Listening – a Book Review

Reprinted  from Vista, the membership publication of Senior Association, Kingston, September 2013.

The author of Grace, Millie Morton, is a regular contributor to Vista and readers might recognize her style and some of the events described in these memoirs of her mother. Millie is a sociologist with world-wide experiences as a teacher and consultant. Her articles have appeared in numerous professional journals. Millie grew up on a farm near Stirling, On­tario and attended a one-room elementary school; her mother’s teaching career began in a one-room school.
All along the way, I listened to her stories ... But I listened with the ears of a child ... Even as a grown­up, I didn’t always listen well enough ... So I’m es­pecially grateful that I had a chance to listen again when she was in her nineties ... I came to see her life with new eyes.
Millie’s voice comes to the reader in the few sen­tences at the opening of each section of the book. These italicized words set the scene for the following story/event in Grace’s life. It is all true and Millie’s words and details make the period and the changes in rural Ontario during the twentieth century come alive.
At the beginning of the book you read of a day in the life of Susan Dayman, Grace’s mother: By the time Lizzie and Cleo returned, the aroma of fresh baked bread filled the little house. The baby, a girl, arrived a few hours later, born at home It was Wednesday, August 21, 1907, and she had her Grace.
Life on the farm meant no electricity, no tele­phone, and no indoor plumbing. The Dayman house­hold included the teacher who boarded with the family. Grace never forgot the night he took a night time drink, not from the water can, but from a milking can of swill for the pigs.
As Grace matured she drew on examples set by her family, the church the family attended, and the rural community around her. A one-room school pro­vided new experiences and increased her repertoire of “memory work”, which continued to grow through­out her life. By 1920, Grace had completed the senior fourth (grade eight) but waited another year before taking the entrance exams to high school. She intend­ed to become a teacher and she did. From her first one-room school she went on to a career that really did not end with mandatory retirement at age 65.
Marriage, family, the community, and her com­passion for people, books, and words were obvious sources of strength throughout Grace’s long life. She saw beyond her generation and we are fortunate to have her story told by her daughter in a warm, in­viting narrative style and enlivened by photographs, Grace’s own words, and original poetry.
A special hibiscus is a constant presence through­out the book.
“Let’s start at the beginning, I said, as Mom set­tled into her wingback chair. We were in her room at the Bridge Street Retirement Home ... Behind her, a large hibiscus plant rose above the height of the chair, giving me a clear view of its abundant foliage and large pink blossom.
Millie Morton has given me a special gift with this memoir. My mother was a teacher, born in 1905 on a farm in rural New Jersey. She also taught in one-room schools and eventually in consolidated schools, raised a family, and gave to her community. I didn’t always listen enough. Millie Morton did.
Carolyn Owen Holden
Reprinted with permission of the author.