My Grandmother, Serena Anderson

Serena Anderson, 84

I mentioned last month that I’ve scanned in a number of pictures from my grandparents’ old photo albums. Everything I’ve put up thus far has been from my grandfather’s youth, and so I thought I’d mix things up a little bit by putting up some information on my grandmother. A great deal of the following text comes from an interview I did with my grandmother for a school English assignment. I have no idea what the project was about, but I must have put a lot of time into it based on how long the interview was. Anyway, I recently came into possession of a number of my old computer files, and I was delighted to find this conversation typed up. I’m sorry that some of my questions are a little stilted and her answers tend to ramble. I was just a kid when I did this, and I had no idea how to conduct a proper interview. I have added some recent additions and notes. You’ll find them in square brackets.

My grandmother will be 85 this August, and a lot of interesting things have happened to her: As a newborn she spent six months in a hospital, hours away from her mother, and she may have been almost adopted by her mother’s cousin. Even my grandmother is a little hazy on the details of that episode. Her father died in a logging accident before she was five years old. She spent a lot of her childhood as a pair of working eyes for a blind neighbour. She grew up very poor during the Great Depression. She gave up school at fourteen after her mother was in a car accident, and then she got a job working for seventeen cents an hour six days a week in a wool mill. Her youth was spent in a very different Canada from the one I live in today, and I think I’m rather lucky to have these stories to paint a picture of what that was like.

Full Name: Verna Serena (MacDonald) Anderson

Date of Birth: August 24, 1925

Place of Birth: Bracebridge, Ontario. I was born in my home with a midwife present.


My grandmother, left, around age 12 with her older sister Ila MacDonald, around age 16. Grandma claims that Ila and her brother Pip got all the looks in the family.

I have one brother and one sister that are still living. I had three brothers and two sisters: One brother died as a baby; one died in Dieppe during the Second World War, and I had one sister who died a couple of years ago. [That would be well over a decade ago now.]

What is you earliest childhood memory?

Well I don’t really remember this, but I was told about it, so I guess it is my earliest memory: When I was born I weighed nine and a half pounds, but by the time I was three months old I weighed only seven pounds, so I was taken to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto by train; the doctor told my mother that I would die by the time they got me as far as Barrie and that there was no use in trying. Still, they got me to Toronto, and I stayed in the Sick Kids Hospital for six months.

My mother went back home, and she couldn’t come back down to see me because they couldn’t afford to travel that much back in those days; however, she did come to pick me up, and she said that I looked like such a butter ball that she couldn’t believe it was really her kid. What I don’t know for sure, though, someone had told me that my mother had gone to pick me up from the hospital, but my mother’s cousin who lived in Toronto had already come and picked me up, and [the hospital] had me released and taken me back to her house.

This is one of only two pictures of my great-grandfather, David Eastman MacDonald. He

She –the cousin– told the hospital that my mother said she could keep me, because Mom said she didn’t need me; she already had enough kids. I don’t know whether or not my mother’s cousin had any kids of her own. I never found that out. I don’t know if that is true, or whether it was just a story they made up about her taking me home, but I did spend those six months in Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, and I was a butter ball when I went back home.

I don’t know how she would have gotten me out of the hospital, being that she was only a cousin of my mother’s, but my mom at that time had six of us kids, and [I guess] she figured she didn’t need any more.

What is the earliest childhood memory that you do remember?

I was playing in the gravel pit with this man and some kids, and I found out years later that that man we were playing with was my Dad, and the kids were my brother and two sisters. My Dad use to take us out on Sundays to the gravel pit and let us play in the gravel and in the sand.

How old were you at that time?

I would have been around four years old.

That was in Bracebridge?

Yes, that is where we lived at the time. My Dad died that winter, in January, when I would have been about four and a half years old. I would have turned five in August, so yes, I was about four and a half.

I remember them coming to the house, and all the confusion and people running around, and I looked out the window and there was a big black car in front of my house. I thought that was really unusual because cars were so uncommon back in those days. I found out later that that was a hearse that was being used as an ambulance, and the attendants came to pick up Mom and bring her to the hospital.

How did you Father die?

This is the other photo of my great-grandfather, David Eastman MacDonald --although we can't be sure he's even in the photo. I think he's the one on the left. My grandmother remembers being told he's on the right. Either way, it was a stack of logs like this that was the death of him: They were being dragged behind a team of horses, and the chains holding the logs steady snapped.

