Ever the Optimist

Canada, here I come.

No bending the knee to some high and mighty landowner, like Dad. No working someone else’s farmland, like Dad. Nope, I’m going to have my own farm.

To do that, I’m leaving not-so-merry old England. Leaving my friends, too, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

I don’t quite believe the picture the agent painted of Canadian farms. I’ve worked with Dad long enough to know farming is hard work. You don’t just throw the seed in the ground and watch it harvest itself.

Tomorrow, I leave on Mr. Cunard’s Ultonia. My farm awaits.

#99WordStories #CarrotRanchFlashFictionChallenge #HighamFamilyHistory #ImmigrantFarmers  #WordPrompt_Optimism #Hope #SaskatchewanHistory #MargaretGHanna


The Backstory

Caleb Higham, my maternal grandfather, emigrated to Canada in April, 1913, in search of his own farm. He did not want to be a tenant farmer like his father, and he knew that owning a farm in England was impossible.

Caleb landed in Montreal, bound for Regina, Saskatchewan. The Ultonia’s passenger manifest indicates he emigrated under the “British Bonus Allowed” program of the Canadian government. This program paid a bonus both to the agents who recruited farmers and to steamship agents. It also paid the immigrant farmer $10.00 if the immigrant purchased his farm land within six months of arriving in Canada.

Getting his farm wasn’t as easy as Caleb had imagined. By 1913, all the homestead land in southern Saskatchewan was taken up, and buying an existing farm was out of the question for someone who had arrived in Canada with only $25.00 in his pocket. He worked as a brakeman for the Canadian Pacific Railway for a time, then began work as a farm labourer for Will Grigg just north of Moose Jaw. There, he met Mary Appleton and, in 1915, they married .

He had to wait another nine years before buying his farm. First, he delivered milk for a Moose Jaw Dairy, then he rented a series of farms. In 1924, Caleb finally achieved his dream – he purchased a half-section (320 acres) of land north of the town of Assiniboia in southwestern Saskatchewan.

Caleb never did collect his $10.00.

Shadow Child

I wonder what she would have been like, my little girl that never was.

A mother’s worst fear, a miscarriage, a child born too soon.

People said, “But you already have three children,” or “You can always have another.” How could people be so cruel? No one can be the same as this child.

I sometimes dream of her, what she might have been. Sometimes when I’m in my garden, or sitting quietly embroidering a pillowcase, I hear her voice, her laughter, and I look up, but no one is there. Only a ghost of what might have been.

#99WordStory #HighamFamilyHistory #Miscarriage #InfantMortality #NonFiction #Tragedy #MargaretGHanna


The back story:
Losing a child under any circumstance is a heart-rending event. My maternal grandmother, Mary Higham, had two miscarriages sometime in the 1920s, long before the advent of medical interventions that now allow premature babies to survive. Even though infant mortality, both premature and full-term, was more common then, it was still a devastatingly tragic event.

My mother and aunts didn’t say much about the miscarriages, just that they had happened, but their few words conveyed profound sorrow. They must have thrown a long-lasting shadow in the Higham home for my mother and aunts to remember them after all those years.

Sabbatical

John leaves tomorrow.

He’s been here a month. A month of spending time with his friends, smoking, drinking telling tall tales. A month of being swooned over by all the girls who think he is “so handsome!!!” in his RCAF uniform. A month of helping Cale with harvest. A month of teasing his sisters and kid brother.

But throughout the whole month, all I could see is Damocles’ sword hanging over his head. I wonder if he sees it, too. If that’s why he spends so much time “living it up.”

Tomorrow he leaves. For Europe. For the war.

#99WordStory #WorldWarII #HighamFamilyHistory #RCAF #MothersWorries #BomberCommand #MooseSquadron #NonFiction #MargaretGHanna


The back story:

My uncle, John Brock Higham, “signed up” for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the spring of 1940, and was called up for training in September of that year. One year later, September of 1941, he came back to the farm at Assiniboia for a month’s leave before being posted overseas as a pilot in Bomber Command.

As happy as his mother might have been to have him home, Grandma Higham probably carried a heavy stone in her heart that entire month. It wasn’t her sabbatical, it was John’s, but she experienced it, too, just from a different perspective. The news from overseas during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz was nothing but doom and gloom, destruction and death. And her son was heading straight into it as a pilot in Bomber Command. How could she not worry?

The Year We Didn’t Break the Wooden Spoon

Christmas cake. What would Christmas be without it? (Yes, I’m one of those who love it!)

The beginning of every December, Mom pulled out the old cigar box that held her mother’s Christmas cake recipe and began the ritual.

