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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Two lovely ladies, 74 years apart.

Victoria Labelle was born in 1915 in Gracefield, Quebec. On March 2nd, my grandma ‘Vicky’ celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday. Her hair and nails are still fire-engine red. And up until she broke her hip a year ago, she lived in her own little apartment.


Growing up, my family would visit my grandmother at her home in Gracefield, which used to be a one-room schoolhouse. She would feed us ‘til we could hardly move: tortiere and mashed potatoes and vegetables from her garden, and raspberry preserves with ice cream for dessert. Then she would stoke up the woodstove and we would have to go for a walk or take a nap.

I tried to practice my French with grandma Vicky, because it was her first language. She said if she didn’t speak it every day herself, she would ‘lose’ it.

Grandma sang continuously. Washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, weeding the garden. And she passed this on to my mother. Still today when she visits I see her puttering around the kitchen, touching and moving things and singing softly to herself.

This woman raised five children – four sons and a daughter – all by herself. She worked very hard and stretched every dollar to put food on the table. My mother says they were poor. She remembers going to a friend’s house after school and being amazed at the big bowl of fruit on the table. That was a sign of wealth, she thought, and made a promise to herself to always have fresh fruit on her table when she grew up.

Vicky worked in the cafeteria at Carleton University – a job she remembers fondly. And she worked very hard at home. That work ethic didn’t diminish with age. On a recent visit, Vicky told me a story about when she was helping her partner to load cords of wood into a truck. She was peeved with him because he had parked where she would have to climb uphill while carrying armloads of wood. “Up and down the hill I went,” she said. “I couldn’t believe we had to do this all day! Finally I told him, that’s enough! I’m taking a break. I’m eighty years old, you know!”

On Victoria’s seventy-fourth birthday, another feisty young woman entered the world. My daughter Milena shares her great grandmother’s love of life, self-confidence and maybe even a little bit of Vicky’s fighting spirit.

I was awakened in the hospital a few hours after Milena’s birth, by the sound of a metal cart being rolled down the hallway. The cart was a rack of shelves, each one holding three babies in baskets. They were being distributed to all the nursing mothers for their night feeding. This was 1989, at the Grace Hospital. Now they allow mothers to keep their babies by their beds.

They say a mother knows her baby by its cry. So I listened, but I couldn’t pick mine out. When they arrived at my bedside and handed the warm loaf to me, I knew why. Milena was completely silent, but her mouth was in a perfect ‘o’. “She’s an old soul,” said Frances, the nurse / midwife. “She has been here before and doesn’t see the point to all that screaming.”

Sure enough, Milena was a pretty content baby for the first couple years of her life. She rarely cried, but she also rarely smiled. As a toddler, her little brow would be knit with furrows as she muttered to herself about one thing or another. If you tried to make her laugh, she would simply stare at you until you were quite finished.

When Milena was about eight years old, she caught a glimpse of her profile in the mirror and didn’t like what she saw. Convinced she was ugly, she wouldn’t come out of the bathroom. I told her that she simply had a regal European nose that she would definitely grow into one day. And Mama was right. Baby, look at you now!

Now twenty-four, Milena is a self-employed graphic designer. She lives with her sweetheart Shayne and their cat-baby Wolfgang in a Barrhaven condo.

Later this week we plan to get the two birthday girls together for lunch and a story or two. I’m sure Vicky has a few we haven’t heard yet – or a few we wouldn’t mind hearing again.

2 comments:

todaysfarmwife.ca said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely story Diana! A wonderful read while I sit back and enjoy my lunch... which got me thinking LOTS about my Grandmothers that I miss so very much!

todaysfarmwife.ca said...

Thank you for sharing this lovely story Diana! A wonderful read while I sit back and enjoy my lunch... which got me thinking LOTS about my Grandmothers that I miss so very much!