She lives in my memory as a tiny lady with bright eyes behind her glasses, and lines around her mouth that said she spent more time smiling than frowning. Her body was slight to gauntness, but spry and active, as was her mind. She never married or had children, but I, along with dozens across Manitoba, am ‘her kid’—through her teaching, her love, and her giving.
Her life was one of courage and adventure from the beginning. In 1913, Aunt Win’s parents struck out from Staffordshire, England, to Canada in hopes of getting a good start to their family. Her dad had heard that the Canadian government wanted to bring settlers into northern Manitoba. They found themselves in the rocky, bush country of Grahamdale, near Lake Winnipeg. They had nothing of their own, except for the things provided by the government—a couple horses and cattle, and a bit of money.
With those small resources, they hewed a farmstead out of the trees, and coaxed wheat out of the stony soil. It took ingenuity to get by. To make a bit of cash, her mother took up baking for the large population of bachelors in the area, and baked bread every day but Sunday.
Aunt Win was born in the sixth year of their life in Canada.
But in 1921, life took a heartbreaking turn. Her father became very sick with Typhoid fever. Though his wife and a friend managed to convince the weekly train to take him to Winnipeg in the unheated baggage car, he succumbed to his illness. Seven months later, their second child, Sam, was born.
In 1924, Win’s mother took her two small children and moved south to Dugald. There she married a man who was renting a farm there. They all worked hard to make ends meet. Young Win fed the hens, gathered eggs and carried firewood. She was very young when she learned how to knit socks and scarves for the family.
She recounted the story to me of the first cake she baked—a white cake in a round pan. She served it at mealtime. When her brother, Will, tasted it he fell off his chair! When everyone rushed to see what was the matter, he pretended it was because the cake was so awful.
She told me about having no winter coat to wear to school until a neighbor lady altered a large coat and gave it to her. Win was very pleased to get to wear this new coat, with its fur collar and side-belt.
In Win’s teen years the family lived at a farm near My hometown. She went to school at the Beatrice school until she began taking correspondence courses in the latter grades. She loved her studies (except for history), and she loved the idea of being a teacher. She even turned the side of an old car radiator into a blackboard, and used it to teach her little sister, Sylvia, numbers, letter and arithmetic.
In her teens, Win was working to support her family. This made her studies difficult. But she was determined to be a teacher. So she saved up her money, got a job as a housekeeper in Winnipeg, and enrolled in a business course. Tenacity paid off. When the business college needed a teacher, she was ready and jumped at the chance.
Win taught at the business college for six years before becoming a teacher under the regular Department of Education. She then began teaching High School in Morris. That first day at Morris school—meeting the teachers and her new students–was a highlight. She was finally where she wanted to be.
Aunt Win loved to help her students learn. At the end of the year, when she saw those who had struggled hard to get their grades succeed, it was worth the time and energy. It pleased her to hand out report cards and think about how much she was able to teach them. She emphasized that “those were great days.”
She really missed her students when she retired in 1984. Win wasn’t ready to retire, but the school told her that she was getting to that age, so she would just have to get used to it. Instead of teaching school, she began teaching Sunday school.
Aunt Win was my Sunday school teacher. I confess I don’t remember much of what she taught, but I do remember how we got to do crafts. We would make things of wood, paper, cloth, bottles, paint, paper mache—pretty much anything. I learned a lot about painting, gluing, and woodwork from her.
I also remember her generosity. She loved to give gifts to ‘her kids’—the many children she got to teach over the years. She would buy ice cream for all the kids at church. If she came over to our place, it was often with a treat. She would give us Easter and Christmas cards (with a five-dollar bill for each of us). She would go out of her way to come to our place to hear us recite our Bible memory verses. She helped me with my writing in my junior high years—reading my essays and giving me editing feedback. If we biked over, she was ready to give us cookies and tell stories.
Aunt Win died this winter. I traveled over skating-rink roads back to my hometown so I could sing at her funeral. The picture at the front of the church was Aunt Win in middle age. It struck me as odd, because all my twenty-two years I had known her as an elderly woman. But the stories that were told were quintessentially her: adventure, fun with her nieces, nephews (like letting them drive her big, old car up and down the driveway until it overheated), great-nieces and great-nephews, generosity, love for people and her God.
Recently I was telling someone about being afraid to not get married—I didn’t want to be alone in my old age. Soon after I found the “Memoirs of Aunt Win”, which I wrote when I was fifteen, and from which the details of this article are taken. Many lessons can be drawn from her life-story, but I will point out one: she was unmarried, but she wasn’t alone. She had a family of brothers and sister, nephews and nieces, and their children who loved her dearly. They told stories about how they loved to visit her because it always meant fun adventures and good cookies, and how she cared about what was happening in their lives.
I see great possibility for myself in this, ‘cause I’d love to be the crazy, fun Aunty! Seriously, though, there will always be a demand for someone who cares, who pours themselves into others. Aunt Win was such a person.