There are decades where nothing happens and weeks where decades happen.
Anne of Green Gables
Nature’s brushstrokes: the beginning of autumn colors in Michigan.
When the green, dark forest was too silent to be real.
—Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy
The green Armstrong plaid had once been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s border, being the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians. Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men went down into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a living for their families. The course of my family history began when my grandfather Armstrong glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West. His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.
[It’s the birthday of Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national poet. In celebration, I believe I will forego the haggis, but perhaps imbibe a wee dram. There’s also this re-post, a sketch of family history, maternal (Armstrong) side.]
Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia. Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War. Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto. From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pines and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness. Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.
My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark green silence of the forests. Over the years, I heard a hundred stories, and remain convinced that a few at least were true. Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house. The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.
Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies. Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted. A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters. My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble. Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr. As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.
But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring. One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed. Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know. Twenty-nine families mourned. Nordegg wore black. Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground. The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a prior mine cave-in.
Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot. The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.
Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery. The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost. Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the grave site. “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.
The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War. The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets. My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton. Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.
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.