(A brief excerpt from a work in progress)
Being born during the ‘Dirty Thirties’, the Great Depression as it has become to be known and written about certainly has helped determine, shape who I am. In November of 1933 I was born as a bit of a surprise to my mom, dad and two sisters. I guess more than a bit of a surprise as my mom was forty-four years old and my sister Phyllis was twelve and Connie was fifteen. In some ways I grew up as an only child having to help my parents with the farm. My sisters became more like additional moms to me. Three moms telling me what I needed to do. That may sound terrible to many of you but it wasn’t all bad. Those three women loved me as I became the ‘Apple of their Eye’, the only boy in this household of women, someone to take over the family farm, for in those days that is just the way it was. I would be lying if I told you I knew how poor we were when I was born, but then again when you grow up poor you don’t always know you are poor it is just the way it is. I didn’t know better so things were just the way they were.
My mom Maude Singleton and her family had left the hard times in England in search of a better life farming in Manitoba. Her dad James was not a farmer by trade but in 1889 life had to be better on the Canadian Prairies doing something you didn’t know rather than the dreary existence as a labourer on the streets of London. My dad Frank Hoddinott came from a large family, no longer sure how many there were, but somehow seventeen seems to come to mind. Most stayed in England but my dad came to the Neepawa area where he met my mom and they eventually married in the summer of 1917.
The bitterly cold winter of 1933, the year I was born, followed another summer of drought, dust storms, grasshoppers and poor crops. Most people in the area could barely grow enough food to feed themselves let alone have crops to sell. If we did have crops to sell the price of wheat was low; better to give it away my dad would say; and even if the price was higher there wasn’t anybody who could afford to buy it. If you were lucky enough to own your farm it was almost impossible to have the money to pay your property taxes. Those families that owned farms often had people living and helping out on the farm. No one could really afford to help anyone, we all were barely surviving, but we did. We didn’t blame each other for being poor, we just somehow understood if we were going to survive, we all had to survive. We all had to help each other. We shared what we had. Many farmers helped those without homes by paying them the five dollars a month the government gave farmers to help them out.
I joke about being born in a barn. Well in truth that is just the way things were. No Lamaze classes, just neighbours getting together to help each other when they needed it. There wasn’t a star guiding the shepherds to our family farm on the Arden Ridge. My birth was like all births during the depression, was a gift. A moment in time to remember how precious the gift of life is for my parents, sisters, really all of us. A birth during the depression was also another stress, another mouth to feed, in a family that wasn’t sure how they could feed the people already living, never mind any one new coming into a world where drought and poor crops have been a way of life since the stock market crash in 1929.
There are stories I could share with you about my mom Maude and my dad Frank that happened long before I was born but telling those stories would be hearsay and based on my interpretations of what they told me. Sometimes I wonder why we don’t write more about what our lives were like while we are living them. We write our autobiography long after what happened has happened. Is what we remember still the truth or just tricks our mind plays on us to remember how good or bad things were for us? A way of rationalizing how we act and how we behave. I am pretty sure I never walked to school uphill both ways but I did tell my children that. My children seem to remember me telling them that all I ate growing up was lard sandwiches or that when I played hockey on the frozen dugout on our farm, I used manure, cow droppings for hockey pucks.
Not even sure my story is important as people seem to want to read autobiographies about famous people. Somehow thinking the stories of the famous are more significant or a truer depiction of life, leaving the stories of the not so famous or those of us to easily forgotten, lost forever. Every one’s story is important and worth telling, besides most of us aren’t famous but we do most of the living, dying, crying and laughing so that makes our stories vital if we are truly to understand who we are and where we came from. My story, the story of my family, is just one of the billions of stories that make-up the history of our world, of our civilization. It is our stories that will help people remember who we are and where we need to go.
My name is John. I am in my eighty-first year. My wife hates it when I say that, so I guess I better say I am eighty.
My mom has been asking me why when I write I don’t write about our family. “Why don’t you tell our story?” I never thought much about it but another Mother’s Day has come and gone and now it is Father’s Day. The story and life of my dad, my mom and family I didn’t really think mattered. In truth all our stories matter. The stories of everyday people are the living history of the world we live in.
James W. Hoddinott
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY