With working class roots and a little house near a factory, I lived an idyllic life as a child. There were few class differences in that small town, nearly everyone’s circumstances were determined by the factory whistle. Yet there were inequities that simmered just below the surface.
United Empire Loyalists had cleared and settled land there in the nineteenth century, traversing the endless forest and mountain ranges of New England to cross into Canada. Away from persecution for their loyalties to the British they fled and homesteaded at their first opportunity on Canadian soil. Buying up parcels of land and clearing them for pasture and agriculture.
I was once wading in the river as a girl and tripped on something. When I pulled it from the water, spokes of wood attached to a metal hub freed itself with my help from the sand. I held it up in the sun with water dripping in my eyes and I saw a wagon wheel that had broken. As I looked around at the shallow gravel-strewn area of the river, I noticed minute pieces of blue bone china, broken clay jars and black rotted slats in the sandy gravel bed of the river. In a moment of clarity I realized that a wagon had broken a wheel at the very place I was standing.
I saw a woman in a bonnet and a gingham dress, sad faced, mourning the loss of her wedding china, and likely one of the only souvenirs that she had left from her home country. I could see her standing on the gravel bank as the men whipped the horses in anger and pushed the wagon to the other bank. I could see her, the pioneer woman and her daughters with their dresses tied to their waists wading in the river to salvage a tea cup and a chipped plate from the river. The men of the family replacing the wagon wheel with much effort. It’s low and shallow here and easy to ford, the trees on both sides seemed to mark a wagon road. As I wandered further to the south side I saw a telltale gray stone marker covered with moss, marking the north-south coordinates at the crossing. I wondered at that moment if anyone had been hurt in the accident, people or animals and decided that I would never know, unless I found a grave marker. So I searched the surrounding forest and found mosquitoes and a rabbit which ran to deeper cover. That day I found no grave markers.
It brought to light the hardships of my great-grandparents and their tenacity and their ability to endure and adapt under averse circumstances. Discovering that wagon wheel placed me for a moment in their shoes, and helped me to understand my origins. For they had been the descendents of pioneers, those local women who dressed in ‘good’ clothes and had their hair styled weekly and played golf and curled in the winter. These women my Mother aspired to and looked up to, whose ancestors had broken a wagon wheel in the river. They had the same origins as our ancestors had, who had been a mix of irish and british and french. We were all from the same circumstances, yet my Mother thought them better and herself lesser.
Perhaps she had been made to feel that way as a child.