by Nancy Peckford
My maternal grandmother was a remarkable woman. Born into an impoverished fishing family on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, she had seen her fair share of hunger.
Very occasionally, she would tell us about times when her family had absolutely nothing to eat, sometimes for days. Despite living in a close knit community, they would endure that hunger in silence, out of shame.
It wouldn’t take long, however, for a neighbour to notice and my grandmother described the relief they felt as kids with the delivery of baked bread, some beans and cod fish from families who were not much better off.
At the age of 12, my grandmother realized that she would need to leave school and, ultimately, her village to have a brighter future. She began working as a full-time domestic servant for another family nearby. Despite her long hours and very hard work, she was treated horribly.
So, after a few months, she bravely made the decision to travel to a neighboring village up the coast and find work there. She proved her worth to a different family who treated her better.
Before long, my grandmother made her way to larger communities, leaving NFLD in her late teens to work as a full-time domestic servant in Sydney NS, Halifax and, ultimately, Toronto where she was employed by a Jewish family who adored her. She travelled long distances and cared for other people’s children’s while being almost completely illiterate.
I wish I could say that the story ended there, but it doesn’t. My grandmother had crossed paths with a charismatic Newfoundlander and member of the navy who was helping stop German U-boats in the North Atlantic.
After he was discharged owing to an injury, my grandmother left her life in Toronto, got married and relocated to Port Aux Basques, NFLD to start a family at the end of WWII. But all was not well. Her husband, my grandfather, was deeply troubled, and became an increasingly volatile alcoholic as a husband and father.
Despite this, with my grandmother’s considerable support, they were running a successful general Store while raising their growing family, ultimately having 12 kids. My grandfather was very well regarded as a generous and kind businessman in the community – but behind the walls of their home, he was hostile, erratic, and violent.
On a couple of occasions, my grandmother temporarily relocated her large family to get away from the chaos and aggression. Ultimately, however, she returned fearing that she would have no capacity to support her family in the long term, or maybe she thought he would change once and for all.
My grandmother was incredibly resilient and instilled the values of hard work, education, and supporting one another. The darkness of their home life was not something she talked about a lot. Like her early experiences of hunger, the abuse was rarely acknowledged.
Once her kids left home, multiple valiant attempts were made to get my grandmother to leave her husband. One of my uncles repeatedly offered to build her a house of her own. But perhaps out of pride, fear of not being able to support herself, or something else entirely, she could not do it.
My grandfather passed away a few years before my grandmother did. Many of us were relieved that my grandmother would finally have a few years of peace. In a quiet moment after the funeral, my grandmother turned to me and said something that shocked me, “All those years I wasted waiting for someone to change who never did.” Her face was filled with sadness, and then she carried on.
Many people think that women who don’t leave abusive relationships are weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. My grandmother was such a strong woman – and persisted and persevered in very difficult circumstances. She had to stay very vigilant in order to protect her kids from my grandfather, and instill in them a sense of worth no matter his behaviour.
As my grandmother, she made the best moose stew, grew a beautiful garden, played a mean hand of cards, loved arguing about politics, and insisted we all get an education.
But she carried an enormous amount of grief. When I think about International Women’s Day, I think of women like my grandmother. It’s not so much a happy day for me, but a day to reflect on what all women need to truly thrive.
We have come a long way, but there are still many who suffer in silence in abusive relationships. In North Grenville, there are safe ways to explore options where your confidentiality and privacy will be respected, and where you will not be judged or shamed but, instead, supported and equipped to make informed decisions.
Research demonstrates that women (or anyone) living in an abusive situation can experience a kind of PTSD that is nearly debilitating. The effects of the abuse can linger for generations, but so can taking a positive step to find a way out.
In our community, it is possible to confidentially and slowly explore a new way forward that offers safety, and a better future.
Shortly after moving to Ottawa from Newfoundland, I had the chance to briefly work with women who had left abusive situations. They were in their 30s, 40s and 50s, sometimes older. They had in the midst of some of their darkest moments, found a way to make a call, finally tell a friend, or ask for help as a first step to a different life. It wasn’t easy by any stretch, but once they began down the road, they were unstoppable.
Here are some folks that are eager to help if you are living with violence:
Assaulted Women’s Helpline (Ontario): 1-866-863-0511 / www.awhl.org
Naomi House: 613-774-2838 / https://naomiscentre.ca