He was a lumberjack, and he was driving a team of horses pulling a sled with the logs piled on top. It was the winter time. He was sitting on top of the logs driving the horses, and the chain broke, and he went down under it. The logs were on top of him, and all the noise scared the horse[s], and they ran three miles back to camp. He was crushed pretty well, but he managed to live for nine days in the hospital. He had his stomach hanging out of him, but in those days they couldn’t do anything about it. They just had to wait for him to die.

Did they have any anesthetic to give to him?

No, they didn’t have anything like that back in those days. No.

[I suspect they would have had morphine or ether, but I can’t swear to it. It was a two-bedroom hospital in a small town in Northern Ontario in the late-1920s.]

And than the next thing I remember is that, well, we didn’t have any very nice furniture: It was always just all old stuff that people gave to us and stuff like that. I remember waking up one morning and seeing this really pretty piece of furniture in our living room. [It was a coffin.]

My aunt said to me, ‘If your a good girl and you eat all your breakfast, I will show you your Father.’ And I remember them lifting me up on this chair, and showing me my Father. [She cried as she told me this.] It was so — I don’t know what you call this– emotional I guess you would call it. But I just remember this nice man, laying on these beautiful white sheets. I guess they were satin. And there were two lamps. We didn’t have any hydro in our house, but there were two lamps sitting on each side of the coffin. And that is all I remember about it. I don’t remember a funeral service or anything like that.

And you were four and a half when all this happened?

Yes, I was four and a half the last time I saw my Father.

What else do you remember from your childhood?

Serena, age 8, with her cat Tom.

Well, we lived next door to a lady that was blind. I was sort of her eyes, and when I was nine years old her husband –uh, no, her son– was a lumberjack, and he was gone all winter, and so I had to stay at her house at night time because she couldn’t be left alone when she couldn’t see.

One day, after I got married she called me and she said, ‘I want you to come down right away, quick.’ Iran down there because I thought there was something wrong with her. When I got there she said, ‘Just stand right there in the door way,’ and then she said, ‘Oh you’re only a little thing, aren’t ya?’ she said that every once in a while she could see a shadow [I’m guessing my grandmother meant to say the blind woman could make out a figure silhouetted in an open doorway], and she wanted to see my shadow because she never knew how big I was until that time.

And that was after I was married. I had been her eyes since I was nine, so this was years later. But I would take her downtown and shop for her. And she had a blind pension which was twenty-eight dollars, and I would always put the twenty [dollar bill] at the back, and then the five and the two in the middle, and the one at the front, for to make her twenty-eight dollars, and then she would know where her bills were.

Was that twenty-eight dollars monthly?

Yes, it was monthly. And one day my Mom went down to visit her, and she was sweeping her floor, and my Mom said, ‘Have you got a lot of money to burn there?’ And she said, ‘No, why?’ And my Mom said, ‘Well, you’re sweeping up a two dollar bill there.’ And two dollars was a lot of money in those days.

And one time my Mom went over to see her and she was papering wallpaper, and in those days you didn’t get the kind with the sticky on the back: You had to paste it. And she had the room one wall done, and my Mom said when she got there she didn’t have the heart to tell her but she had pasted the wrong side, so she had pasted the pattern to the wall. A blind woman wallpapering! Why would she care what the room looked like?

And she used to knit. And when I used to go down there in the evenings in the winter time, on the radio there was a movie [program?] called Lux Theater, and Weathering Heights was on this one night. And I was allowed to stay and listen to it with her. I remember her sitting there with tears in her eyes, and wiping tears off her face, but I was only ten years old at that time, and so I didn’t know what the story was about or anything. But I remember her sitting there listening to the radio with tears in her eyes, and she was knitting. And she had her balls of yarn, and she would say, ‘Okay, now which colour am I using now?’ and I would say, ‘Blue.’ And she would say, ‘Okay, put that one over here in my bag so I will know which one I have here that I am using.’ And I vowed right then that I was going to learn to knit just as fast as she did without watching it, and I do don’t I? [She certainly does, and at 85 her own vision is starting to fail her, so I suppose it’s a good thing.]

But we had a lot of fun when we were kids. We didn’t have money for sleighs or anything, but we used to have lots of pine needles, or pine trees in our yard. We would make houses out of our pine trees; we would clear it all out and make it a room, and then we would get a piece of cardboard and slide down the back hill, at the back of our property on the pine needles. Because they are really slippery. We would use the cardboard like a sled.

How many years did you attend school?

I started school –the school across the road from where I was born– I went there one year, and then they closed that school. I didn’t start school until I was about six years old, in those days. After they closed that school, instead of putting us all into the second grade, they put all of us right back in the first grade, like we had just started school, so I was seven when I got out of grade one. I went to school to grade seven, then we had a serious car accident and I stayed home with Mom until she got better. That was Easter Sunday.

