When they question your worth
Take a breath.
A sisterhood of women stand with you.
You’re a Queen.
The daughter of painters and writers
Worn mothers, posh aunts
Star crossed lovers
Saints and sinners
Warriors with roses
Stitched by the hand of a missionary’s grace
Her tapestry forged with iron and lace
Fragile yet strong
Our thread never breaks.
When they ask, ‘Who do you think you are?‘
Raise your head and smile.
~warriors and roses
The circle opened to let me in. A hand reached for mine. Warmth from a touch pulsed through starved veins; a fingertip graced my forearm. A heartbeat slowed.
We stood tall together. Ancestors, cousins, sisters, mothers and aunts all stepped forth, heads held high. You turned and faced us.
Strong women. We’ve known struggle. The brave ones; we’ve faced fear, cut it down with our light. Words tossed like stones only bruised our surface. We’ve known betrayals and chose to rise above the duplicity. Compassionate, we conquer hate with tolerance and love. Joyous we drink from celebration’s cup.
Honourable women. We’ve known loss, felt its icy fingers spear our hearts. Tears slipped like silk to cleanse sorrow’s stain. Babies born and buried, husbands lost, doors shut. Voiceless we screamed to a seemingly absent god, “ Have mercy.”
We’ve stumbled; momentarily lost our footing through the darkened forest. Our advice to you is simple.
Take shelter under the limbs of the finest tree. Pause within the stillness. Perhaps the only audible is the wind as it lifts the leaves to dance. Punched by noise leaves you fit to embrace silence. Can you hear the rustling?
Realize a presence, something more. It is their legion. They come to circle and say, “Your story, your voice, your being, matters.” Something enchanted, other worldly happens. Whispered voices murmur, “We are here. You are not alone.”
The circle opens to let you in. A hand reaches forth. Its touch pulses through hungry veins and warms you. A fingertip graces your forearm. You feel your heartbeat slow.
We stand tall together. Your ancestors, sisters, cousins, mothers and aunts. Strong women.
My lately~ has been retrospective; maybe you can relate. This morning I attacked the basement, cleaning and placing loose photos and memories into their corresponding scrapbooks with hope that one day these bits of memory will be meaningful for family. I came across a memoir of sorts, once tossed into a box, given to me by a much missed “aunt.” In it: a family’s story,the lives and loves of a family line.
It was handed to me as the keeper of sorts, in the hope that one day I would share these stories with my own children. I was too young to appreciate the message then. Instead of cleaning I opened the binder and read. What struck me was the constant thread of hope; that even in difficult circumstances, family hung on- together. This family’s story rode through tough times, loss brought them closer and their lives grew richer. They reached out, included one another, always for their children, and valued time with each other. Their circle grew stronger.
More than anything I have sought to hold family close. My wish is that one day, family will be cleaning up their basements and pick up a binder or memory box. I hope they read the stories of family or touch the items, hold to hope and love. May the message come to them at just the right moment; give them reason to pause and remember, there is
nothing that love can’t conquer.
The ad captures my attention~ discover your past, your family’s story. I begin a quest to discover the history of my family, to know their stories. Regrettably, it never occurred to me to enquire about family when I had the chance. The relatives I knew kept silences and secret whisperings locked away.
An ancestry membership started me on a journey to discover my past, to discover the men and women whose spirit, hard work, and resilience contributed to my DNA. Like Alice, I fall down the rabbit hole to emerge in England. Perhaps this partly explains the allure of floral and chintz. I cannot pass a vintage thrift shop; I must enter and wander the aisles, linger with the china tea cups and saucers.
Cabbage roses capture my attention. Closing my eyes, woodland hares and rose bushes come into focus. A calico cat peeks out from behind a stone shed, its stealthy body poised, yellow eyes set upon a morning robin, watching as the bird alights atop the country garden’s netting. Sweet peas inch up the strings, their perfumed fragrance intoxicating, carried on a gentle breeze.
A paper bag princess, royalty eludes me! Instead, I discover a fascinating world, its simplicity steeped within the doctrines of the Church of England and the land. I am descended from working class people; tenacious spirits, the farmers and carters beckon me to pause and pay respect. The great, great, great-granddaughter of hardworking men and women who tilled the beautiful pastoral lands around Shropshire, England. I wonder if an everlasting thread connects us still. At times, their presence fleeting, their faces mirrored back. Perhaps these old souls smile when they view my humble garden, the sunflower seeds and tightly rounded sweet peas unfurling from seed coat jackets. Maybe they tenderly gaze back from the faces of those I hold dear.
