We spend all the nights “sleeping” on the train seats, but learn from the man who hired mum that the sleeping car was included in the price he paid!
The rain comes down in buckets as we alight at the train station in Brooks. A little man wearing cowboy boots, hat, western shirt and jeans approaches us. After introductions are made, and we collect our baggage, we climb into the blue pickup truck the man drives and we are off. The ranch is a few miles out of town. There is a modest one bedroom house, and a shack and lean to as well as barns and corrals where a herd of horses stand. He leads us into the house and shows us the room which is ours. I am to share the double bed with mum. The rancher explains that he will sleep out in the shack. I have time to wonder where he will sleep in winter, but don’t say anything. I am still very shy.
That day, mum unpacks our things, and then she makes supper. It consists of canned yams, meat and cherry pie. We soon learn that this rancher eats only canned yams and cherry pie – for every supper. Mum and I soon grow tired of this fare.
The next day, the rancher shows me his older mare, suitable for riding for a young person with no experience. I am overjoyed. I am able to ride this horse out in the fields and can’t believe how lucky I am to have this dream become reality.
Later, I meet the rancher’s young niece. She rides a pinto horse over from her home, and we go riding together.
One day, as we canter across the field, my horse rears up and I fall off. I hurt my shoulder, and it bothers me for some time after.
One hot sunny afternoon – it seems that southern Alberta is always hot and sunny – so different from the rainy day on our arrival – I tag along with the rancher when he delivers a horse to another ranch. There are a lot of cowboys milling around when we pull up in the rancher’s truck.
These are not the “rhinestone cowboys” of Hollywood, or those Calgarians who don blue jeans during Stampede week in July. These are real cowboys. Blue jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hats, worn, not for effect, but because of the hot sun. Weathered faces and some, like the rancher with bowed legs from growing up riding horses all their lives.
In the evenings, I read the Western Horsemen magazines to which the rancher subscribes, and there is the popular prairie weekly newspaper, The Western Producer. They have a kids’ page, and I submit a poem which they publish.
This first published work excites me. I am just eleven years old, and about to enter sixth grade. I wonder if perhaps I could be a writer? The thought has never occurred to me before. I’ve had thoughts of becoming a teacher like my big sister, but writing is something that might be even better!
Mum finds the Seventhday Adventist church and pastor in the phone book, and we attend church a few times. Members of the church invite us to Sabbath dinner a couple of times, and Mum complains to me, that there was meat on the table! SDA’s don’t eat meat, she said. I learn eventually that there were a lot of differences in beliefs between the SDA people in Ontario and in Alberta.
One Saturday morning, she tells me that we aren’t going to go to church that day. Well, we stay in the bedroom and when the minister comes to the house, he and the rancher knock on the door. Mum will not answer. I am embarrassed that we are hiding. Why is mum doing this? Still, she calls through the closed door, at last, and tells the pastor she is not going to church. From the sounds, we know that they have left the house, and I hear the minister’s car start up. We stay in that room all day, and mum doesn’t open the door until after sundown, when the Sabbath is over.
The rancher tries to ask her about this behaviour but she ignores him.
My mum contacts her sister, Lena, in Calgary and she and her boyfriend come down to bring us back to Calgary to live. Mum plans to get on welfare, as she has found the everyday work as a housekeeper is more than she could handle. The day arrives, and mum hasn’t told the rancher that she is leaving. He is quite angry. We have only lived on the ranch for the summer, and I am sure that he doesn’t believe he’s got the money he’s paid for our train tickets back yet.
Nothing will change my mum’s mind though, once she reaches a decision. We leave that afternoon, crammed into the car. First, we stay with my mum’s sister. Lena is a bit rowdy. She smokes, drinks, gambles on the horses and has a great sense of humor. She wears a lot of makeup and jewellery and she dyes her hair. She is the complete antithesis to my mother.
One evening, a young fellow arrives at Lena’s. She introduces his as one of my cousins. He is very handsome I think to myself. We all sit down and have a game of Scrabble. Mum will play this game, and let me play it despite her religious beliefs. The cousin tries to make words but is a terrible speller. When I correct him he teases me.
The game finished, Lena brings out cards and shows us how to play “Hearts”. I don’t remember if Mum allowed me to play, or if she played or not. Cards are forbidden to SDA’s.
Mum and I go downtown to apply for welfare and are given vouchers for food, and to pay for an apartment. She finds a seedy little place right in the downtown, across a river in an older part of town. The school I will attend is across that river, so everyday I have to cross the bridge to reach the school. I don’t settle in very well. By this time, I believe the constant changing of places to live and of schools has taken its toll. I don’t remember much about the class, although I do remember this. I walk home one day, to have the boy in the next apartment stop me.
“D-do you want to listen to some records?” he asks.
The poor kid! I bustle away, blurting, “No!” as I run to my door.
I tell Mum and she says that I am way too young to be around a boy. In later years, I pity that boy and tell myself that I was rude. I was embarrassed whenever I thought about my reaction. The poor kid. I probably scarred him for life. Gets up the nerve to ask a girl to listen to records, and she bolts!
From the seedy apartment, which my older sister, Doreen, calls a slum, we move to an older, two storey house that has been converted into apartments. We will live next to her, in a bright little second story apartment. She lives just next door and it should be a cozy ending to our nomadic life. That is not to be. My mum resents Doreen, as Doreen is free with her advice and guidance, which mum calls “bossiness.”
We are now in a nicer neighbourhood. The elementary school is not far off.
I settle in at the new school. For the first time in my life, there is a girl in my class who is taller than me! Freida and I become fast friends. We take turns having our lunch at her place or at mine. She is funny and kind. At recess, I am included in ball games, and I am happy. I belong, at last. I like the teacher. He is the first male teacher I’ve had, except for a short stint in the small Ontario town, with a military minded teacher who, on dismissal, commanded, “Stand, turn, forward,” as though we were soldiers. This teacher is nice.
Despite the new friendship and my happiness with this new school, I am still very shy. I leave my slip on black shoes under my desk at the end of the school day, and when class starts the next morning, I am mortified to see that my shoes are on the teacher’s desk! I cringe, when he asks, “Whose shoes?” I don’t answer. He asks again, then picks them up and holds them above the wastebasket next to his desk.
“Going, going, gone!” He waits a moment, then drops them into the trash.
I tell myself that the shoes didn’t fit right, anyway, which is true. They were a bit big. Still, I am ashamed of my paralyzing shyness.
Mum makes plans, and we are on our way, in a moving truck, to live in central Alberta, in the town where her other sister lives, as well as her dad, my grandfather. True to past behavior, she doesn’t tell my sister Doreen that we are moving. Doreen will come home after school to find us gone. It is a cold winter day with snow on the ground and a sky of pink and gray. I want to move and yet I don’t. I find my sister overbearing at times and yet I am going to miss her. I like the fact that she promised me a small allowance, and told me that I would be responsible for my saving and spending. That is all gone now. The future is unknown. How I would miss my friend Freida.

