One of my favorite quotes, “Someone comes into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.” I was blessed to have my mother, Verna Jeane Miller Waddell for a lifetime of 53 years. Our lives are like a Venn diagram intersecting or a finely woven cloth, the yarn interwoven to make a beautiful picture of her life she shared with me.
And my mother was beautiful.
Bobby told me, “You’re mother taught me in grade 5. You look just like her!” I can see her now everytime I look in the mirror: curly red-gold hair, blue eyes, long legs. My senses are filled with her, she has not left me: the smell of White Diamonds or Poisson perfume, the orchid blooming on my oak claw footed kitchen table, the crooning of any Bing Crosby song or hearing a big band saxophone, the feel of a soft, warm fleecy blanket, are a multitude of memories for my sensory system. On my bathroom wall hangs the Serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr she believed in: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”. My mother was wise and learned, caring and kind and a little mischievous.
I never saw our likeness growing up, but pictures don’t lie! Jann Arden says it best, I’m going to paraphrase her: “My mother left me with a lifetime of words. They linger and last. My mother’s were kind and encouraging. She never knocked me down, she never stopped loving me. I am the way I am because of her. You have to have had a vast love in order to miss somebody. Grief is the lingering gift of love.” What a powerful tribute to Jann’s mother but it certainly applies to mine also.
Verna Jeane Miller (known as Jeane) was born March 12, 1926 in a lumber camp 4 miles north of Blairmore, Alberta. Her mother Josephine Reinhart Erratt Miller taught her to read by scratching the phonics on a dusty hillside along the Little Bow while herding sheep. Her father was William Miller, a Texan and homesteader at Manyberries, Alberta until they dried out in 1922. The family moved to Blairmore and William found work in a mine until black lung ensued and he then worked as a lumberman. Josephine picked strawberries, and cooked in the lumber camp. The family moved on loading up the wagon, taking extra teams for freighting and planned on buying sheep to farm at Barons, Alberta and rented land along the Little Bow River with a contract to buy. William couldn’t read the contract and after picking the rocks for 2 years he lost the land they had improved with irrigation at Iron Springs. Their was a caveat on the land they bought and immense damages against the land involved. That meant the years of payments were for naught. He told his children about a circle of logs where he sat as a youngster in Texas. He had a slate and a rag to wipe it clean. That is his memory of formal education and he was determined his family would be educated. The family moved to Pine Lake, Alberta
When the wagon rolled past the Collins School, they caught a glimpse of their new homestead. There was smoke coming from the chimney. Until the squatters left the family slept under the wagon. Jeane attended country schools at Lousana and Pine Lake. She fished and picnicked on Pine Lake, caught little ducks for food, carried lamb on her horse to the neighbors which her father raised and sold. She was very privileged as a 14 year old to attend high school at Big Valley, a dormitory for students.
World War I started September 1, 1939. The family listened to the news on a battery operated Marconi radio. Josephine, her mother, also listened to “Bible Bill” with his outspoken Baptist views. He was Alberta’s 7th Premier, leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party, which believed the Great Depression was caused by ordinary people not having enough to spend. Therefore, Aberhart argued that the government should give each Albertan $25 per month to spend to stimulate the economy, to allow needy customers to buy from waiting businesses. This early influence was evident in Jeane’s life. She’d grown up in the dirty thirties, times very lean and tough, but in her own words, “I have so many good memories.” William and Josephine were able to buy the farm where Jeane grew up the NE quarter of 6-36-23 W4 for $700 on August 11, 1936 at 2% interest. Jeane’s brother Bob came home in 1937, he’d been working as elevator agent at Iron Springs but he was very sick with asthma and pneumonia. As Josephine nursed him back to health, he taught Jeane her fractions, they put their heads together listening to the Saturday night hockey games on the radio, taught her how to play Bridge and when well taught her to skate. Her brother, Herb was away at the University of Alberta, already had a teacher’s certificate and working on his Bachelor of Science degree. Sister Holly was taking nursing. Sister Mabelle was married and had lost a twin daughter, named Joan, but Richard the other twin, came to visit his grandparents often. Bob recovered and being unfit for active duty went to Montreal to work in the airplane factory as a mechanic, wanting to do his part in the war effort.