Tell me about the car accident.

When I was fourteen I had a car accident. It was a head-on collision. This man was coming down a big hill in Barrie, and he didn’t have any breaks in his car, and he swerved to avoid hitting this other car, and he hit us head-on.

And that was before seat belts?

Oh yes, long before seat belts were even heard tell of. They just came out in, what? the last ten years? [I have no idea what she’s talking about here. This interview can’t date to any early than the late 1990s.] I used to be able to hold Yvette [My grandmother’s youngest daughter] on my knee, without needing a car seat even. Our first car that ever had seat belts was a 1964 Chevrolet, no a 1964 Pontiac. Your Grandfather went to go pick it up the night Yvette was born. Those were the first seat belts, and there were only two in the front seat and none in the back.

And so you stopped going to school to take care of your mother?

Oh, yeah. Well my brother was two years younger than me. He got his leg hurt a bit, and Mom got a big bump on her head, like a goose egg. She also got her ribs broken. In those days they used to tape broken ribs, but now they don’t do those kinds of things. But back than you couldn’t move hardly, and the pain was really bad. But I went back to school about two weeks to the end of June –two weeks before school was quitting– but losing all that from April to June, I just couldn’t go back; I got a job at the Wool Mill.

My grandmother in a rowboat, around the time she was working at the wool mill.

I was working on the spinners first; later I worked my way up to the loom. That’s where I learned to tie a weavers’ knot. Years later I was on the loom making wool blankets. I was working from seven in the morning until six at night with an hour off at noon-hour. No coffee breaks, though; that wasn’t heard tell of. I got paid seventeen cents an hour, and I worked Saturday mornings too –until noon-hour on Saturdays– so I worked five and a half days a week. But it didn’t bother us because we were all –I mean– everyone was all in the same boat. Every pay day my girlfriend and I would go up to this bakery, and we would get this chocolate cake, and we would get Joan [my grandmother’s friend] to cut it in half, and we would eat it on the way home. It’s a wonder we didn’t get [to be fat] like barrels, isn’t it?

How old were you when you met my grandfather?

Well, I have known him since I was ten years old. You see Grandpa’s grandparents lived –You know where Aunt Margaret Lives now? [I have no idea where my Aunt Margaret lived, but she was married to my grandmother’s older brother, Great Uncle Pip, so I imagine they lived in Bracebridge.] They lived there. and I lived where Uncle Delbert lives now. We were down the street from each other, and his uncle –Uncle Henry [As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Uncle Henry was the one who was gassed in the First World War. Doctors ordered him to live in Muskoka for the good air, and he introduced the Andersons and MacDonalds.]– lived three doors down the hill from us.

So when Murray [my grandfather] and all his brothers and sisters would come up for the holidays, we would all play together as kids. So then when Murray started going to Radio college in Toronto, I was writing to him. Plus, Murray’s older sister married my older brother, and I used to write to him when he went Overseas [in the Navy during the Second World War], and when he came back from Overseas we started going together. During the World War –the big war! (she laughs) Archie Bunker calls it the big war.

Did you ever try to avoid playing with your brothers or sisters?

Serena, age 8, with her younger brother Delbert.

Well yeah, my younger brother, Delbert, was a year or so younger than me, and my best friend Joyce –we called her Joan all the time– her sister Vera was two year younger than her. We hated them both, but every time we came home from school our mothers would say, ‘Well, you can go out and play, but you have to take them with you because they have been alone all day. So we would take them with us, and we would all go down to the [Muskoka] river, and we would swim across, and we would play with the kids on the other side of the river –or what we used to call it the Munk side of the river [I’m guessing the Munks were a family across the river].

But Vera was always such a tattletale. We couldn’t move for that little brat, but they couldn’t swim across the river because they were too little, so we would swim across so we wouldn’t have to play with them. Vera would go and tell her mother that we swam across the river so we wouldn’t have to play with them, and Vera’s mother would tell my Mother, and she thought Vera must be lying because she knew I couldn’t swim. Until one day she came down to the river and saw me on the other side. We would also go up on the grove which was up past our house on the hill there –the other way from the river– and Joan and I would climb up the pine trees and lay on the branches and spit down on Delbert and Vera. You know Vera said to me the other day, ‘It’s no wonder I grew up with and inferiority complex the way you guys treated us.’ And I said, ‘Well, we hated you.’

Did Delbert ever tell on you, or was it always Vera?

