By: Anne Corke

Jul 04 2013

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Category: Life stories, Ontario, Rural Landscapes

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When we moved to Ottawa in 1962, our house was the last one on the street. Beyond it there was only a path across an unused strip of farmland. The farmhouse was still standing towards the back of the property, an old frame house with a front porch across it’s entire width with a couple of rocking chairs in permanent residence. We introduced ourselves to the occupants, two elderly spinster sisters, Mary and Maude McEwen, and their hired hand Jim Smith. Mary, the eldest, in her nineties, and Maude, the youngster, in her eighties, were both born in that house and had lived their whole lives there. The heart of their house was the wood stove which served to heat the house as well as provide a cooking range. Jim, well into his eighties, chopped wood every morning to feed the stove. He also drew water from the hand-pumped well in the side yard. In midwinter Ottawa, these could be daunting tasks for a younger person but Jim managed easily, as he had done throughout his life. He grew all their vegetables and fruit. He looked after any necessary repairs to the house and property, as he had done for decades. My mother and Maude became close friends and we spent many happy hours rocking on the porch. All three were charming, down to earth, country folk who regaled us with tales of the farm in years gone by. Sipping tea on the porch with Maude and Mary, one could easily forget that you were even in the city, but Ottawa was growing rapidly and the sisters’ way of life was about to come to a bitter end. The city expropriated their farm. Given the age of the owners, the kind thing would have been to wait ’til they had all expired but there is no room for compassion in the halls of government intent on what they call progress. The deed was done. An auctioneer was engaged to sell most of the contents. Mary and Maude saved what little they needed to furnish a small apartment they had rented nearby. During this ordeal, Jim took sick, no doubt due to the stress of having to leave his home and work, and passed away. He was buried at Pinecrest Cemetery, where he had owned a plot, complete with headstone, for years. Weather permitting, he would ride his bicycle to the cemetery almost every day to visit his last resting place. And now he was at peace. Not so, however, Maude and Mary. My mother and I attended the auction and bought one of the porch chairs to remember the old place by. Mary and Maude were there, too, and we stood and watched with them as their lives were sold item by item, box by box. I still remember the day the bulldozers came and levelled the house. My mother and I were in tears as the walls of our dear friends’ home, our sanctuary against the modern world, collapsed into rubble. Tattered bits of wallpaper, no doubt hung by Jim, fluttered in the breeze amidst clouds of dust. Shattered boards and beams were pushed into heaps to be hauled away to the landfill. In the apartment, Mary languished and began to fail. She died soon after the move. Maude continued on by herself. My mother made frequent trips to her apartment to visit. She often picked up groceries for her when we did our own shopping. We would stop by to deliver them and share another cuppa. Maude didn’t adjust to apartment living either and within a few years she also passed on. Perhaps it was their time. But when we met them, they were all hale and hearty. You may think that they had a hard life at the farm but it was the only life they knew and their good health would certainly suggest that it suited them well. They were happy there, gathered around the woodstove, enjoying the wonderful smells of Maude’s cooking full of homegrown ingredients, drinking cold, pure well water, keeping active keeping house. They deserved to live out their lives in the farmhouse, not to be uprooted and forced into an alien lifestyle. The government destroyed not only the farm, but Mary, Maude and Jim’s lives. Expropriation was, in this case, tantamount to murder, a slow death by broken heart. May they rest in peace.

Copyright 2013 Anne Corke

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