A Flower Wilted and a Grandmother’s Gift

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       My Grandmother MacEwen I knew  late in her life,  when she was hobbled by arthritis and worn from  decades as  a coal miner’s wife.  “Son, I’m getting aw’fy gimpy in my old age,” she would  tell me  in her Scottish burr.    She lived three times zones west of us and so her visits were a rare gift.  My uncle drove  across the empty expanse of the Canadian prairie in his British-made car, with my grandmother, as I imagined, a stoic passenger.  Uncle Tam  made the trek across three provinces and five  states  in three days, which was a marvel to me when I became old enough to drive.  “We always make Winnipeg by sundown,” he assured me.   Eight hundred miles separated their  home in the foothills   of the Canadian Rockies  from that urban outpost sprouting in  the Manitoba wheat fields.

         My grandmother’s appearance spoke of a life far removed from that of  my more prosperous relatives  in Detroit.  Lizzie, as my uncle called her, wore her iron gray hair pulled back in a bun, although a few disobedient strands escaped the control of her hair pins.  Her face was deeply wrinkled, with her upper lip pulled up as if she had  a stroke years ago.  Usually, a rumpled, charcoal  gray dress hung loosely about her, and varicose veins showed plainly beneath her nylons.  Her slippers were a  concession to the bunions on her feet.

Grandma MacEwen could be  abrasive:   critical, even spiteful toward my uncle and my mother. But,  to her grandson she was the most honestly emotional person in the family.  While our home was so often silent  and bleak, in her rare stays  Grandma  brought with her recognition and  affection  for me.  I often puzzled, as I grew older, over  these two sides  to her character.

Revealing  a slice of  family history one day, my mother told me of Grandma MacEwen’s youth, growing up in the Scottish town of  Dunfermline at the turn of the 20th century.  Her father was a miner, taking the tram car down into the  coal dungeons,  working hunched over  from can’t see to can’t see.   At the local  grade school, bright-eyed young  Lizzie  was a top student, held in high regard by her teachers.  “Aye, the wee lass shows  promise.”

To my grandmother’s  misfortune, childhood was not a luxury that a coal miner’s family could afford. The day Lizzie  finished sixth grade, her father told her that  school was a waste of time for  girls.  My grandmother, then 11  years-old, would start her job  in the textile factory near  Pittencrief.

Now, as I think  about that long ago conversation with my mother,  I picture diminutive  Lizzie dwarfed by  the  power looms.  The gauzy lint hangs  in the air.  Her lunch has to be gobbled while she is standing.  Her  fingers are sore, always.  Perhaps she is not  nimble enough, and the straw boss whacks her with his  switch.  “You’ll no be loafin’  around this job like a store dug!”

Tending her machines, she often thinks of her days in school, being called on, writing on the blackboard, then basking in  her teacher’s  praise.  She recalls  her father’s blunt  words that took her schooldays  away–the back of his hard hand across her face when she protested.  She brushes the floating  lint from her face.   The resentment, the cold impotent rage, she buries deep inside.

As a teenager, she graduates from the factory to marry a coal miner.  Young Mike  is an adventurous lad, and they try their luck across the water  in Canada.  They settle in  a  coal mining town on the banks of the Saskatchewan River, surrounded by  the   wilderness.  He works hard in the mine, earning a promotion to pit boss; she bears three children and two survive.  There is enough money for groceries, but sometimes not enough coal to heat the cramped wooden house, so the eggs  freeze in the cupboard.  Christmas gifts for the children are out of the question, except for  a few oranges in their stockings.  She watches her son stricken with a mysterious spinal ailment, which leaves him partly crippled because there is no money for fancy, big-city doctors.  She wonders if her husband will come home safely from the mines.  He always does, but two of her cousins  are not so lucky.

This childhood, this life, this fate, might wear many people out.  It did grind down many people into despair.  My grandmother, however, kept a spark alive.  She was the one who picked up her family from western Canada during the Depression and moved them to Scotland so her husband could find work.  Later, she brought them back to Canada when the coal industry revived, though on the return voyage she kept a wary lookout for Nazi U-boats lurking in the  north Atlantic.

And in her old age, amidst the bitterness that infected her, but did not consume her, she found within herself a well of affection to bequeath to a grandson.  In return, she especially appreciated hearing how well he was doing in school.

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12 thoughts on “A Flower Wilted and a Grandmother’s Gift

  1. freudandfashion

    Wonderful piece Tom. It’s amazing how we grow to appreciate our grandparents even more as we get older ourselves, esp once we understand their history of hardship, strength, determination, and survival. Times have definitely changed since then, and you provide a wonderfully written progression to reveal how her upbringing connects to her deep connection and hope that extends through you. I had a similar connection with my own grandfather as well, who passed away several years ago. Thank u for sharing.

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  2. roxxyvyas

    Its beautiful.😊
    I am very close to my grandma , in fact I am closest to her. She is suffering from arthritis too. It is painful to see her like that. She uses the same words but in a different language . in this work I could see the glimpse of my grandma. She had to go through many tough times but she managed to become a teacher.
    This is truly touching cause I can relate so much. Thank you for writing it.😊👍

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    1. Tom Schultz Post author

      I’m so pleased that you could relate to this and that it reminded you of your own dear grandmother. That is, after all, what a writer hopes for. Our grandparents who battled through the tough times can be a great source of inspiration. Thank you for your response. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sumyanna

    An amazingly beautiful story. I just wanted to keep reading. Have you ever thought of writing it all down? You are a wonderful storyteller. I cannot thank you highly enough for sharing this with me. The best thing I have read all day.

    Liked by 1 person

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