Step one: assemble all the fruit – sultanas, dark raisins, golden raisins, mixed peel, candied citron, and glace cherries. And don’t forget the almonds and walnuts. That entailed a day of rummaging through the lower back shelf of the old Kelvinator refrigerator to retrieve what was left over from last year’s production, plus a trip to Mr. Marcotte’s general store to purchase anything we hadn’t found. Mom dumped all the fruit into the large yellow Pyrex bowl and poured apple juice over it all. Dad was a staunch teetotaler so no rum or brandy in our house!

Step two: cream the butter (the homemade variety) and brown sugar with a wooden spoon until smooth and creamy. Mom and I took turns for the hour or so of smooshing and blending till we thought our arms would drop off.

Step three: dredge the fruit with flour, dump in the fruit and nuts and more flour, plus the cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, and stir till mixed.

Stir?” Are you kidding? How do you stir something as solid a fruit cake batter? You might as well be stirring cement!

There’s a tradition in making Christmas cake that everyone has to give the batter a stir to ensure good luck in the coming year. At least, that’s what Mom told us, and she wouldn’t lie. So each of us would dutifully take our turn trying to stir the mass. And, inevitably, the wooden spoon would break. I don’t know if that, too, was supposed to ensure good luck in the coming year.

After several decades of annually broken wooden spoons, my brother (of all people) had the “Aha!” moment. “Why don’t we mix it in the Mill-N-Mix*?” he asked.

Now, why didn’t we think of that?

We dumped the butter and brown sugar into the giant stainless steel bowl and turned on the machine. It beat that mixture into submission in no time flat. We dumped in the fruit, the nuts, the flours and the spices and watched in amazement as the industrial-strength dough hook wound its way through all that “stuff” with absolutely no problem. In 10 minutes or less, we had Christmas cake batter ready to spoon into the already greased and lined antique cake tins (another legacy from Mother’s mother) and put them into the oven.

We no longer took turns stirring the batter to bring good luck but perhaps taking turns turning the machine on and off counted instead. I don’t recall that we had any less good luck in the absence of a broken spoon.

#ChristmasCake #ChristmasTradition #BakingExperience #Mill-N-Mix #Innovation #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #MargaretGHanna

*A Mill-N-Mix grinds grain which you then put into the attached bowl to make bread. It is now vintage equipment – find one if you can. Here’s a picture and description of it.

Old World Charm?

“Bodicote is a dump!”

Mary’s letter from Oxfordshire shocked me. She didn’t like the village where I grew up? How could she not? The cobblestone streets. The village pub (I got drunk there many nights as a lad). The Green where everyone caroused on Fair night.

I read further. And sighed. The pub was gone. The Green was Brown. Banbury was encroaching, razing everything in its path. Dad’s farm, the one he rented from Mrs. Wyatt, was in shambles, about to be bulldozed for houses.

I had never wanted to return to England. Now there was even less reason.

#99WordStories #CarrotRanchChallenge #HighamFamilyHistory #BodicoteOxfordshire #QuaintEnglishVillage #MargaretGHanna


My maternal grandfather, Caleb Higham (b. 1889), grew up on a farm — The Grange — just northwest of Bodicote which, in turn, is just south of Banbury. A hundred years ago, Bodicote was one of those reputedly “quaint” English villages: three streets lined with brick row houses, a pub or two, a school, the village green, and St. John the Baptist Anglican Church surrounded by the graveyard. No longer; it is now overrun by housing development and is merely a suburb of Banbury.

No one knows why Caleb decided to emigrate to Canada in 1913. He never talked about it, in spite of the many times my mother and aunts and uncles asked. He refused to return to England, leaving everyone to suspect he left England under a cloud of some sort.

Grandma Higham did return, in 1952, to visit her sisters in Cornwall and then to visit Caleb’s family in Oxfordshire. By some stroke of good fortune, her letters to Caleb were saved, and the opening line in my little story above is taken directly from one of her letters. She was not amused, and my grandmother, never one to mince her words, spoke it like she saw it.

The Hero

An iron fist came crashing down
sent darkness snaking ‘cross the ground.
Out of that darkness came a cry
from someone rising to defy.
Others rallied round the call
for freedom, peace and hope for all.

That flame will never die.

#Heros #CarrotRanchCowsinoNovemberChallenge #FreedomsCry #Peace #Churchill #Roosevelt #MartinLutherKingJr #NelsonMandela #MahatmaGanhi #VolodymyZelenskyy #MargaretGHanna

The Debate

Caleb, Willie, Pete and Teo were well into their fourth, maybe fifth, beer.

“King has to resign.”

“Why should he? You think MacDonald wasn’t crooked?”

