It is a glorious October day, sunny and 24 degrees when I stop at the Mountain View Cemetery on Somenos Road, just outside of Duncan, to find my family. I park my car in front of the gates, step out, and wander into the oldest part of the cemetery. Old trees stretch up to the sky, their branches cast a shadow on the tombstones below. The grass is dry underfoot and brown pine needles blanket the tombs.
I first find the Truesdales—a family connection, my great-great-grandmother’s niece. In the 1890s Jane Truesdale had joined her aunt after the family moved from Ontario to the young town of Duncan, BC on Vancouver Island.
Next, I spy the Grassies: my 2nd great-grandparents, Margaret and Robert. Born in Aberdeen, he was one of the local blacksmiths in town, a trade passed down from his father. A spider web spreads its sticky fingers across the face of the tombstone. I brush it aside and say hello to these ancestors who died a century before.
I take photos, then continue my search. Here lies my great-uncle, Wilfred Hattie, who drowned as a bachelor in his early 30s—some say he fell overboard after too much drink. But this was rarely spoken of. Instead, Dad’s cousin shares the memory of how my great-grandmother, Minnie, walked to the cemetery each Sunday to visit her only son’s grave. She planted a feathery purple heather atop the plot to soften the landscape where her beloved Boy lay “at rest.” Eventually she was buried there beside him. Wilfred’s name overshadows Daniel and Minnie’s, “Dad” and “Mum.” A son should never die before his parents.
Some years ago, Minnie’s purple heather was rooted out and the landscape simplified. The plant connected me to my great-grandmother—her grief, her faith, her healing—and I was sad to see it removed. Now the plot is covered with plastic and rocks to keep the weeds at bay. “Who will come to tend the graves after I am gone?” my dad’s cousin asks. “It’s got to have a permanent surface put on it. One of these years I’m not going to be able to go.” She is in her eighties and still comes every month with her trowel and knee pads. In the spring she picks wildflowers to put on the graves. “It gives me a little chance to have a chat with my grandparents and my parents,” she says. “Here we are, mother, back again.”
And that is my next stop, too. Beside the Hatties are her parents, Walter Whan and his wife. There are bird droppings and pine needles. I scrape them away. Auntie Grace was my grannie’s oldest sister. She outlived everyone in her family and helped me feel loved after my grannie was gone. “In Loving Memory.”
I walk back to the car to sit in the air conditioner while I type up my notes and think. Now that I am gone, a gray squirrel scampers across the brittle grass, the only living thing left in the cemetery. All the loved ones remain below ground “Till the Dawn break and the shadows flee.” In the meantime, I remember their lives and take meaning from their existence.
Who will come after Dad’s cousin is gone?
I was recently introduced to my husband’s Great-Aunt Myrtle—who died nearly 40 years ago—through her lemon pie filling. We were at a cousin’s house who had made the pie filling to serve as a cheesecake topping. It was delicious, with just the right combination of sweet and tart.
This prompted me to get out my husband’s copy of the Jensen Family Cookbook. There it was, “Lemon Pie,” on page 117. Under the recipe was written “NOTE: Aunt Myrtle was famous for her lemon pies!”
That was good enough for me. I decided to make it for the upcoming church pie baking contest. The ingredients were simple: sugar, water, egg yolks, cornstarch, butter and one lemon. Boil, cool, boil, pour into a baked pie shell, then “bake in a slow oven” for 10 to 12 minutes. Simple, affordable and tasty!
Myrtle Jensen was born in Spring City, Utah in 1894 but travelled to southern Alberta by horse-drawn wagon with her Danish parents when she was just 2 years old. She married Leith Johnson in 1917 and together they raised a family of eight children through the ups and downs of world wars, the death of a child, and the everyday challenges of prairie living. Myrtle died in 1983 at the age of 88, but her memory lives on.
And the pie baking contest? Great-Aunt Myrtle’s Lemon Pie tied for first place! A fitting tribute to a wonderful recipe and a nod to the woman who shared it.
My husband and I recently visited his uncle in southern Alberta. I noticed an old china cabinet and peered at some of the objects displayed inside. On the top shelf was an elaborate clear cut-glass bowl. It sat on a pedestal base and was topped by a matching lid.
The dish, I was told, belonged to my husband’s 2nd great-grandmother, Louisa (Parker) Wynder (1855-1932). In 1896 she and her husband moved from Idaho to Cardston, Alberta, and she carefully packed it in a barrel of dried beans to keep it safe during the two-month wagon journey.