Part One – Story Excerpt

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“Better go on home, your mummy’s waiting!”
I turned away from the two little girls who had reached the road to their house. My hopes of making friends with these neighbor children dashed, I followed the right hand dirt road to the farm gate, where my mother stood. As I approached, she opened the gate and I passed through.
“Hi Julia. Did you have fun at school today?”
I hung my head.
“No, I hate this new school.” I pouted and mum patted my shoulder, as we walked to the old farmhouse. It was painted white, but the paint was peeling. There was an apple orchard behind the house.
Once inside, she led me to the kitchen, a dingy room with a wood cook stove along one wall, and a counter with aqua cupboards on the other. In the middle was a cracked white porcelain sink with a red metal hand pump. That’s how we got our water. The water was rusty and unappetizing. Probably not safe to drink, either, but I was only eight years old, and not aware of such things. My mother pumped the handle and filled a glass with water for me to drink.
I downed it in a couple of swallows, and set the glass on the counter.
“So how do you like your teacher?”
“She’s okay I guess.” I brightened a bit. “We played catch at recess. At lunchtime she had us all sit in a circle on the grass to eat.”
“Did she read the note I sent with you this morning?”
“Oh yes, I think so. She put it in her desk. And she sent me a note to give to you.” I set my red plaid lunch box on the old wood kitchen table and opened it. I brought a neatly folded piece of paper and handed it to mum. She opened it and read it over.
She looked up at me.
“Well, she wanted to know why I didn’t bring you to school myself this morning. I guess I better send a note back to her tomorrow and tell her that we don’t have a car so I let you ride the school bus by yourself.”

My mum bought my big brother a car with her welfare check last week, but he slept in every morning and wasn’t up in time to drive me to school. Besides, mum never ever came to any of the schools I attended. She always communicated with my teachers with a note.
My brother did take us for drives sometimes, and while it was mum who paid for the gas, he never offered to find a job. Finally, he had a breakdown, after mum told him he had to get work. He took off in the car, speeding around the apple trees, and into the hills surrounding the farmhouse. Mum and I watched. Then he returned to the house, got out of the car and yelled at mum. He stormed into the house and came out a while later with his travel bag. His jacket was slung over his shoulder.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m getting outta here.”
Before mum could say anything, he got into the car and drove away, dust swirling behind the car as he sped down the driveway.
Mum and I moved soon after. I think that she walked to the neighbors to call the welfare officer. By the time the school week was over, she had arranged a moving truck to come and haul our things away. We moved to a small town, and the cycle continued. I was given a note on Monday morning, to bring to my new teacher at the new school.
I hated starting a new school. I was big for my age and stood out because of that. Many of the kids thought I was mentally handicapped and had failed grades, and that was why I was big. I was painfully shy, too shy to raise my hand to answer the questions the teachers would ask in class. I knew the answers, but I was afraid. I didn’t want to be noticed by anyone. At the same time, though, I longed for a friend. Someone who would play with me at recess and eat her lunch with me at noon. Instead, I spent recess time standing alone, usually leaning against the brick wall of the school, watching the kids play. If, on some rare occasion, one of the children invited me to join them, I would invariably embarrass myself. Playing ball, I was uncoordinated and clumsy. If I ran, I fell down and scraped my knees. I was awkward and didn’t fit into the height to which I had grown.
I did well in school, getting high marks. My mother was proud of me, although she often said that I should be in church school. As a Seventh-day Adventist, she was told by the minister that I belonged there instead of in a “worldly” school. When we did finally move to a small city that had an SDA school, I hated it too. On my first morning in the class room, the teacher, Miss Pangthorn, had the janitor bring in a huge “big kids” desk. She made a great deal of positioning it at the back of the class, in the first row. I felt like a giant as I sat down, and the kids all giggled. So much for attending a religious school. I learned that these kids were no better than those in the “worldly” schools. I was still friendless.
It was winter, and at noon hour, the kids tobogganed down a hill behind the school building. The teacher invited me to join her on one of these rides, and I shook my head. I didn’t want the teacher to be my friend. It would be too embarrassing to have the other kids see me with her, instead of with other kids.
December came, and mum and I were invited to a Christmas dinner at the neighbors’ house. They were also Seventh-day Adventists and mum had met them at church. At the last minute, that morning, she told me that she would not go to the dinner, but I would have to attend. I panicked. I didn’t want to sit down with a bunch of adults and eat when my mum would not have the same fare. She convinced me to go, and when I arrived, the lady took my coat and hat and hung them up. She led me to the dining room, where a family of five or six were gathered at a large dining table. She showed me where to sit and I obliged. The meal began. I would not eat. I could not force myself to pick up the fork and put food into my mouth. Despite the coaxing, I remained seated and didn’t move. My mum was home and didn’t have a good meal to look forward to. How could I eat when she did without?
It came time to open presents, and to my surprise, there was a brightly wrapped package for me! It was in red and green paper, and I carefully removed the red bow on top before I tore the paper off of the box, for it was a box, and it held a small, shiny silver lantern. There were red and white and green lights on it! It reminded me of a lamp that a railroad man might have. I wondered if my dad had sent it to me. Soon, I was sent home, with the gift.

Mum stopped going to church. I would go, at her urging, and sit by myself through the church service. I never felt comfortable doing this and would hurry back home when the services were through.

We moved again, back to the small town where I had first attended school, Port Hope. I loved the town. I liked the big old brick buildings and the hilly main street. I walked up it every day to go to school. I liked my teachers here and while I didn’t have friends at school, when summer came, there were lots of kids in the neighborhood where mum and I lived in an upstairs apartment. We children played in the sunshine, and got ice cream treats from the mom and pop store near the apartment. I would beg mum to give me a few pennies so I could buy candy. It was cheap back then. She always seemed to have a bit of change to give me, even though we were living on welfare. Sometimes, we’d go hungry as the end of the month neared. We would occasionally walk, after dark, to the supermarket a couple of blocks away and rout through the discarded food behind the store. We found all sorts of vegetables and once even a sponge cake. We would take these finds home and eat.
At the end of one month, when the welfare check didn’t arrive as expected, on a Friday, we had little to eat. After the sun set on Saturday, mum dressed me up and we walked downtown to a restaurant. We went inside, and sat down at a booth. Mum asked the waitress if we could order a meal and pay for it on Monday when her check came in. The waitress refused, and we left the restaurant and walked home. I was so hungry!

