I have Polish ancestry on my mother’s side of the family tree, but I rarely talk about it. The Sosnofskys arrived in the Detroit area of Michigan in the late 19th century, and my grandmother, Antonina (her name was Adeline) was born in 1899 and moved to the prairies of southern Alberta around 1914 where she remained for the rest of her life.
Somewhere in my boxes of family papers, there is a document which indicates where they come from in Poland, but my grandmother never mentioned it; it was always about knowing where we were going. She had several sisters, including Dell and Madge and brothers John, Cass (Casimir) and Stanley.
One of my ancestors was even a US Congressman: John Sosnowski (there are half a dozen different spellings of the last name) was the Representative for Michigan’s First Congressional District from 1925 to 1927. He was a Republican.
In 1917 my grandmother married my grandfather, a farmer named Joe Andrew Brown, a man I only met once in my youth, just before he died. Together they had three daughters, including my mother. Inheriting one of the most common American surnames helped disguise her Polish ancestry. I can piece together his early years in Alberta from photographs, a few documents, and what little I was told.
Farming in southern Alberta in the early 20th century was not easy. The land was barren and dried by the sun. No trees are visible in the family photos of this period. Farming was hard work, but trying it in desert conditions was very tenuous. Life was dark and harsh – more than one existence.
My mother talked about the heat, the arid landscape and swimming in the small stream that ran through the family farm. She said they ate fish from that creek to supplement their diet and remembered how bony they were. She also remembers sitting in the water, watching snakes swim past them.
This was rattlesnake country. I have two photos that speak to this: one shows my grandmother holding a dead two-meter-long rattlesnake on the end of a garden rake. More interesting is the photo of my grandfather holding the same snake on the same rake, but in this photo the snake is alive and struggling.
After surviving the harsh conditions of southern Alberta, life dealt another blow to my family in Calgary during the Great Depression years. My mother remembered that her shoes were worn out and she couldn’t afford to replace them. Instead, they inserted cardboard as a liner. The school children made fun of her for this.
After World War II, my grandmother got a job as a maid at the Alexandra Hotel on Ninth Avenue in Calgary. She lived on the premises, in a suite on the fifth floor. I remember watching the Calgary Stampede parade from his apartment window overlooking the parade route.
In the 1960s, my grandmother lived with my great-aunt Madge (also named Brown) in an apartment on Seventh Avenue. To all appearances, the two sisters got along well. Aunt Madge was born in 1891 and in her youth she was quite pretty. Looking through old photos with my grandmother, I learned that the men in the photos with Aunt Madge were her various husbands, nine in total.
Apparently Aunt Madge was an exceptional cook. Family tradition has it that his name was used as an endorsement for a large Canadian flour company in its early days.
At the time I knew her, Aunt Madge only cooked for herself and was swollen to 200 kilograms. Once she lost her balance and fell, and had to call the fire department to help her get back on her feet.
When their brother John died in the 1960s, the Brown sisters moved into his small four-room house in Calgary’s Montgomery neighborhood on 16th Avenue. The Trans-Canada passed right in front of the door. They were living there when I moved into the University of Calgary residence hall. A year later, Aunt Madge passed away and I moved in with my grandmother while I continued my studies.
The arrangement was simple. For $35 a month, she fed and housed me so that I could continue my studies. I took the bus or walked to my classes. Over time, I acquired a 10-speed bicycle and rode to campus. In exchange for room and board, I helped her with a variety of simple tasks. It was never a lot of work, considering the support she gave me, her only grandchild.
After laying a cement floor in his basement, I was able to install my drums and for the next three years I practiced up to three hours a day. I got pretty good at supplementing my summer income by playing drums in various bands that played in the bar circuit in Calgary. As a result, I was able to complete my studies without accumulating student loan debt.
It never occurred to me to think what it was like for my grandmother to put up with my constant drumbeat, given that a neighbor two doors down was complaining about the din.
Grandma Brown lived a frugal life. She saved some string (there was a huge ball of string in the bathroom closet); she returned her cigarette packs and used them as note cards. She would flatten the paper towels after using them and lay them on the kitchen table in the sun to dry so they could be used again.
I will never forget the love of my grandmother, who took care of me during my student years. She tolerated my youthful behavior, taught me frugality by example, and helped me complete my college degree.
Someone once said how I did it, going to college, which implied some sort of privilege for that achievement. He didn’t know that I had done it with little means and with the loving care of my grandmother. I don’t know how I would have done without her.
Grandma Brown never complained. She never gave lessons. We got on well. And I loved him for it. She only finished 3rd grade before leaving school and she never spoke about the circumstances surrounding her leaving. In fact, she never talked much about our family background. It wasn’t until a Polish immigrant moved across the alley from my grandmother’s house that I learned she could speak Polish and helped that woman make the transition to life in Canada.
For my grandmother, it was always about looking forward, not back, and it inspired me to think about my future and who I wanted to be. Little did I know then that my future would take me to the Yukon.
Michael Gates is the first winner in Yukon history. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine”, received the silver Axiom Business Book Award for business history. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due out in September. You can contact him at [email protected]