A Love Story

It was love at first sight.

She was standing in the middle of the flower patch, hair in disarray, dirt on her nose, waving a pair of nasty shears and scolding me for cussing out the horse. I saw a fire in her eyes — determination, stubbornness — and I knew immediately she was the one. We married three months later. She stood by my side through thick and thin, through good times and bad.

Forty years later, I sit here, you lying in the hospital bed, I holding your hand, watching that light fade from your eyes. My heart breaks.

#99WordStory #HighamHistory #LoveAtFirstSight #FireInYourEyes #TrueLove #TheLightInYou #MargaretGHanna #FamilyHistory

The backstory:

None of my mother, aunts or uncles knew how my maternal grandparents, Caleb and Mary, met. Both had emigrated to Canada, Mary in 1912 from Cornwall, Caleb in 1913 from Oxfordshire. Caleb was a farm labourer with dreams of owning his own farm. Mary was a domestic servant with dreams of a better life than she had in England. They married in June, 1915.

Their marriage licence states they both lived at Belbeck, a tiny village a few miles north of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. I like to think they found themselves working for the same farmer, Will Grigg, if only because they maintained a life-long friendship with Will and his wife Emeline.

Mary passed away in September 1955 from breast cancer, a few weeks shy of her 70th birthday. My grandfather was devastated. He passed away in May, 1979, not quite 90 years old. Both are buried at Congress Baptist Cemetery, from where you can see the farm that Caleb finally bought in 1924. They both had realized their dreams.

For Want of Water

We watched the slough dry up. We watched the soil blow away. We watched clouds roll in with empty promises of rain. We watched our crops struggle, shrivel and die.

We watched families move away. We watched businesses close. We watched villages disappear.

We feared the well would go dry. We feared rain would never come again.

This prairie that once held promises of bumper crops and full granaries was now only a distant memory, if it had even existed.

And all for lack of rain. For lack of water. For lack of caring how we treated the land.

#99WordStory #ForTheRain #GreatDepression #DirtyThirties #DustStorms #PrairieHistory #HannaHistory #HighamHistory #MargaretGHanna #OurBullsLooseInTown

The Backstory:
Both my maternal and paternal grandparents struggled to farm through the terrible years of the Dirty Thirties. The rains left in 1929, they did not return until 1938. By then, it was too late for many families and for many towns. Southwestern Saskatchewan alone lost about 50% of its population during those years. They left for truly greener pastures – northern Saskatchewan and Alberta, or back east to Ontario and Quebec.

My grandparents lived in the heart of the Palliser Triangle, a region that Capt. James Palliser in the late 1850s called a desert and that, a decade later, John Macoun called a paradise. The difference: Palliser traversed this region of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta during a drought; Macoun during a wet period.

In 1935, the Canadian government formed the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) which immediately launched several programs to help farmers deal with the drought. These included dugouts to store water, and strip farming and large-scale tree-planting programs to reduce erosion. Marginal land was turned into community pastures.

The PFRA no longer exists, but it helped transform dry-land farming practices to be more in tune with the vagaries of prairie climate. Perhaps we once again need the PFRA as we begin to comprehend the long-term effects of climate change on this fragile prairie region.

Tea for the Monarch

Mary stood before the glass-fronted cabinet. “I see you have Mother’s silver tea pot.”

“With the dent turned to the back,” Dorothy replied.

Mary chuckled. “Good thing her throw missed Father, she might have dented his head instead of the pot.”

“Remember how she toasted every monarch’s death and coronation with that tea pot?”

“Nothing but Twinings English Breakfast, if I remember rightly.”

Dorothy took the tea pot out of the cabinet. “I think we should revive her tradition, now that we have a new queen.”

“I hear she prefers Twinings Earl Grey tea.”

“With a dash of milk.”

#99WordStory #TeaRituals #TeaPot #TwiningsEnglishBreakfast #TwiningsEarlGrey #CreativeNonFiction #1952 #FamilyHistory #HighamFamilyHistory #Monarchy #MargaretGHanna

The backstory:

In 1952, Mary, my maternal grandmother, returned to England (Cornwall, to be exact) to visit her two sisters, Dorothy and Clive. This was only a few months after Princess Elizabeth had succeeded to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II.

My maternal grandparents were staunch monarchists. They could list off all the kings and queens and their children and relatives and whom they had married, and they made sure their children (my mother and her siblings) knew all that as well. I assume they learned this from their parents, and my grandmother’s sisters were like-minded.

