“Marriage is meant to keep people together, not just when things are good, but particularly when they are not. That’s why we take marriage vows, not wishes."
After meeting Robert only 6 weeks before, Margaret now entered his world—with only a vague idea of how different it was from her own.
The fairy tale romance was NOT followed up with a fairy tale honeymoon! Real life in the thirties hit hard and fast. Margaret's family would have gone back to Rossburn that night so Bruce could open his barber shop the next morning (Monday).
Margaret and Robert would have simply gone up to the bedroom on the second floor of the two-storey house on 11th street in Brandon that had been Robert's since the move to Brandon. His mother Jennie, his sister Margaret, and her husband Albert had bedrooms on the main floor. The other two bedrooms on the second floor were rented out, generally for small amounts of money to people in need.
Everyone on the second floor shared the bathroom, but in those days everyone kept a “chamber pot” under the bed in their rooms that they would empty in the morning. Everyone in the house shared the bathtub.
The front room on the main floor, which would have originally been the living room, had been converted into a bed/sitting room for Granny Shaw, and had its own door.
What would have been the dining room served as a combination dining room and living room. The dining table and chairs were in the middle of the floor, with a buffet and a piano on one side and a chesterfield on the other side. Yes, it was very crowded, but it was the gathering place for the family for a good many years.
Next came the kitchen, with its large wood-burning stove, small table with four chairs, and counter with a sink and cupboards.
Past the kitchen, with a door for privacy, was a smaller room that Margaret and Albert made do with as their bedroom. It had a double bed, a small dresser, a closet, a wooden chair, a few pictures, and not much else.
At the left end of the kitchen was a small bathroom with a toilet and sink which was used by guests but also by those who slept on the main floor.
At the far right was a door to the back yard.
Worldy Things vs Spiritual Things
I found several Grace Livingstone Hill books in our town library when I was in my teens. If you're not familiar with her, she wrote reasonably well-plotted romances where someone (either the female or male protagonist) became a Christian.
I immediately recognized my mother as one of the staple characters in Grace’s books: the poor little city girl whose life had been focused on fashion, fun, and “worldly” things, who (usually because of a man) found herself transported into the middle of a very religious family where she had to struggle to fit in (or not, as in Margaret's case.)
Robert’s mother and most of his sisters didn’t wear make-up, had little interest in the latest fashions, didn’t dance, didn’t play cards, didn’t believe women should smoke, didn’t believe women should drink alcohol (except a little brandy occasionally for one’s health), and believed it was a woman’s primary role in life to make a good home for her husband and family.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not at all saying they weren’t interested in looking good or having nice clothes. But their appearance wasn’t a primary focus, and they thought an excess of focus on appearance was unbiblical and therefore wrong. This was 1937 and many of their beliefs were quite normal at that time, particularly in the evangelical community.
Margaret, on the other hand, had lived in the heady city of Winnipeg since she was 16. She’d been relatively independent, making her own money and paying her way as a boarder in one of her aunt's homes. She knew nothing at all about cooking, keeping house, or looking after a husband. She loved fashion and make-up. She loved dancing and parties, keeping up with current events, knowing the latest gossip. She smoked and drank, although not to excess.
Margaret went to a Presbyterian church, but not regularly. And she thought Robert's mother and his families' obsession with God and the church was at best old-fashioned and certainly not something she wanted to adopt.
The best way I can show this difference is by putting the photo of Jennie Shaw and her daughters (from left, Grace, Jean, Granny Shaw, Sarah, Agnes, and Margaret) next to a close-up of Margaret holding her sister Fay.
Although Margaret never accepted Robert's mother and most of his sisters way of life, she learned to fit in rather than to argue or provoke them. She never drank or smoked in front of them. She toned down her make-up, too. Of course, she and Robert had very little money, so there wasn’t a lot of temptation to buy things they’d disapprove of.
Fortunately, her sister-in-law Jean also had an interest in fashion, wore make-up, and smoked, so Margaret had one ally. But Jean didn’t wear much make-up or smoke in front of her mother, either.
Robert was perfectly happy with the way Margaret looked, and he didn’t have a problem with her smoking, drinking, or dancing since he did them all himself. So they continued to go out together and have a good time when they could. But in the house, they tried not to tax Jennie Shaw’s and Margaret and Albert’s sensibilities too much.
Of course, Robert's mother and sister were also worried about his relationship with God and his marriage to someone who was quite literally from a different world.
In addition to expecting them to attend church, Jennie gave them a family Bible in which Margaret recorded births and deaths over the years. Whether Robert or Margaret ever read it is doubtful. Except for a few pages at the end of the Old Testament showing births and deaths, the rest of the book looks like new.
Jennie also gave them a number of small tracts over the years, although again I don't know that anyone read them. Well, except me. I read them out of curiosity when I found them. And I think I still have a few but I'll have to keep searching for them. Several were small red booklets about two inches wide and maybe a bit longer. All of them had Bible verses on a theme and, at the back, information on how to become a Christian.
Looking after Robert
Robert's mother immediately realized that Robert’s new “city-girl” wife needed lessons in how to look after a house and cook, so she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
In later years, Margaret was always embarrassed that she’d had to learn to cook from her mother-in-law. When I questioned her about that—she was the oldest of seven, after all, and the three siblings closest to her age were all boys—she said her own mother always had all her housework done early in the morning, and didn’t encourage much help from her children because she could do it better and faster by herself.
