A Love Letter to My Great-Grandmother – A ‘Farmerette’ of World War II

 By Trina Moyles

Dear Eleanor:

I’ve been day dreaming about you lately. Family nostalgia leads me back to the early 1940s. Though I wasn’t alive, bits of history from loved ones, and my own wandering imagination, help to put words to your story.

I’m trying to imagine how your hands used to wrap around the crude stem of the hand-hoe to slowly open and work the earth, or the way they tenderly held the soft, warm flesh of the dairy cow’s teats to gently ease out your daily ration of milk.

I wonder, who did you take your milk tea with in those days alone on the farm?

I can imagine you inside the farmhouse, perched by the window, and contemplating the lonely fields of corn outside. The clink of the metal spoon as you stirred your rationed tea. The clatter of cup against saucer. Did these sounds remind you of your aloneness?

Or did they somehow provide comfort against the quiet that your ‘boys’ – including your husband, David, and your two teenage sons, Desmond and John – had left behind?

I wonder, how did you survive the wide open silence of the Saskatchewan prairies, of your corn fields, of the vast garden behind the farmhouse, of the skinny yarn of dirt road that unraveled itself for kilometers before reaching the nearest neighbour?

Did the farm’s tasks, the busying of hands, the breaking of sweat and spine and muscles, the immediate worry of finishing up before dark – did these thoughts ease the worry that must’ve otherwise been occupying your every thought?

There was so much to do during those hard times, wasn’t there?

Every morning, you’d wake before the sky had awoken and everything was drenched in dark shadows. You’d emerge from bed, perhaps from a dream that led you closer to the boys, and brave the cold draft of the farmhouse.

Outside, the world, and your day, was waiting for you.

Milk the cows and turn them loose on the pasture of alfalfa. Feed the chickens, pull the warm eggs from the noisy laying hens. You’d tend to the garden, bent at the waist, plucking weeds that were crowding the potato mounds. You’d break for lunch, and enjoy biscuits without butter, vegetables without salt. These were part of the rationed foods, the foods you knew, and liked to think, that were sustaining your boys, a living extension of your flesh, as they served and sacrificed overseas.

Your work was their sustenance.

There were saskatoon berries to pick, the corn fields to examine for pests, the pigs to be given organic scraps. The compost needed turning, the green beans harvesting, the caragana bushes that lined the edge of the farm property to be chopped for firewood.

You hauled buckets of rain water into the house for cooking, washing linens, and cleaning. You’d run a damp rag along the surface of the wooden bed frames, desktops, and bookshelves that belonged to your boys. You’d push out the dust which became an enemy, and a reminder of your aloneness in the big farmhouse that held all of your longing on the vast Canadian prairies.

Of course, you weren’t alone in your aloneness. Hundreds of thousands of other farm wives had been left behind, and had waved goodbye to their boys, too, including your neighbours and the women in the small hamlet of Woseley.

Government campaigns drew Canadian girls and women, even women living from inside the safety of city limits, back to the farms where the abandoned posts of ‘men’s work’ were growing weedy and unkempt and threatening a massive national food crisis.

The women, like you, obliged, and donned wide-brimmed hats, leather gloves, hand-hoes, and got into the driver’s seat of the horse-drawn plough.

Around a million Canadian women took to the farms and fields during World War II.

They called you “Farmerettes” – as though the ‘-ettes’ prefix made what a million set of hands did, somehow, dainty and light. Like a farmer without dirt under her nails.

They assured you and the other mothers, sisters and wives that you were all doing your patriotic duty by holding down the farm, by driving the team of horses to till and sow and harvest the earth, by fattening chickens and hogs for eggs and pork meat that would be brought to town, and eventually shipped to Britain and your boys.

It was all for your boys, wasn’t it? But it must have also been about your own survival.

The hard work on the farm drowned out the silence of their departure, and the days of waiting for another letter from Britain – those days that accumulated themselves like piles of potatoes in the underground cellar.

There was nothing dainty, or romantic about your work as a ‘farmerette’ Eleanor.

The way your hands gripped the stem of the hand-hoe – I know they must’ve been hardened with callous — as you swung and beat the earth open with your frustrations. But I like to imagine that you lay down seed in the garden, the fields, like you lay down your hopes for your boys to come home to work alongside you on the farm again.

You were one of the lucky farmers, Eleanor, because after the war, all your boys came home, including your son, John, who would one day become my grandfather.

Unfortunately, you were never able to hold me in your arms.

But you should know:

Every few years I return to the land where you persevered against the silence, the loneliness, the uncertainty, and the hard work that being a Canadian ‘farmerette’ during World War II demanded.

Today the farmhouse and barn are long gone, and the fields are wild on fallow — but the saskatoon berry bushes are still there.

I like to imagine they taste the same to me today — as they did to you then.

All my love – and with dirt under my own fingernails,

Your great-granddaughter,