A Century to Reflect
Isabel Power of Cupids, NL, reflects on a long life as she turns 100 years old.By Dennis FlynnFor quite a number of years prior to the pandemic, it was a great joy to stop in and visit with Isabel Power of Cupids, NL, whenever a few of us Wren Boys went around over Christmas. Ensconced on a comfortable chair in the living room of her daughter Cecilia McDonaldâs home in Colliers, Isabel always took in the entertainment with a wry smile, reminding me somehow in her bearing and likeability of the late Queen Mother. So I was delighted to hear that dear Mrs. Power had reached her 100th birthday last November. I reached out to her through her daughter and we decided that, due to the pandemic and in an abundance of caution, Cecilia would take my questions to her mother and pass along her replies. A few highlights and selected quotes follow, but first to set the stage. Isabel was born November 19, 1921, during an era of remarkable social changes, historical upheavals and technological advances. She entered the world during the Prohibition Era, when alcoholic spirts were outlawed in the United States and American gangsters such as Al Capone were all over the news. She came at the tail end of the Spanish influenza pandemic (1918-1919) that killed 20-40 million people worldwide. She lived through the turmoil of WWII (1939-1945) and saw local methods transportation evolve from horse-and-cart and sailing schooners, to automobiles, engine-powered ships and airplanes. Isabel witnessed communications evolve from primitive radio sets, to televisions to hand-held computers. It boggles the mind how much life has changed in one century.Like most rural babies of that era, Isabel was born at home. She was raised in a tiny hamlet called Springfield in Conception Bay (located near Mackinsons and now incorporated into South River). In Isabelâs family there were six girls and three boys. Isabelâs mother was only 40 years old when she died, leaving behind a house full of children. Other tragedies followed at different times with the death of Isabelâs baby brother, her seven-year-old sister and her 18-year-old sister. Aside from these untimely losses, though, Isabel family is blessed with longevity. Her father was 92 when he died, her sister Maggie was 95, her sister Irene was 87, and her sister Ann was 91. Now 100, Isabel is the last surviving member of her family.After her motherâs death, the oldest sister Ann stepped up to help raise the family. For a time, Isabel was sent to live with an aunt in Harbour Grace and Irene went to their grandmotherâs in Cupids. But Ann eventually took them all home. Isabel notes, âLife was not easy. Work was hard to find, so money was very scarce. We all set out the vegetable gardens, raised hens and cows, and had a horse to get the wood for the stove and plough the garden. Ironically, during the Great Depression if you had a hen you had to kill it [for food] or you would not get any monetary help from the government.â Government relief programs of the time (commonly called âthe doleâ) were harshly prohibitive. Recipients had to be absolutely destitute to receive any financial help.âWe all had to learn chores at very young ages,â Isabel recalls. âI remember my sister Irene being so tiny a girl that she had to stand on a chair to reach the bread pan on the table in order to make bread for the family. All the girls learned to knit, sew and cook. The boys looked after the animals, harvested firewood and brought in all the water from the well, as there was no indoor plumbing or bathrooms. Clothes were washed on scrub boards using water heated on the stove; we had very little clothes, unlike children today. Everyone chipped in with all the bigger chores, such as setting and harvesting vegetable gardens.âThe old house was not insulated, so in winter it would be very, very cold in the morning until our father got up and set the fire going. Stoves were extremely important, and the only source of heat. We actually had to bring a split of wood from home for the school classroom stove. We walked to school in South River, which took about a half-hour each way, in all kinds of weather. It seems funny now, but we didnât have much real money, so we were inventive about how we paid for certain things. I remember bringing an egg to the store to trade for a pencil that I needed for school, and the merchant accepted it.âWhen her older sisters went to work, Isabel had to quit school to tend house, cook and clean for the family. Without modern conveniences, such as electricity, it was very hard work. For instance, light was provided by oil lamps that had to be cleaned by hand every day as they got quite sooty.