Pretty baby Florence

This post originally appeared on my blog Opinionate in August 2011.

Alphonsine and Pierre’s thirteenth and last child was my great-grandmother Florence. Her twelve siblings had dark hair and eyes and strong features from their father. They were tall and strong-looking. Florence had dark hair but was built delicately, had a finer complexion and pale grey eyes. There were rumours about this last baby.

The most persistent was that Florence was in fact the child of the eldest sibling, Corona, who was eighteen or twenty when Florence was born and still living at home. People said that Alphonsine had faked a pregnancy and then claimed her grandchild as her own. I don’t know if my grandmother really believed that.

When she was about eight, Florence’s father died of pneumonia caught while he was lumberjacking . Florence’s father was away for three or six months of the year working as a lumberjack in the forests of New England for a paper company. The family needed extra money to supplement the family’s subsistence farming. He would come home to meet the new baby and leave his wife with another on the way. He came home one day with bronchitis and left again before he was fully recovered. He came back again soon with pneumonia. He died not long after. I should find out how long pneumonia takes to kill someone who doesn’t have antibiotics.

For a few years Alphonsine ran the farm on her own, probably with some help from her children, but I think a lot of them moved away when they got married and would have had their own families to take care of. In those days, just running a house was back-breaking. Not only was bread made from scratch but grain had to be ground by hand. Laundry was done by hand—imagine washing the blankets you would need to get a big family through a Canadian winter in a tub—and took an entire day every week.

Thread was spun out of cotton and wool, woven into cloth, and sewed into clothes. The vegetable garden had to be planted, weeded, pruned, harvested. Animals had to be fed, cows milked, eggs collected, meat butchered and cured, jam cooked, vegetables preserved, herbs picked and dried. Children had to be washed, dressed, fed and kept occupied, usually by putting them to work on household chores.

No wonder a woman’s life expectancy was fifty. I think men’s was younger.

By the time Florence was about twelve, all of Alphonsine’s children had left home except for the two little ones. She couldn’t make the farm support them anymore so she accepted Leandre’s offer of marriage. (More about that relationship here.)

Florence grew up, getting prettier every year. When she was about fifteen she attracted the attention of Edmond Gagné, a miner of about thirty-five. He first noticed her when she helped to serve meals in her mother’s unofficial restaurant run out of their dining room. (If she could serve several customers at once, it must have been a large formal dining room.) I can imagine him trying to engage her in conversation as she collected dishes and replenished condiments. I can see the little almost-woman giggle.

Edmond began to wait for Florence outside her school and walk her home. I don’t think it took very long for her to fall for him and then to fall pregnant.

And so, as my grandmother said, it was a shotgun wedding—again. It wasn’t as simple as her mother’s shotgun wedding had been though.

While you’re waiting for the next instalment, check out the rest of the Grandmother chronicles.

Image credits:
Gibb Family circa 1900 by pinkyogamuffion under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence
Dining room by CodyR under a Creative Commons Attribution licence

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