I stop to study the women’s photographs. I note beauty and grace, the comforting resemblances to those now here. Standing tall, their proud high foreheads face the camera. Beautiful dark eyes share the untold stories, the stories of strength and courage. These courageous women, many sent to work as domestics while still children, some missionaries in China, others interned. Many grieved babies lost to consumption and disease. Many lost husbands. All had mouths to feed. These tireless women, their beautiful, haunted eyes beholden to the emotions, sorrow and joy. Beholden to the land and the seasons.
When in doubt, I imagine these women sending forth heart beats fueled by a fierce strength and unrelenting resilience. Loyal to family, sheltering one another throughout life’s storms, imagining the opportunities, if only wealth or education had happened along their paths. They forge on, some daring to dream of a future with opportunities and choices for those waiting in line.
Discovering a family’s past, uncovering the mysteries and facts, I set my compass down. It is an honour to gently sift through the stories, unveil the lives of ones so true. I take away their gems and stones to polish and shine. I gather strength from their life stories. I cherish who I am.
The previous story began with “Grace” and her granddaughter “Lily” discussing the family ancestry. We were introduced to the character of Grace, her parents, and grandmother, Alice. Part One is filed under the heading, The Story. Please note that this is a “draft.” Enjoy!
Grace’s grandmother, Alice was a reserved woman, set apart from others, by her own choosing. Underneath an aloof facade were secrets kept close to the heart. We didn’t speak much about family, Lily. It just wasn’t done, wasn’t considered polite for the time. As Alice would comment, “One never airs one’s dirty linen.” Private matters were kept private though Grace always sat silently, listening for the hints of dirty linen. However, one did not ask for more information, wishing now, that she had asked Alice to share about herself, wondering was she happy once upon a time? A picture tucked behind glass, inside a pocket watch portrays a young Alice, reluctant smile, head turned toward a man, Charles, her grandfather.
A book of poetry, carefully chosen and scrapped from editions of the Vancouver Sun, suggests a profound sadness clung to Alice’s soul. There were hints of disappointment and loss. Why did Alice refuse to visit the family home? Certainly, never a public woman, Alice remained secluded, not understandable by everyone in the family. Excepting Alice’s sisters. The sisters formed a coven wreath that encircled her. What happened between Alice and her son, my father? The slightest trace of a wince visible upon her face whenever his name was mentioned. “He’s not my son,” were Alice’s crisp words. What do you mean? Grace mused, for she would never ask, what do you mean by that comment? Later, curiosity and unanswered questions, leading to a search of ancestry records for snippets of information. Bits and bobs, as Alice would say. Sleuthing the past for understanding and missing pieces. What did she hope to find? Some of the people, events, and moments, remembered, especially the lowered voices when her name was spoken.
The family had a point. Who shuns family, particularly a grandchild? For Grace’s initial visits with her grandmother ended when she was seven. What happened, Lily asked? I have no clue! They just ended. Perhaps she lost track of time. We always say, later. We never do. That is, until many years later when one afternoon in early winter, I accidentally crossed paths with my grandmother in a local shopping mall.
Grace recalled that afternoon in the mall, until Lily’s questioning brought her back to the present conversation. “Why was Alice called English Alice,” Lily questioned.
My mother named my grandmother, English Alice or Alice from England. I believe it was in jest as my mother found Alice to be unusual, a simple woman who longed to be posh, a woman who put on airs. Alice clung to the image of a fine lady, hair tossed in the fashionable style of the day. Marcel waves, a proper dress, gloves, hat, adorned with jewelry fit for a high tea. Alice presented well, on the surface. Although born in the north of England, my grandmother spoke Queen’s English, the latter which she used effectively, the tight, quick sounds of her words, used to make an arrow sharp point. Alice had a voice that was pure musicality to the ears. There was a pleasant pitch, variations of length, quiet endings to a phrase. As a child, Grace loved to sit at the table and listen to her grandmother’s speech.
It was early autumn when Grace’s grandmother, Alice, was born. The pleasant land was awash with orange and bright green from the trees and their turning leaves. Baptized, Alice Sophia Weston, October 3, 1894, the wee daughter of Joseph Hair Weston, a local cabinetmaker and Emma Weston, registered on the birth document as, “housewife.” Emma was Joseph’s second wife, Alice her only child. Alice was the youngest of five Weston girls, beginning with the eldest, the beautiful Priscilla, then, Mary or Molly, as known to her sisters. There was Jane, also know as Jenny or Geordie, Ellen, and the maverick, Elizabeth, who would marry four times. The family lived in a simple, terraced home located at 32 Bond Court, Newcastle on Tyne, England, fashioned in the polite design of the Victorian era.
