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Verna Mae: My Little Grandma

This article is written mainly for my children and grandchildren who have missed out on the family story-telling of ages past.

Verna Mae McDonald Sanders 1902-1983

Verna Mae McDonald Sanders 1902-1983

The Grandma from Little House on the Prairie

I was the first-born grandchild on both my father's and mother's sides of the family. As such, I enjoyed a special relationship with my grandparents that was not necessarily extended to my siblings and cousins. I got to hear a lot of the stories of my grandparents' early lives, and I was privileged to meet most of their siblings, and even my two maternal great-grandmothers.

In this article I want to talk about my maternal grandmother, Verna Mae (McDonald) Sanders.

When I was in third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Turtle. Yes, it was a delightful name for a teacher. Poor thing. I won't go into how nasty the boys could be in our little village, but she hung in to teach us until retirement. I can't remember what she officially taught, but I treasure the memory of her reading to us each day after lunch from the Laura Ingalls Wilders books (that were eventually made into the "Little House on the Prairie" TV show.) The autobiographical stories about the author as a child and her prairie pioneer family followed them in their adventures across the American prairies, sometimes in a covered wagon.

I was spellbound during those story-times. My Mom's mom--my Grandma Sanders--was born in Pembina County, North Dakota, on March 16, 1902. This was a very similar part of America to the parts trod before by Laura Ingalls. My grandmother never actually told me anything about her life in the time preceding the family trek North to Semans, Saskatchewan in about 1910, but I imagined that she had a life very similar to that of Laura and her siblings. Grandma even referred to her parents as Ma and Pa, just like the kids in the Ingalls story did!

The McDonalds

Verna is the smallest girl in this picture. This was taken c. 1912-1916.

Verna is the smallest girl in this picture. This was taken c. 1912-1916.

The McDonald-O'Hara Family

Grandma's parents were Henry "Angus" McDonald and Isobel "Bell" (O'Hara) McDonald. They met and married somewhere in Ontario, Canada. Grandma-- named Verna Mae-- was one of 10 kids. She was a fraternal twin to her brother, Cliff. They had younger brothers who were also twins: Jim and Joe. The youngest child was Fred, born in 1907. Grandma was the youngest girl, and because she was also petite into her adulthood, she was generally called "Little Verna" when her family referred to her.

It seems that Angus and Bell had set out to improve their fortunes, along with one of her brothers. They left Ontario and made their way through Wisconsin, where Ethel and her other siblings-- Hazel, Earl and Willard--were born, and by the time they left North Dakota in 1910, they had ten kids. Edna, the oldest girl, returned at 21 and married her sweetheart in North Dakota. She unfortunately passed away relatively young, leaving behind eleven offspring.

The family of McDonalds was following the hope of greener pastures in Canada. It seems the Dakota homestead was not going to meet the needs of their burgeoning family. The older daughters helped to keep the seven boys and Little Verna in tow as they traveled along behind all their worldly belongings on Red River Carts.

How They Moved: The Red River Cart

Red River Cart in the Pembina ND Museum like the ones my grandmother's family came North to Canada in... Thanks to Joanne Emery.

Red River Cart in the Pembina ND Museum like the ones my grandmother's family came North to Canada in... Thanks to Joanne Emery.

Grandma's Prairie Youth

Grandma often spoke of the villages of Semans and Nokomis, Saskatchewan as places where she lived after coming up to Canada with her family. From what I can make out, the family all needed to have jobs to make a go of life. There doesn't appear to have been a steady land base when they arrived in Saskatchewan-- or did they have a homestead?

Grandma went to school probably until about Grade 8, which was considered a decent education for girls back in her day. Young ladies were expected to marry and take on the most important task of having babies and bringing them into adulthood.

Grandma did tell me that she enjoyed drawing. I didn't see her do any drawing but I know that my mother and my aunts were all very creative and also liked to draw. In their home above the store in Choiceland, Saskatchewan where I spent many weekends and vacations as a child, there was a bedroom wall covered in tiny pencil-drawn figures that my Aunt Joan had done when she was a preschooler. These drawings were never painted over so it would seem that Grandma was encouraging of her children in their artistry.

