It started snowing around noon.
By midafternoon, the small white farmhouse was all but invisible in a blinding blizzard. That’s when the doctor arrived in his sleigh. He had followed papa all the way out from the village to the middle of the island. Snow covered and half frozen both doctor and papa came in to the warm kitchen where mother, taking the doctor’s coat, took him straight to the main floor bedroom where her oldest girl lay in the huge bed, pale, trembling and very high fevered. Turning from the door, the doctor went over to the nearby kitchen sink where he washed his hands thoroughly. He then went back to the bedroom and closed the door. The other children were gathered in the parlour and silent. A visit from the doctor was never good.
Wolfe Island Reeve and resident Doctor William Spankie emerged from the frigid bedroom and delivered the grim news to Kathleen and Maxim Greenwood. “Her appendix has ruptured, Maxim. She’s burning up. The doctor wiped beads of sweat from his face with his handkerchief. He paused for a moment, looking at both parents. “She’ll not last the night,” he sighed. “Not here. She needs the hospital in Kingston. But, she’d never make it. She’s in too much pain. I’m sorry Kathleen. If she were my own daughter, I couldn’t save her.”
Kathleen Greenwood clamped her eyes shut, fighting back tears.
Maxim Greenwood sighed once, glancing into the bedroom where his oldest daughter lay among the heavy blankets. Her nineteen year old face, also covered in sweat, was twisted in pain with eyes staring at the ceiling. At the sound of the doctor’s words, they were suddenly fixed on her father, wide open and tear filled.
“Well, we’re sure going to try,” the young father of eight exclaimed, grabbing his coat.
Turning to his brother in law, Dan McGlynn, who was there helping with chores, Maxim Greenwood wasted no time. “Put another blanket in the sleigh, Dan. We’re going back across.”
The doctor spoke first. “Maxim,” he said softly, “Paddy McDermott says the ice is bad. Sink holes everywhere. I’m certain she may die if we do.”
“She’ll die if we don’t!”
The young girl, the oldest of eight, was bundled up and carefully carried to the sleigh by her father. Her brothers George and D.J. held open the door. Kathleen left instructions with the next oldest child Irene, to look after everything and to make sure the boys stoked the fire. The girl’s cries startled the horse so much that Uncle Dan had to jump down to hold him steady. The doctor shouted back at the boys to unhitch his horse and put her in the barn.
Watching her parents climb aboard the sleigh, Irene, holding her baby sister Merilda, wondered if she’d ever see her big sister again. Kathleen left strict orders for Irene to lead the children in the rosary. Standing by the door, the boys hustled Agnes, Kay and Rita back inside and closed the door against the cold February blizzard as the sleigh disappeared from view in the swirling snow. The trip to the hospital in Kingston would involve a three mile trek over dark, dangerous ice across a frozen Lake Ontario.
“I can still remember every minute of that ride,” recalled Violet Johnson 70 years later. “I thought I’d die with every bump. When I grew silent, mother kept touching my arm, to see if I’d open my eyes.”
Violet was my grandmother. She survived that terrible ordeal to return safely home to Wolfe Island. She told this story to me on the occasion of her 90th birthday, celebrated in her own house in Marysville in June of 1997. Balloons, cakes, relatives and well-wishers from nearly every corner on Wolfe Island were there to help her celebrate her special day.
Content with her long life, living the life of a farmer’s wife on the biggest island of the Thousand Islands, Violet Catherine Johnson passed peacefully away in Kingston just two years later.
Just a week ago, a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early June, Cathy and I watched as our two little granddaughters, Ruby and Georgia, fussed about the flowers we were placing on the gravesite of their great-great Nana Johnson over here at Sacred Heart on Wolfe Island. This was a special year, for this June 4, 2017, Violet would have turned 110 years old. While Cathy and I are called ‘Nana & Grampy’ today, our oldest grandchild Ruby, asks about the Nana Johnson, she never knew.
I told her of a story where two little girls – about their age - were walking to school from their farm one spring day:
“Coming toward them from the village was a little buggy making a weird noise. “Vi’let, there’s no horse!!” said little Irene Greenwood, grabbing her older sister’s hand. She was frightened. “No horse… it’s coming on its own!” Violet Greenwood simply stopped and stared. They had never seen a horseless carriage before, not on Wolfe Island. The two little girls, standing still with open mouths, waited as Dr. William Spankie, who brought the very first automobile over to the island and was now making a house call somewhere, pulled up and squeezed the bulb horn, making them jump.”
“Hey girls, nice day for an automobile ride, hey?!” And off he went. Honk honk went the horn. The doctor would see Violet again, several years later, on a cold, February afternoon.
“What’s 90 supposed to feel like?” Violet asked me on the eve of her birthday. “I don’t feel 90.” She explained her recipe for a long life. First and foremost, she credited her faith. A devout Roman Catholic, ‘Nana’ was a strong believer in prayer. And that everything happened for a reason. Second, strong family values were very important too. And third, she was always very optimistic, even when faced with extreme adversity.
That same year, in September of 1927, following her painful appendectomy and her ‘fatal’ diagnosis, Violet Catherine Greenwood married young Johnnie Johnson who grew up out on Button Bay, farming with his parents. Shortly after, my dad Jack was born. Later, they settled on a farm of their own, buying the Hogan place on the fifth line road, just south of the base line.
And then something called the Great Depression of the 1930’s hit. While hard to understand, it was clearly understood that there was simply no money to be had. Trips to Kingston on the steam ferry were out, for most families couldn’t afford the fare. My uncle Harold was born in early January of 1932 in Kingston because they could cross the ice. “They were difficult years, to say the least,” Violet said. “We had it no worse than anyone else. Neighbours helped one another. Nothing was thrown away. Clothes, blankets, sheets and quilts were patched. Shoes and boots, too. Everything was saved from the last meal and made to last. Jackie well remembered molasses sandwiches when molasses was available,” she laughed. And bread. Nearly everything was jarred and pickled and stored in the cool cellar. Meat was butchered out on a table by the stables and salted and brought in. Eggs from the hen house were gathered every day and half were sold at the market and half were kept. Milk went to the cheese factory at O’Shea’s.
During these difficult years, filled with hard, manual work, Johnnie developed rheumatic fever and was bedridden for a month. The boys and their mother continued the chores, hand milking and feeding the animals. And checking in on my grandfather. A year later, my dad caught the horrible disease. Nana looked after him. And later, my uncle Harold developed double pneumonia, for two winters in a row. Again, Violet sat up nights applying a mustard plaster when needed.
Later, when I came on the scene in the early 1950’s, Nana kept me on the farm with them while my mom looked after my younger brother at home in Kingston. My own memories kick in here. This was Wolfe Island as I knew it. The sights, sounds and smells of a farm. The smell of newly mowed hay drifting in through open windows. The warm kitchen where Nana baked all of the time, as well as fixed the main noon meal every day. Afterward, Grampy and I had a two hour nap in the afternoon, where I joined him upstairs. Later, I would hang onto Nana’s skirt as she carried two very big pails of hot water from the kitchen stove, to the cow stable, where the milking equipment had to be washed and rinsed. In their fifties now, they did this every day. Hard work? Sure, but it never showed on their faces. Every evening before bed, we knelt in the kitchen and recited the rosary. Nana taught me every prayer that she knew.
And then one wild, winter day, during a terrible blizzard in March of 1963, much like the one in February, 1927, Grampy, snow covered, came into the house, laid down on the living room couch after morning chores and died. Nana’s life as a farmer’s wife, the only life she had ever known, was over.
Following an auction that spring, which emptied the barns and all farm equipment, my grandmother stoically faced her newest challenge. At 56, an age when many people are thinking of retirement, Violet said a little prayer, travelled to Kingston on the Wolfe Islander and, holding her head high, walked up Princess Street and into the Doreta, a fashionable women’s clothing store.
“I’d like to apply for a job,” she said to the manager.
“Do you have any experience, Mrs. Johnson?”
“A lifetime,” came the reply. She was hired.
For the next ten years, Nana commuted from the farm, with the help of her neighbours, catching a ride to the village, to and from home. She even rode the school bus. She never learned to drive. In the wintertime, Nana closed the farmhouse and boarded in Kingston near her store.
Retiring finally in 1973, Violet sold her farm, where she had lived for 46 years as a farmer’s wife, mother and grandmother. She bought a small house in the village. I wasn’t there when she locked the farmhouse and quietly left. I have no idea what that might have been like. She loved her new house in the village though, and it would be home for another twenty years. It was there where she received grim news once more, in March of 1987. Her eldest son, my father Jack, had suddenly passed away at 59.
I noticed her starting to age shortly after. Her 90th birthday celebrations thrilled her that Sunday afternoon but she was slowing down considerably. She tried to hide the fact that her eyesight was failing until we noticed small things left undone around the house. Driving down Johnson Street in Kingston after a short doctor’s visit Nana pointed out the ‘Pilot House’ restaurant on the corner. “Oh, that’s where Johnnie proposed to me in June, 1927 just after my appendectomy. He gave me this ring. It was a doctor’s office back then. He had to pretend he was buying horse shoe nails over here in town, to his father…” My turn to stare, open mouthed.
In early 1998 her legs gave out and she simply had to leave home and Wolfe Island. She needed assisted living and moved into Fairmont House on outer Montreal Street, after a short hospital stay. Nana wouldn’t return to her island sanctuary this time, and she knew it and I believe, she accepted it. We held a yard sale and her home went on the market as well. It sold shortly after.
I never had to tell her. Just before it sold, Nana passed peacefully away on June 8, 1999. She returned to Wolfe Island where she is buried at Sacred Heart beside Grampy and Dad.
“I wish I knew her,” Ruby told me as we finished placing the new, ornate flowers at Nana’s grave for her upcoming ‘birthday’. “It sounds like it was fun, growing up on a farm.”
“Nana made it fun, Roo. Farm life was also very hard work for a kid and a grownup. But if I remember, Nana and Grampy were always so thrilled to see us, no matter how tired they probably were. It never showed. No, it never ever showed.”
Are they watching as we walk away? Of course they are. Watching and smiling.
By Brian Johnson
Brian Paul Johnson is a recently retired captain of the Wolfe Island Car Ferry, “Wolfe Islander III.” He worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years. We also often see him pass-through the islands as Captain of the “Canadian Empress.”
Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area, he has written for the “Kingston Whig Standard,” “Telescope Magazine,” the “Great Lakes Boatnerd” and the website: “Seaway News”. Brian co-edited “Growing up on Wolfe Island”, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen. He is also a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society. And best of all, he is about to publish his latest book… Watch for more news in a forthcoming issue of TI Life.
To see all of Captain Johnson’s articles for TI Life, Click Here.
A similar version of this story first appeared in the Kingston “Whig Standard” titled: ’90 Years on Wolfe Island’ in 1997. An early June ‘surprise birthday gift’ for Nana.