The then Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was advertising a reduced fare, three month excursion to the east, from December 31st, 1917 to March 31st, 1918, and I was able to take advantage of it. I also thought that it would be a good opportunity for my husband to get better acquainted with his sons, and I made up my mind that I would stop worrying about them, as soon as the train would leave Prince George Station. When I left the house on the last day of the year, the baking, washing and mending had all been done up to date! I had even left them six fresh mincemeat pies, in the cold cupboard in the shed. All they needed was warming up.
We had early breakfast together, the taxi called at 6.30 a.m., the train from Prince Rupert was on time, and I know that the Charley Helm restaurant would be having guests for a second breakfast before school started. I wished them all good luck and there were no tears. My men were going to enjoy their freedom! I had company as far as Edmonton on that trip. The mother of a friend was returning to her home in Spokane. She was a frail, dainty little lady, bright and interested in all that was going on in the world, and I was sorry to part with her.
Since I was going east with an open mind, I hoped to be able to bring some helpful ideas back with me for the school and the pupils, something in which all could share, without trespassing on the prejudices of any. The best and most harmless notion that occurred to me was a garden, with separate plots, and prizes for the best results, but that could be worked out later. Right now I wanted to relax, and look forward to seeing the families, the babies who had arrived since I left Toronto, and the friends I had left there. It was pleasant to taste my hopeful pleasures, though there was a war on. I even might be able to do a humble bit in that problem.
On New Year's Day,I happened to be placed at a two-some table for lunch, with a genial, old stranger who introduced himself as Mr. H. of St. Paul, Minnesota. He told me that he was one of the boys named in Mark Twain's books," Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn", and though he admitted that he had no part in white-washing the fence, he said he was familiar with the caves the boys frequented. Later at home I told the boys that travel story, Alan's eyes shone with interest, but Murray asked, suspiciously, "And did you believe him, Mother?" "What difference does it make,Son?" I asked. "The story helped to pass the time, and the Mr. H. had a drawl of Missouri."
As I went to breakfast next morning, I noticed Mrs. Burden and her daughter Pat, in the same car. They had come aboard at Winnipeg the night before, and I was glad to borrow the little neighbour to while the tedium of frosted windows, I didn't want to read. Pat's mother was knitting, but I felt that I had really earned a spot of idleness on the train. I knew that there would be work waiting for me, once I reached Toronto, the sort of jobs that Mother always used to save up for one of my visits, when I lived in Toronto. In the meantime, I could make frost pictures on the windows, and tell fairy tales to little Pat. She was a pretty violet-eyes fairy herself.
When I advised Mother of my plan to visit her, I asked that no one bother to meet me, as in winter weather, the train was sure to be late. I would check a small trunk to Parkdale station, and be glad to walk the three blocks home, after being cooped up for four days and five nights. On arrival, therefore, I arranged for delivery of the baggage, started for home and was surprised to overtake, Mac's sister on Queen Street, doing her morning shopping. She insisted on my going into her house for a cup of tea, so I telephoned to Mother to say I would he with her in a few minutes. She said that Louise, my sister, was already asleep after her night's work, bath and breakfast, I begged Mother not to waken her; Louise needed her sleep and if it were broken, she might lose the whole day's rest. The routine was to waken her at nine o'clock, at which time she had a good meal before going to work. She was a supervisor in a large shell factory, on what was called the grave-yard shift, 11p.m. to 7a.m. At the "plant" supper could be had at midnight, and snacks in between.
I saw Jessie, too, that morning; she lived next door and came in to say "Hello", where I was having some tea and toast, A few minutes later, Dear old Mother was weeping as she opened the door to me, and I folded her in my arms. "They are good tears, Mother," I said, as I joined her with my own contribution, "you and I are going to enjoy each other; we'll have weeks and weeks together," and she smiled and nodded. With Louise sleeping and Jack working, it was lonely for Mother all day, but she loved reading and that helped to fill the hours, when the housework was done, and she rested her stiffened fingers from the knitting.
It was good to see Jack again, as he arrived from work about five thirty that afternoon. He looked well, and as usual, went to his room for a nap before dinner. Later, when Louise came down for her meal, we had a foursome session, so that I need not tell the western details more than once. They agreed the Mac was able to look after himself and the boys; he had learned to do that in his own home long before I met him.
Before I went shopping, I studied the newspapers and decided to buy a coat and hat first. I wanted to get out and see my old friends and relatives, and I needed some clothes to feel comfortable under scrutiny. It was my friend Emily, who suggested that I lop three inches off the length of my skirts, if I wished to avoid being conspicuous. Coming from the bush, I was afraid that I would feel strange if I did shorten my skirt, but I took a chance, and felt better every time I noticed other dresses.
I liked shopping, and Mother had quite a list for Louise and the house needs, since Mother seldom went shopping herself and Louise never had any time for it. There was plenty of sewing to be done but, with a good machine, I did not mind it. In between I was treated to shows and concerts. and had a big Birthday party with Mac's family, three households of them, living side by side.
