Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Grandpa Webb

I've been communicating off and on today with a former colleague from East Tennessee who found herself in Elmira, NY on business today. Those of you who have followed this blog for awhile may remember reading that my paternal grandfather married a lady from Elmira and lived the remainder of his long life in that place. I've spent leagues of time talking about my maternal grandfather, but today I'm going to talk some about my dad's dad.

Grandpa Webb got his start in Bristol, England; he was born into a family of 16 children in the very early years of the 20th century. My great-grandfather ran a public house and some time shortly after my grandfather made his appearance, the pub ran on some hard times and those of his children who were still at home were placed in various sorts of foster care. I'm not sure how it happened exactly because Grandpa never wanted to talk about it in very much detail, but somehow he was declared an orphan and at the age of five he wound up a ward of one of the Thomas Barnardo orphanages.

As you might imagine, that wasn't very much fun but what came next was possibly worse. In those days there was no prohibition against child labour, and at the age of twelve my grandfather became one of hundreds of thousands of "home boys"; English orphans who were shipped to Canada by the Barnardo Homes to function more or less as agricultural indentured servants.

A lot of these boys were placed in various sorts of abusive situations and unfortunately, my grandfather found such a place a few miles north of where I was raised. For the next three years he worked seven days a week and slept in the barn with the animals until the dead of winter, when he was allowed a place in the unheated attic of the farmer's home until spring, when he was forced back outside again. There was no school, no church, and no trips to town during that time. Why he never ran away, or as he matured, why he never beat the living hell out of the farmer who did this to him I will never know. I certainly would have. At any rate, he was allowed to change his indenture when he was sixteen and finally found himself in a place where the people treated him with some decency.

When his indenture was up, he gained a little money and promptly sailed for England to re-unite with his family, some of whom he had maintained sporadic contact with. I have all the letters he received during this period of his life in a box in the other room and they are heartbreakingly sad to read. Unfortunately, many of his family had scattered in the interim, including his parents who had passed. He corresponded with one of his older brothers who by this time had become a pastor in the Church of England and who assumed something of a paternal role with my grandfather. This all happened in the early years of the Depression and there was no work to be had in England. On his brother's advice, he sailed again for Canada to make his way on his own.

On his arrival in Ontario, there was no permanent work to be had, so he took to the roads as a hobo and earned his keep by taking and doing odd jobs. One of my neighbours who farmed and worked as an engineer for the CPR hired him for day labour during harvest and took a liking to him. He went out of his way to get him a labourers position with the CPR laying track; a hard job but one he held till he took another labourer's position in the Bowmanville Foundry; a job he would keep for upwards of 35 years. He also managed to buy a house, which he promptly fixed up and resold at a profit; this was something he did several times during his working career.

Finally things began to go right for him and he met and married my grandmother, at which time he was more or less adopted into her huge extended family. Over time, he had three children with her, and they were happily married for thirty five years until her sudden and unexpected passing from a massive heart attack.

The winter after she died, grandpa took a trip to Florida with my newly-wed parents. While there, he became friends with a man from upstate NY who invited him to come and visit which he did later that spring. Unfortunately, his new friend was indisposed the weekend of his visit, so he got his recently divorced (and much younger) sister to step in and act as tour guide and entertainer in his absence. I'm told my step grandmother rolled her eyes when this was suggested to her; my grandfather was piously religious and she...uh....wasn' I readily believe this, but she stepped up to the plate nonetheless.

I'd say the tour must have gone rather well, although I am a hundred percent sure nothing amiss happened because according to my step grandma she couldn't even get him to unbend enough to kiss her on the cheek, and she said she tried HARD which I have no trouble believing ! But something sure must have clicked because grandpa suddenly started spending a lot more time in Elmira, and pretty soon wedding bells were ringing again ! When it came time to choose where to live they chose Elmira because although grandpa was retired my step grandmother still had quite a few years left to work at her factory job before she would be eligible for retirement.

I don't think anyone would argue that my grandad had a hard start in life, but he sure managed to land in clover when he found my step grandmother. From the day they married until the day they died they were never willingly more than a few steps apart; she could finish his sentences and he hers, and she doted on him and spoiled him...and through him, all of us..... like no one had ever done before.

Grandpa married for the second time late in his life, but he enjoyed thirty years of marriage to my step grandmother. The last year of their marriage they slept one room apart from one another at the nursing home but they spent each day together. Despite being fifteen years his junior, each morning my grandad came to her room where he would stay until bedtime. One morning my grandfather failed to come; his death literally broke my grandmother's heart. She passed two weeks later, and they are buried together in Jerusalem Hill, NY.

Grandpa and Grandma at their home on the occasion of his 80th Birthday


Laura said...

What a neat story - I'm glad he found some happiness in what was surely a very hard life. How touching that he remarried - so many people don't, or can't...

Funder said...

Wow, what an amazing story! Thanks, too cool.

SmartAlex said...

My great great grandfather was indentured in Sweden in the early/mid eighteen hundreds. He kept sheep 6 days a week, and on Sunday he was given a loaf of bread as a wage and allowed to walk 20 miles home to visit his family. Not sure if that was one way or round trip, but either way, it must have made for a long day.