Just Do It! or Cornucopia or Curse

As the keeper of original family letters, photographs, artifacts and oral history that go back to the 1850’s, I feel a deep responsibility to preserve and share this precious material with others. I have both treasured and felt intimidated by the legacy of more than 20 letters written by the Kaine family members from Huron County in Ontario to Aunt Bess in Ireland.

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Great Aunt Bess

She had stayed behind in Freshford County, Kilkenny as the housekeeper to a vicar and the family were eager for her to join them in Canada. She eventually did and brought the letters with her. She even brought pay receipts from her employer, the Reverend Mease. Hmmm…do I detect early evidence of the pack rat tendencies that I seem to have inherited! These letters describe the everyday life of settlers in rural South Western Ontario and capture the fondness among family members.

How to begin the daunting task of sharing the wealth? At the end and work back, chronologically or what? Maybe I will just jump in in the middle and focus on a person who had a profound impact on my life: my maternal grandmother Jean Wilhelmine Hastings Inglis Kaine. A woman of small stature (she stood tall at 4 feet, 10 inches) but mighty spirit, she lived an amazing life as a confident and independent woman from the turn of the last century until her death in 1994 at the age of 97. She was an inspiration for her daughters and granddaughters and her wisdom and positive spirit are constant touchstones in my life.

A comment that Nan, as we called her, made to me with a twinkle in her eye when she was in her 80’s pops into my mind regularly, “ I make my own fun”. An action oriented and self sufficient woman indeed. Another moment that influenced me forever is the day she took me to the bank to open my own account in 1959 when I was 8. I recall the particular smell that a bank had, sort of dry with a faint trace of chemicals. Maybe it is the smell of money. Nan was a strong believer that women should have a good education and be financially literate and independent. How did she come to be so wise and forward thinking for the time?

Nan was born in 1897 in Powassan, a small town near North Bay, Ontario. These were heady times in the north as minerals had just been discovered  and settlers were arriving on the newly opened roads and the railway that would be completed in 1903.   Her parents, Thomas and Sarah Inglis moved their family of five girls and one boy to Engelhart on the road to Kirkland Lake where her father started a livery/cartage business to provide services to the settlers and mining camps.

I spent many long hours of my childhood with Nan and never tired of the stories she would recount about her life and adventures, in particular growing up in the north.

Some comments that I recall:

“We thought that the people in Toronto were staid and stuffy. I never saw anyone with white hair in the towns that I lived in growing up. Everyone was young”

“The teachers who came to town all wanted to board at our house because we had a box of oranges at Christmas due to the business that my father was in.”

“A salesman would come to town with a trunk full of dress samples and my friends and I loved to buy the latest fashions directly from New York City”

Notwithstanding the  fashions, the north was still wild and could be dangerous  The first photograph that I have of my grandmother was taken when her parents wanted a photographic record of their remaining children after two sisters, Edith, aged 18 and Gladys, aged 14, perished in quicksand on a berry picking outing one August day in 1909.  Eva, Delta, Arnold and Jean were asked to put on their Sunday best and gather for the photo though Nan says she was rebellious at age 12 so refused to change out of her white dress and bright hair ribbons to a more somber black. Always an independent spirit!!

Eva, Delta, Jean and Arnold Inglis 1909

I still marvel at the images conjured up in my mind of the young women of the north, swanning about in the latest fashions in towns with muddy streets and wooden sidewalks feeling that they were at the forefront of everything! As indeed, they probably were. Nan, her sisters and many of their friends attended Normal School (Teachers College) in North Bay.  Things were slowly beginning to change for women though all women did not have the vote in Canada when she was at  Normal School in 1916. There was an essay in the  yearbook outlining the contributions that women were making for the war effort and how they wanted not just to protest but to contribute even more by voting. See page 15:North Bay Normal School Yearbook 1916-17

See page 17 for picture of Jean Inglis as secretary of the Literary Society.

To my readers: As you might imagine, this is a long saga. More to come.

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