Watching the moving rituals following a Presidential death in the U.S. brought tears to my eyes, especially when George Jr. choked up at the podium while delivering the final words of his historic eulogy for his father.
President and son to President and father.
All the sentimentality and talk about the passing of the last great generation brought my parents to mind. Mom, a devout Catholic, went peacefully to her maker at age 96 a couple of years back. Dad, her partner in faith as in life, predeceased her by 14 years at age 88. They were together 63 years.
Uncelebrated at their deaths for great accomplishments, they were born into circumstances less privileged then the late H.W. Bush.
Mom’s family moved from Quebec to Alberta when she was a young child. Her father eventually ran a one-man dairy from a rented acreage on the outskirts of Edmonton, delivering milk from his cows to the General Hospital run by the Grey Nuns.
The acreage was not connected to water, so my grandfather mounted a huge tank upon a trailer which he pulled down to the city water hydrant at the main road and filled up periodically for drinking water for the family of two adults and six kids, two boys and four girls. One of the kids’ daily jobs was to scoop water into buckets and carry them to the house for drinking and washing dishes.
Calling it a house is an exaggeration. It was a two-room shack with a loft for the boys. The girls slept in the living room crossways on a fold-out couch, four to the bed, the parents a whisper away behind a thin wall. The toilet was 50 feet from the house, a frightening and discouraging distance for a child on a frigid Alberta winter night. Throwing out the contents collected in the pots the night before was another daily childhood task.
The kids worked from the time they could walk, milking cows, feeding chickens, cooking, cleaning and shovelling cow shit. The boys did the heaviest work and the girls learned the domestic arts they would need in adulthood.
Mom started school in Edmonton wearing her older brother’s boots with English as her second language. Her father pulled the girls out of school as soon as they reached the legal age. Their place was working in the home, he told them in French, leaving no room for argument.
My Dad finished Grade Eleven. He grew up in more prosperous circumstances on a farm outside St. Albert.
The big house had running water and more sophisticated bathroom facilities than Mom’s. He had two sisters and five brothers. His father James was gassed in the trenches in WWI. The son of one of St. Albert’s prominent pioneers, James became a farmer and sometime small businessman. My great grandfather Daniel Maloney’s local celebrity was gleaned in part when he travelled to Ottawa as part of a delegation to convince Sir John A. McDonald’s Conservative government to construct a bridge over the Sturgeon River. The St. Albert RCMP station is called Maloney Place.
The celebrity didn’t translate into dollars for Daniel’s offspring and Dad and his seven siblings learned early that life required hard work and grit. Dad bore scars from being kicked in the head by a horse as a young boy and all the kids had calluses on their hands. The girls helped their Mom with laundry, cleaning and daily meals for 10 and the boys learned to build barns and sheds, to repair machinery, and to handle six-horse teams, my father’s early lesson about never walking behind a frisky horse notwithstanding.
His older brothers hauled horse-drawn freight when barely into their teens. Dad was pulled out of school periodically in spring and fall for planting and harvesting.
Mom first noticed him at Church. His scars from the horse hoof burnished away by the sun, he wore his wavy hair in a period pompadour that soared six inches above his forehead, and made him appear hair, if not head and shoulders, above the male competition in Mom’s tiny family and church social world.
Family legend has them meeting at a softball tournament in St. Albert at which he bought her an ice cream cone. He was tall, fit and handsome and she was what was called a looker, a dark-haired French beauty with fine features. They married only months later, Dad at 25 and Mom at 19, at the end of the Depression and on the cusp of the conflagration that would be World War II.
Dad was rejected for service because of flat feet, an ironic military decision considering he spent most of his working life walking from house to house delivering milk. They started life together in a series of small rental houses. Mom even stayed in a tent for a time to be with her new husband as he worked on the Alaska Highway. Before moving in with Dad she had never lived outside the family home.
They lost their firstborn son at birth and went on to have four other children, two boys and two girls, a standard number for the time. With memories of the Great Depression burned into their being, they lived a frugal life, eventually buying a small house, moving the family to a more comfortable bungalow after ten years of saving for the down payment. Mom was a homemaker and Dad worked on his days off from the dairy where he became a foreman and remained for the rest of his working life. He was a highly skilled carpenter and jack of many trades, but outdoor work was unreliable in the cold winters of Edmonton.
When they bought their first new car with the children older, Mom took a job at the General Hospital where her father once delivered milk, sewing sheets in the basement for a dollar an hour until the new car was paid off. They bought a basic model Rambler with vinyl bench seats, standard transmission and hand-powered steering and windows. Mom quit the hospital when it was paid off.
They paid bills on time and met the responsibilities of parenthood on a limited budget by doing what needed to be done. Mom canned vegetables and washed clothes in a wringer washer, hanging them on the line to dry in summer and to freeze in winter. Dad did all house repairs, yard work and car maintenance, changing the oil in the driveway of the garage he built.
They were the original recyclers. Nothing was thrown out that had any material use. Torn clothes were mended, shoes repaired, and Dad spent many an idle evening darning the toes of his socks, worn through by miles of walking on his milk routes on flat feet. Nothing was disposable, least of all diapers, which were soaked in a bucket and washed separately.
Meals were basic and wholesome, lots of hamburger and liver, with emphasis on stomach fillers like potatoes, pasta and bread. Well-cooked roast beef was a Sunday ritual. Full family attendance was expected at every evening meal and picky eaters were not countenanced. No vegetable tasted so bad that it could be left behind on a plate with people starving in India and China. On extra special occasions, Mom and Dad sipped at glasses of Mogen David Wine.
Sunday mornings were reserved for Church. Attendance wasn’t optional for the kids even into their late teens. Dad did not work for money on Sundays, using it as a day of rest to do jobs around the house. There were times when Dad had to borrow change from the float in his milk pouch but he never missed his weekly donation at Sunday mass. He was one of the men who passed the collection basket at Church, walking ramrod straight in his only suit. When it got so out of style Mom became embarrassed, he had it tailored to narrow the lapels.
Mom and Dad always put their children first, instilling integrity and ethics in their offspring as best they could, by example. They did not look to put one over on anybody by paying less or charging more on anything they bought or sold. Lying was not a misdemeanor in Mom and Dad’s book, but instead a major offense to be punished by a spanking, or even worse, a period of ostracization from their affections.
They believed in working for everything they got and did not look kindly on shirkers, whatever their social status. Devoutly religious, they tried with limited success to pass their beliefs on to their children but did not proselytize to friends or strangers of non or different faiths. I never heard them speak ill of other religions or people of different colours and cultures. They took their measure of people by the way they lived.
They raised four children, none of whom were incarcerated, who went on to live mostly respectably, working to buy homes and paying their bills and taxes.
This peon is not meant to infer that my parents were saintly people who raised the ideal family. They had the imperfections inherent in the human condition and held firmly to some of the now politically incorrect views of their time. Their marriage, though enduring, was not a perfect union.
Mom revealed herself to be an artist of considerable talent in later life and Dad was a skilled craftsman who could build a house or a fine piece of furniture. If they had dreams for themselves or disappointments for personal aspirations unfulfilled, I never heard them.
They were working class people, decent, with a moral code they would not compromise, regardless of short-term advantage. In my view, their ordinary lives were lived with a steadfastness and heroism underrated by the want-it-now pay-for-it-later generation that followed them. They left this earth without the pomp and praise bestowed upon H.W. on his final journey but with no less value for the lives they lived. George JR. said of his father he was the best a boy could hope for. I put my Dad and Mom right up there with him. They exemplified all that was right about the last great generation.