Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Superwoman makes the best biscuits

Let me tell you about superwoman.

Once there was a very smart-looking, dark-haired young woman, dressed fashionably in skirt, boots, and a fur-collared jacket, posing for a picture in the metropolitan downtown of Montreal, circa late 1930s-early '40s. Maybe that is just the way I remember this photo, since I don't actually HAVE it but anyhow it struck me how worldly and sophisticated she looked.

Just a few years later, that vibrant woman was back home on the east coast, married to an older man and settled on his family farm in rural Prince Edward Island. She was about to deliver the first of 11 children, nine boys and two girls. She was now committed to a life of faith, family, love, making do and working harder than we can imagine. That strong character is my grandmother, Edith.

Edith and Wilfred on their wedding day
I was luckier than many children, having two living sets of grandparents close by when I was growing up. Edith and Wilfred Campbell, my grandparents on my father's side, lived within site of our house, so we spent a lot of time at their old farm. My grandfather was already into his 70s when I was a child, but he still worked hard, chopping wood in the shed and tinkering in his old carriage shop fixing clocks or taking engines apart just to put them back together again. He was the strong, silent type, happy to sit in his corner of the kitchen when folks were visiting, quietly sipping a cup of tea. My grandmother was the gregarious one, inviting every person who ever stepped through the door to sit down for a cuppa and a bite to eat. She would not be happy until you had eaten something, anything. Whatever it was, it was probably made by her own two hands and it was always delicious.

When my parents both worked, we went to Grammy's house. Today I wonder if by that time she might not have been tired of looking after small children, having spent most of her life doing that non-stop. But no, she relished having her grandchildren around her, feeding us, keeping us overnight, sending us out to play, saying "Just don't go near the sinkhole!" I still remember the feeling of being put to bed in their house, the wool blankets and homemade quilts piled on so heavily that we would be immobilized. The morning sounds of my grandfather getting up to stoke the fire and my grandmother starting a batch of biscuits were immeasurably comforting.

These days I use my grandmother's life to give me a dose of perspective. Particularly before we made this move to the prairies, I felt insanely busy, like there were never enough hours in the day. Two wildly different part-time jobs, plus being a full-time parent of two very active girls, plus marriage and a big house, a garden and yard to keep up. Oh, yeah, I was soooo busy.

Then I try to imagine Edith's life. A family of thirteen, no money to speak of, a farm, no modern conveniences. "Me time" would seem like a joke. The sheer volume of laundry, done without a machine, just makes the head spin. And the cooking! How many loaves of bread would it take to feed a family of 13, 9 of which were growing boys who probably never stopped eating? I always found it funny that my grandmother made huge batches of everything even after her children were grown and gone. She probably didn't know the recipe for a small batch.

Some of those mischievous sons

There would always be a baby (or several) to feed, bums and noses to wipe, mischievous little scamps to chase around. (Oh yes, there were definitely those ... all those dark-haired boys had a glint in their eyes.) Clothes to make and mend and re-mend and patch. And always, always meals to get on the table on time because that is what farm wives did. If a neighbour needed help, you helped. There was no extra money, no little luxuries. But there was a lot of love, with Edith right at the centre of it. Somehow they made do, frankly putting all of us over-consuming, over-spending complainers of today to shame.

You would think that backbreaking work, years of childbearing and rearing would make you cranky at times. But in all the years I've known her, I have never known my grandmother to be grumpy, or snappish as I am when tired or feeling moody. How can that be?

Edith with the first baby, Bennett
Edith survived two husbands and one son. In the last years of her marriage to my grandfather, he suffered from Alzheimer's, which eventually took away her beloved Wilfred. After his passing she remarried to an old flame from her Montreal time, the very fellow with whom she was photographed in that stylish fur collar. I always suspected that gentleman, Neil, had probably pined for her for many years before finally winning her hand. They had a number of happy years together, embracing their late-in-life romance with humour and love right up until he passed away. During her lifetime she faced cancer, diabetes, glaucoma and much, much more, not to mention all of the emotional, marital and health crises that happen to 11 children and therefore to her as well. Through all she remained steady, a loving presence in all of our lives. Right up until recent years, she still gave me a Christmas present, even though I am only one of 36 grandchildren. Who does that??

