Today, artist Ellen Cameron reflects on the qualities of her Mother and Grandmother and how the lessons they taught her growing up guide her in these challenging days.
I remember clearly an evening when I was four years of age and a wild thunderstorm was moving across the fields of wheat on our farm. The wind was also beginning to blow the leaves of the huge maples surrounding our old farmhouse. As the sky began to darken, my Grandmother, who lived with us, asked me to come out on to the covered side porch with her; I hesitated. Though it was not dark, yet the sky was blustery and frightening as the wind picked up. Still hesitating, I went out with her and sat upon her lap in the rocking chair. She held me and we gently rocked in silence. Her frail arms encircled me. I can still recall that wonderful smell of positively charged ions as they fill the air just before a storm hits. I remember the incredible freshness of the air. As the rain began to fall, first gently, then gradually getting harder, and with greater gusts of wind, we two sat and rocked in silence listening to the rolling thunder. I remember in those moments feeling loved and so safe encircled by her arms. As we watched the storm, she softly said to me, "Nothing will hurt you, I'm here." So, I nestled more deeply into our embrace and watched nature's wild show. From this moment I gained the courage to sit through the storm, any storm, secure in the knowledge that I was protected by her love and support and that of my Mother. As the years have marched by, I still find a great peace in sitting on my porch watching storms roll in over the fields, remembering that evening.
As a child I would often watch as my Mother would read to my Grandmother from the daily newspaper, or sometimes a book, as Granma's eyesight was failing. The two of them seemed so naturally at ease together and it was clear that they enjoyed one another's company very much. I took these gentle moments for granted, but, as I aged, I came to eventually realize just how profoundly lucky I was to have been raised in such a loving, supportive home, with two wise, kind and caring women.
My Mother was born on a dairy farm in Scarborough, Ontario, on February 11, 1907 to Edith and Archibald Muir. She was the only child. They named her Mary Ellen Muir. She had been brought up by parents belonging to a generation of people that had endured many setbacks from war, plague, depression, and hurricanes. They did not have never-ending access to food, clothing or housing, nor the funds with which to purchase them. In those times people were taught to be grateful for what they had and to make the best of things. They shared with those less fortunate through The Women's Institute and the Church as they coordinated projects to assist those in need.
My father, the strong silent type, encouraged me to take more chances. He too was such a loving man. In our backyard he had built for me a swing where he and I would steal away for moments together on the swing, and he helped me to swing so high up into the trees that I felt as though I could fly, which I just simply loved.
So many of my Mother’s words, words I'm sure that she had heard my Grandmother utter, come back to me now in our time of pandemic, sayings accumulated from her years of living through many various challenging times: "One must make the best of things;" "Waste not want not;" "That small leftover will add some flavour to our next meal;" "Don't throw that away, you never know when you might need it,” and “Oh, the dog would like that," though we had no dog at that time.
Being an only child, in a relatively isolated existence on a farm in Scarborough, did not provide for my Mother the company of others her age, as neighbours lived quite far away. At a very young age she was privy more to the discussions of the neighbourhood farmers talking about their crops and issues of the day rather than playing with children her own age. Thus, I remember my Mother always talking very solemnly to me about the events she remembered hearing about around the big kitchen table when she was young. In 1917, when my Mother was ten years old, the economy was slumping, and Canadians were growing weary from the rations, shortages and stress over losing people to the Great War. I was told by my Mother of the neighbours who never came home or were "just not the same" upon their return home and other very sad stories about how this had affected so many people in the local farming community. Then, when things seemed like they couldn’t get worse, in 1918, late September, the Spanish flu hit Toronto. Worldwide this pandemic infected five hundred million people, which was a third of the world population at that time. It too was so very devastating to so many families, many of whom lost their breadwinner and were left destitute. The establishment of the federal Department of Health in 1919 was a direct result of that epidemic in Canada. My Mother always had an extremely serious approach to life, no doubt as a result of her firsthand exposure to these events in her own community. They had impressed upon her how fleeting life could be.
My grandmother in her prime was a force with which to be reckoned. She participated in and won horse driving competitions at the local fair and she coordinated the efforts of the farm women to band together and abolish drinking during threshing time. This was a major consideration which no one had dared meddle with previously. The men of the area would band together each year and work for weeks with harvest machinery, moving from farm to farm to thresh the locally grown wheat. All the while, the women would be together preparing the daily meals as they moved slowly from farm to farm. The men, though, were inclined to drink a lot of whisky, which when combined with machinery had led to quite a number of serious and some fatal accidents. My grandmother was instrumental in putting an end to this practice, at least in "her neck of the woods."
