Bertie McLam Cole (my grandmother) was a preemie baby. She was born during a particularly cold February night in 1893. For the first tentative weeks of Bertie’s life she lay swaddled up and toasty, sleeping on the open oven door. She was a survivor and carried this determination all throughout her long life.
Bertie came from solid stock. Her father, my great grandfather Noble McLam was born in Norwood. His wife (Roxy Swackhammer) was born in Acton but a descendant of Pennsylvanian Dutch immigrants who came to Canada from the USA at the time of the American revolution. Noble was the local blacksmith of Acton. He and his family were active members of the United Church and Noble was a past Master of the Masonic Order. Bertie lived on the family farm until she married.
John Cole (my grandfather) was thirty-four years of age and already grey headed when he married Bertie. He grew up on the outskirts of Acton, coming from equally long pre Confederation roots. (his grandparents immigrated from Wales in 1831) Apparently, John had a lifelong tendency to move and he changed jobs frequently. Once married, they lived briefly in Detroit and Chatham Ontario where he worked in as an accountant in the young automobile industry. They were a family of six when John and Bertie purchased their first home on Erindale Avenue in Toronto. Bertie always believed John, an avid baseball fan, wanted this house because it was so close to the Viaduct Park. Baseball games in this particular Toronto park drew large crowds in the mid 1920s.
In 1928, just on the cusp of the great Depression life suddenly turned upside. John Cole died. Bertie was left on her own with four young children under the age of 10. My Dad and his younger brother Jack were sent off to live with Noble and Roxy until they reached school age. The Erindale house was reconfigured; kids sleeping together, Bertie on the daybed in the dining room and all of the other spaces including the back stoop were reserved for boarders. For the next forty years, in this house or in Bingham Avenue, even in her Main Street apartment she rarely had a place all to her own. There was always the sound of strange footsteps coming from the upstairs hallway. The tenant, or a son come home to live.
I think Gramma Cole would have liked to have been defined by her full-time job. Early in the 1930s she began working at the prestigious Women’s Canadian Club of Toronto. She was their loyal employee for some thirty-nine years. This job largely consisted of serving tables at the ladies’ luncheons but in later years she was promoted to the role of Hostess. The Club was located on Bloor Street east and Gramma Cole enjoyed window shopping while she rode the Queen street car to and from work every day.
She was proud of this club and her association with it. She often spoke of what the Toronto society ladies were wearing and who was lunching with whom. I never understand how she managed given that she was quite hard of hearing in her later years. I recall how angry she was when at the age of 81 the Toronto Women’s club forced her into retirement. That Club had been everything to her.
Money was always tight in this household. All four kids, from a very young age, held down multiple jobs: up before dawn to deliver newspapers, again after school, bagging groceries, delivering for the pharmacy. They all were expected to contributed to the house hold expenses. With rent from the tenants, making do, passing down, this family of five got by.
During World War II all three boys saw action overseas. As a mother, I can’t imagine how Bertie coped during these horrific years. The worst possible news arrived by telegraph just three weeks before the end of the war. Curtis Cole, her eldest son was shot down in France. The family was now down to four.
Life has never been easy for Gramma Cole. She always worked hard, saved for her nice things and always held up her end. A pleasing apartment was one of her few indulgences. She would fuss over the right upholstery fabric to recover a couch or bring home several difference carpets just to try out. If she had any hobbies or interests I don’t recall other than her love of interior decorating.
In my memory, Gramma Cole never changed her appearance. In every one of our family photos her hair is neat and white. She was always pictured sitting inside, wearing a dark simple dress and very sensible black shoes. She is never smiling in any of those photos. Did she ever garden, shovel snow, bake? Did her hair ever blow in the breeze? I have no reciliation of her having a real life.
I never referred to this woman as Nanny or Gramma. I think that says a lot about our relationship. She was always addressed as” Gramma Cole”. There were no hugs or snuggles. No sleep overs. Maybe she didn’t like kids. She lived in an adult world and we expected to behaved.
She kept a clean orderly home but I don’t ever recall eating a meal there. No running in the halls less we disturb her tenant. Perhaps her loss of hearing in those later years are partially to blame for our lack of connection.
I think my grandmother can best be described as a reliable employee, discreet at work, sensible, serious and hardworking.
In her mid 80s, Gramma Cole suffered a stroke. Her residence and personality took a change at this point. She gave up her apartment and moved into a nursing home in our neighborhood. For the rest of her time this independent and proud woman was weepy and fearful. She died less than one year later and was buried in the family plot in Acton Ontario.
I’m the last one who should be writing about Bertie Cole. I didn’t much like her let alone love her as a child normally loves their gramma. I guess that is the point. I am the last one. Everyone else who might have known that young bride, that busy mother, that dedicated employee is now gone. No one else can bear witness.
I believe this stoic proud woman deserves at least one page, typed, spell checked and saved on a laptop file. At this point, my kids show no interest in their great grandmother, but she once lived and sacrificed and through her came my wonderful father, then me, then them. Such is history. Fading in the dispersing fog of time.