Nana was past middle age in our recall; matronly, with soft-spoken Scottish presentation. She was no softie. We grandbrats often judged her a nudge, yet sought her respect. This ordinary dear left quite the bold imprint upon us. She would have been that plain lass with pleasantly rounded features, a nice little nose, and a shy, but winsome glance for someone special.
No complainer, it took her sisters to tell that childhood diseases had ravished her, leaving lasting effects. Nana was obviously in constant discomfort from arthritis that had dogged her since youth.
Her household was full of love, even if it came with little hackles that got smoothed, almost as soon as they were raised. She would despair to Mum, only that she must lose weight for the good of her condition. Mum would rejoin that therefore, she must not finish everyone else’s plate, for to ruin one’s health in so doing, was false economy.
Not a penny too many was stuff of all our grandparents’ childhoods. Still, only she clutched the notion that hardship could haunt the next corner, even as their lots steadily improved. Nor did she covet more than she had. She did not overreact when Granddad translated his mining skills to supervision and from there, to a government chief inspector’s job.
We had not the maturity to understand our Nana’s thrift. As it was, after solid employment in the latter half of his career, Granddad took a modest superannuation as retirement – into a period of punishing inflation. Nana, though, had prudently saved for the things of their marriage, adding in a little cushion, so as to afford quality to last her lifetime, in timeless style, not asking to be replaced. Her steadfast moderation pulled their finances through. That is, they still had something to spare, for giving. The commitment, dear descendants, to live a wee bit below one’s means, unjealous and content, was art and legacy.
Nana had a stern upbringing. Three brothers preceded her entry in 1894. Five years earlier, Mama had left the homeland with her first babe in arms, to catch up to her husband, who was already in Tennessee. They returned in haste, with an American second, soon to deliver the third, in Scotland. Nana then became eldest of four sisters. Surviving issue of Robert McArthur and Mary Hay Gray, were Robert, John, Thomas, Janet, Agnes, Mary and Jeanie.
Father was a poor miner. Their move to Tennessee was for opportunity. Mama, who knew right from wrong, was strongly religious and she was a foot putter downer. She was unable to abide that should her wee ones play with that child, then they could not play with this. We do not know if she stood her ground on such ultimatum, but we do know that the household was soon packed up for the return to Scotland.
The family saved for well over a decade thereafter, to afford passage to Canada. Nana was sixteen at the time. They arrived on Vancouver Island in 1910, but just as the red carpet of the Canadian Dream reached their doorstep, the mine cruelly took father. That was 1918. In 1911, the Canadian government had queried its citizens as to any insurance they held. No one in the McArthur neighborhood answered. We know our family did not. We believe they had managed to acquire a small property in Nanaimo by then, but theirs would remain a proud struggling home, of no nonsense. (Father is subject of Debra Sherwood-Brint’s short story “Pocket Watch”. She tells the tragedy through his eyes, as timepiece owner, and feels that day’s family life. A link follows this post.)
NANA and HER SIBLINGS GET MARRIED
The McArthur brothers, Robert and Thomas, married in 1914. Robert had returned to Scotland and illness would soon claim Thomas.
Since we were denied their acquaintance, we decided to throw them a beautiful retrospective double wedding ceremony.CLICK Go celebrate. Come right back!
James Dickson and Janet McArthur: Our grandparents wed in 1915. Tidal data was fitting in their announcement as they wove web and flow into our fabric.
Mary Margaret (variously known as Mae, Mum and Mo) was born in Nanaimo in 1916. Janet Iris was born in Victoria in 1920, and James Leonard, in 1927.
Nana and Granddad moved to Victoria in 1919. Until then, all but Robert lived in Nanaimo with, or close to, their widowed mother. John and Agnes wed that year and Mary in 1920. Young Jeanie, followed in 1925. (See Notes for spouses). Agnes and Mary became greater Vancouverites; the rest stayed on Island.
AT HOME WITH NANA – OR ON THE BEACH
Fish, canasta or cribbage; brother John cheated, but insisted it was his dear sister who did so. Nana saw right through to the culprit, half the time – do not dare to smirk on that sham win! When childish rivalry rose a tad, the Victrola, bearing dog and horn logo, soothed the soul. With calm reclaimed, the better child could command the ivories on the lovely grand piano, in the parlor. Otherwise, the vegetable garden had some remedial; shoes were to be scuffed on return with supper’s beans and spuds.
Granddad with his walking cane and good old fleabag Bonnie, sweet golden Cocker Spaniel, completed Nana’s portrait. Hmm, one reflects, why had he the cane, not she, but that was the fact. He could walk perfectly well. Except, he took us on those cherished dog walks through the floral display called Victoria, not she. We would return to one fresh baked cookie with milk, or two. Three cookies were never in the cards.
The home had a hallway nook which perfectly fit Nana’s mid-century telephone table and adjoined cane chair. There she sat to schedule the season for Little Wanderlea. Nana had acquired her in the 1920s for her own children. Oh yes, she paid her own way. She was a trip up the Island Highway over the treacherous breath-gasper Malahat to Qualicum Beach. If three cookies would spoil the child, a spell at this no-frills cabin at beach edge, was restorative.