Jeane called her father, William, Pop. Pop loaded her bed and a cardboard box of clothes. Then they picked up Roy Bryant, a neighbor boy, and they were off to High School and the Big Valley Dormitory the fall of 1940. Jean excelled in school, made lifetime friends and had a great social life.
Mr. and Mrs. Hall supervised the dormitory and kept LAW and ORDER. The boys butchered hogs, the girls set and cleared dishes. Bob and Jeane both came home for Christmas 1940. When Jeane came in the door with her possessions in the cardboard box, tied with a binder twine, Bob went to town and bought her a brand new suitcase. How did he know a teenager would appreciate something like that? Mr. Hall and her mother, Josephine, saved Jeane’s life. Mr. Hall and two boys got her home shoveling through many drifted roads so her mother could nurse her back to health after catching Red Measles. Jeane was ill and feverish for weeks and very weak.
Her sister Beryl had graduated and took a business course in Calgary. Herb obtained his Master’s degree. During the war he received a commission as pilot officer with the R.C.A.F. He taught navigation to the Commonweatlh pilots during WWII. 1943, war raged on. Mabelle divorced. Beryl married Elmer, so handsome in his air force uniform. Jeane went to Calgary to witness her sister’s wedding at age 17.
For the times, Jeane was able to travel. Her brother Herb just before war broke out took Beryl and she on a journey along the Pacific coast down to see the Red Wood forest and San Francisco, California and the World’s Fair. She was at the Calgary Stampede, the greatest show on earth and travelled by train to see Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) with husband King George VI in May 1939 wave during their stop in Calgary as part of the Royal Tour.
In 1942-43, Jeane finished off her last year of high school in Edmonton. The men had all marched off to war, and teachers were badly needed. That summer she attended 3 months of Normal School called teacher training. By the fall of 1943 she was watching two young boys raise the Union Jack on a flagpole in the yard of the school, at Three Creeks, Alberta and saying, “Good morning, boys and girls!” This was Peace River country. Jeane slept with the eggs for her breakfast so they didn’t freeze and strained the pollywogs from the slough water to drink. And was learning how to teach. She would not turn 18 until the next March!
Jeane loved teaching. The following year she returned home and taught at Fenn. The next year, Jeane and her buddy Veronica Blair both applied for jobs at Coutts and Jeane taught grades 5-6. Her book says, Sweetgrass! Just that one word. I know that’s where Jeane and Veronica went to get chocolate and nylon hose which weren’t available in Canada during the war years. Jeane wrote a letter home saying she was going to quit; the Principle expected her to supervise the boys football team on Saturday’s. Josephine wrote back, “you’re not a quitter.” Jeane won the argument and didn’t quit. Summers were spent back in Edmonton getting her permanent teaching certificate. After marrying, she was Principle at Aden, 1947-48.
In Mom’s own words, “Since then I have spent my time trying to be the best wife and mother I could. I only wish I could go back and live it all over again! It was fun!”
Thanks to my mother for instilling in me a love of history and ancestry. My sister Dixie passed along all “her” story albums so I was able to write a summary of her life before I knew her. As January 2nd approaches, I can only think; my mother gave me the greatest gift, a part of her is part of me. And in the words of Jann Arden, “It’s such a gift to miss my mom. You have to have had a vast love in order to miss somebody.” RIP Verna Jeane Miller Waddell 1926—2008.
P. S. Dear Mom, I’m not finished telling your story. It’s not the length of life told in the dates above but it’s about the — (the dash). And the dash of the next 64 years of your life is also part of “our” story. Love and miss you every day, your daughter, Wendy Jean.