Newcastle on Tyne, the city where my grandmother lived, is a metropolitan borough, located in North East England. In Alice’s time, it was a bustling borough. Trade centered around wool, coal mining, lumber and ship building. The town of Newcastle on Tyne owed its name to a castle built in 1080 and the borough’s location to the fast flowing Tyne River. The proud residents felt it to be the best looking city due to its neoclassical style of architecture or Tyneside Classical as was often referred to. It was a style derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture with its symmetrical form and Doric columns. Of all the boroughs in England, Newcastle on Tyne was a lovely, picturesque, almost fairy tale like borough for the Weston sisters to reside within.
Joseph Weston had wished for a son, however his wish was not to be. He had hoped for an heir to teach the fine art of wood craftsmanship necessary to attain exquisite pieces of furniture. Instead, fate provided him with five daughters to support. Joseph’s carpentry skills were highly regarded in the town and people of means, sought his time and exquisite furnishings. Wood working was a lucrative craft that allowed Joseph to provide a satisfactory standard of living for his tender wife and sweet daughters. Still, overworked and exhausted, the volume of work left little time in a day to spend with his family. That was unfortunate, as fate would have it that Joseph would have precious little time to spend with his youngest daughter, Alice.
Emma, an amiable woman, with a gentle sweet nature, enjoyed her chatty, curious daughters and taught them well. Daily lessons involved rituals of etiquette, hand sewing, singing, elocution, and handwriting. Alice was a stellar student and at the age of six, patiently learned to read and write at her eldest sister Pricilla’s side. In her heart, Emma worried, as there was something peculiar about the serious one they fondly called, Wee Alice. The child appeared withdrawn, uncomfortable outside the gardens of their home, avoiding the gazes of friendly neighbors, at times, refusing to speak. Alice was too day dreamy, too lost in herself, thought Emma. Perhaps, it is due to the fact that she is the youngest, Emma mused.
The truth was that Alice was a sensitive, serious soul, often lost within herself and uncomfortable in social situations. The young child would find herself gazing through the windows to view the world beyond, imagining the castle in the borough, climbing the stone steps from the riverside to the castle door. Alice wanted to visit it one day, live in it. For Alice was becoming used to a royal touch and felt superior to the common standing of her present situation.
Afternoons were spent walking along Benwell Lane to the gardens of Adelaide Terrace. “Hurry up, wee Alice! Keep up.” The gardens were a delight to the senses and in the spring and summer; the sisters played amongst the flowers, and sought shelter under the magnificent maple trees. There, in the gardens of Adelaide Terrace, Alice and her sisters would explore the park grounds and study the language of flowers, a pastime that Alice eagerly looked forward to each day. “Tell me again, Mama. What is the language of roses?” “Love wee Alice. Roses speak the language of love!” Alice would always choose the prettiest, the reddest of scarlet rose to pick for her mother. When sad, wee Alice would gather up branches of dead leaves and hand them to her mother.
Always protective, Emma would encircle the child in her arms and hold her close to comfort. It was a comfort, as Alice, possessed an overly anxious disposition, was easily frightened and worried while outside, beyond the safety of the walls of home, feigning illness and displaying a gloomy nature when life did not go as planned. Used to the company and protective nature of her older half sisters, the overly dependent and dreamy Alice did not venture forth without the security of the sisters by her side. Alice came to rely on this sisterhood of support.
Theirs was a contented life, and Emma felt fortunate to have food stores in the pantry and an allowance to run the household in a satisfactory fashion. Little did Emma know that a bitter wind was blowing and a chill would descend upon the household at 32 Bond Court. That is, until December 1,1903, when frost sealed the date of her beloved Joseph’s death. At that moment, life changed for the sisters and their mother. Alice was frightened and fretted over her distraught mother. Alice learned that the heart is a fragile beating organ and a piece of her heart stopped beating for a brief second, momentarily frozen, enough to form the beginnings of a scar that would thicken over time. For now Alice knew the beginnings of heartbreak.
The sister’s education plans were put on hold as Emma sought employment to ensure that the necessities such as food, and a roof, remained over the family’s heads. It was not easy and expectations would be lowered. No longer could the sisters wander the lane, frivolously explore the language of flowers, or entertain any thought of finishing school. Priscilla was placed in charge of the younger sisters’ daily care. Fortunately, a lonely widower, Mr. Alistair Edwards, of 5 Adelaide Lane, was in need of a housekeeper. Ever resourceful, Emma would struggle to make ends meet on a meager salary, working as a domestic servant for Mr. Edwards and his son, William.
