Thursday, 20 November 2014

My Grandmother - A Mystery

Images from the archives of L.C. Gagnon

My paternal grandmother has always been a mystery to me.

When I was about 4 years old, I did an inventory of my 'personally known' grandparents - I only had two. It seemed I was missing one grandparent from each side of my family. When I asked directly about my father's mother, a parent gave me a direct answer which I didn't understand. I filed the strange answer away. My grandmother was not talked about during the two decades I lived 'at home'.

About 25 years after my initial question, while visiting 'Geneva' at the same time as other long distance relatives who would know, I repeated what I was told at age 4. My question was somewhat disruptive, but some of the mystery was finally removed.

My grandmother circa 1925 - around the time of her wedding.

Thirty years after that confirmation, I have received a large quantity of books, files and photos - some of which fill in much more detail about my grandmother's life. 

My parents' families are infested with enthusiastic, conscientious genealogists. For this reason, I had always seen little necessity in memorizing the particulars of the hundreds of relatives discussed over the years - most of them already neatly arranged on printed family trees for 50 years or more.

It had never 'registered' with me that my grandmother was, like me, a 'first born' - with all the unique experiences, privileges, stressors and minor tragedies linked to that birth position. All four of my grandparents grew up during the first two decades of the 20th Century - however their backgrounds and experiences were quite different ..
During the last decade I have read about two to three shelf-feet of books on the Great War and I've tried writing about it to better understand the times. This was partly because of my maternal grandfather's involvement in the Great War - he was in Europe from 1915 until 1919.
He was the other grandparent I had never met.  
His generation was the first to experience machine-manufactured 'convenient tobacco' in cigarette form which could be enjoyed anywhere. Cigarettes were very cheap or free to the soldiers. It was one of the few pleasures and stress-relievers one could enjoy - beside the theoretically 'daily' rum ration: "While you've a Lucifer to light your fag, smile boys that's the style." He died of lung cancer 35 years after the end of his war.

At this late date, I am surprised to discover that this grandmother and that grandfather were actually on the same battlefields - but at different times. But that is getting ahead of the chronology that I'm able to stitch together using my grandmother's new found artifacts ...

Mabel Rodger, circa 1900.
Reverse of the photo above.

Geneva, Quebec schoolhouse, circa 1912. My grandmother and two of her six siblings - the others were younger.

Lachute amateur historians are probably rather bored of this photo by now. It was published in the Lachute Watchman of March 13, 1989 - as indicated by my father's note.

Probably half of my deceased older relatives had attended Macdonald College for their teacher training. My parents' basement seemed full of overstuffed scrapbooks containing old Macdonald College artifacts and photos. 

After finding a file folder containing artifacts and just a few letters from my grandmother, I decided to check the 'book' below in case it shed more light on teacher training in Quebec - I knew my grandmother had taught school.

Instead, to my surprise this self-produced scrapbook/yearbook provided the 'missing link' between the rather dry file folder of my grandmother's artifacts, her interesting letters home to a favourite aunt from her 'trip' ... and detailed evidence of her actual experiences as a young adult.

The cover of my grandmother's scrapbook and 'yearbook'

From what little I know or have read about the history of education in Quebec, there are a few ideas which may help set the historical stage:
  • Until 2000, schools functioned as part of a 'confessional system' based on Protestant or Catholic school boards - with subdivisions for English or French language instruction. For example, during the 1960s I attended schools operated by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal in English. My parents had both attended 'Mac' and had both taught for this board.
  • In the late 1800s, a Protestant school could have been funded variously by private concerns, local municipal supporters, local taxpayers and also through generous government grants for 'public' education. Teacher qualifications and curricula varied widely. In some rural one-room schoolhouses, where teacher training was minimal, it had been customary to allow students time off during the summer - and also for spring planting and fall harvesting.
  • Near the end of the 1800s most Quebec Protestant schools were identified as follows: Common or Elementary (including 'one room' schoolhouses); Model - i.e. middle schools; Academies. Academies sometimes contained all three levels of instruction under one roof in some towns.
  • Historically, Quebec's Protestant professional teacher training was done at McGill University in Montreal. Until the 1880s, women could not attend McGill. So only male teachers could function at the highest level as principals of Academies. British university-trained male teachers also had their qualifications recognized in the Protestant system. 
  • Women could run Model schools if they had the passed the necessary examinations - as my grandmother had. Women principals of Model schools would generally not have a university degree.

I believe this baptism certificate was drawn up to provide proof of age and place of birth for my grandmother's admission to teachers' training.

Strathcona Trust PT certificate 1920.

Physical training seems to have been a special national certification sponsored by the Strathcona Trust and administered by military officials drawing initials in long trains behind them.

Quebec First Class Model School Diploma, 1920
Spot the spelling mistake.

Mabel Rodger. probably at Macdonald College
Mabel Rodger with her camera
Debate topic and rallying song for a Macdonald College debate
The female teaching students are to argue against having women elected to Parliament in 1920. 
Their rallying song is to be sung to the tune of 'British Grenadiers'.

The yearbook contains many of these notes.

In the next part of this series, I'll provide some more views of my grandmother's college experience.

Following that, will be a post on her trip ..

Here is a note sent to her on that trip from her youngest sibling. 

About fifty years later, 
Douglas hired me into my first job, and my best job ever ... on his dairy farm.