Louisa had been born in London, England in 1855 where she trained as a tailoress. In later years she told her granddaughter Jennie stories of her early years in London. She recalled the hot mint tea or ginger tea with “little squares of bread and butter and sometimes jam,” or “real tea” with oatmeal crumpets. She spoke of Christmas goose and suet plum pudding soaked in brandy sauce. “The lamps were dimmed, and they sat in silence while the brandy’s blue flame burned low.” But most of all, she spoke of hats: “Such beautiful hats the ladies wore! Grandma had a weakness for pretty hats. When she told me about them, she said they were always trimmed in ribbons and forget-me-nots or waving ostrich plumes.”
But city life would fall far behind her. When she was about sixteen years old, Louisa attended a church meeting and obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon. She and her family joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and emigrated to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1872. Louisa married Henry Wynder there in 1874, and as she would later describe it, “We have had a pioneer life ever since.”
After several moves around Utah, the family finally settled in Almo, Idaho where Henry worked as a ranch cook. Louisa gave birth to her 7th child there. Although life was hard, she just wanted to stay put. Or, as she explained: “Canada was then being talked about and its climate, but I said I’d pioneered enough and that was the last place I’d go.”
However, Henry lost his job after the ranch was sold, so the couple sold their home, took their savings, and put it into cattle and “an outfit to travel overland.” They arrived in Cardston on July 1, 1896, the glass dish safely buried among the dried beans. Despite the challenges of moves, children and pioneering, Louisa never gave up on her love for her London home and beautiful things. In later years, not only did she make Yorkshire pudding and create “exquisite eyelet and cut-work embroidery,” but she wore an ostrich-plumed hat.
Louisa’s treasured crystal dish was passed down through her maternal line for two generations until it came to my husband’s grandmother Jennie. I had never seen a dish like that, so took a picture, and used Google Lens to find similar images online. I discovered that the dish was American-made from the Riverside Glass Works company. It is a compote dish, and would have been used to serve fruits cooked in syrup. Apparently this is exactly how Jennie used it: she would pour a pint of her home-made canned raspberries into the bowl and serve it out like her “Grandma” did.
Jennie had five sons and no daughters, so Louisa’s compote dish is now proudly displayed in one of her son’s living rooms. It is a reminder of Louisa and all the other pioneer women who managed to treasure beauty in the midst of their hard work and sacrifice.
FamilySearch.org Memories: Louisa (Parker) Wynder: Autobiography; Jennie (Hinman) Vance “Grandma Told Us”; Beryl Shaw “In Memory of a Dear Grandmother”
Interview with my husband’s uncle and aunt at Raymond, AB, August 21, 2022.
We are currently visiting my husband’s family in southern Alberta. I spied this basket on a shelf and captured the following heirloom story from my mother-in-law:
Her great-grandfather, Hans Christian Jensen (1827-1932) emigrated from Denmark to Aetna in southern Alberta. He had a large family and lived to 104 years of age. Hans had learned basket-weaving in his home country, and skillfully used this talent in his old age. After every wheat harvest he collected the straw and in the spring he gathered the green willow shoots that grew alongside the irrigation canals. He painstakingly wove intricate baskets from these simple materials, and people travelled long distances to buy them.
While Hans did not speak English, he clearly spoke through his baskets. When his grandchildren married, he gifted each one of them a baby basket, a clothes basket, and a sewing basket.
My mother-in-law’s parents, Harold and Ruth Jensen, were given such baskets upon their marriage in 1927. Ruth used the washing basket to bring the wet, washed clothes to dry outside on the line, then filled it with the dried clothes to bring them back in the house. She used the sewing baskets to store spools of thread and small mending projects.
Ruth passed this sewing basket on to her daughter (my mother-in-law), who then passed it down to my sister-in-law. Hans’ basket is still used today, a century after its creation.
This photo of Hans and his baskets was taken when he was 100 years old.
WAS THERE EVER A MORE MAGICAL PLACE than Grannie’s house?
Today we went to the nursery to buy some spring flowers for our garden. The bedding plants were ready, and the air smelled of soil and fertilizer. It brought back childhood memories of visiting my grannie at her home in Duncan on Vancouver Island.
Grannie Inkster loved to garden. The beds around her house would burst with colour. Her back deck overflowed with a bounty of flowers that she grew from seeds in small plastic trays, then transplanted. They had delicious names that I loved to savour, like dah-li-a, snap-dragon, a-za-le-a, black-eyed-susan, dusty-miller, and del-phin-i-um.
At the end of one visit we were jumbling back into the station wagon to journey home, when she handed me a small sprouting nas-tur-tium in a white styrofoam cup. I kept it safely during the drive north to Comox and on the ferry back home to Powell River. But I was more enamoured with the thought of growing flowers than the actual deed, and I think the poor seedling only lasted a week before it shriveled and died.