Once again, the chilling winds of winter would return, this time for Emma, and paid servitude would be short lived. In 1909, six years after the death of her beloved husband, sweet Emma Weston, would pass over, leaving her grieving daughters to fend entirely for them selves. Young Alice had dealt with prior heartache upon her father’s death, however the death of her mother, changed Alice’s heart. A bigger piece of it hardened to the gentle whisperings of life.
Alice began to realize that one must be careful with one’s heart, protect it, learn to switch it off so as not to feel too deeply for another. On. Off. Done. Still, humans aren’t as simple as light switches and the emotional part of Alice’s soul continued to feel the loss of love. The scar thickened.
By 1911, out of necessity, the Weston sisters were all employed throughout the borough of Newcastle. Mary worked as a waitress, Priscilla and Elizabeth, as domestic servants, Ellen, a box maker at the Bullman Paper Factory, Jenny and Alice, as box packers for the same factory. Jenny and Alice had the monotonous job of packing postcards for sale into the cardboard boxes. Alice, now seventeen, studied the whimsical drawings on the postcards and smiled as she read the quips and quotes beneath. Occasionally, she would tuck a postcard into her dress pocket. Once home, Alice would pin the postcard to the wall. Gazing at the cards, Alice would wonder and dream, traveling to the sights depicted, imagining the stories told.
Every morning, on the walk to the factory, Alice would gaze into the millinery shop window admiring the trimmings on display. Where would she go to, what would she do, wearing a hat so fine? Alice knew that she wanted more than the monotony of packing boxes of Bullman postcards, in fact she felt entitled to more. These seeds of change crept into Alice’s mind and lodged there, where they slowly took root, forcing Alice to look for and plan an escape from a place where possibilities and dreams could never come true.
Every Sunday, Alice and her sisters would walk along the shaded Benwell Lane until it became Adelaide Terrace, headed to Saint John’s Cemetery. Evergreen trees lined the cobblestone path and the cottage gardens brightly bloomed. Lily of the Valley and crocuses were glorious in the awakening spring soil and in the quiet of winter the red holly berries were resplendent against the dark green variegated leaves. The seasons rolled out an ever-changing landscape to delight the sisters’ senses.
To Alice, it was always winter now. Once the sisters rounded the Terrace bend, the parsonage would come into view. It was here that the sisters would pass through the wrought iron gate at the entrance and follow the winding path to their parent’s grave. It was located at the end of a tree lined lane, where, to the right of a small lily pond, a humble row of wooden crosses stood tall against the weathering changes brought about by time and the elements. Joseph and Emma were buried together. Two wooden crosses stood side by side and a small bouquet of red roses lay beneath.
The sisters would gather round the cross forming a united circle of hands. Priscilla, always fashionable in a hat adorned with silk flowers, would lead the sisters in prayer, her whispered breath, “Our Father who art in Heaven.” The words of the familiar prayer gripping Alice, “lead us not into temptation,” for Alice held a secret. Alice was being led into temptation, dreaming a plan to leave her sisters far behind in the borough of Newcastle on Tyne.
Alice knew that Priscilla would sob and hysterics would ensue. The amassing postcards would be her link to the sisters, after all, she could write them letters. Shy and fearful wee Alice, had decided that she had grown up and would bravely leave 32 Bond Street, having had nearly enough of the box packing industry. The problem was when and how. Sensing change in her future, Alice steeled herself for the possibilities that it would bring.
The five Weston sisters continued to work and share their pay, managing to keep their beloved home at 32 Bond Court. It is inevitable that time brings change and once again, it brought changes to Bond Court. Elizabeth was the first sister to separate from the sisterhood, having found a suitor and married, leaving the number of Weston girls in the home to four. Priscilla, who continued to work as a domestic servant for Mr. Alistair Edwards, fell in love with William, his son. It was decided that they would marry. Molly, Jenny, Ellen and Alice continued to manage the house, however, it was becoming difficult to make ends meet within the middle class standards of the community.
It was now 1918 and William Edwards had heard of CPR land available to homestead in Canada. Shortly after, William and Priscilla left England, to claim land in the barren, desolate town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Elizabeth would remarry three times within eight years, losing each husband to disease, finally returning to 32 Bond Street, with a child. The sisters were aging, the town’s people referred to them as, The Weston Spinsters. Once again, Alice found herself planning her leave from Newcastle. To Alice, the home at 32 Bond Court had never brought the same comfort since her mother’s death and with Priscilla, in Canada, the remaining sisters had not been able to sustain satisfactory income, housekeeping, and companionship. What were the sisters to do?
