The Queen of Sheba

Today is International Women’s Day, and this morning I woke up thinking of my grandmother, Helena Inazella Damery (nee Black), seen here circa 1933, who knew how and when to wield an axe. She was widowed early, and supported herself for decades on a rural farm in the Canaan Valley, New Brunswick, planting her own fields, hunting, building whatever she needed (including an indoor bathroom, in aid of which she inveigled a highway works crew to dig a septic system in exchange for gossip and a drink!), cutting lumber for her woodstove, traveling to Moncton and Fredericton to work, and writing sardonic letters that make me wish I had known her as an adult. On the back of this photograph she has written, “The ‘Queen of Sheba’ Ha ha!”

‘Lena, as she was known, was born at Cherryvale NB in 1914. She was the eldest of seven children born to William Harold Black and Edith Helena Black (nee Corey). In 1937 she married my grandfather, Thomas Murray Damery, and together they lived near Hunter’s Home, a few miles downstream until his death in 1965 and the illness that resulted in her death in 1988. They had two children: Cecil William Damery, who died in 2003, and my mother, Bernita Helena Harris (nee Damery), born in 1944.

After my mother died in 2017, I came across several boxes of documents in the attic of her house, including about 100 letters from her mother. A few days ago I began sorting and cataloguing them, appropriate timing, I think, in advance of International Women’s Day. My mother and grandmother were not always close–my parents moved to Ontario in 1971 and returned ‘down Home’ infrequently, and my grandmother felt somewhat abandoned–but ‘Lena’s letters are always loving and rich in detail. They are also somewhat sardonic, reflecting her judgments of relations, coworkers and acquaintances to whom she was required by convention or relationship to remain civil in person. In addition, they reveal a private bitterness about some of the challenges she confronted in the years after my grandfather’s premature death–running a rural household without help, driving long distances to a series of poorly-paid housekeeping jobs–but also a triumphant pride in her ingenuity and persistence despite these difficulties.

Here are a few representative excerpts from her letters:

[25 July 1972]: “I shot a porcupine the other night, 2 shots with the 22. he had kept me awake the night before chewing on the back of the wood-house. I gave him a decent burial the next day. I tried to shoot a ground-hog but took buck fever, the old gun just shook, then when I got over that, I didn’t want to shoot him in the back, so I missed, but the mud flew in his face. I’ll try again the next time I’m home.”

[26 April 1973]: “This man came knocking on my door, he was returning to Fredericton […] from a convention, in Moncton, when his back, white topped car developed trouble, oil, and power steering lost, etc. I took him up to phone the tow truck, he helped me wash my car. I gave him coffee, cookies, and good conversation, thought I might have to sleep him too, but the town truck arrived after several hours wait. […] He told me he wasn’t married. [….] Yesterday in the mail came a box of Smiles and Chuckles Turtles, and a “gratefully yours” note, a very small token of his appreciation for my kindness and helpfulness during his stop in my neighbourhood. Frankly, I never expected to hear from him again, even though he asked me to call in to see him if I was in town. Now I have to write and thank him for the candy, and I’m in a quandry because I would like to leave the door open a few inches, and I don’t want to appear to do so. ha ha ha!”

[9 October, probably 1973]: “[B]elieve it on Sunday morning, I had a good s _ _ _ in my own john and flushed it all away. There is still quite a lot of work to do, but give me a little more time. I didn’t know how I was going to get a cess pool and septic trench dug. I couldn’t afford to get a man with a machine to come from Sussex or Jemseg, and they charge from the time they leave home, around $200 to $250.00 even though the job only takes a short time. So I made a deal with the boss of the [highway] construction crew in exchange for “bull pens” on my property, they dug my cess pool and ditch. He gave me a bottle of lemon gin, and we had a little drink (gin and 7Up) and I got them a bottle of Bacardi’s Rum. I had gone to Sussex one afternoon and when I came home the big machine was at work. They had the cess pool all dug, and ready to start the ditch, so I just stood around and yakked with the men. “

I don’t know whether my grandmother would have described herself as a feminist. She would, I think, have been far more likely to make a joke about burning bras in the fire barrel behind the barn, “ha ha ha!” But she was a survivor, and a person who made purpose out of persistence, and on this day it is a special privilege to read her loving, sarcastic, personality-revealing letters.

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