‘Just hoe in and do things’

Elders look back at hard times past, offer encouragement for hard times present

Hard times come and go, but as we approach three months of gruelling lockdowns and closures, these dark days can seem endless.

The Co-operator asked three seniors to look back at challenging times in their past and offer advice and encouragement to younger folk on how to weather these days.

Their advice was practical: accept your lot, do your best, stay busy.

Clara Janzen, who lives in Elm Creek, recalled the year her parents said there would be no Christmas.

Janzen, born in 1937, grew up in the small community of Kronskart about 10 miles from Winkler. Her dad was a farmer and a pastor, which was a volunteer position in their Mennonite congregation.

“It had been an exceptionally poor year for the crops,” Janzen said.

The news that there’d be no holiday celebration devastated her 10-year-old sister.

At the time, Janzen was a young, single woman working at the credit union in Winkler. She had a little money to buy her family small gifts.

Dad had a tender heart, Janzen recalled. He didn’t want to disappoint his daughters. He went to the farmstead’s shelterbelt and cut down an evergreen tree.

“It was sort of a Charlie Brown one,” Janzen said.

Dad cut more branches off other trees, drilled holes in the trunk, and did a bit of transplanting.

“We had a lovely tree,” said Janzen. “Talk about making do.”

Somehow her parents pulled together the pennies to buy Janzen’s little sister a storybook and a red, chenille housecoat. She still has the book.

A few years later, Janzen married her husband Henry. He was a college student, but to pay the tuition they rented land from his father to farm. Henry took a caretaking job at the college. Janzen got an office job in Winnipeg as a mail reader.

“Those first years were very hard financially,” she said.

Henry would cut ice and peddle it up and down the street in Elm Creek. They bought spent hens from a poultry farm and sold eggs.

Most entertainment was financially impossible, so they kept spirits up by visiting friends, getting involved in church and playing music.

“No matter how dark it looks, you can’t sit down and cry — though I did. But you get over it,” Janzen said. “Just hoe in and do things.”

The financial hardship of young married life was a reoccurring theme among these women.

Agnes Phillips of Carman recalled how, when she married at 19, she moved in with her husband, father-in-law, sister-in-law and a small baby. The sister-in-law’s husband was overseas fighting in the Second World War.

Her childhood home had electricity. This one did not. To keep food cold, they lowered it into a well beside the door.

How did she cope?

“You just get used to it,” Phillips said. “You make do with what you have.”

At 23, Mathilda Bouw and her husband emigrated from Holland with three small children.

It was 1957, and Holland offered few opportunities for Bouw and her family to farm. A Canadian agent came to Holland to recruit immigrants, and the Bouws jumped at this chance. The rest of their family didn’t.

The agent told them he’d have jobs for them when they arrived. When they got to Manitoba, he took them to work on a farm in Springfield. Soon, they found land for sale and moved to what’s now the family farm near Anola.

Bouw remembered driving the tractor with her small son behind her.

“Where were you going to put him?” she said.

With no running water in the house, she did laundry at the pump in the barn.

Yet, they were happy because they didn’t expect anything much, said Bouw. They’d been raised to work hard.

“You just took it the way you came,” she said. “You couldn’t do anything about it. That was just the way it was. Learn to accept it, and that was that.”

It’s not all stoicism. Clara Janzen and Agnes Phillips, who both live in seniors’ housing complexes, reported they missed having meals or coffee with other residents in the common areas.

“I stay busy,” said Phillips. “That’s the best way.”

In November, Janzen lost her husband after a lengthy illness.

“Some days are harder than others,” she said. “If I didn’t have my faith… I don’t know how people manage without it. I suppose they do.”

Over the years, “faith, family and friends,” have seen her through the bad times, Janzen said.

“You have to learn to accept it and do the best you can, and that’s all you can do,” said Bouw. “You just have to say, ‘that’s all I can do.’”

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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