At some time between leaving school and the time she married (1926), my Grandma went to work for J. J. Sanders General Store in Vanscoy, Saskatchewan.

The store was owned by my Sanders great-grandparents, and my grandfather, a lively young red-head, worked there too.

My grandmother got a job there at some point, as a clerk.

In the meantime, when she was home with her brothers and sisters, she would accompany them to swim in nearby Watrous Lake, a sort of small inland sea with an actual higher concentration of salt than the ocean itself, so that people naturally floated. I was fascinated by the tales of Grandma floating about in the lake without having a clue about how to swim.

Lake Manitou - Watrous Beach

Unsinkable in Lake Manitou

Unsinkable in Lake Manitou

And Dancing...

I know my grandmother lived in a large family who had to do numerous hard jobs to survive. My great-grandfather was diagnosed with diabetes while relatively young, and it is evident that my great-grandmother was the main breadwinner for quite a while. My mother remembered her, Isobel O'Hara McDonald, as someone "who could do anything-- from embroidery to baking bread to hard farm work outdoors". The older girls, Ethel and Hazel, pitched in with their mother to provide a boarding house in various places where they lived. The older boys worked as farm labor and one, Earl began a career as a car salesman as a young man.

One aunt suggests that "Little Verna," as the youngest daughter, didn't have to work quite as hard as the older sisters did.

She got to go swimming at Lake Manitou with her brothers, and as she got older, she also went dancing on weekends at Danceland, also located at Lake Manitou. I was amazed that my grandmother was such a social butterfly. But she was always really cute, even into her eighties. Cute and cuddly. And we grandkids were always thrilled to see how quickly we outgrew at least one adult in our lives. I don't think she was more than five feet tall.

Once I was reading a book called "Why Shoot the Teacher?" about the recollections of the author, Max Braithwaite, who had taught in a wild little country school near where Grandma grew up, at about the time she was living there. I mentioned him and read a chapter to her about the mechanic in the garage. Grandma blushed a little and said, "I think he might have been a boyfriend of mine." Wow! She danced AND she had a boyfriend before Grandpa!

Famous Danceland at Watrous Resort

My Grandma went to a lot of dances at this famous dance hall on Lake Manitou, Watrous, Saskatchewan

My Grandma went to a lot of dances at this famous dance hall on Lake Manitou, Watrous, Saskatchewan

Wedding Announcement

Verna Mae McDonald and William "Bert" Sanders eloped in November 1926 and married in Saskatoon.

Grandma told me that they sent a telegram to her Mother that said something like: "Lost a daughter, but gained a son." Her mother read the "lost a daughter" and almost fainted in shock. I wonder if my grandfather was the one who wrote this up in his gleeful excitement. All women know that "A son's a son until he takes a wife, but a daughter's a daughter all of her life."

Early Married Years And Family

After marrying, Verna and Bert continued to work at the J.J. Sanders General Store in Vanscoy. Bert's parents, J. J. and Kate (Merrick) Sanders, had come to Vanscoy from Ontario in around 1908. In Ontario J. J. had operated a general store in Victoria Corners. J. J. obtained some homestead land and also purchased a farm with a log house on it in North-Eastern Saskatchewan near the village of White Fox. Verna's parents also moved up to the same area, White Fox, and it appears that she and her older daughters ran a boarding house.

When Verna and Bert lived in Vanscoy, Verna birthed their six children, beginning with Catherine in 1927, Geneva, Vernon, Patricia, Joan and ending with Ester Joy, born in 1939. The children were a mix of curly-haired blonds and red-heads. Grandma worked in the store and hired various young women to help out with the children when she was working. My mother, Catherine, recalled doing something naughty and being locked in a closet by one of the "hired girls" for long enough that the memory of the fearful experience haunted her into her adulthood.

Verna was also sick in bed quite a lot, or as my mother remembers, so that she and her sister Geneva were expected to take care of the smaller children an inordinately large part of their youth. It is quite possible that the bedrest had to do with pregnancies, something that a naive young girl like my mom may never have clued into. My grandmother had six kids over twelve years. Whatever the reason, my mother felt her freedoms were diminished and she resented those older sibling duties.

