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Book Remarks: Mother of the Regiment

Mother of the Regiment by Susan Chalker Browne
Mother of the Regiment by Susan Chalker Browne - Contributed

The subtitle of Mother of the Regiment (Flanker Press) best states the subject of Susan Chalker Browne’s latest book — “remarkable women of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Remarkable women. Five of them anyway. Oldtimers, I dare say.

Author Susan Chalker Browne is remarkable in her own right. Having the gumption to research and write a book of this type takes commendable discipline and nose-to-the-grindstone labour, eh b’ys?

Heedless of repetition, I dare say the book is a labour of love, cliché or not.

I’d heard tell of these five women before I read Mother of the Regiment, but it was just that – heard tell. I knew little or nothing about them.

Now my noggin is chock-full of information about the roles these women played in our history. Remarkable stuff, eh b’ys?

The biographies of these women not only provides intimate details of their lives, but also provides insight regarding the times and places they lived – grandmother’s (great-grandmother’s?) time; grandmother’s place.

Listen, you know how sometimes after you’ve eaten a scrumptious wedge of granny’s fruitcake you wet a fingertip and dab up the tasty crumbs left on your plate?

Well, after finishing this book, I flipped back through the pages chasing some of the crumbs I’d circled and underlined along the way.

May Furlong, the titular Mother of the Regiment, renown for her support of the soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment, was also recognizably supportive of numerous charitable groups – the Santa Claus Society(!?), for instance.

Among such contributions, I spotted a fruitcake crumb that I think younger folks today would not recognize as a delectable morsel, if I may mangle metaphor – “In 1918 she sent a gift of rhubarb to the Girls’ Department of the George V Seaman’s Institute.”

A gift of rhubarb! Not only a splendid title for a short story, but also a nod to the early-summer dietary importance of an old-time vegetable nowadays largely ignored…

… except for occasional wilted bunches in local supermarkets, and the crop spreading its umbrella leaves in our flower-pot patch.

Elsie Holloway, “a formidable woman in her day” was Newfoundland’s first professional female photographer. In 1908, she and her brother Bert built Holloway Studio, a state-of-the-art photograph studio. The showroom was “elegant” and in addition there was “a darkroom with adjacent rooms for printing, enlarging, and developing.”

Here’s the fruitcake crumb – “There was also a sitting area and modern washrooms for men and women.”

Washrooms! Public/customer washrooms, a mostly unsung convenience, except for when – in an iconic Wonderful Grand Band tune — Tommy Sexton points his finger.

At the request of a Church of England missionary, Lydia Campbell, a 75-year-old indigenous woman of Labrador, wrote her memoirs. In 2009 she was named a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada in recognition of the importance of her writing.

If Lydia could know of the prestige afforded her, I imagine she’d say one or two things:

“Well done old half breed woman.”

Or she might rephrase for personal purpose something she once said about Donald Smith (co-founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway) who she thought was putting on airs: “Now what is he so great?”

Cake crumb?

Lydia grouses about how the deep snow exhausts her when she’s checking her rabbit slips: “But it can’t be expected otherwise with me to get tired, for I am now 75 years old.”

Seventy-five and checking snares in snow up to her double-T butt for frig sake!

In the days of Richard Squires, amid the political skullduggery of the time, Armine Nutting Gosling was instrumental in women winning the right to vote, despite conflicting opinions, like this one of novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward – “Suffrage for women wasn’t necessary and most women did not want the vote forced upon them.”

The crumb?

In 1909, Armine helped create the Ladies Reading Room, a place where seditious women could ensconce themselves and … well, read.

Imagine. Reading as rebellion.

P’raps I’m over-simplifying.

Georgina Sterling of Twillingate performed internationally as opera singer Mademoiselle Toulinguet – Toulinguet, French for Twillingate apparently – until she ruined her voice. Maybe, as often happens, fame went to her head and she acted unwisely, pressed her voice beyond its limits and irreparably damaged her vocal chords.

Music professor Jane Leibel speculates that Georgina “probably developed vocal nodules.”

No surprise, eventually alcohol – Demon Rum according to Granny – entered the picture and Georgie fell from grace.

Last crumb on the plate.

According to the Twillingate Sun, Georgina’s father Dr. William Stirling died at “the ripe old age of 73 years.”

Seventy-three!

For frig sake, I’m only two years shy of ripe.

Thank you for reading.

Harold Walters lives in Dunville, Newfoundland, doing his damnedest to live Happily Ever After. Reach him at ghwalters663@gmail.com.

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