One day, a Bullman postcard arrived for Alice. It read,
My Dearest Alice,
My heart is breaking as I miss you so, dear, wee sister. What were we thinking to leave England? William is busy establishing a shop in the town. We were unprepared for the circumstances we find ourselves in. The town is undeveloped; I cannot shop as we did in Newcastle. I keep a garden, however, it must provide for us over the long, harsh and never ending cold winter. I am alone with a young child, as our properties are far and between one another. There is no help to be had. I cannot bear this life without my sisters close at hand. You must come to me. There are many farmers looking for wives. You, Jenny, and Molly would be appropriate choices. Elizabeth can find lodging as a domestic.
Please consider my request. We shall make room. My heart breaks for you, dear Alice. It is time for you to leave Newcastle.
It was decided that the sisters would sell 32 Bond Court and leave Newcastle, England for life in Canada. Jenny, Molly, Ellen and Alice walked their final steps along Adelaide Terrace to Saint John’s Cemetery, pausing to pray over their parent’s gravesite. It was a bittersweet moment for Alice, for in her heart she knew she would never return to England. The winds blew and Alice felt the feather light touch of winter’s chill caress her cheek. Alice adjusted her collar higher, turned her back on the two crosses, and walked away, never to return.
The sisters, Jenny, Molly, Ellen, and Alice, set sail from Liverpool, England on October 3, 1919 aboard the SS Minnedosa, a steam ocean liner built to withstand the rough autumn seas encountered on the journey across the Atlantic. Seasick and heartsick, emotionally, the sister’s hearts were still in England. Alice telegraphed to Priscilla,
October 5, 1919
My Dearest Sister,
We are finding the sailing difficult. The seas are rough and we are all ill, experiencing seasickness effects. We long to disembark and set foot on solid ground! The Captain invited us to join him for dinner this evening. None of us had appetites however we enjoyed the banter and prestige of being seated at the Captain’s table. Such a gentleman.
Sister, we are half way to the end of our ocean journey! We look forward to disembarking in Canada and beginning the final journey to you.
The Weston sisters arrived in Quebec, Canada, on October 10, 1919. The immigration document states that they were to be handed over to the care of their brother-in-law, William Edwards. Alice was relieved to disembark the ship and stand on solid ground although she swore that the ground continued to move and sway for many days after. The CP Railroad transported the sisters through the hills and valleys, finally depositing them in the tiny prairie town of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The sisters were ill prepared for the cold, harsh winter nights that were to follow. Alice shivered as she pulled the thin covers over her body. There was a foreboding feeling in the frigid air, a warning that Alice took seriously to heart. Alice knew that she needed to leave Moose Jaw and once again began to plan an escape.
“Grandma, wouldn’t it be hard to leave your parents behind? Grace felt a tightening in her chest. Lily continued, “Even though Alice’s mom and dad are dead! Still it must have been difficult for Alice to leave them alone in the cemetery.” Grace felt the chill of winter upon her skin and resolved to turn up the thermostat. Perhaps I am coming down with something, Grace mused although she knew this wasn’t the reason for her discomfort. I imagine it was heart wrenching, Grace replied.
Grace recalled that sad day when life punched back. It was exactly noon when the car pulled away from the curb. It was not really a surprise as Grace noted furniture disappearing from the basement bedroom, boxes leaving the house during the dark of night, bits and pieces of a life packed up or tossed.
Grace resolved that she would not show emotion or tears and even managed to graciously smile, masterful at the art of concealing emotion, tidying up the unpleasant bits, all the while screaming behind the mask of the face she wore. Then, just as quickly, Grace quickly turned her back, breaking down, tears flowing. It happens quickly; a punch of heartbreak and one is left changed, the heart, a bit scarred, the body, a little more cautious, and distant. Bits and pieces of life’s memories packed away deep inside, suddenly exploding from the soul. One can’t catch all of the bits, blown away forever, the secrets, the neglect, and pretence, are all that remain. Life looks and feels different as you piece the salvaged bits back together, hoping to rediscover the beauty.
This wasn’t the first time that Grace had briefly turned her back on another to protect herself, hide the falling tears. Perhaps, Alice and I are more alike than different, Grace thought. “Be careful,” whispered the winter wind. Alice shared something in common with her granddaughter, Grace. Two women, both knowing heartbreak, both inclined to show a quiet indifference in its presence, to hide their pain behind a mask with a reluctant smile. Pretence. Both frozen in time, waiting. For what, you ask? For the other to step forth.
Lily’s voice brought Grace’s awareness to the moment, “What happened in early winter?” Perhaps, you would say, an act of hope occurred. A chance for renewed hope presented itself or was it a chance encounter on that fateful winter afternoon in a mall? Perhaps there is a pre determined plan sent forth from the heart of the universe upon our birth, a blue print, with a map of events to follow.