My grandmother’s mother, Amelia Appleton, did indeed throw her husband out when she learned he had been unfaithful. The story goes, she used language that would make a sailor blush. Whether or not she threw a tea pot at him, if a silver tea pot even existed, is pure speculation. But why let a few facts get in the way of a good story?

Brick-laying, Fifteen Minutes at a Time

“Real writing, I was beginning to realize, was more like laying bricks than waiting for lightning to strike. It was painstaking. It was manual labor. And sometimes, sometimes if you kept putting the bricks down and let your hands just go on bleeding, and didn’t look up and didn’t stop for anything, the lightning came. Not when you prayed for it, but when you did your work.”
Paula McLain, Love and Ruin

For the past few years, I’ve been struggling with the task of writing my maternal grandmother’s story. I do mean, struggle. For the first couple of years, the story wandered here, there and everywhere. It had no focus. No purpose.

A course offered by the Alexandra Writers’ Centre in Calgary helped me find the focus and suddenly the story started coming together.

Until I hit That Chapter.

Some instinct deep inside me said, That Chapter is necessary to the story. I just couldn’t see how or why. I tried writing it a couple of times and got nowhere.

I stopped writing it. I stopped trying to write it.

It haunted me, stared at me, glared at me, dared me to put one word, any word on that virtual paper. I hid.

Until I read that passage above from Paula McLain’s wonderful book about Martha Gellhorn, an American journalist, war correspondent and author. If she could rise above the pain and struggle of writing, then so could I. I decided to use her analogy of writing as brick-laying and tackle That Chapter again.

I started with 15 minutes of “brick-laying.” You know, minimize the amount of self-inflicted pain, or something. So my hands wouldn’t be bleeding too much at the end of each session.

I set my timer for 15 minutes. I shut out the world. I starting writing. No editing, just writing. Just one word after another, one sentence after another.

Some days, 15 minutes went by in a flash. I was on a roll. I kept on writing. Other days, it was like pulling teeth (to use another metaphor). Those bricks were heavy and ill-fitting, and the mortar wouldn’t set. I was relieved when the timer went off. I went in search of metaphorical bandages for my metaphorical bleeding hands.

But guess what? That Chapter is now written. It’s terrible. It needs serious re-writing. And editing. But in the process I began to get a glimmer of why I first thought, way back when, that That Chapter was essential to my grandmother’s story. Now that I understand the purpose of That Chapter, it will be easier (relatively speaking) to write it.

Sometimes, even painful brick-laying pays off.

#Writing #WritersBlock #FifteenMinutes #MargaretGHanna #AlexandraWritersCentre #HighamFamilyHistory

Something “Old” is “New” Again

I read recently that the newest fashion “In” thing is “upcycling,” i.e., recycling parts of existing clothes or fabric ends to create new clothes, preferable more expensive clothes.

I hate to break it to the fashion gurus but so-called “upcycling” has been around for-EVER!

But first, some background.

I have to credit upcyclers with combating “fast fashion” – clothes that are cheap, trendy and disposable. Wander through the clothing department of any store, especially big box stores, and you’ll see fast fashion everywhere.

Why is it so cheap? Take a close look at where it’s made. Bangladesh. Indonesia. India. Thailand. Vietnam. The list goes on. Cheap labour and horrible working conditions that have long been outlawed in Canada, the USA, New Zealand, Australia and Europe.

Remember the Rana Plaza clothing factory that collapsed in Bangladesh in April, 2013, killing over 1100 people and injured more than 2500? Or the Tazreen Fashions factory that burned in November, 2012, killing at least 117 people and injuring more than 200? The reasons so many died: faulty wiring and barred or even non-existent emergency exits.

Those people work under horrible conditions – very few, if any, breaks to eat or use the bathroom (assuming there is one); meager pay (the Rana Plaza workers earned 35 cents a day), blocked exits, unsafe working conditions, long hours, the constant fear of losing their jobs if they object, poor light, poor air circulation, and so on. They continue to work under those conditions because they have no choice, because their families depend upon that meager income, because if they objected (and were then fired) there would be thousands of others battling to take their place. If severely injured to the point of not being able to work, they receive no compensation from the factory, no workers’ compensation, no unemployment benefits, no long-term disability payments. Nothing.

And all because we’re too “cheap” to pay the price for clothes (and other products) made locally by well-paid employees in safe workplaces (this article speaks to the situation in the USA but Canada can learn from it, too.)