Mum would let me play outside, with the other kids, but she warned me to stay out where she could see me. She often required me to come inside, and she would remind me to stay close. A few times, the group of kids would wander down by the lake, on the beach and back up towards the train tracks and a place where grapes grew on a homeowners’ fence. The grapes were sour!
When I got home from these little excursions, mum would be angry and tell me how worried she was if I wasn’t in sight. I was told to not wander off anymore.
I longed to be “like the other kids” whose parents are far more lenient.
I was always told to come right home after school, and I didn’t dare be late or I would get into trouble. Mum was not adverse to using a switch or wooden spoon on me if she was angry and wanted me to obey her.

She had a dog, a Cocker Spaniel, when I first started school. She soon gave it away, tiring of having to care for it. This happened time and time again, with her picking a dog advertised, say, on the radio swap shop, or in the newspaper, we’d have it for just long enough for me to grow attached to it, and then she would give it away again.

My older sister, who lived in Alberta and was a teacher, was also a fine seamstress. She made dresses for me and would mail them to me, several at a time. I loved getting the new clothes. They were all in style – pinafores and dresses in bright and pretty colors. When I wore one of the dresses to school, though, the other girls made fun of the apron which matched the dress. I couldn’t understand what was wrong or why the girls didn’t like me.
I wanted so badly to have a friend. Instead, I was teased and called names.
Somehow, the kids seemed to notice that the teacher always liked me. I was accused of being “teacher’s pet” and the words hurt. I was not sure why it was so wrong to be thought well of by the teacher. But why, oh why didn’t the teachers ever notice that they showed favoritism towards me and singled me out?

One of my favorite teachers embarrassed me. She seemed to have the SDA religion and Jehovah’s Witnesses mixed up. It was quite alright for SDA children to say the pledge and sing “God Save the Queen” and “Oh Canada” as the class did, every morning. The teacher forced me to wait in the cloakroom until the little ceremony was over every day. I felt singled out, and I hated it. I wanted to belong, and not be different.

Mum said, “But you are different. You are Seventh-day Adventist, and Seventh-day Adventists are not to belong to the world, or to fit in. They must stand apart as God’s true people.”

My older sister came to stay with us one Christmas when I was about six years old. She busied herself with making some clothes for me, and this included having to try on the clothes for fittings. As I was again asked to try on a dress, I sighed and made a face. My sister slapped my face. Mum intervened but the damage was done. I didn’t feel the same way about my sister or about the dresses she made after that.

My sister sent a small amount of money every month, to help us out. Mum spent the money on furniture for the apartment. When my sister learned what she had done, she immediately stopped sending it. She was scandalized that the money meant for food had been wasted on unnecessary things.
On the other hand, I later thought that Mum longed for nice things, and that, as impractical was her spending was, she was trying to fulfill her wants, albeit in an inappropriate fashion. At the same time, we went hungry partly because of Mum’s poor spending and planning habits.

Mum listened to me, when I begged her to not make me have vaccinations. These were done by the school nurse. The kids would line up and in assembly line fashion, receive their shots. I ended up contracting mumps, red measles, chicken pox and even tonsillitis. The tonsillitis would become so bad that the doctor decided I needed a tonsillectomy. I was ten years old when I had that done. I woke from the anesthetic to find that my arms were tied down to the bed. I had, according to the nurse, insisted, “I’m going home!” over and over. When tonsil removal was first discussed I had been promised ice cream after the surgery. When I woke and was offered it, I found my throat was far too sore to want to eat anything, including ice cream. I was annoyed by the “lies” I’d been told to reassure me about the surgery.

One day, while walking home from school, one of my classmates demanded that I remove my glasses. I did so and she peered at me. “Well, at least you don’t look like your mother,” she said. She and one of her friends had seen mum and me walking home a few days previously.
I was shocked and hurried home to mum. I knew that mum had been in a runaway wagon as a child, which had broken her nose and also may have caused brain damage to some extent. I felt so bad for her, that the kids were now picking on her as well as on me.
Some days, there was nothing to eat except pancakes with a bit of sugar on them. I got faint in school one morning at recess, and the teacher had me put my head down low to try to control it. Of course, I was probably faint from hunger. In later years I would be diagnosed with hypoglycemia.

Despite our poverty, mum dressed me well. Between the clothing my sister made and the orders from the catalogue, I was nicely dressed. I remember especially, the spring of 1963 when I got a white jacket with big white buttons. It only fit for a few weeks, as I was in another growth spurt, but I loved that jacket.
I watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and I remember when John F. Kennedy was shot. It was reported at the school and I walked home to see the broadcast on television.

And as the school year ended, mum announced that we were going to move to Alberta, to be near my grandfather and aunts and my older sister. I was happy to hear that.
We would travel by train with tickets paid for by the rancher in southern Alberta, for whom my mum was going to be housekeeper.