J. J. seems to have made Bert a co-boss with Kate, his mother, in the store. He worked at getting the White Fox farm up and running, traveling up North, and living there for periods of time. Sometimes Bert, Verna and the little children came with him up to the farm. The farm was picaresque with a quarter-mile drive from the highway to the single story log house that over-looked a well-treed 'park' and the White Fox River, a tributary of the Torch River.

There was a public "beach" on the other side of the White Fox River frequented on summer weekends by farmers and their families. My paternal grandmother-- Mary Flatt Rempel-- who lived with her husband Bill and their kids on a nearby farm, told me that she remembered seeing all these cute little girls frolicking on the other shore. She expressed delight that my father, her oldest son, Fraser, grew up and married one of those little girls.

The Vanscoy store was a busy part of their lives. During the difficult "Dirty 30s" most people in Saskatchewan were affected by the catastrophic events in the agricultural industry-- farms were parched in a series of droughts and much of the soil was further degraded by deep-digging plough machinery that ruined the natural root base of the fertile cover. The prairies of Canada were called "The Bread Basket of the World" because of all the wheat that was grown. A prosperous farm economy had drawn people from all over the planet to the prairies to settle on homesteads, or to work in other services that benefitted farm communities. When the dust blew for years and the people of the dust bowl were rendered jobless, hungry, desperate, many "rode the rails" hoping to find job possibilities in other parts of Canada. Many farms were abandoned or foreclosed by banks. While my mother remembers not having very attractive clothing in her childhood, she stated that they always had enough to eat when running a store. Catherine and her older siblings were expected to put in shifts in the store, clerking and arranging inventory. My mother claimed to me that she took her pay in chocolate bars that she would sneak when no one else was around or watching. She loved chocolate all her life.

All of the children went to school in Vanscoy until the first two daughters had completed high school in Saskatoon (around 1945 when the War ended), and then Bert and Verna took the four younger kids and moved to Choiceland, a village near the White Fox farm. Vernon, Pat, Joan and Ester all went to school in Choiceland.

The Years Up North

Bert bought an International Harvester franchise, marketing trucks and farm machinery in a Main Street shop with a garage on one side and living quarters behind and above the store.

Verna made a comfortable little home behind the store and joined the local United Church and the Women's Club which, I think, was a combination of different denominations of women in the town. She had a garden allotment near the home, where she would go to grow and harvest vegetables for the family. I think she also taught Sunday School.

So, Grandma had a compartively relaxed life in Choiceland where she could just look after her kids and home and husband without having to go out to work in the store as well. However, homemaking was not as 'automated' as it was today. There was no running water and other modern conveniences. Once a week the "Honey Man" would come around to all the homes with indoor toilets and collect the waste-- what a job that must have been! And once a week the laundry had to be done with the help of a wringer washer. Grandma had the washer in the unheated porch off the kitchen, winter and summer. She would keep the door closed but when it opened, there would be a blast of bleach fumes (and frigid air in the winter). If you have never seen how a wringer washer worked, I have included a video below:

The Wringer Washer

The House, The Store, The Office: 3-in-One

Grandpa's store on Main Street was called "W. B. Sanders- International Harvester". In the store he sold parts for farm machinery and cars, and tires. He also sold Elephant Brand fertilizer seasonally to the local farmers. He had an office off the display room where he did his books and had the cowboy on a shelf. The cowboy was a baby-faced ceramic figurine. Grandpa pretended that the cowboy had a supply of gum for when we were very good helpers with the broom, sweeping, or sometimes when we needed some attention, as my smaller brother did, to help him get over my other brother's having gone off somewhere with a friend, abandoning him.

Between Grandpa's store and the living quarters there was a thick wall. If Grandma needed Grandpa to come to the house she would knock several times on the wall.

Grandpa also had the only telephone on the business side of the wall. It had to be manually cranked (or "rung up"), and then an Operator at the town phone centre would answer with "Operator. How may I help you?" You then gave her the person and/or number you needed to call, and she would 'put the call through'. Calling out of the community was a "long distance call" and had to be handled on both ends by the operator asking the person on the other end if they were willing to take the call (pay for it themselves) or if you were paying for the call from your end, the call was put through and you spoke directly to the person who answered. Because Grandpa shared the line with other people in town, he had a special ring that distinguished when the incoming call was for him. It was a sophisticated technology-- or seemed so to a little farm girl.