This boulder was dropped by a glacier ten thousand years ago. There are a bunch of pictures of my grandmother and friends climbing it.

No, not that I remember. Vera always did it so Del wouldn’t have to tell. But she was such a tattletale, we could move for her. And then when it rained, or when it would rain in the spring, there would be lots of water coming down the hill, and we would take spoons [shovels?], and we would go out and damn up the creek, and Delbert would build one further down than mine and I would let the water build up, then destroy it and it would rush down and take out his dam. That’s the way we played. Then in the evenings we used to invent games, and than as we got older the younger kids got to play to, and we would play a game called Home Sweet Home. And Joyce and I would always be on the same side, and we would go up the hill to the restaurant and buy a coke and sit there all night, and when we went home the game would be over. They never did find us.

What about when you were older: Tell me something about that.

This is the same rock shortly after my grandparents got married in 1946. See my grandfather's jacket? It looks like a school letter jacket, but it's actually the crest of his naval ship, the HMCS Drumheller. I think that's awesome.

Well Grandpa and I got married when he got out of the Navy. We had our first little girl when we were married fifteen months, and she died a few minutes after she was born. Fifteen months later we had [my[ Aunt Wilva, and then two years later we had your Mom, Paulette. Then four years and four months later we had your Uncle Delbert. Nine years and one month later we had your Aunt Yvette. I remember one time when we were up in North Bay when your Aunt Yvette said, ‘Mommy, don’t people know when they are having babies?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, why?’ And she said, ‘Well, why do you tell everybody I was a surprise?’

Then we moved from Bracebridge to Barrie, to Toronto, to North Bay, and finally from North Bay to Gravenhurst which is where we live now. We have been married fifty-three years! [They’re coming up on sixty-four years now. They were married in 1946, so this interview must date back to when I was in high school, I guess.] We now live in the Muskoka District, which is where I was born. We are now both retired and spend our time enjoying our kids and our grandkids.

So what do you do now that you are retired?

We are busy! We are busier now than we were when we worked! You do things that you want to do when you are retired, not things you have to do. I am so busy, and Grandpa is always inventing something to do. We never sit around looking for something to do in the day time at all. No, never, we are always busy and on the go. In the evenings I go out to my sewing circle meetings, or my agriculture meetings, prayer meetings, visiting neighbors, and friends and stuff like that.

What do you think you enjoy most about retirement?

This is the same rock again (although taken from a different angle, it seems). My grandparents are probably in their mid-sixties here. Notice how the field has been turned into a woodlot over the years.

Retirement. No, honey. That’s it: Retirement is what I enjoy most about retirement. Just being able to do what you want to do. The freedom. You can stay home if you want; you can go out someplace if you want. And, fortunately, I have enjoyed good health through out my retirement so far. I bike to Bracebridge once in a while. Ten miles!

And I cross-country ski in the winter time, and I go to my sewing circle in the afternoon every Wednesday, and we have coffee hour Wednesday morning. Once a month there is a missionary meeting at the church, and once a month I have my horticultural club meeting, and I have my agricultural meeting. And we never get in a rut either because we’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Bracebridge in the morning,’ and we will. We will go shopping and go have lunch at the Dairy Queen, or one of our friends will call and say lets go out to supper some place and we will go out to Harvey’s or to the Swiss Chalet in Bracebridge. We keep ourselves busy all the time.

– – –

Again, I have no idea what the purpose of the assignment was. My notes stop here, not that it seems a natural stopping point or anything. Still, my grandmother is a very sweet woman, and I think her stories deserve a wider audience than just collecting metaphorical dust on an old computer file somewhere. I’ve also got to find a way to get all these scanned photos uploaded at some point, so this seemed as good a reason as any. Hope you enjoyed them!


4 thoughts on “My Grandmother, Serena Anderson

  1. Pingback: Murray Anderson’s Eulogy « Face in the Blue

  2. Pingback: In 1830 some of my ancestors founded the town of Kenmore, Ontario « Face in the Blue

  3. David Rayner

    I remember a Bass Lake picnic with your grandma Serena who had a Ketchup fight with an austere englishman who in later years became a clergyman of some repute.
    This was about the time she nursed my dad Art Rayner who had open heart surgery in a most successful manner.
    All the best Dave Rayner

    1. Hello Dave,

      I’m so pleased you found my blog. My grandmother is on a two-week bus trip out East at the moment, but I’ll be sure to tell her you wrote. Do you have each other’s phone numbers? If not, let me know and I’ll email you her contact information. I know she would love to catch up.

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