I would like to introduce you to someone whose name is not on any list, but I believe she is a giant among women — Adena Violet Townsend. I knew her affectionately as “Gagie” pronounced, /Gaahhh-Gee/.
In 1906 she was born in West Head, Nova Scotia to Coleman and Lavinia (Bangay) Townsend. Her father, Coleman, was fatally injured after falling from the mast of a ship, leaving behind a wife and large family.
Gagie married Randolph Townsend and they had one son, Vance who was my Dad’s best friend. Randy worked at the Lockeport Cold Storage Fish Plant. Illness, however, forced him to quit. Randy suffered from angina before treatment was available. It left him totally housebound with very limited mobility. There was nothing he could do on his own.
Gagie and Randy lived in a tiny four-room house that also had a porch and pantry. They had electricity to run a few lights and an oil-burning stove. They lived without a refrigerator, a telephone and never owned a car.
Gagie and Randolph survived on a meagre disability pension only because Gagie was an exceptional home economist. Somehow, she was able to stretch the pittance from month to month. I swear she was able to make something from nothing.
There was not a single proud bone in her body. She did whatever was necessary to survive.
After my Dad finished harvesting his potatoes in the fall, Gagie would go over the ground again picking up the small ones left behind. There was no such thing as too small.
She gratefully accepted other people’s leftovers.
She held rummage sales.
She took in washing, ironing and mending.
She knit socks and mittens for fishermen.
She cleaned for my mother — 5 cents a room.
She sold subscriptions for the weekly Family Herald.
Gagie appreciated the small things in life. She witnessed every rainbow, dawn and sunset. She never missed an eclipse. Each year she was the first person to cross “the bog” in search of pinks and the elusive pink lady slipper, a member of the orchid family. She knew the songs of all the birds and they would answer her call.
In 1965, Randy lost his battle with heart disease. Gagie did not like to stay alone at night and so began a tradition that continued for years. Most evenings I would go over at bedtime, have a yummy snack and spend the night. Bedtime meant an original story, each one more captivating than the night before. To me, she was my personal Lucy Maud Montgomery and I was Anne of Green Gables.
Gagie completed the elementary grades at the West Head School, but did not have the opportunity to attend high school. She compensated for this by reading extensively. She was very intelligent and used good grammar. Gagie would have been an awesome teacher.
Reading, writing and arithmetic were important to her. Growing up, we used the word “ain’t” a lot at our house. We had no idea what a double negative was. Gagie noticed these things and developed simple games to help me speak properly. Thanks, Gagie.
Winter nights were very cold because the only source of heat was the oil burner in the kitchen. Gagie warmed my bed by wrapping a hot iron in many layers of newspapers. Then she put it at the foot of the bed. The iron held the heat for many hours. She covered me up with layers and layers of bedding. For good measure, she threw some big coats on top to make sure I was warm all night long. Cozy does not begin to explain how wonderful it felt, the perfect sleeping environment. Years later, a modern hot water bottle replaced the iron, but it didn’t hold the heat nearly as long.
Gagie was a gifted playmate and teacher. She taught me how to knit socks for my dolls using three needles. Her patience knew no end. Corking was a popular craft and I kept at it for months. I made what looked like miles of snakes that we sewed together for small mats.
One of our favourite activities involved the kitchen table, the Eaton’s catalogue, a box of clothespins and a pair of scissors. We used the clothespins to build the outline of a house on the kitchen table. Then we divided the house into individual rooms. We cut out furniture, appliances, drapery and people out of the catalogue
to fill the rooms. We even cut slits in the beds and inserted paper people.
It was common for the power to go out on stormy, windy nights. Gagie would light her kerosene lamp and we would play school by the glow of the lamp. She had a collection of old textbooks, mostly readers and math books. I remember reading “The Wise Men of Gotham”, “The Bremen Town Musicians”, “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Aesop’s Fables.” I practiced addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Gagie’s sister, Jessie, and her husband, Deck, lived about a mile up the road in a very nice home. Jessie was a teacher and Deck an electrician. They had a television long before most people in West Head. I remember watching the movie “Heidi” at their house. On Sunday afternoons, Gagie and I would walk to their house to watch the CBC show “Hymn Sing.”
Deck and Jessie subscribed to the daily newspaper. They saved the papers for Gagie to take home at the end of the week. On Saturday evenings, she spread them out on the table in order and read the comic strips for the whole week. I clearly remember Little Orphan Annie, Li’l Abner, Bringing Up Father and Blondie.
Gagie also had musical talents. She could play the organ and sing tenor. There was an old pump organ in her living room. She let me use it as much as I wanted. I learned to play some songs on it, all in one key, the key of F major. That meant the music was too high, too low or just right for singing. To this day, I love to play in the key of F whenever possible.
The picture of Gagie that will live forever in my mind is this —
Gagie sitting in her well-worn rocking chair in the little alcove in her kitchen. A pair of recently knit wool socks under the chair cushion. That was how she pressed them. Above her head a small shelf that held a kerosene lamp, a tin filled with marbles, a pin cushion and an envelope that contained her important papers. Her hairnet and hot water bottle hung on the wall beside her.
Gagie passed away in 1985. Even as an adult, I miss her deeply. She invested a lot of time and effort in me. Her efforts left a lasting powerful impression that influenced the rest of my life.
In reality, life gave Gagie a lot of lemons, but she was not one to complain. She added new meaning to the expression “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Gagie surpassed that by a country mile. She made lemon truffles, lemon panna cotta, lemon pie, lemon mousse, lemon loaf, lemon pudding, lemon bars, lemon pound cake, lemon cheesecake, lemon soufflés, lemon shortbread, lemon ice cream —you get the picture.
Gagie will forever have a special place in my heart. I hope you can draw hope and inspiration from her life. When the going gets rough because of the loss of a job, a scary diagnosis from the doctor, a child with me
ntal illness, a marriage breakdown, money problems, just remember how she held her head high and faced whatever life threw at her. She had many reasons to say, “Poor me or it’s not fair.” But she didn’t. Instead, she took the hand that was dealt her and made the best of it.
I miss you more than words can tell, Adena Violet Townsend. No one ever believed in me as much as you did.Everybody needs a Gagie. I have told my children many stories about you. I have always wished they had someone like you in their lives, but just this very moment I realized I was asking for the wrong thing. I should have been asking for ways that I could make life brighter for the children who cross my path. Gagie, you set a good example.
It is never too late to make a difference.