“He has to, it’s the honourable thing to do.”

“Ha! Honour in politics! You’re taking the mickey, Pete.”

“All I shay is, ish not my shircus, ish not my monkeys,” Teo slurred.

The argument came to a dead stop. “What?” the others said.

“Ish old Polish shaying, means . . .” Teo scratched his head, shrugged, “. . . means not my problem.”

“Of course it’s your problem.”

“Only if you’re a damned Liberal.”

The debate went downhill from there.

#99WordStory #CarrotRanchFlashFictionChallenge #FlashFiction #HighamFamilyHistory #CanadianHistory #Politics #KingByngAffair #MargaretGHanna


The back story:

Caleb Higham, my maternal grandfather, liked to drink. My uncles have stories of him coming home after a night of drinking with his buddies, three sheets to the wind, drunker than a skunk, pissed to the gills (pick your metaphor). Plus, he often sported bruised knuckles, a black eye, and a swollen lip because once “liquored up” he often got into fisticuffs. How he managed to drive the six miles from Assiniboia back to the farm without killing himself remains a mystery. Grandma Higham, a confirmed teetotaler to her dying day, was not amused, as they say. She invariably tore a strip off him, but it did no good.

Caleb was also a staunch Liberal. His brother-in-law was a staunch Conservative. This led to many good-natured political debates around the kitchen table. What those same debates might have been like with Caleb’s drinking buddies is anyone’s guess.

The “debate” referenced in this story is the rather messy 1926 King-Byng affair. In the federal election that year, the incumbent Liberals under William Lyon McKenzie King won fewer seats that the Conservatives under Arthur Meighan. Governor-General Lord Byng suggested that King resign but King refused, claiming he could continue in power with the support of the Progressive Party that held the balance of power in the House of Commons.

Then word leaked that one of King’s appointees had taken bribes, whereupon the Conservatives claimed that corruption was rife in the government. The government took its usual approach and appointed a commission to investigate. Thereupon followed a lot of too-ing and fro–ing but eventually King asked the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament to let Meighan form government. Lord Byng refused, citing King’s prior claim.

King promptly resigned and asked Meighan to form the government, which he did. The Liberals and Progressives moved a Motion of Non-Confidence which the Meighan government lost. Parliament was dissolved and another federal election was held.

This time, the Liberal party won a plurality of seats and King was once again Prime Minister.

Who says politics is boring?

Fire in the Sky

“Mommy, mommy, come quick. The sky’s on fire!”

No! Cale said he would burn the stubble tonight. Had the fire got away on him? I dropped my knitting and ran outside.

“Oh, my!”

Marjorie was right. The sky was on fire. The setting sun was painting the clouds red, yellow and orange, all edged with gold.

I remembered my first prairie sunset, 10 years previous. I had never seen the like in England. A chinook arch, a continually roiling mass of reds and yellows, golds and purples. It left me breathless.

“Oh, my!” We stood still, hand in hand, awestruck.

#99WordStories #CarrotRanchFlashFictionChallenge #FlashFiction #CreativeNonFiction #HighamFamilyHistory #PrairieSunset #MargaretGHanna


The back story:

We prairie people say there is nothing to match a prairie sunset. The setting sun ushers out the day in a blaze of glory, a spectacle of yellows, oranges, reds and golds, an ever-changing palette that slowly fades into blues and purples and indigos before winking out.

It is never twice the same. It inevitably brings gasps of “Wow!” and “Look at that!” and “Isn’t that amazing!”

It’s guaranteed to cause us adults to drop our adulthood and regain that child-like wonder at the mystery and majesty of the world around us.

What did my maternal grandmother think the first time she saw a prairie sunset? I like to think she did as we all do, that she stood in awe of the spectacle unfolding before her. A glorious welcome to Canada.

The Letter

“Dear Father,”

The start of the lie. Part of the conspiracy. Would he fall for it?

“Emigrating to Canada was a grievous error.”

It was not. Another part of the lie.

“I want to return home, to England.”

No! Her sister Bessie wanted to come to Canada.

“Alas, I can not afford the fare.”

Father could. He had promised to send it. If he did, she’d send it back to Bessie.

“Please send the money. I will be forever in your debt. Your loving daughter, Mary.”

He bought the lie. He sent the money.

Bessie arrived four months later.

#99WordStories #CarrotRanchFlashFictionChallenge #FlashFiction #HighamFamilyHistory #FamilyHistory #LiesAndDeceit #ImmigrantStory #NonFiction #MargaretGHanna


The back story

This is the true story of how my maternal grandmother, Mary, and her sister Bessie conspired to get Bessie to Canada. I heard it 30 years ago from Aunt Marjorie, the oldest of my mother’s siblings. I’ve heard the same story from my second cousins, the grandchildren of Great-Aunt Bessie, so it must be true.