Plus, I know that their living quarters were always small, so I’m guessing it was easier for her to do her work without someone else in the room getting in the way.
So, between them, Jennie Shaw, now 64, and her daughter Margaret Roney (yes, having two Margaret's in the house must have been super annoying!) taught the bride how to cook the food Robert liked, how to wash and iron his shirts, how to polish his shoes, how to shop, and how to manage a household.
By the way, we're talking about cooking on a wood stove. And using a wringer washing machine that was kept in the basement. Drying things on a line in the back yard. And ironing almost everything, including the dish towels and cotton or flannel sheets and pillow cases!
Margaret told me more than once that Robert was spoiled by his mother and sisters. In her words, "Everything had to be the way Robert liked it." She thought it was mostly because of his being the youngest boy, and a little because of his fragility as a baby. It occurs to me now that there might have been a third factor. I think they felt bad for him because of his frustrating struggles in school, which contrasted with his desire to better himself and his strong work ethic. I think they felt he deserved to have as much go his way as possible. Or maybe they just liked him!
In any case, his mother and sister did all they could to make sure Robert’s wife would be able to pull her weight and look after him properly. And gradually, Margaret learned how to cook meals and bake, although she never liked doing either. She learned to clean and keep house, although she never liked doing that either. The good thing was that she did like having everything neat and tidy, and she wanted to learn.
(By the way, I later copied many of Jennie's recipes. Her butter tarts are the best I've ever tasted; as is her pumpkin pie and her salad dressing. Her grape salad is now a family tradition for every holiday. We made her pickles for years. I'm sure there are more recipes we've forgotten that came from her.)
Robert Becomes Ill
Less than a year after their marriage, just after Christmas, 1939, Robert became sick and eventually had to stop going to work at the butcher shop. It began with a cold, then a cough, a headache, chest pains, a then a fever.
Margaret hated Robert’s job as a butcher, and she blamed his getting sick on the coldness of the freezer and the hard work involved in lifting and cutting the heavy sides of beef and pork.
Despite his wife’s concern and his mother’s and sister’s ministrations of mustard plasters, mentholatum, and the other home remedies they knew, Robert’s condition grew worse.
As he lay in bed suffering from a high fever, sweating, severe chills, and constant coughing, they called in a doctor, who examined him and then said the word they’d been dreading. Pneumonia.
At this time, pneumonia was one of the leading causes of death. While penicillin had been discovered ten years earlier, it would be a few more years before it became readily available.
A description of the course of pneumonia at that time:
The typical picture of a patient is a man about 30 years of age, who, after a cold in the head lasting 3 or 4 days is suddenly taken with a shaking chill and stabbing pain in the side of the chest…Fever and malaise continue day after day and prostration progresses. After four or five days, the patient who has become irritable and peevish begins to ‘see things’…After eight or nine days the temperature falls following a drenching sweat. The patient then convalesces over several weeks, unless, after a few days there is an exacerbation of fever with the onset of suppurative complication. In one of four cases, the breathing becomes more labored and shallow…There are periods of apnea increasing in length until breathing ceases.” [3, p. 36–7].
A description of the change in temperature:
“It is usually stated that the temperature continues high without intermission until it breaks on the eighth or ninth day by crisis or gradually descends day by day (lysis)…The duration of temperature in pneumonia varies considerably…with the mode (for the day of temperature termination) on the eighth or ninth day.
Margaret was convinced Robert was going to die.
She had to bow to his mother's extensive knowledge of how to nurse a sick patient, but did everything Jennie told her to do. There was a constant stream of mustard plasters, chicken broth, tea, and other home remedies.
They brought a basin of hot water with a little mentholatum in it up to his bedroom and Robert was propped up with a towel over his head so he could breathe in the mist and hopefully loosen the phlegm in his lungs.
Of course, his mother, family members, church members, and friends were praying round the clock that God would spare Robert, but the days went by and he didn’t seem any better.
Then, when they had almost given up hope, his fever broke.
He was left very weak. Already thin, he'd lost a lot of weight. His recovery took several months.
He was also left with a life-time reminder of his battle. He had lost his hearing in one ear.
Margaret was adamant that Robert wasn't going to work in the butcher shop any more. As his health got better, he tried other jobs, including selling insurance, but none of them really excited him or made him much money.
The Second World War Begins
The Second World War began on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd. Canada followed suit on September 10, 1939.
Many men rushed to join the army, but because of his deafness in one ear, Robert was ineligible.
On the one hand, I think he was glad not to have to go and fight. On the other, I think he always felt guilty. He later became a member of the Royal Canadian Legion and was always very supportive of those who had been soldiers.
A New Beginning
Because of the many men leaving their jobs to become soldiers, jobs opened up.
In the summer of 1939, Robert and Margaret left Brandon for Wapella, Saskatchewan where Robert may have rented a restaurant or worked in a grocery store (or both). After a year and a half of living with Robert's family, they were finally going to be on their own.
. . .
Can You Relate?
I wish I'd asked more questions when my parents were around. Instead, I'm trying to connect together bits and pieces.
Do you know what how your parents (or grandparents) got together? Have you asked them?
. . .
LoveChild: Life Lessons from an Ugly Duckling is the story of my struggle to adjust to the life I was given, and my eventual discovery that, not only had I become a swan but, contrary to my perceptions, I had always been one. Though I didn't realize it until many years later, my life was part of a much bigger plan that all made perfect sense.
I'll be blogging my story once a week.
Find links to all these blogs at: