Canada in the Second World War

Events

Memories of My Father

Excerpts from L’histoire de Jules Landry, 1997

Memories of My Father, Napoléon Landry, His education, His temperament

Napoléon Landry and Blandine Matteau by their farm house, 1935.

Napoléon Landry and Blandine Matteau by their farm house, 1935.
Photo courtesy of Jules Landry.

My father hardly had any schooling; he could not write nor read, nor calculate. Like most men from his generation, and like all his brothers, his knowledge of writing did not go beyond signing his name. His grandmother, however, as well as his mother and his wife, Blandine, could read and write. Even in those days being illiterate was difficult as one depended on others for a lot of things. I see him asking his wife to read him the paper or letters, or to explain to him the tax statement. I think he felt inferior to her on account of that, because he could not read. Seeing that when I was a youth convinced me that I absolutely had to learn to read and write!

Mom and Dad’s duties around the home were clearly defined. In those days tradition and popular culture established who in the family was in charge of what. The man was the provider, he had to bring in the daily bread at all costs, as there was no social welfare in those days. For her part, the wife took care of the home, and the meals, and the education of the children. Both my father and mother were hard-working people and took their respective duties seriously: the family had food on the table, we had a roof over our heads and we were dressed warmly. Although we were poor, we were not among the poorest.

His Agricultural Production

In those days, what the land produced had to cover almost all the needs of the family as far as food and clothing went. It also had to provide the food for the animals that gave us meat, milk, eggs and wool. We grew peas to make pea soup, white beans for pork an’ beans, buckwheat for pancakes, and tobacco for pipe smoking. Also, some flax for clothing, potatoes, corn, pumpkins, etc. We also went picking wild berries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cherries in places that my father knew. Those we ate fresh but also made preserves from them for the rest of the year; we had to sell some as well to buy the sugar that was needed for the preserves. One day, the family picked one hundred pounds of blueberries, the best harvest ever, that my father traded with the owner of the general store for a hundred pounds of sugar. We were all so happy!

On the farm, Dad had two horses, five or six dairy cows, calves, one or two sows, three or four pigs for fattening, some ten sheep and thirty chickens. The hens that were kept for breeding were in small separate sheds in the yard, where each raised a dozen chicks that ran all around in the yard around the shed where their mothers were tied with a ten-feet long rope.

His Income in Cash

The actual income was very low. I remember that for the years 1930-1936, Mom’s accounting indicated an overall yearly income of about $350. When he was working outside Dad would earn about $1 a day ($1,50 if he had to provide a horse and a cart). Milk used to sell for between $1.50 and $2 per hundred pounds and a cow was $15. Despite the Depression, Dad managed to find employment outside the farm: maintenance work on the roads, repairing fences for the municipality, or on the telephone line, at the general store, etc. That way he would earn enough to pay the municipal taxes, the phone bill ($10 a year), or for some of the goods bought from the general store. The way it worked was simple, normal and everybody agreed to it: when his debt was paid, he was fired and another man with a debt to reimburse took his place and so on…

His Illness and Death

Dad was a hard working man who never complained; he was in general good health and almost never saw a doctor in his life. He had stomach problems once in a while and drank hot water with soda; he used to say that this was because he ate too much preserved food when he was a widower and living alone.

His stomach condition grew worse however in the fall of 1935, he suffered more and more and always felt tired and weak. Nevertheless he worked hard to try to finish a small ploughing job he had taken with Maurice’s help, but he was exhausted when he came home at night. We received the doctor’s verdict just before Christmas: a stomach cancer, that had already started to spread: two months left to live… there was nothing the hospital or doctors could do for him. He came back home for his last Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Dad’s last two months were extremely hard for the whole family. He was in great pain, slowly wasting away, was unable to eat anything. And was at times impatient and angry. He could not accept that he was going to die, because — as he said — he had to keep on living to provide for his wife and children. Mom was exhausted from the housework, from taking care of Dad and from anxiety with regard to what the future held. His weight dropped to 70 pounds. The doctor would not give him any drug or medicine for the pain. It is only one week before his death, following a visit by my uncle, Hervé Matteau, the priest, that Dad finally accepted his fate. He became serene and remained that way till the end.

Dad died during the night of February 11, 1936, around two o’clock. In the hours before his death he alternated between bouts of coma and period of semi-consciousness during which he could not talk but recognized us and held our hands. I watched him suffer and die and that has been an enormous shock for me. I was only twelve at the time. God did not grant him enough time for him to raise his children as he had wished so much he could. He left me his courage, his determination, his tenacity.

Mom was with him when he died in their bed. She broke out in tears with such violence that she almost was choking and grown-ups in the house were afraid that her heart, already somewhat weak, would give way. She was put to bed and she recovered a little but was unable to attend the funeral service for Dad a few days later. We could not tell whether it was the loss of a great love or the anticipation of hardships to come, that affected her most, or both. Mom found herself a widow with seven children. Maurice, who was 18 was to take charge of the farm; I was 12 and Gisèle, the youngest was 6. Henri, who had epilepsy was 22, and Simone was 20 years old. Mom was 47 at that time.

After My Father’s Death

Blandine Matteau and her children in front of the family home in Sainte-Clothilde, Quebec, around 1936.

Blandine Matteau and her children in front of the family home in Sainte-Clothilde, Quebec, around 1936.
Photo courtesy of Jules Landry.

We had to go on with our lives after Dad’s death and that prospect was a difficult one. Mom took her courage in both hands and, with us, went through the list of whatever food was left, as it had to do until May no fresh money being expected before that time. We were in February and the food supply had gone down more rapidly than planned with all those visits by family and friends and neighbours come to see Dad before his death, and to the wake and service afterwards. Indeed, the food supply was low as well as the supply of dry firewood. But there was still a lot of buckwheat in the shed, which could once ground, be used for pancakes. The $50 cash supply, normally used to see us through between November and May was also almost gone. Mom did not want, under any conditions, use the money she had in the bank for exceptional cases, some $1500 from the sale of a house she had inherited from her first husband in Grand-Mère.

From the material point of view, the winter of 1936 was therefore quite difficult for the family. We ate buckwheat pancakes with molasses every day and oatmeal once in a while. For lunch at school we had bread and pork fat. The dry wood supply gone, we used birch, still green, and cut in logs with a hand saw, which naturally did not give much heat. But we were not demanding and we pulled through those hard times without suffering too much from hunger or cold. In April, Mom sold a cow for $13 to get some cash. Then later we started again selling milk and calves and life resumed its normal pace. If the kids went back to their former happy selves, Mom remained sad and preoccupied, as the succession of her late husband was a cause of worries.