When my maternal grandmother, Mary Appleton, told her parents she was emigrating to Canada, they all but disowned her. However, her father made the (in retrospect, foolish) promise that if she ever came to her senses, realized what a terrible error she had made, and wanted to return to England, he would send her the fare. That was in June, 1912.

No one knows what prompted Mary to leave England or if what she found here is what she expected. Nor does anyone know why Bessie, one of her younger sisters, also decided to emigrate to Canada. Perhaps the “colonies” held more promise and potential than Mother England.

As the family account goes, Bessie wanted to emigrate but had no money. However, Mary remembered her father’s promise. She wrote him what I assume was a letter of regret and remorse for having left England’s fair shores, and asked him to send her the fare so she could return. When she received the money, she sent it back to Bessie who arrived in June, 1914.

One can only imagine her father’s reaction when he learned the truth. I doubt that neither Mary nor Bessie cared. They were together and in Canada, and that was all that mattered.

My reaction when I heard this story was, “Now I understand why the women in my family are the way they are!” Strong, independent, stubborn, contrary and proud – those characteristics are firmly entrenched in all of us.

That is not quite the end of the conspiracy. On the passenger manifest of the Ascania that brought Bessie to Canada is the notation under “Destination” – “going to married sister.”

Except, Mary was not married! Why the deception?

I suspect it was because Bessie was only 19 and was traveling unaccompanied by either father, husband or older brother. There is some information suggesting it was frowned upon for young (i.e., younger than 21) unmarried women to emigrate on their own – they had to be accompanied by an older male family member. After all, what sort of young woman (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) would emigrate on her own in 1914? Bessie might have run into that roadblock when booking her passage and again upon arrival in Canada. Going to live with a married sister would legitimize her travel because there would be(supposedly) a brother-in-law, i.e., a man, to look after her.

Not that either Bessie or Mary needed looking-after!

In Remembrance

The bedsprings squeaked as John tossed and turned. Tomorrow he was flying his first sortie. Tomorrow he was flying into danger.

He had always wanted to fly, that was why he had chosen the Air Force rather than the Army like his brother. He had trained for this day, and now it was here. Was he ready for the responsibility? Of bringing his Wellington back? Of bringing his crew back? Of the carnage he would leave behind?

Other bedsprings squeaked. John wasn’t the only one fretting about tomorrow. But tonight . . .

He closed his eyes and dreamt of prairie skies.

#99WordStories #CarrotRanchFlashFictionChallenge #FlashFiction #HighamFamilyHistory #WorldWarII #MooseSquadron419 #NonFiction #RoyalCanadianAirForce #PTSD #MargaretGHanna


The Back Story:

John Brock Higham, my maternal uncle, “signed up” for the war in the spring of 1940. He received his “call” in September, 1940, and began his training as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force. A year later, he received his wings – he was now Pilot Officer Higham. In September, 1941, he was posted to England, a member of “Moose” Squadron #419 of Bomber Command. On his first few missions, he flew as second officer. In May, 1942, he was assigned his own Wellington bomber and chose his own crew. He was not yet 22 years old.

They flew their remaining missions together and, miraculously, all survived. The Wellington was not so lucky. More than once, John brought his Wellington limping home on a wing and a prayer. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for once such event; King George VI and the Duke of Kent visited on separate occasions and congratulated the Squadron for their service.

In September, 1942, John and his crew were chosen, purely by chance, to go on a cross-Canada tour to raise money for the war effort and to raise the spirits of Canadians, especially those working in factories supplying the war effort. At the conclusion of the tour, he was posted to the west coast where he flew submarine-spotting missions – there were rumours of a Japanese invasion.

In 1944, Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) was recruiting pilots from the RCAF. John was not about to give up flying just because the war was ending. He joined TCA and trained to fly civilian airplanes. He flew for Air Canada for 41 years before retiring.

John privately published a book about his war-time experiences, a matter-of-fact description of how a prairie ploughboy came to fly over dangerous and deadly German skies. Only once did he describe the emotional toll of the war. One of his crew members had serious moral and religious problems with being the bomb-aimer. John knew if he reported this crew member, he would be court-martialed for “lack of moral fibre” as PTSD was then called. Instead, John reassigned duties among his crew.

Many years later, his younger brother George asked, “Do you ever dream about the war?” “All the time,” John replied.

Pilot Officer (Ret.) John Brock Higham, D.F.C., passed away June 18, 2020, 22 days before his 100th birthday. He now flies safer skies.