Conversations with "Granny" by Gilda Koenig

I’ll start by introducing myself; my name is Beatrice Nellie Robinson...or sometimes Heap. You’ll figure that one out in a moment. I’ve was always known as Bea or “granny”. I was born October 24, 1905 at 21 Arnold Street in Nantwich, Cheshire. My mother was Nellie Athel Robinson (yes, that’s Athel not Ethel) and my father was Albert Henry Heap. None of us will ever know why they neglected to pick up a marriage licence, but I got the use of either surname which I rather had the tendency to use with great abandonment throughout my life, plus a few more names for good measure. I was reminded of the confusion I caused many times. I just couldn’t remember when and where I used them. I lived with my grandparents, Walter and Eliza Robinson but don’t remember seeing my mother very much.

My grandma Eliza was strict and during one of my conversations with my granddaughter, she said it was probably with good reason. I won’t forget grandma dragging me off to school kicking and screaming for the first few times and as soon as she left I headed back home to wait on the stoop for her arrival. I did go to school for eight long years and got to meet the headmaster a number of times. I still think we should have been on a first name basis. Don’t remember how old I was but I remember a number of students decided to nickname me “Cock Robin”. I didn’t like that, so I just made sure they were introduced to my favourite rose bush in the lane close to the house. I had good times with my grandpa, and when I learned to ride a bike I was allowed to go with grandpa on Saturdays when he took his eggs to the bike basket. I can remember coming home late one night, the moon was already up and I was scared because I thought the moon was following me. Our best times were sitting on the banks of the canal with grandma’s bread and his homemade cheese watching the horses pull the coal barges down the river Weaver.

In the spring of 1910, my mother became pregnant again, and the father was Albert Heap....again. On June 6, 1910, in what I would presume to be the English version of a shotgun wedding, they were married. My granddaughter and I discussed at length why they didn’t get married before I was born, I had a couple of ideas but she said she couldn’t put that kind of language in a Family History book. She thought it was most likely a social class issue. The Heaps were wealthy, they owned 8 clothing factories at the time and our family were farmers and cloggers. These loose set of morals did not secure my father a position in the family business. In January of 1911, I learned I had a brother, Walter. I’ll never know why they decided to leave England but move they did. My dad left in May and my mother, with my brother, left in July to begin a new life in Montreal.

On August 30, 1912, I boarded the Teutonic with my grandma and grandpa to visit my parents and brother. A visit that extended into two years. My favourite memory is every kid’s dream. We lived on St Ann’s Street where the Lowney Chocolate factory was. Each night the workers would put their large copper vats out in the alley. These were the vats the chocolate had been melted in. As soon as all the vats were out, all the neighbourhood children, including me, would run over and start scraping the chocolate off the sides. My granddaughter Gilda, calls herself a chocoholic and blamed it on me. I told her it could have been worse. After a while we could hear the horse and wagon rambling down the alley to pick up them up for cleaning. There was always the next night. Did I mention I had to have my teeth pulled by the time I was 20? On July 4, 1914 we returned to England and I remember everyone standing silent with their heads bowed as we sailed past the place where the Empress of Ireland sank in the St Lawrence.

Image - “The Croft” in Burland, Cheshire, 1914 Beatrice Nellie and her grandparents, Ellen Eliza & Walter Robinson

“The Croft” in Burland, Cheshire, 1914 Beatrice Nellie and her grandparents, Ellen Eliza & Walter Robinson

I was about 11 when I started to work after school in the Heap’s clothing factory making men’s uniforms for the army and then when I was about 17, I pumped beer in my aunt Annie’s pub in Shrewsbury.

My mother made a surprise return on May 24, 1920, four days after Albert, the husband, had a rather mysterious fall down the stairs. However she was summoned to attend the inquest and returned to Montreal on June 13, 1920. When the dust settled she returned to England on November 14, 1920 and would spend the next four years there. During that time, she met Percy Crum who was to be her second husband. They left May 16, 1924 and married less than a month later in Montreal. He was to be my nemesis as well.