âOne powerful memory I have of my childhood was about my younger brother, Ed. He helped out in the garden and barn, and he got attached to one of our hensâ¦ When the hen had grown, my father had to kill it. As we sat at a table, my brotherâs tears slipped down his cheek as he ate the hen for supper. Of course, that was your reality. We could not afford a pet, since every day was a great challenge for our father to keep us all fed and warm.âWhen I was old enough to go to work myself, I got a job at the wool mill in Mackinsons down near the river. There was a Mr. Fisher from England who was my boss. We made a wide variety of things, including blankets, and wool and khaki cloth for the Home Defence force. I worked there for nine years until I got married. It was pretty hard but we enjoyed it. You were on your feet for 10 hour shifts standing by a loom. Plus, we walked an hour each way to get to the mill and back home.âIn 1949, at the age of 28, Isabel married Patrick Power of Cupids and they raised four children. All the skills Isabel had learned as a child were put to good use every day in her married life. They had gardens and animals, wood and water to bring in, and the full-time job keeping the fire going in the small stoves of the day. Since the kitchen was the warmest place in the house, life revolved around it. Winter nights were spent there doing homework, sewing, knitting, making shavings for the stove and playing cards with friends (for very unusual prizes including cow heart, cow tongue or even a rooster to eat).âMy husband was a very hard worker, but he often had jobs away so I looked after the children, house, barn and gardens. Whenever he was back he went in to cut firewood, brought it home on the horse and slide, then cut it up in summer and put it in the shed to keep it dry. We also bought coal to burn in the winter. My husband sometimes worked unloading coal boats at H.B. Daweâs in Cupidsâ¦ I can see him now, coming home with a black face and red eyes. My husband mowed the gardens by hand with a scythe, and all the children and I would spread out the hay to dry. In those days, the entire family worked together to get the hay in the stable loft and the vegetables in the cellar.âMy husband and I always worked as a team. We did everything we could to keep our family fed and educatedâ¦ We never owed any money. We did without luxuries if we could not afford them. We made do with whatever we had on hand. If we really, really needed something we would save up the money to buy it. I made sure my children went to school and did their homework at night. They all graduated high school, attended post-secondary school and had good careers. That made me and my husband quietly proud to know they did well.âThe WWII era had its own challenges, Isabel recounts. âWindows had to be covered so no light could be seen from outside the house. This was because authorities were afraid we might get bombed. Also, food was rationed and made for some strange substitutions. We could not get white flour, so we had to use brown flour which was hard to bake with. Lots of young men from around home joined up for the war. My brother Ed signed up, but the war ended, fortunately, before he was sent to Europe.âIn terms of recreation, Isabel says they enjoyed playing marbles, tiddly and cards (usually 120s). They never had bikes or ice skates, but they did play on the ice. Children made swing sets with ropes and boards, rode the horse and slide, and greatly enjoyed simple things.At Christmas, Isabel says, âWe had a real tree. There were no electric lights, so we used candles on it and had to be very careful. The tree was up a very short time right around Christmas itself - not like today when folks have trees up all of December. A treat for us was syrup to give to our cousins when they visited. Gifts were homemade items including socks, mitts and caps, since our grandmother had a spinning wheel. When the sheep were sheared in the spring of the year the wool was cleaned and spun. We would buy blocks of dye, add them to boiling water, then soak the wool to make it different colours. It was very fascinating to me as a child.âReflecting on the past century and the changes she has witnessed, Isabel points to the obvious leaps and bounds - electricity, indoor plumbing, the telephone and automobiles - but also to womenâs rights and paved roads. âEven the role of religion has changed greatly,â she says. âChurches and religion controlled many aspects of life when I was young, but not as much anymore.âOne of her favourite inventions of late is FaceTime, something that many of us have gotten familiar with during the pandemic. âIâm no expert on computers, but with a little help I can talk to and see my family members no matter where they live in the world.âIf her younger self could just see her now, FaceTiming with the best of them in the 21st century.