Living on Kingston Road, the main road between Toronto and Kingston which is located close to the shore of Lake Ontario, my family often had travellers stop in for a drink of water or a rest on their way to Toronto in hopes of finding work. There were no social support services as there are currently. There was one such man who stopped and set up "housekeeping" in a ravine at the rear of the farm. My grandmother would often take some hot meals out to him. When he moved on, he presented her with a cutting board which he had made for her to acknowledge her kindness. I still have it.
This combination of strength and sensitivity which my grandmother possessed, was passed to my Mother and eventually to me. A person though has to be tough, resilient and wise to maneuver through the vicissitudes of life. As my Mother grew up through the hardships of WW1 and Spanish Flu, she did develop a "get up and carry on," attitude, as they used to say.
After my Mother graduated from high school, she developed an unquenchable thirst for higher education. She was granted acceptance to the University of Toronto where she excelled. She also was accepted into Alpha Gamma Delta, one of the sororities. She loved her time there and often spoke about it with great fondness. She graduated in 1929 with a degree in history and education. For a farm girl from Scarborough this was quite a huge accomplishment. She was an only child who forged ahead leaving, for all intents and purposes, the farm behind, looking to expand her horizons. It took determination, focus and grit to leave behind her high school friends and actively pursue a different life. The year she graduated, 1929, was the year of the Stock market crash and the ensuing Depression, leaving millions of Canadians unemployed, hungry and often homeless.
My Mother was very fortunate and got a job with Manufacturers Life, an insurance company on Bloor Street, where she worked in the actuarial department as she had done in the summers through University. As was the case attending University, she travelled from Scarborough to downtown Toronto daily, through the depression years, on the radial car which had been extended to travel along Kingston Rd. It was only through thrift and wise management of finances, that my family survived this challenging time in history.
In 1936, my Mother married William Caird Cameron who came to Canada from Dundee, Scotland. They lived on the farm with my Grandmother and Grandfather. My father assisted with some of the farm work, but he worked as an insurance agent full time. I never met my Grandfather. He had a heart attack and died in 1947, while stooking wheat in the back field. After this terrible, sudden loss the farm activities slowly started to wrap up, the remaining cows were sold, and barns were abandoned.
The world was shaken then once again in 1939 with war. World War II brought back all the memories of the unimaginable horrors of World War l. After the war my family continued living on the farm for a time though it was becoming more difficult to care for the property with large empty farm buildings on it constantly needing repair and too much land to care for properly and no one to farm it.
I had enjoyed living on the farm as it had many wonderful places to play and explore. I fondly remember playing in the drive shed with some of the old dusty farm equipment still stored therein. It was a wonderful place for a child to play. I would climb up and sit in the buckboard imagining the horses pulling it down the road with me driving! One of the reasons I loved the farm was at every turn I could imagine that horses would have been there in past days especially my Grandfather's great black Clydesdales out in the barnyard. I had seen them in some old pictures, and they were beautiful. It was then when I was so young that I started to draw these horses from my imagination, creating farm scenes and then drawing those galloping horses from westerns on TV.
When I was five, we left the farm which was a great upheaval for the grownups both physically and emotionally. The family had lived on that piece of land since 1823 and for my Grandmother and Mother this had been their whole life, where a lifetime of memories had been made. But new neighbourhoods were being built in the vicinity of the farm at this point in time, so we moved into a new home a few kilometres away from the farmhouse.
My Mother, my Grandmother and Family taught me through example how to pick one's self up and move on. As a child, I watched them struggle and overcome whatever obstacle might be in their way. There will always be challenges great and small in the world followed by great periods of peace and prosperity. My family were fighters who always moved forward. Now in this time of Covid19, we too must work together as families and communities have done in the past. It is incumbent upon us to embrace the positive, as we too shall weather this storm.
WHO IS ELLEN CAMERON?
Ellen studied Fine Art and Art History at York University, Toronto. Her original concentration was in painting where she worked on commissioned oil paintings. While photographing subjects for use as a visual reference for her paintings, she realized that her true passion was photography. She was always fascinated with drawing and painting horses and was awed by the power and majesty of these magnificent, yet gentle creatures. “I seek to convey the remarkable spirit of the horse, with all its strength and its seemingly contradictory fragility.”