This past week, on March 25, 2021, I celebrated what would have been the 116th birthday of my Mother, Sarah Velma Alexander (nee Heslop). Throughout the past several years, I made plans to write a drama of her life, a life which began just one year after the close of the 1800’s and ended just 2 years before the beginning of the 2000’s.
A life that started in Puslinch, Ontario, Canada, and chronicled changes in every corner of life, changes, which from my perspective seemed erratic, unpredictable, even out of control. Yet having the opportunity, for almost 6 decades, to witness the real, living, vibrant, sometimes “say it like it is, firm and succinct, take it or leave it, stop yer bellyachin’ and face life” kind of person, . . .
That was the “in-control and don’t push me” Velma Alexander. . .
But there also was this . . other . . . Velma Alexander . . the one whom I, her son, strive to, emulate. But all too often fail.
Velma could maintain perspective of all things mentioned above and much more, till, within an instant, move over to the “other,” (and don’t let the word get out to anyone other than family, close friends). She would show a gentler side for those who hadn’t crossed her or mistaken her loving kindness for weakness.
Velma Alexander would set important work aside to heal a baby chick or a newborn kitten who had lost its Mom. She would help heal a broken heart of a love-seeking person whose dreams of belonging to someone special had been crushed. She would give words of encouragement to a child she had never seen before and would never again.
She would always carried a supply of “Gramma Zander” butterflies knitted by her loving, arthritis-disabled fingers and give out to waitresses, taxi or bus drivers or a child who had lost his bubble gum and no chance to replace it, yup, that was Velma Alexander!
The Velma Alexander, the like of which, in my mind and memory, never before seen in history books or tell-all chronicles. I note that authors seeking fame, notoriety or income, and particularly the historians driven by seeking to perpetuate the “I’m OK, You’re Not That Great” kind of shocker, . . . love to tell the tales of the “pioneer woman, enslaved by her domineering husband and living a short lifetime of fear.” And indeed that did happen. To the great detriment of men who would be that inherently stupid. Tales of how the farmer or rancher who mistreated their animals, their fields, and all things close around them. This to their detriment and financial demise. That too happened! But the wise among pioneer men were those, with more God-given brains, often coached in the proper, acceptable way of successful, sustainable living. Taught and coached, not by professors or book writers or self-appointed philosophy psychological giants, mystics or TV anchors or . .
The successful and wise young men of that era, the same as those of today, found bright, intelligent, capable young ladies to share their lives. Some young men were not of that mindset or strength, to their detriment, and, admittedly those young men may in fact have gained for a time a slave in the home, the kitchen, in the bed. Add to that fact, the fact also is not all young men graduated at the top of their intelligence class, back in the early 1900’s . . and my observation is, ’tis the same story today.
A big game changer, in my opinion between the wise and the foolish is the life partners they chose. When Samuel Alexander came from the coalmines of Scotland to the prairies of Canada he brought with him his Grade 2 diploma and not much else.
A young lady by the name of Velma Alexander got considerably more grade school type learning, and an intellect that equalled Sam’s. Never did I see my father Sam raise a hand to my mother Velma.
Why this information in this story of a mother? To set the stage for a telling of an amazing, loved and honoured woman whom I was, am and will always be incredibly proud.
Velma’s was truly a life of the magnitude, diversity, and wonder no humble wordcrafter like myself could ever have penned. As a young child, she and her family traveled in a railroad cattle car from Puslinch, Ontario to Regina, Saskatchewan and from there in relative luxury on a passenger train, (whose seats I am told were much more uncomfortable than the hay bed in the cattle car), to Avonlea, Saskatchewan.
There she met one of her first and, for a lifetime, one of her best friends, Susie Lazurca. Most important though, in Avonlea she and the rest of her family reunited with her brother James and father Wesley Heslop, who had traveled ahead the year before on a “harvest excursion,” getting fall employment running threshing machines and loading sheaves by pitchforks on farms of the more affluent (a great change from Wesley’s work in stone quarries in Ontario). There on that fertile, rock-infested land, they plotted out a new family life.
The small prairie town of Avonlea, I am sure, must have reverberated with the joyful screams of parents and children, as a reunited and celebratory family reclaimed the physical closeness of individuals not used to separation. The hard wooden seats of the horse-drawn buggy, I am sure, must have felt like air pillows as they hugged and screamed their way from Avonlea on bumpy, rock-infested miles as steel wheels met unrelenting prairie stones. But the reward was, finally, arriving at the promised land of waiting homestead, they heard Wesley’s motivating voice announce: “Family. . . we are home!”
Home, the tiny straw and dirt plastered structure which greeted them as their new home must, I am sure, have caused a pause in Rebecca’s heart, used to a much better life in Ontario. Yes, and a greatly different life than Rebecca had enjoyed in her family’s well-to-do home prior to marriage to the young man Wesley.
Perhaps it was through luck, good fortune, or more likely God’s grace, the arrival at their new home was somewhat clouded by a combination of bone-weariness and darkness, the reality to be driven home, I am sure, to Rebecca, with the morning sun. That eventful morning saw excitement as little Velma racing around barren, treeless, tall grass and flower enhanced, never-ending hills found (more likely tripped over), gleaming, sparkling, white crystal stones. So Velma, with an immediacy and depth of thought that was to be at the core of her long her life, carried several of the more spectacular stones into the kitchen, (identifiable only by bedsheets strung from the ceiling), announced: “I have named our new home! It shall be called . . . Crystal Hill!”