So where does “upcycling” fit in this, you ask? Consider this: how long will you wear that piece of clothing and what will you do with it once a) it wears out, or b) you get tired of wearing it?

Some discarded clothing goes to thrift stores, about 15% according to this web site, and some is burned for energy recovery, but most ends up in the garbage. In 2014, just over 10 million tons (TONS!) of discarded clothing were sent to landfills in the USA alone.

Thus, upcycling – a way to turn clothing that would be otherwise discarded into something “new” that is desirable and fashionable and green. But upcycling is nothing new.

During the Depression of the 1930s, upcycling was born out of necessity, not out of choice. My mother grew up with it. She told stories of her mother making underclothes and boys’ shirts out of cotton flour sacks and remaking hand-me-down clothing received in relief shipments. Fortunately, my grandmother had received extensive training in all the fibre arts, including pattern-making, when she attended the Practicing School for Girls in Truro, Cornwall, England, in the late 1890s. She put that training to good use during the Depression, not only (re)making clothes for her family but also training other women how to do the same. My mother told how Grandma could look at a picture of a dress, then draft the pattern for it using newspaper and make the dress on her treadle sewing machine.

Mom in her “upcycled” suit

In 1941, Mom was hired fresh out of high school to clerk at the Bank of Toronto. She had no suitable work clothes, only the dress she wore to school and the dress she wore at home (imagine, only two dresses!), and there was no money to buy her a suit. Grandma created one by taking apart one of Grandpa’s old suits, turning the fabric and recutting it. Mom wore that suit until she earned enough to buy herself a store-bought one.

So the next time you contemplate buying that inexpensive (cheap) clothing article, look where it’s made and think of the underpaid workers labouring in conditions you wouldn’t even put your dog in. Think of the tons of waste clothing already in landfills. Think of my mother with only two dresses to her name. Think of my grandmother clothing her family during desperate times by “upcycling.”

Just think.

#FastFashion #Upcycling #DepressionEra #GoingGreen #Relief #SweatShops #RanaPlaza #TazreenFashions #Recycling #MakingDo #HighamFamilyHistory #ClothingInLandfills #DisposableFashion #DiscardedClothing #MargaretGHanna

Mothers’ Letters (1942)

I sat at the kitchen table and stared at the letters before me. Outside, the dog barked and then the tractor started up. Caleb was heading out to finish the summerfallow now that he was back from town with groceries and mail. I could faintly hear Maisie and Betty in the garden, weeding and laughing about something. Their voices drifted in and out with the breeze. The fire snapped in the stove just as the kettle began to steam so I got up, poured the water in the tea pot and brought it over to the table. Anything to delay the inevitable.

I continued to stare at the letters as I poured some milk and tea into the cup. I knew what was in them before I opened them. They were yet more letters from mothers asking for words of comfort when there were no words of comfort to give.

Dear Mrs. Higham, I heard about your son on the radio . . .

I sipped some tea then reached for the first letter. It was from somewhere in Ontario. I’d received so many letters like this.

Dear Mrs. Higham, I am so sorry to bother you but . . .

I wondered what perverse fate had saved John and his crew from death while others had perished. I knew what it was like to worry about your son serving overseas. How many times had I felt my stomach tighten as Lorne Greene – the Voice of Doom, they called him – read the list of men who were killed, and then breathed a sigh of relief when John’s name had not been mentioned.

Dear Mrs. Higham, My son is a rear gunner in the RCAF, and I was wondering . . .

How many times had I waited for a letter from John? Each time Caleb came back empty-handed, I had taken that as a sign of the worst. And then rejoiced when a letter finally did arrive. At least he was still alive the day he wrote the letter, I’d think. His letters were often censored – black strips blocking out dates or places or missions. What we learned from those letters had little to do with the war. He’d visited Dorothy and thought her daughter Anne was “quite a smart young lady.” Caleb’s brother Len would let him have one beer “on the house.” And then there’d be a long, tense, anxious wait until the next letter arrived, each one a sign that we had not lost him. Yet.

Dear Mrs. A_______, Your son died bravely and do not think he died in vain because he was fighting for you . . .

So, I was well-acquainted with those worries, but not with the sadness and uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to your son, a son who was now “Missing in Action.” That was why those mothers wrote me. Did they think I knew even though no one else knew? Or didn’t know for certain, or knew but wouldn’t say?

Dear Mrs. D______, I cannot possibly understand your grief, but . . .

Most letters were so full of grief and sorrow I could almost see tears drip from the paper. Others raged at what they saw as a senseless death and a bleak future.

