Thursday, May 23, 2013

Two Nannies

Our little community has just lost a matriarch, Isie Belle Brannen. She was 93 years old and gave birth to 14 children. Needless to say almost everyone in the community is related to her in some way. She had close to 30 grandchildren and almost 50 great grandchildren and 7 great-great grandchildren. She will be greatly missed and mourned. I attended her funeral and as I sat there I thought of my own grandmother who died a few years ago one week short of her 93rd birthday. Although they never knew each other, both of these women had many things in common. But the thing that stood out was their ability to always put others before their own needs. Both of these women loved deeply and cared for every one and every thing around them and that's why they are both missed so much. They impacted lives with their selflessness.

Both Isie and my grandmother, Constance Alice Benham Stephens, were married at 16. That seems young in today's world but girls of 16 were ready to keep a home and start a family at that age back then. Face it, they had been working most of their lives already and knew they could continue working in their own home. They grew up in an age where chores were expected and everyone in the family pulled their weight. They were ready to take on the responsibility of a home by 16.

My grandmother lost her mother when she was only 3 yrs old and from that time on, until she married, she and her brother who was a year older and their father went from one older sisters home to another. But no matter which home they were living in, she was expected to work. Each of her sisters had large families and no one had time to entertain another little one. Nanny said that by age 4 her job was to make bread every day for the family. Her sister would put a stool up to the counter for her to stand on and she would knead the bread until her little arms hurt but she wouldn't quit until the job was done, she couldn't. I can't imagine a four year old of today doing that, helping yes, but doing it? Absolutely not.

When my grandfather, Quentin Stephens, married Nanny they lived for a couple of weeks with his mother and sister in West Head, NS outside of Lockeport. But they were anxious to have their own home. He quickly found one for them, just up the road for only $500. They moved in in December and there wasn't a glass window in the place. Nanny tacked up oilcloth to each window to keep the snow and wind out. She said it was cold but once you had a good fire going in the stove you kept warm enough. I wonder how many new brides of today would be content to live under such conditions?

Although Isie started her family right away, my grandmother couldn't. Granddad said it was because she was too skinny and he probably had a point. Times were hard and Nanny didn't have much to eat growing up. So one day he came home with a beautiful milk cow. He said that once Nanny could get some of that good milk in her she'd have a baby for sure. And he was right. Seven years after they were married Nanny started her family. They had five children in all. All of them were born at home, some without anyone to assist with the birth. Today we have birthing plans, a birthing coach, childbirth classes, midwives, a variety of pain blockers and all sorts of things to help bring a child into the world. But for Isie and my Nanny they had their children at home, sometimes alone.

There is much talk today about eating right and making sure you get the right amount of vitamins etc in your diet. Schools have banned certain snacks as being unhealthy and children are taught what they should eat. And don't get me wrong I think that's all good, IF you have a choice. We live in a very affluent time where most people do have a choice what they should eat and if they do that's great, they should choose wisely. But Isie and Nanny grew up in a different time. Sometimes there wasn't a choice of what to eat and your main worry was if there would be enough of what you had.

Nanny told me that she always had homemade bread but sometimes little else. So before supper time she would give each of her kids a mug and would send them out to pick blueberries or black briar berries or raspberries, whatever was in season. When they came home they would eat their supper of homemade bread and butter with berries and cream. Nowadays very few, if any, children actually pick berries, instead we buy little plastic containers of them, at outrageous prices, and give them to our children for a snack, never a meal. But times have changed.

Sundays were always times of visiting and usually a day of extra work for my Nanny. She said there were very few Sundays that she wasn't 'in the dough pan' at least twice making more biscuits as people dropped in for a visit. Back in those days when people came to visit, everyone in the family came, so it wasn't out of the question to have at least 15 more mouths to feed on top of your own family. Biscuits and molasses were a good standby. I can remember asking my Nanny for her recipe for biscuits, because she made the best I have ever tasted. She told me she never had a recipe written down, it was in her head. She attempted to tell me so I could write it down but it soon became apparent that I wasn't going to have the type of recipe I was used to. Nanny never used measuring cups or spoons. She said you didn't need them. She measured by look. When she tried to tell me how much of something to put in the bowl she used her thumb against her index finger for a measurement. She had made biscuits for so many years that she knew exactly how to make them right.

I can remember Isie telling me that they saved everything even the potato peelings. She would fry them up the next day for their main meal. When I told her that now restaurants sold potato skins with cheese and bacon bits on top, she thought I was pulling her leg. I assured her that it was true and she just shook her head in amazement that something most people would throw out, some people would buy.

Yes, times have changed and not all the changes are for the best. The homemaker of today is living in a much different time than either Isie or my Nanny ever did and I think all of our conveniences have changed us into a society that seeks comfort and ease two things neither Isie or Constance ever knew. These two nannies worked hard and loved deeply. They saw to the needs of others before they ever thought about themselves. They were the matriarchs of their families; the glue that stuck everyone together; the hub which held the wheel together and made it run.

At Isie's funeral the pastor who gave the message used Proverbs 31 as his text in his description of Isie. I believe both of these women were Proverbs 31 women; women who saw to the needs of their households and their families without any thought of themselves. They were women of a different time, a simpler time, a harder time, a time that made them who they were.

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