My grandmother’s story was intriguing. On the surface, I knew she had raised five children alone during the Great Depression, two of whom became very successful—Father Larry (a university professor, priest, and Gregorian Chant scholar) and my Dad (a medical researcher, university professor, specialist, lecturer, examiner, and President of a number of medical associations including the Canadian Thoracic Society). Her other three children also did well.
I was curious about my grandmother’s success as a mother and sole provider in the face of the huge challenges widowhood and the Great Depression posed. I had heard bits and pieces of her story, but I wanted to know more. I was clear on the idea that I wanted to write a novel. But, I wasn’t really sure where to start. And by the time I became interested in researching her, she and many of the people who had played a pivotal role in her life were dead. Fortunately, her youngest sister, Gert, was still alive, as were a number of other elderly aunts, uncles, and cousins. So, I decided to interview them.
Some of the questions I asked seem mundane now. But they included questions on why my grandmother moved to Massachusetts; how she met my grandfather; how he died; how my grandmother managed to raise her family alone; and what she did for money. I also asked about her attitudes toward education, the community and the Church; who helped her; and what it was like growing up during the Depression. I wanted to know what her family did for entertainment; whether they felt poor; and what it was like to live on a farm. Then I asked about some of the superstitions I had heard about because, the community being Catholic, there were many.
Among the many good aspects of interviewing the elderly is that their long-term memories are sharp and if you ask one or two questions, they will ramble on for hours. The trick is to capture every tangent they go on—these people are a treasure trove of information. From my interviews, I learned that my grandmother operated a small farm; worked as a mid-wife; hooked rugs; bought wild Mustangs off the train from the Prairies, fattened them up and sold them for a profit; that she never allowed her children to miss school, even during planting season (school was out during harvest); and supported them in their endeavour of choice. She gave advice to the lovelorn; loved company and was a terrific hostess; she was exceptionally good with money (she had to be); and she returned to Boston to die in her son, Joe’s home. I learned that Joe quit school at 15, lied about his age, enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the North African and Italian Campaigns; that Larry studied Gregorian Chant at St. Patrick’s Basilica in New York City; and that my father, Paul, was stricken with TB (he caught it from his roommate at St. Dunstan’s University), spent three months in the San and three more years recovering, before he completed his undergraduate education and went on to study medicine and specialize in chest disease. I also learned that Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig helped my grandmother buy her farm.
I did a lot of reading too. I read histories on Prince Edward Island, the Great Depression, and World War Two; I read about Prince Edward Island folklore; self-published memoirs; books on fox farming and how to train a wild horse; and I read annual reports on the Prince Edward Island Sanatorium. I spent hours in the Prince Edward Island Archives reading back issues of the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper on microfiche, and any diaries, pamphlets or transcripts I could get my hands on. I wanted to know the news of the time and the personal accounts of the people who live through it.
Finally, I had a lot of really good information. Then I sat down to write an outline.