Standing at a counter in one of the big stores one morning, I heard a familiar voice, and there, a foot away were two of my nearest neighbours of the old Beach address. They were surprised and full of questions about the West. Both of them were living now away down the Kingston Road, near the end of the streetcar service. I promised to be at the Beattie home the following Saturday for lunch, when Mr. B. would be at home. He was a High School teacher, who had other vocations, such as farming potatoes and raising chickens. It was Mr. and Mrs. B. who had enticed me into the chicken business when we had lived opposite to each other in Toronto. Then I had promised Murray he would have chickens for his birthday on April 30th 1910.
On the day my first chickens were to hatch, there was a heavy downpour,and when I went to the wood-shed, where the old black Minorca hen was setting, she was of the nest and the eggs were crawling with vermin. Says I, "Just for that, Old Lady, you shan't hatch those eggs." I ran back to the house, brought a wide, shallow basket, with a piece of woollen blanket over a hot water bottle, and a pail of warm water, I washed the eggs in the water doing two jobs, cleaning them and checking how many had live chickens. There were ten bobbing, three were no good, and those eggs cost $2.50 for the setting.
I set the basket with the eggs, hot-water bottle and blanket, near the range, and watched development! Before we went to bed that night, we had nine lively chickens. It was a shame that I did not know enough to chip the tenth egg; it was the biggest chick of all, and couldn't break the shell, potential prize winner, maybe!
When I sold the chickens before going to the West, it was Mr. B. who bought the big barred rock rooster, which had given the old chicken dealer on awful beating with his wings and spurs. The dealer threatened to sue me for damages, but I had warned him not to enter the pen, and he had laughed at me. Well, as Murray said at the time, "Mother knew best." Hatching chickens with a hotwater bottle was my own idea, but I couldn't bear to think of vermin on baby chicks; I just carried on by faith and it worked!
It was Mr. Beattie who introduced me to Irish Cobbler potatoes, for an early crop in our Western climate, where it gets plenty cold, too, and he told me how to get a few for seed that year, from the Department in Ottawa, which I did. Before I left that afternoon, Mrs. J. the other Beach neighbour came in with her daughter, who had always been a favourite with me. and I enjoyed being with them again. They and the Beatties, all had such happy dispositions that it was a pleasure to know them. They took time to be gracious and cheerful.
Mother liked to prepare Jack's breakfast and lunch by herself, and I never came down until he was ready to leave for work. Then she and I would wait for Louise, so that we could eat and chat together for a while. One morning Mother happened to notice the clock, and said worriedly, "Louise is late. I hope nothing has happened to her." She went to the front window, stood, then came back and looked again at the clock. "Please sit down, Mother," I said, "nothing had happened to Louise, or you would have had a message."
Ten minutes later my sister arrived, her eyes red behind glasses, cheeks blistered by tears and wind, and herself very perturbed. One of her youngest and finest workers had lost the tips of three fingers, in the last working moments of the shift. She was in hospital now, and did not know the extent of her injury. Then. the locker-girl quit without warning. She intended to apply for the injured girl's job. Of course the injured one would not be used on such a machine again, and Louise already had other plans for her, though there was quite a difference in the pay rate. Louise looked at me meaningly, and I knew what was coming.
"Nell," said she, "I wish you would be willing to take that locker job for a month. By that time, Molly will be able to handle it. They are going to keep her in the hospital for three weeks, and she would have a week to get adjusted." That was a horrible thing to happen to a lovely, young girl in the heyday of life! Of course I would take the job for the month! Louise could not, very well, ask anyone else to take a job for a month, in those days of night-and-day pressure to take the steady work while it was going. I began that night. I rested during the day but did not sleep, and when we reached the plant about ten o'clock, Louise advised me to lean heavily on coffee, that first night.
The girls noticed the stranger in the locker-room, and began to ask who she was. They were a very outspoken aggregation. Louise had briefed me, so I just handed out and took in clothing, but I insisted on them giving the numbers clearly. That was the era of knee-high white kid shoes, and the very short skirts were coming in fast. When they were ready for work, they brought me the street things, neatly rolled, to be put in their square, boxlike numbered space.
That was the longest night I ever lived, I think. There was so little to do. I stacked the dishes after the midnight supper, and wiped the long table after they had been taken away. I wandered into the hospital unit, to have a piece of steel taken from my finger, after the table job. I was told that was the most common incident in the place. I also drank several cups of coffee and ate two buns full of raisins; I like raisins.
I soon learned how to put on time at the plant, without being bored, and I didn't seem to need as much sleep as my sister, so the month passed with some money in hand and no regrets, and I wore a metal Maple Leaf for my War help. There was time for all the sewing to be done, and I was able to see all the friends and relatives before I started back west to my three lonesome men, according to their letters.
When I returned to Fort George, the end of March, 1918, my head was so full of gardens and other plans, that it's a wonder it didn't pop. The new seed potatoes, "Irish Cobblers", from Ottawa, were waiting for me and I had the School garden idea worked out, for the next meeting of the Board. Mr. Moore had said that he would be glad to direct the operation, and I knew that the children would be enthusiastic at first, anyway, but I was prepared for a slowdown during vacation.