On this day one hundred years ago, the first wave of American troops was sailing across the Atlantic to join the carnage of World War I. America’s neighbor to the north was already knee deep in the “war to end all wars,” having been brought into the war by the United Kingdom’s entrance three years earlier. Canada and its allies were battling the Central Powers while people around the globe wondered when the fighting would cease. But in the southeastern Saskatchewan village of Bienfait on June 24, 1917, a young couple named Oscar and Margaret had something of greater concern than the fighting overseas. They were preoccupied with the birth of their first child, little Jacqueline Ida… my grandma.
I don’t know much about the day my grandma was born, except that it was a Sunday. I don’t know what time she was born or what the weather was like or if she cried a lot. However, I do know it was the beginning of a meaningful life that stretched from a summer day in 1917 all the way until the week of my brother’s high school graduation in 2000.
Around the age of two, Grandma and her parents moved 1,500 miles south to Hale Township in Jones County, Iowa. There, they welcomed two more family members, brother Julian and sister Peggy.
Ten years after moving to Iowa, Grandma and her family felt the effects of the Great Depression. Fifty years after that, Grandma was still using lessons learned during that era. She wouldn’t let anything go to waste. Any time we ate at a restaurant and had leftovers, without fail, Grandma would pull out a plastic baggie from her purse and scoop the food in. Sometimes the leftovers were for human consumption; other times, Grandma and Grandpa’s cats got a treat of fried chicken or meatloaf. I can still picture Grandma spooning mashed potatoes off the plate and into the bag. I remember being terribly embarrassed that my grandma was shoveling mashed potatoes into her purse. Today, I’m still embarrassed… I’m embarrassed of myself for ever being ashamed of my grandma for anything she ever did. She was always thinking about others, and I didn’t truly figure that out until I was in my 20’s and it was too late to tell her how proud I was of her.
Grandma started off as a teacher, educating children at rural schoolhouses, including Pleasant Ridge School near Wyoming, Iowa, where she received a letter and a flag from a man who ended up being the last surviving Civil War vet in Jones County (you can read about that in my blog here). Since teachers could not be married at the time, she became a farmer’s wife when she married my grandpa in 1941. Grandma and Grandpa loved the farm life, even after an early-morning fire in March 1953 destroyed two full corn cribs, a barn filled with grain and hay, 269 head of livestock, the hog house, the machine shed, the garage, two wagons, a tractor, and a mower (whew). It was during the “farm era” that they welcomed three children into their lives: two sons and a daughter (my mom). My mom and my uncles always say they couldn’t have asked for better parents.
Eventually, Grandma and Grandpa retired from farming and moved into town. Grandma wanted a new hobby, so she took up painting. Creativity had always run in her veins, and she became a pro at painting masterpieces in her 60’s. The heck with Grandma Moses; we had Grandma Siver. One of her masterpieces has a place of honor in my home today. Just look at this beauty from 1983:
Along with painting, Grandma had other passions in life, including singing in the church choir. When our congregation shrank and we didn’t have enough people for a choir, she sat beside us in the pew and continued to sing like a songbird. When I hear certain hymns, I can still hear her beautiful warbly voice gracefully singing those words. Sometimes I hear her voice and her voice only, no matter how many people are around me.
Grandma sang like a songbird, so it’s only appropriate she loved birds, too. She owned all kinds of bird-watching books, bird feeders, a bird clock, and of course, a pet canary. An army of ceramic birds covered the top of her piano (when our family cleaned out the house after she died, I claimed a couple peacocks). My grandparents’ tombstone includes an etching of a cardinal. When my uncle visited their grave on Mother’s Day this year, he discovered something fitting: a robin (and her eggs) had taken up residence in the flowers hanging from the shepherd’s hook at the grave.
Grandma loved painting. She loved singing. She loved birds. But she loved her seven grandchildren even more. Holidays were often a madhouse with us running around, but that’s the way Grandma and Grandpa liked it – a house full of life and laughter. I think we all looked forward to spending time at Grandma and Grandpa’s house because it meant we got to play with all their cool toys, most of which previously belonged to our parents. We’d dash up the creaky attic steps with Grandma to pick out something to bring down and play with. Sometimes it was a wooden car. Sometimes it was plastic cowboys and Indians. Sometimes it was the Lite-Brite. And more often than not, one of us would spell out “POOP” in bright, magnificent letters on that thing. I think Grandpa enjoyed that more than Grandma did.
Grandma passed away at the age of 82 in May of 2000, following my grandpa by seven years. She was short her whole life, so when our pastor gave the eulogy at her funeral, he described her as “a small woman with a big heart.” Here I am 17 years later and that profound remark still sticks with me. It’s partly because of my grandma that I’m happy being short. I don’t recall her ever giving me any sage advice about it, but I’m okay with my height because I saw how she was so cheerful and content without worrying about who was taller or bigger.
My life and my grandma’s life overlapped by 22 years. That might sound like an eternity, but it never feels like it was enough. It flew by in a nanosecond. One day I’m riding around town with her in the big brown LTD and the next day she’s gone. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about all of my grandparents at some point, and my mind wanders to all the questions I’d love to ask them if they were here right now (we always come up with all the good questions when it’s too late, don’t we?). By the end of the day, I’ve convinced myself I should be focused on gratitude for the time I did get to spend with them. I know far too many people who either didn’t know or barely knew their grandparents. I was fortunate enough to know all four of mine, and to know that all four of them loved me.
In my never-ending quest to climb my family tree, one of my goals is to visit the small village of Bienfait someday and see where my grandma was born. It may not seem like an ideal destination, situated 14 hours away amid a sea of wheat fields. However, I still want to go there and imagine what it was like on that day in 1917 when little Jacqueline Ida’s life began.
On this day 100 years ago, a tiny baby entered this enormous world in a small village located in a vast Canadian province. It’s a scientific fact that Saskatchewan receives more hours of sunshine than any other province. I’d like to think that on June 24, 1917, it received even more sunshine than it ever did before.