Are You On The Phone?

This is the type of phone Grandpa had in his office. There was no phone in the family living quarters, but that didn't seem to make a difference to life.

This is the type of phone Grandpa had in his office. There was no phone in the family living quarters, but that didn't seem to make a difference to life.

The Grandparent Role

My mother married in 1949, and her sister Geneva married a couple of years later. Bert and Verna became grandparents in November 1950 when I was born, and by the 1960s they had a raft of grandchildren, all of whom lived within driving distance.

From the time I was five years old I regularly took the bus between our farm and my grandparents. My Uncle Sterling, Geneva's husband, just happened to be the driver, so that was safe, convenient and even quite interesting to me. I loved going to stay with Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma was particularly doting. She made me what I wanted for breakfast, and if I had a tummy ache, she made me delicious milk toast (toast in warm milk with some sugar and butter floating in the bowl). I was free to go play with my friends at their home, as long as she knew where I was, and I could just spend the day in Grandpa's store, or playing with nearby kids. Sometimes I went to the lunch bar on the corner and had a rainbow ice cream cone. Every night I stayed there, Grandpa would come home with a revel (chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick) from Donnie Chow's grocery store.

Like my aunties and mom before me, I drew people and wrote stories. Once Grandma handed me the Prince Albert Daily Herald newspaper and I was amazed to find a story I had written in the Children's Activities section. Grandma had submitted it.

Years later when I was in a play at the boarding school I attended in Prince Albert, I was surprised to have a dozen red roses delivered to me in the classroom where I was having my makeup applied-- again, thanks to my Grandma.

Out behind the living quarters there was something like a stage-- perhaps it was supposed to be the foundation for a room that never got added. In any case, my best friend Joey and I dramatized some of the scariest pieces from Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories-- like the one where a little girl almost gets run over but some angels jump out in front of the car and save her. We rounded up kids from all over town and put the play on for ten cents a kid.

Grandma also went along with the idea of having a lemonade stand on Main Street. She even ran the fresh lemonade out to us and washed the glasses in between. That enterprise ended when an entire truck-box full of workers ordered lemonade and then the truck drove off with all of Grandma's glasses.

Grandma was one of the Vacation Bible School teachers in the summer. I don't think I was in her class but I was proud of her for being one of the teachers. My youngest auntie was in the choir at the Church and I was proud of her too. These were pretty much my only religious experiences as a young child.

Grandma threw us birthday parties and took us around to trick or treat if we were at her place when these things happened. They took me with them to the Sports Days in the summer, and I ran off with a roll of nickels to enjoy the games of chance and the greasy concession food. Then back to Grandma's for supper. Grandpa appeared at the table at precisely 12 Noon and 6 pm, so I also enjoyed the benefit of those regular meals. Grandma was a plain cook, but I liked that. I liked homemade mac and cheese with big hunks of cheddar cheese, and I liked her corn beef and cabbage and strawberry and rhubarb pie.

I remember no nagging or criticism or even any requests for me to do chores or pick up such and such at the store. And I seem to have been a pretty self-centered kid so I just assumed my grandmother enjoyed doing all those things herself. Maybe she did. Maybe it didn't occur to her that I could be more helpful? In any case, I always felt comfortable, safe, valued, and loved.

Grandma in the Big City

In 1968 my grandparents moved to Vancouver to live. They had been spending the winters there over a couple of years, with my Aunt Joan who worked as a dental hygienist. I was excited to take the train to Vancouver when I finished High School and also live with my Aunt Joan. My Grandparents lived very near us, so I was able to spend time with them as well.

I married and had children. My grandparents became great-grandparents and were so gracious about my occasional requests to care for those two active little boys of ours. When I would pick the children up and ask how it went, Grandma would invariably exclaim that they had been "as good as gold". Now, at around the age Grandma was when she had great-grandchildren, I am quite amazed at the energy she had-- or was she just sacrificially loving?

I was so blessed to have my grandparents nearby until I was over thirty and our children got to know their great-grandparents for the sweet, loving people they were. And I love being a grandmother because my grandmother, in her quiet, gentle way, showed me how much joy there was in this role.

© 2022 Cynthia Zirkwitz

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