Dear Mrs. Higham, Our son was going to take over the business and now he’s gone . . .

Mostly, they were full of questions. Could he have escaped from the plane as it plummeted from the sky? Did the resistance have him? Were they helping him escape? Could he be a prisoner of war? If he did die, would he have died quickly, without pain or suffering? I could hear the pleading in their letters, pleading for the merest shred of hope. Hope that I couldn’t give. I couldn’t lie to these mothers but neither could I tell them the truth. I struggled to find words. What would I have wanted to hear if we had lost John?

Dear Mrs. Higham, Thank you so much for your kind letter of . . .

John never did say much about what he experienced over there, but I glimpsed enough in what he did say to understand that there was no such thing as a quick death in a plane that was plunging downward. Escape was rare – men were trapped by debris or fire, or injured so badly they could not free themselves, or pinned by the force of the plane’s death spiral. Even if they did escape, they were shooting targets for the Germans, or their parachute didn’t open, or they were injured or killed on landing or they landed in the Channel and drowned.

Dear Mrs. Higham, You have given me some comfort in my hour of grief . . .

How do you tell mothers that? Mothers who are clinging desperately to the hope that perhaps there is the slightest chance that their son survived somehow. That “Missing in Action” means only that – missing, not dead.

I read this new letter through, then shook my head in sorrow. Why had my son been spared when so many had not? I felt the burden of motherhood weigh more heavily on my shoulders than it ever had before. How many mothers like this were there in Canada, England, and yes, even in Germany? Mothers who would never know for certain, who would live forever with broken hearts. Families forever with a hole that would never be filled.

I drank the last of the tea, now cold, sighed, then uncapped my fountain pen and began to write.

“Dear Mrs. T______”

P/O John B. Higham and his mother, Mary Higham, photographed September 15, 1941, the day before he left for England

(Note: Pilot Officer John B. Higham, son of Caleb and Mary Higham of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, was assigned to RCAF “Moose” Squadron #419, Bomber Command, in 1941. He completed 30 missions, then he and his crew were returned to Canada to tour the country to raise money for the war effort. John passed away this June, three weeks shy of his 100th birthday.)

#RemembranceDay #LestWeForget #WorldWar2 #HighamFamilyHistory #NonFiction #SaskatchewanHistory #MargaretGHanna

What a Difference a Day Makes

Authors who write historical fiction know they have to ensure that things such as attitudes, clothing and language are appropriate to the time. Sometimes, even the day of the week matters.

For example:

My current venture into historical fiction (or, as I call it, semi-fictionalized family history) is the story of my maternal grandparents who (independently) came to Canada from different parts of England a hundred years ago. Rather than writing the chapters sequentially, I am hop-scotching around, picking a year or event at random. This year, being the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and Neil Armstrong’s famous quote, I decided to work on 1969. What would my then 80-year-old grandfather and his buddies have thought of this event?

Grandpa Higham drank and smoked so I decided to situate him and his friends in the beer parlour watching the event unfold late that evening on the beer parlour’s little black-and-white TV.

Bear in mind: In Saskatchewan in 1969, there were no pubs or sports bars, only beer parlours. If you wanted to drink “up-scale,” you went to cocktail lounges and licenced dining rooms. All were strictly regulated. No one under 21 allowed. Ever!

Beer parlours were dark, dingy and smoke-filled, almost entirely frequented by men; no self-respecting “lady” would be caught dead in a beer parlour! Beer choices were limited – no craft beer in those days. Draft beer cost 21 cents a glass. If you wanted to move to another table, you had to ask the waiter to move your beer for you. Beer parlours closed for “supper hour.”

But back to the Apollo 11 landing.

Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. I was curious as to what day of the week that was, so I called up a 1969 calendar on the internet. July 20 was a Sunday.


In 1969, in Saskatchewan, any place that sold any kind of alcohol in any form was closed up tighter than a drum on Sunday. All day Sunday. Every Sunday. No exceptions. There went the story I had just crafted. Time to hit the Delete button and start over.

Grandpa Higham and his buddies are now discussing the event over breakfast in the café Monday morning.

* * *

My first venture into semi-fictionalized family history was “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead, the story of my paternal grandparents, Abe and Addie Hanna. I didn’t have to worry about what day of the week it was with their story – they were affirmed teetotalers and staunch believers in prohibition.


#HistoricalFiction #Research #AmWriting #Rewriting #SaskatchewanHistory