And so it was going forward, and in fact, in many mostly obscure internet maps is still so identified, once a post office, for a short time a gas station, home for most of sister Sylvia’s family life. (Sylvia’s life eintertwined forever with Velma’s since the two sisters married Sam and his brother Bill) in a double ring ceremony). I can’t be other than amazed as I reflect and also try to imagine my Mother’s relatively obscure long life, much of which was spent within a few miles of “Crystal Hill” was to chronicle events ranging from the unthinkable, the “Great World War I, the “war to end all wars.”
The war which took a young 18-year-old Canadian prairies fam boy by the name of James Wesley Heslop, killed by enemy fire on a beach in faraway France, rescuing two comrades, an act for which James was awarded a Medal of Honor. He, through military service, defending the life awaiting him back home with marriage promised on his return, only to be informed just before his death that his fiancé, tired of waiting, had married his friend, safe back homes.
A life including the pandemic of that same year, where entire groups of people died a terrifying death, without benefits of modern anything.
A life which saw a son, David, sent as another 18 year old back to somewhat retrace the steps of his Uncle James Wesley Heslop on French shore, being grievously injured by shrapnel lodged too close to the brain to be safely removed. David, and his family, lived through David’s long life carrying the physical and emotional scars of that wound.
I so vividly recall a time when David, my brother 18 years older than I, being the “markers” for an aerial spray plane as it rid our farm fields of weeds, setting a line for the pilot to mark the next ‘swath” to guide the pilot On the first pass of the plane David fell to the ground screaming, “No!!! No more!!!”
And on that day, I fully realized the hell war truly is . . Not the glamor portrayed, not the blood and guts, romanticized so “dramatically!” I saw and remembered the letters sent back home by my brave brother, David James Heslop Alexander, who had a sense of imminent death, holding tight to his faith in a personal God, as had his uncle James Wesley Heslop 23 years earlier.
And it was his Mom who lived every moment of his personal hell in the disaster called WWI . . and her brother’s sacrifice in WWII.
This woman sane enough to hate war but brave enough to give up her own people in resisting the vain, inhumane aspirations of despots and demons sufficiently blinded by their own demons to wish to control, manipulate and destroy the lives of millions of ordinary people with ordinary dreams and hopes for the future who did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those whom God in his infinite wisdom gave a different skin color, a different form of speech, a different . . . anything that provoked the political hatred and insanity required to feel superiority due to their own goals of invincibility . . . that kind of person who God loves and loved so much that He gave His only begotten Son to rescue from an existence of hopelessness and defeat.
Yup, I want . . no, dare, . . with my unworthy abilities . . to write a drama to honor this woman, both a pioneer and at the same time on the cutting edge of what is now thought of as “old hat.” I remember this beautiful woman with the graceful grey hair who, so serene in most locales, would turn in to speedster behind the wheel of an old Model T or a 1952 Pontiac. . . . I am being unfair. I don’t think my mother ever drove faster than 50 MPH . . . Nor any slower than 50, even when turning a corner on a not-well-maintained dirt road. I and my brother Robert, (6 years older than I), claimed we learned much about the need for prayer as passengers in Mother’s car.
This life, which would see so much, suffer so much, feel so much to span the 98 long years of this . . this . . deep and unfathomable, yet sufficiently surface enough for a child not yet of kindergarten age to quickly, confidently “read,” and in reading want to come close to, and to please and to do anything to gain the approval of this simple, complex, lovable matriarch which every boy or girl coming into her life and presence through birth, marriage, or pure good fortune, .wished to be loved by and to share that love with others . .
And to be there in that church basement of First Baptist Church in Regina, the church where in her early 90’s she felt the need to be re-baptised, full-immersion, not because there is anything wrong with the child baptism in her childhood in Ontario but to, in her own words, be a symbol to the beloved young kids in her congregation that this act of obedience was both fitting and necessary!” . . . When I replied that Judy and I had also just been baptized in our church in Saskatoon Mom, very casually, “Yes I expected that . .” . . And after a second . .. “And how are the crops coming along?” . . A loud declaration that doing the “right thing” was an expectation, one she was proud to have imnstalled in her brood.
Thats just the mood there was at the celebration of her life, the teary, smiling, laughing, crying crowd of people paying deserved tribute to a person whom everyone wishes to describe, yet fails miserably: Gramma Zander, the Butterfly Lady, the life-long person to whom people referred to with love, respect, and awe. And the Mom who I will try, eventually, to write about . . carefully, reaching for the right words, the right emphasis, yet knowing I will fail, for a life of this magnitude and breadth can not be written about. Only lived!.
And on that day when we reunite, I will brace myself for the imminent “why did you not say anything about my great friends, ones like Gladys Dunham, and my dear friend Annie Bistretzan, remember I told you, when we first met, just kids, she could only speak Romanian, and I could only speak . . . . And you were way out on that other thing that…
And then the “come over here and give me a hug Johnny!”
That’s the Velma Alexander, the one you all need to know!