A centenarian now, her signage is intact, she is no longer white and some frill has been added. A fence, imagine that! She could never grow since her back nestled into a bluff, her teensy yard hit the road and the road met high tide. Her look was softened and our bellies satisfied through wild blackberry bramble, on either side. Amazingly, this little old girl has been allowed to sit, unmolested by progress, on this now, very busy roadway.
Ours was to sit upon the porch swing, to watch high tide slowly recede. That water was Pacific cold. First beach rock appeared, driftwood logs and seaweed, where often a bonfire was set the night prior. That was then.
Rain or shine, we would beach. On warmest days high tide brought us bounding for the day. If not, we might await the lagoon of the first sandbar to show its capture of wee creatures luxuriating in relative warmth and awaiting release. The sandbar was the kindest thing on earth, so soft to feet, so dig-able, so full of life. We loved its geoduck squirts, its wee birdie prints and endless runs. Ah, but if God’s lamp were on as the second lagoon emerged, we knew the day might never end. That sandbar could transport us clear across the sea. There would be micro-sized Granddad, sitting on the driftwood bench signaling come in for lunch, come in for snack, come in for dinner. Sometime in the day the tide would decide to reverse; time for us to tease, daring it to come in faster than we were willing to relinquish our fun. Soon we would be bunked in Little Wanderlea, tummies full. We did not need the shells we had held to ear for concert, for the sounds of the sea were everywhere. Sleep came soon, and sound.
THE LITTLE GROCERY LIST
When still quite young and gullible, and a change of pace was needed, Nana would send us a half mile down the road to the first shop. We thought she needed something; maybe a loaf of bread, or an order of Fish and Chips. Always at least three or four easily carried items, including a treat for the trip. We were entrusted with a couple of beautifully colored bills to cover the transaction. We realized the setup in retrospect. Somehow the available treats were always more than the budget allowed, “but your grandmother would want you to have some” was dangled, plus, the prices of goods had needed a haggle. On our return, Nana would review how dear the treat, and feign concern before declaring all clear. But then she would launch “They saw you coming”. Nana would have us return to the scene of the crime. We cringed the half mile to politely argue our case, to haggle, until we would be taken advantage of, no longer.
THE GUN TOTING NANA OF YORE, SHE OF THE BEATEN RUG
Nana became insomniac and hyper vigilant as result of her father’s gruesome death. She and Granddad soon moved away from family, indeed, to her first large house. She conjured robbers and worse when his job took him on the road. This arthritic who could never fire it, purchased a gun for bedside; it likely went unloaded, but for show. It was no more by the time of the grands, but our mother claimed her own insomnia and worrywart status owed to the gun, for she was often cuddled in that bed. Today, we explain to the present grands that our genes must have been warped, when they query why we are insomniac, and worry far too much. Oh, get up and be productive instead of lying in bed tossing, was Mum’s sage advice, going forward.
We clacked our fanciful thoughts on typewriter, in an alcove under her basement stairs, learning patience while changing its messy ribbon, and aligning its fragile carbon copy. Yet she would pop our idle dreams, at once commending to us our dear Queen, while declaring that life in her cold castle was nothing to set one’s star upon. Careful what you wish for. Instead, she taught us the thrill of “to Hoover” even though Bonnie could not abide the beast’s very deep growl. When she was little, she would say, that rug was taken outside and beaten. Take care of yourselves was the message of our disbelief. Nana was profound in her ordinary way. She was kind, really, and honest to her core, in the delivery of her lessons of life.
WE ARE FOUR; THIS WAS WRITTEN FOR TWO
Nana’s cancer robbed our younger two siblings of participating in much of this narrative. They anyhow recognize much of her imprint within themselves. It was that strong, and good.
READ: Short Story “POCKET WATCH” by Debra Sherwood-Brint
Our McArthur ancestry can be traced to Robert and his wife, Jane Russell, who were born in Scotland around 1760. Descendant Robert, born in 1862 and wife Mary Hay Gray, emigrated to Canada in 1910. CLICK HERE to read our collection of stories.
Marriages of children of Robert McArthur and Mary Hay Gray: Thomas McArthur to Mary Peacock Burns, 6 Mar 1914. Robert McArthur to Catherine Cunningham, 21 Aug 1914. James Dickson to Janet Gray McArthur, 5 Aug 1915. John Malcolm McArthur to Gertrude Amy Johnston, 26 Aug 1919. Albert Wm Taylor to Agnes Hardie McArthur 6 Dec 1919. Robert Watson to Mary Gray McArthur 14 Aug 1920 (dissolved 1943) 2nd: Ersin Clayton Hamilton (date unknown). Clarence Albert Cornish to Jeanie McArthur, 3 Jun 1925.[The Watson family spent time in the United States before returning to mainland B.C.] Marriages of children of James Dickson and Janet Gray McArthur: John Hemmingsen to Mary Margaret Dickson, 10 Apr 1939. Albert Leonard Farley to Janet Iris Dickson, 4 Oct 1944. James Leonard Dickson to Evelyn May Jackson 7 Jun 1957.
The Dixon-McArthur Item 422 from August 6, 1915, The Daily Herald, Nanaimo, British Columbia was found at https://www.crkn-rcdr.ca/en