Each one of those grandchildren is so vital to her, as are our children, her great-grandchildren. She keeps track of everyone's lives, cherishes each new baby that comes into the family as if it were the first. After all of her own babies grew up and had babies, and those grew up and had babies, she still melts for the chance to cuddle one of those brand new people. I love to see the photos of my cousins proudly presenting their newborns to Grammy for the special Grammy Baby Benediction. She kisses their dear little fuzzy heads just as she kissed all of us when we were new. Her hugs are legendary, long and hard-squeezing, seriously loving hugs.

No one is perfect, I know that and she would be the first to say she is not. But if ever I needed a role model of grace in the face of adversity, love and generosity in the face of hard times and sorrow, beauty of the soul in the face of an ever-changing world, Edith is it. I know I am not alone in this.

We know now that she can't stay with us forever. Following a fall, a broken ankle, surgery and a heart attack, she decided it was time to leave this earth and join her loved ones in heaven. Her constant presence will remain with us, as such patience, wisdom, kindness and strength can never truly leave and will surely last through all of our lives. Surely such love has permeated all of us who have been blessed by it, so that we can still go on no matter what comes.

I certainly hope so. I will miss you terribly. Although I can hear your voice telling us it will be alright, today we are not sure. I will honour your memory by striving to be as loving, patient and kind to all that I meet, just as you did throughout your life. If any one of us can leave such a legacy of love as you have, we will truly be fortunate.

Written in memory of Edith Rice Campbell, 1921-2013.

If you have any special memories or thoughts about Edith, please feel free to put them in the comments below. I would love to read and share them.


  1. Amazing story Stephenie!!I have soooo many great memories of Nanny.I have read your story over and over and everytime I have cried.I love my Nanny sooo much.Thanks for sharing this awesome tribute.
    Tammy Campbell

  2. Your Nanny sounds wonderful! I love the photo of the boys. So handsome. I'd imagine it was a feat to get them to all sit still for the photograph. You're right, we complain about our lives being difficult but most of us only have 2 or 3 children to worry about. I can't imagine having 11.
    Unfortunately I didn't know either of my grandmothers. They both died before I was born. But I did have a step grandma who lived in Murray Harbour. We visited 3 or 4 times a year and always enjoyed Eva's kindness and cooking. Thanks for the wonderful blog. Love Karen

  3. Edith is a very special lady who brought up and shaped a wonderful family.
    Each one friendly and kind. I attended her 80th birthday party. Great lady indeed.
    She takes an interest in everyone even if they are not family.
    Love Rosa

  4. Beautifully written Stephanie about such a Beautiful person. Not many could compare to her. She is as close to perfect as is humanly possible. Anyone who has ever met her will forever remember her. I hope she knows just how much she is loved. I feel so blessed to have been part of her life. Loveing you dearly always. Shirley

  5. Wonderful perspective on work and the meaning of life. It is such an inspiration to read such a life and it encourages me to live on! Thanks Stephanie

  6. Beautifully done! Always enjoyed a freshly made biscuit and a warm hug from my "other" Mom. In my books, she was one of a kind.

    She will definitely be missed, but I am glad that she let go and didn't linger too long.

    Love to all of the family.

    Connie (and Peter) Clark

    1. Such a lovely tribute to a wonderful woman.
      Sincere sympathy to you and all of the family.
      Marie MacIntyre

  7. A beautiful story! I loved reading it. I remember many ladies so like your Gramma who did the work of a dozen women and raised happy and productive families whilst never having a moment to themselves. This story resonates!!! HC