My great-grandmother, Marjory Thompson Smith, was born at the end of an era. Her family was part of the last wave of English immigrants who homesteaded the prairies. Their courage was laudable; their work ethic, commendable.
Marjory’s early years were grounded in tradition. Women’s career options were extremely limited in the early 1900s and school teaching was a popular choice for young women. However, despite the conventionality of her career, Marjory achieved a great deal. She started teaching when she was sixteen years old and went on to fund her own and her younger siblings’ university studies. She moved throughout the prairies for teaching posts and was a high school principal in an era when women were generally not considered for those positions. And then she married Raleigh.
Our family doesn’t understand the marriage. We have theories—perhaps Raleigh wasn’t an alcoholic until later in their marriage. All my grandfather, George Smith, remembered was that his father drank. But how old would he have to have been to remember that? Six? Seven? Could there have been tranquil years? Did Marjory misjudge how problematic Raleigh’s alcoholism would be to their relationship and family life? Or was she just desperate for children and tolerated any behaviour from Raleigh to have them? Any or none of these theories may be true. There’s no way to know, now.
By the time I started researching this book, Grandpa George was already suffering from Macular Degeneration and dementia. His stories ran together—generations overlapping, one side of the family mixed with the other side. I turned to family members for memories he might have shared with them, but he hadn’t talked much about his childhood, so there wasn’t much family folklore. What I did learn was telling: Marjory and Raleigh didn’t celebrate Christmases or birthdays. George lost a girlfriend because he was the son of the town drunk. There was no love lost between him and his father.
Sometimes, Grandpa George would remember stories—the telegram from Marjory’s mother that was never delivered to her father, or the many hatboxes brought across the ocean, or even that Marjory’s mother was desperately unhappy and died at a relatively young age—and from these stories, I got a picture. But the picture was foggy, and there was no evidence, no paper trail.
So I dug into census records, ship manifests, letters, immigration papers, a book of Marjory’s postcards left forgotten in a trunk, community history books, newspaper articles, yearbooks, a birthday book, war records, and several picture albums. I spoke to former neighbours and distant relatives. I visited the Thompson farm, the Bankburn, Marland and Pilot Mound school sites, and the towns of Oak River and La Riviere. I hunted down the addresses of boarding houses in Winnipeg and Brandon on Google Maps and tried to imagine the street from the early 1900s. I looked at notes tucked into jewellery boxes and I was helped enormously by the volunteers who found Marjory’s daily schedule and attendance records from Pinkerton School in an archive. Even Manitoba’s Department of Education found some records despite the gaps in their historical files.
The picture cleared and then, between the cold hard facts, I imagined the details. For example, I knew from ship manifests, border crossing records, and a local newspaper announcement that John and Bertha Beaumont visited from England, but I imagined their shock at seeing Oak River for the first time. They sailed on the Virginian's return trip from attempting to rescue Titanic passengers. I tried to envision their anxiety at sailing after the historic sinking.
Harry’s war record was available online, and it listed the three times he was gassed. Each time his heart and respiration were checked, and he was deemed fit to return to the front. What were his letters like?
I found Marjory’s photo album from her Great Lakes tour taken with her dear friend, Marjory Jeffrey Mitchell (Jeff). They wrote in the margins what a jolly time they were having, all while linking arms with Art and Bill, two gentlemen acquaintances they picked up along the way. I tried to place that journey in a larger context. The Great Depression began within months. Marjory married Raleigh a year later. How did the two women remember their journey in later years? Did it cement their friendship? Then, while wandering through the old La Riviere cemetery, I found Mrs. Jim Mitchell buried a matter of feet from Marjory. At that moment, Jeff and Tommy felt truly inseparable.
After a year of writing this story, Grandpa George passed away and Grandma Barb discovered the box of letters in his dresser drawer. Cherished yet forgotten in the fog of dementia, the letters hinted that John McPhaden was not just Marjory’s neighbour but a writing companion and possibly a sweetheart. His wartime letters are glimpses into the boredom, suffering and horror that World War I was for many Canadian infantrymen. He wrote often and with fondness. The true nature of their relationship is not known, but John never married and Marjory kept the box of letters her entire life. Another mystery.
I never met Marjory, never knew her. She passed away before I was born so I have no memories, no impressions of her. Furthermore, as I talked to people, I realized she had many sides. She was a highly intelligent, complicated woman, but different people remembered her differently. Even Grandpa George looked confused when Grandma Barb described how scared she was of her mother-in-law and how terrified she was of her wit. Grandpa didn’t remember her that way. He said she was clever, yes, but also kind.
And so, Marjory remains elusive; her personality and temperament, a vague impression. All I know is that a woman who, really and truly, hit a student with a school bell was eulogized with these words:
She is not dead: She lives in the hearts of scores of former pupils. She was born to teach and she gave of herself until she could no longer carry on. Even in her retirement, she helped stumbling students over rough places with her kind and patient advice. She gave of herself unstintingly. In the days when she taught three full grades in high school in La Riviere—the days before electricity had reached the school, she stayed on in the classroom preparing the following day’s lessons until dusk closed in on her. Later in an improvised classroom in her own home on the side of the hill overlooking the tiny village, she taught her first Grade Twelve class. Although her son George was scarcely a month old when the fall term commenced, she gave us, her six pupils, her undivided attention, her personal instruction and always her encouragement—something which would have been sadly lacking in a larger establishment. She gave her best; she asked of us the same and we could give nothing less. She followed the career of each of her students with interest and expectancy.
The word for Mrs. Smith was gallant. She went through life tall and erect, full of enthusiasm and vitality. When she became severely injured in a car accident several years ago, she was told she would never walk again. But by sheer grit and determination, she did walk, first with the aid of crutches and later, alone. Even in blindness, her keen mind remained alert…
…She lies at rest in the beautiful valley where she laboured long and where she is held in such high esteem as a teacher and in such deep affection as a friend.
- Pilot Mound Sentinel Courier