I married Arthur Orme on January 27, 1925 in Nantwich...not one of my better decisions but......Gilda’s mother, Dorothy, was born July 16, 1925 at 46 Pillory Street. Nurse Toolon delivered her and then went on to Mrs. Green, to deliver her 24th child. A year later, we decided to head to Canada, grandpa Robinson had died and I was left with Grandma Robinson, who was getting a touch cantankerous over her daughter leaving again. So all of us up and boarded the Montrose to sail to Canada. I took up a sales job at Eaton`s and my husband took up drinking. One day after work, I arrived at the house to find it empty and my little girl of 2 sitting in the middle of the floor. He had even taken the furniture. I swallowed my pride and moved in with my mother and Percy.

It was not the best arrangement but we survived until I returned home at 10 p.m. after an Eaton`s Christmas party. Percy was waiting at the door with a suitcase of clothes and my daughter. I was told to leave. I went to live with a friend who had a daughter Dorothy’s age. She was a prostitute so when she worked at nights, I looked after the children and when I worked days.... It was a darn good arrangement. When 1929 hit, I would scrounge around for pieces of coal, wood, anything I could find to sell to buy food, God bless my friend`s soul, she still had a good job and saw us through. Something to be said about the world`s oldest profession.

A couple of years later I met a young Finnish fellow, Arvid Mattson. Arvid, Dorothy and I moved to Parry Sound, Ontario where he worked as a self-employed carpenter and he was a good one. However, our house was....rustic, to say the least. My second daughter Marie was born there on April 23, 1933 at Isabella Street. in Parry Sound. We then moved on to Pointe au Baril Station in 1935, in 1940 it was Sudbury and finally Sault Ste. Marie. We moved where the work was for Arvid. In the meantime, Athel was still living in Montreal but when Percy died, she moved to Sault Ste. Marie to be close to the grandchildren. She was a strong opinionated woman and insisted they live with her. It was a power struggle and enough said about that. In 1944, after my brother, James Heap, was killed in Belgium, Athel left for Vancouver to start a new life. We moved shortly after to Prince Rupert because Arvid had seen a mink ranch for sale there. We became mink ranchers. Vicious little devils. The one that lived in the house since it was a baby tore the curtains to shreds and terrorized the goat that used to wander into the kitchen. As my granddaughter said, the place was Ma & Pa Kettle reinvented all over again.

Now, I must take a moment to address my marriage date to Arvid. I had been asked to provide the date and place and I did. Not to be found anywhere. It took Gilda years to track it down and you have to remember, these were the days when it was hand written requests. Why I suddenly developed a conscience and gave her a date 10 years earlier and the wrong country… well, I suppose it was on a whim. A whim that I was jokingly never allowed to forget. It became apparent many years later that my granddaughter was not asking for all this information to judge me but to preserve our family history. She said, “we are who we are today because of those who have gone before us and from you, we have learned strength in the face of adversity fess up, granny and tell all”

Once my youngest daughter, Marie had married and Dorothy had remarried, after the death of Gilda’s dad, my mother had decided to move to Rupert to be close to family, I needed to work so I started at the Rupert Steam Laundry and that became my profession. I moved to my own apartment in Rupert in the late ‘50’s then decided to move on. My first stop was Riverview Hospital in the laundry area, using the large mangles. The abuse and treatments I saw, lived with me forever. I never looked at mental illness the same way again. After a couple of years, I decided on a work and travel way of life. So many places. Castlegar comes to mind first because I had to use a motorboat to get to work when it flooded. There was Reno, back to places in Ontario, while working in Penticton I lived in a tent at Okanagan Lake Provincial Park, when the trees were 3 feet high and the rattlers were longer, Vernon, Sicamous. I travelled everywhere....1961, Rogers Pass in a Morris Minor, gravel road, cigarette hanging out my mouth, one tough cookie. Just for sport, I would send a letter or card using my latest boyfriend’s last name. A source of amusement and big discussions at the other end.

In my travels, I met Paul Dow, he reminded me of Cesar Romero.....except he didn’t have any money. In 1968, I found out my daughter Dorothy was diagnosed with cancer. I left everything behind and moved to Vernon, working at the Vernon Steam Laundry until she died in 1971 then moved on to Sicamous to work at the Sno-White Laundry for a couple of years. My last move was to Prince George to be close to Marie, my youngest daughter and my grandchildren, Linda, Norman and Victoria. I moved into Rainbow Lodge, a senior’s home. I joined the legion and started up a choir, did some fundraising, took bus trips, always had a dance partner and kept everybody on their toes.

Granny died on January 22, 1997 at the age of 91. She had always said “when I die, I want to go fast and easy” and that’s exactly what she did.