Thursday, March 31, 2011

Grandes Dames: Grandma Blanche

Circa 1930s, in front of the perennial border.

This is the first in a new series of entries about the ladies and men who have played a formative role in shaping my thoughts on domestic activities.  There is no greater influence in my life in this regard than my maternal grandmother, Blanche.

Born in 1904, she grew up on a farm near Lynden, Ontario, where one of her designated chores was to hold the chicken still while her brother chopped off its head. Her father's farm was typical old-fashioned mixed use farm.  My great grandfather Frank grew a variety of vegetables and other crops, raised animals, made his own sausage and sauerkraut, and grew his own fruit.  He was also an amateur photographer and he processed his own film and photographs.  (More on him later).

Images of early life:  the old farm house, Blanche's brothers, Leo and Frank, and a favourite photo of mine, my grandmother and her sister Winnie, peeling potatoes - at work from an early age.
Blanche and Winnie on the beach at Port Dover.  'MBM' is how my grandmother referred to herself:  Mabel Blanche Mannen.

I love these old photographs of family and leisure life.  The family at the beach. The photo on the bottom left shows Blanche and Winnie again.

Blanche was the third of four children spaced four years apart, two boys and two girls.  My grandmother had only a ninth grade education because her parents could only afford to board her at Brantford to attend high school for one year. She spent much of her life working hard, in ways that I can only imagine, as a domestic servant, maid, store clerk, housekeeper, waitress.  She worked upstairs and downstairs in grand houses.  She worked in the dining room at Ridley College in St. Catherines.  She worked at Eaton's department store.  She worked at the Majestic Restaurant in downtown Hamilton.  She worked hard, and she was pragmatic and sensible.

She was the sort whose hands must always be busy, never sitting down.  When she did, she liked to watch tennis on television.  She read murder mysteries and crime fiction. But she was usually busy - cooking, cleaning, gardening, tending to hundreds of houseplants (African violets were a particular favourite), sewing, baking, canning, pickling. She was happiest when she was busy.

Perhaps typical of her generation, she saved everything.  Scraps of cloth.  Lengths of string.  Thread.  Yarn.  Bits of paper.  Buttons. Postcards.  Hardware.  Nails.  Screws. All of these things carefully organised into envelopes, tins, jars, and boxes, all carefully repurposed.  Much of which, I have inherited.

She baked mean pie crust, and made amazing lemon meringue pie. She was also a clotheshorse. More to follow on Blanche, her collections and her pie crust, in the weeks to come.