Roses were Grannie’s specialty, and I remember her crushing up broken eggshells, making a compost and spreading them around her rose bushes. Grannie always reused things, saving elastic bands, string and bits of paper. She wrote her gardening recipes—instructions for when to plant seeds and where to plant the seedling—on the white cardboard she had saved from the pantyhose packaging.
Such happy memories… drawn simply from the scent of soil and a few plants ready for planting.
AS A ROYAL ARMY MEDICAL CORPS DOCTOR on the front lines of the Salonika Campaign, Alex Bremner was often in as much danger as the soldiers he was trying to save. His light-hearted, teasing letters to cousin Anna are peppered with hints of danger, fatigue, and a longing for home.
15 October 1916: “We’ve done our bit here for a while and I’ve got safely through this time and only a lucky one can hit me now.”
19 January 1917: “You made me laugh when I read your letter saying you might be commandeered. That’s a long word to spell. But cheer up they won’t conscript you yet… What did you do on Xmas day? I had a fairly quiet day. Nothing to do and all day to do it in. Aeroplanes are flying about all over the place and making a horrible noise so if you can’t read this letter just blame the aeroplanes. I can’t remember any girl called Jeanie, but if she’s as pretty as you say it’s just as well for my peace of mind that I don’t remember her.”
SOMETIMES WHILE RESEARCHING and writing my family history I find a person whose story resonates with me. This is one of those. Alex Bremner didn't leave any direct descendants to remember him, but as Remembrance Day is nearly upon us I thought it fitting to share what I have written of his story so far, so we can all remember him and the other men and women who sacrificed. #LestWeForget
THE THINLY-SLICED CARROTS
fall away from the knife.
A turkey basks
In the oven heat.
We wipe our hands on a tea towel,
Straighten our aprons.
Our hair curls from the heat and
The last-minute preparations
Of our Thanksgiving feasts.
Minnie and me, 100 years apart,
Sharing the same kitchen routine,
The same spirit of joy.
Friends, Family, Food -
Blessings from God.
COUSIN KAROLYN, ONE OF THE guardians of our family's female past, has an old, wide-ruled school exercise book that is held together by black tape. On the cover is written simply “Old Recipes”.
Karolyn’s mother, my Great-Auntie Grace, transcribed in her vintage handwriting the precious recipes of her life that included: her Mother’s Pumpkin Pie, her sister Margaret’s Rhubarb Upside Down Cake, Mrs. Codnille’s pastry, and Mar Evan’s Tutti Frutti.
Reading each recipe title is a memory stamped in dough: mix, roll, bake and remember laughter and cake shared over tea, a plate full of cookies at the church bazaar, a festive Christmas table adorned with homemade pie. Decades have passed, but each recipe is forever connected with the woman who shared it.
As I stumble across the images on my computer, I am tugged towards the homemade past, my female ancestors and their friends, who shared joy, tears and sisterhood through food.
And so, in spite of pending deadlines, I drag out the flour canister, brown sugar, raisins and butter. I stir in chopped nuts, drop the dough by teaspoonful and bake in a “moderate oven”. My effort to recreate great-great Auntie Pitt’s Perfect Raisin Cookies is a Perfect Recipe for Remembering.
IT'S NO SECRET THAT I AM PASSIONATE about recording family stories. But what is the best way to preserve and share them? In spite of the wonders of the digital age, I am still a believer in print.
There is something magical about holding a tangible object in your hands, words and photos imprinted on a page. No matter how big or small your storytelling project may be, I think that there is value in having a hard copy to read yourself and share with family members.
In 2017 I decided to write the story of my 2nd great-grandmother, Renate Fooken Pedersen. She died in childbirth in Sims, North Dakota around 1901, but we had no records to back that up. A few years ago, I obtained a photo of her from a distant cousin; she stands outside in a muddy farmyard, tenderly holding a baby, and gazing out to the viewer. Her photo has sat on my living room side table for many years, and every time I looked at her I wanted to know more. My quest was to piece together the story of her life as best I could, using her photograph as a jumping off place.
I spent several months doing just that, weaving together the facts I discovered into a non-fiction narrative essay, and when I finished writing her story, I wanted to share it with my family members. I chose Blurb.ca as my self-publishing choice and was pleased with the results. My writing was essay length with photos, and so a 7 x 7 inch photo book fit my needs exactly.
Here are some of my tips to help you with your project:
When I received Remembering Renate in the mail, I was so excited. It is the best feeling to open up your package and seeing the final tangible product of all your research, writing, and design.
Let me know if you publish your family’s stories and how you decided to do it!