It was a bright, warm August 4th, and the year was 1938. Adolf Hitler and his troops had advanced into Austria and the Sudetenland and, with Munich behind him, was about to take the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Mussolini, with his conquest of Ethiopia, would make a swift lunge into Albania. All of Europe was on the edge of war, while Canadians were lulling themselves into the belief that if they thought the world was getting to be a better and safer place, and they believed it strongly enough, it would then be so.
The Canadian economy was just beginning to enjoy a moderate upturn after years of depression and heavy unemployment. MacKenzie King was once more the Prime Minister of the country after a five year absence from that role. He would continue to run the country until November of 1948, when he would resign his post.
George VI was the King of England, and he, and his Queen, Elizabeth, made a tour of the country that summer, much to the delight of the entire population.
The residents of Heron Island, unable to go to a town or city to see the Royals in person, nevertheless enquired about the time that the train carrying them through to the east coast would be passing by New Mills on the mainland.
Stella scrubbed the children until they shone, and dressed them in their Sunday best. After all, the entire population of the island would be there, about twenty-five people in all. Stella would never allow her family to be at a gathering and not looking their absolute best, no matter that this was merely an informal gathering, it would still have neighbours present, and that was enough to bring out the “best”. There were few “occasions” on Heron Island, and each one was treated as special, with at least some preparation. They all went down to the beach, and there in the distance, they could see the silver train gleaming in the sunlight as it sped by. Just by this simple far-off view, they felt that they, too, were a part of the Royal Tour.
MacKenzie King had met Hitler when he took the opportunity to visit with him while attending the King’s coronation the previous year.The impression he came away with was that the Furer was no more than a simple peasant and could be no threat to anyone. More than that, he was certain that Hitler was a man with whom he could work with trust and confidence.
Finding out that Hitler was a teetotaller, a vegetarian and deeply religious by nature, King felt that this virtuous man could not possibly be anyone’s enemy. After his visit with Hitler, he had written in his diary “… I am convinced that he is a spiritualist – his going to his parent’s grave at the time of his great victory – (the annexation of Austria) – his devotion to his mother – that Mother’s spirit is I am certain his guide and no one who does not understand this relationship – the worship of the highest purity in a mother can understand the power to be derived there from – or the guidance. I believe the world will yet come to see a very great man-mystic in Hitler. His simple origin and being true to it in his life, not caring for pomp or titles, clothes – but reality…Hitler, the peasant, will one day rank with Joan of Arc among the deliverers of his people….”.
People were listening to “Amos and Andy” and “Main Street Jamboree” with Gordie Tapp as “Cousin Clem” on the radio. Later in the year, at Halloween, Orsen Wells would drastically shock North America with his radio broadcast, “The War of the Worlds”.The Dionne quintuplet’s parents, Oliva and Elzire, were beginning their long fight to have their family reunited. The quints had not as yet lived with their parents, who were seldom allowed to even see them. The Quints were now four years old. Their contribution to the economy of the Northern Ontario area where they were born and still lived, was the best thing that could have happened to the people of that area during those times, when the rest of Canada was deeply entrenched in the Great Depression. The people of Callander and Corbeil were renting out rooms to tourists, concession stands were prospering, and everyone wanted to see the Quints. Although they were kept virtual prisoners in the Dafoe Hospital, named after the doctor who delivered them, when they were grown, they would write in their book, “We Are Five”, that these were the happiest days of their lives. The government had full authority over their lives, much to the dismay of their parents. Many large companies were using their image to promote their products. A cereal company was giving out little chromed bowls, with their names and five little girl’s faces stamped around the rim, with every purchase of a box of their cereal. (I have one of these precious bowls in my possession. I picked it up at a garage sale in Niagara Falls in 1976 for fifty cents. It’s a a bit corroded, but the little faces and the names are still there.) There was hardly a magazine that didn’t regularly carry pictures of the five beautiful little four-year olds. They could be seen in short movies at the theatres. They were heard on radio. They were definitely the glue that held the country together in a strange sort of way. They made people forget their daily problems just by existing. They were a fantasy, and Canada was, at that particular time, greatly in need of a fantasy.
But on this day, the residents of Heron Island have only one thing on their minds.
A child is about to be born.
Stella, the tiny, blond, blue-eyed woman, who is soon to be my mother, is keeping a sharp eye on the little boat that is making its way across to the island from New Mills. In it is her husband, George, and riding in the back with his little black bag is the doctor who has been summoned to help me into the world.
She watches as she stands over the heavy washtub full of steaming water which she has heated over the open fire in the yard. It’s too hot to heat water in the house today. She leans heavily over the scrub board and rubs the clothes with the lye soap, stopping to breathe slowly with each pain. She wants to finish the wash before the doctor sets foot on the dock. It wouldn’t do for him to catch her scrubbing clothes while in labour.
The boat gets closer. She hangs the last of the sparkling wash on the line and enters the house. She climbs the stairs to the tiny front bedroom with the little gable window. A warm breeze is blowing in from the Bay. She knows exactly how many squares there are in the screen in that window. She has counted them during this pregnancy because the doctor has told her that she has little chance of surviving this delivery, her thirteenth. He recommends an abortion, saying that she must abort this baby or she will almost surely die.
There are ten other children and a husband to consider. She tells him that she will decide and let him know. To avoid thinking of it when she is not doing things that keep her mind off this decision, she sits in the little bedroom and she counts the squares in the screen.
Now the time is here. She gets into the fresh, cheerful bed with it’s handmade quilt and waits. A neighbour has come down to collect the other ten. They hear her cries as they walk away. The doctor enters the room and with little help, and no health hazard to Stella, I’m here.
They name me Estelle Georgette, after both George and Stella. I am to be their last child and the last human being to be born on Heron Island, just off the coast of New Brunswick in the Baie des Chaleurs.