He might well have described his own personal journey in equally incredulous terms. Born, as he said, in a home dug back into the side of a hill, attending school in a sod-built school for three months a year until he entered eighth grade, he earned an M.A. in Educational Psychology at the age of thirty-four, and was named Nebraska Senior Citizen of the Year in 1971.
Historic and sometimes devastating events swirled around us — market crash, Depression and job loss, dust storms and floods, Constitutional amendments and FDR. The nation grew, prospered, suffered.
But what of the millions of children in thousands of ordinary families? We hunkered down and made do. We bought ten-cent Christmas presents for each other, knocked icicles off the roof to fill the ice cream freezer, ate early field corn which was almost as good as sweet corn, covered our mouths and noses with wet handkerchiefs to avoid the dust, made dresses from hundred-pound flour sacks, played Tarzan of the Apes through the trees on our farm, saved cottage cheese cartons to trade for a few pennies to buy fireworks. Like hundreds of thousands of other families in hard times, we just went ahead and lived. Those are the stories I have told here — the everyday stories of an ordinary family in extra-ordinary times. Enjoy them and remind yourself of your own stories: the stories we treasure are the measure of what we are.
From The Square Times, Saint Patrick Square Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2011:
Residents of St. Patrick Square are full of stories inspired by their life experiences and by the lives of their families. Mildred Wolfe Burns, a McGill University professor who moved into The Square three years ago, has taken the time to write a compelling family memoir, The Wolfe Pack: Stories of a Mid Western Family, 1850-1950 (Shoreline, 256 pp. $23.95.). The book spans a century, starting before the U.S. Civil war, through the First World War and the Depression and the Dust Bowl years and ends after the Second World War. She gives an admirable, homespun account of her pioneering grandparents from Nebraska and of her parents who were both school teachers in Iowa.
“I never thought about writing the family story until I retired, when I thought someone should put it all down for the kids, for my duaghter in California and my son in Minneapolis. People started reading pieces of it, and suggested the family story was good enough to publish,” Burns explains. She traces her paternal ancestry back to Reverald James Blair, who came to Williamsburg Va. in 1685, and obtained the charter to establish the College of William & Mary in 1693. Much of the book is anecdotal, replete with childhood memories of being a campfire girl, butchering pigs, seeing the original version of Ben Hur in the 1920s and of building an igloo in small town Kanawaha, Iowa, in 1930 ‘that was the talk of the town’.
“They are everyday family stories of an ordinary family and of events that happened partly because of what was happening to the country at large, they are part of America’s story,” she writes in her introduction, “Family stories may be interesting only to us. But our stories and the stories of thousands of American families just like us are America’s history in living colour … . My father was born in a dugout and lived to see men walk on the moon. It has given me great pleasure to learn about our parents’ lives and to re-live a good many minutes of my own.”
Burns was born in Iowa and came to Montreal in 1968 to teach the administrative process at McGill’s faculty of education. She’s a natural story teller with a writer’s eye for detail. She has already published a textbook, Values Based Planning for Quality Eduction, and is working on another book, Old Lady Jones, her philosophy of teaching and how to deal with students based on stories from the classroom.
The Wolfe Pack: An Excerpt:
One of my favourite teachers was Miss Carter, the Latin teacher. I took Latin for three years. I was not very good at it; translating ten lines of Latin was a heavy chore for me. But I liked it because it was about words.
My burgeoning tendency to question everything and to believe in my own judgment got me into a bit of trouble with Miss Carter one day. The word ‘progenitors’ was brought up. I said it must mean the children and gandchildren from parents. WE had learned that the prefix “pro” meant “arising out of”, or “issuing from” so it must mean the children, I thought.
Miss Carter said, “No, Mildred, it means the parents or grandparents.”
I said, “That can’t be right, Miss Carter. You said ‘Pro’ means …” and I proceeded to instruct her on the issue.
Miss Carter said tartly, “The trouble with you Mildred Wolfe is that you always think you are right.”
I looked at her stubbornly and thought to myself, “I just don’t think I am right, Miss Carter, I know I am right.”
Luckily, I kept that thought to myself, and Miss Carter and I got along fine. Thinking for yourself goes only so far in creating good relationships.’
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