As a child, my Grandmother used to tell me all sorts of stories about the Depression. Each morning she made sandwiches for the hungry people knocking on her door, and her weathered screened verandah sometimes became a shelter for homeless people during rainy nights. The train station was just a few blocks down from where they lived on South Street in Cowansville, and those that rode the freight trains would get off daily to see if they could find work or food. Once they came knocking at your door, chances are you would never see them again, as they would never spend too long in any one place.
I was always told that we once had a hobo mark on our side door, and Grammy would also take in needy families until they got on their feet. Grampy once said that he never knew who would be sitting across from him nightly at the dinner table, but each time my Grandmother asked him to go to the grocery store to get another loaf of bread for someone in need he went without complaining.
(image via: D-Arch)
One day Grammy hired a young homeless woman named Gladys who worked for her until she died. I was barely eight years old when Gladys passed, but I still remember her like yesterday. Gladys was an odd looking woman who tried to hide her chain smoking habit from my Grandmother. The ‘manly-looking” woman would talk up a storm while she cleaned with stories that young ears should have never heard– but I did.
Gladys would tell me all about her days as a teenager where she would hide along the tracks outside the train yards. She would run as fast as she could along the train as it gained speed and grab hold and jump into the open boxcars. Sometimes, she missed, and sometimes she watched some of her friends lose their legs or their lives as they jumped off as the train was reaching its destination.
Knight Residence and business–569 South Street Cowansville Quebec-Photo from Linda Knight Seccaspina Collection
Gladys told me that there was nothing left at home during those horrible years of the Depression. There were too many mouths to feed and she knew she wasn’t going anywhere anyways if she remained there. So she just rode the rails as it was free and she knew she would find food somewhere, which was more than she was going to do at home. So she cut her hair, wore overalls and a cap, and survived life on the road until my Grandmother hired her.
Gladys ended up dying in her sleep in ‘the back room’ of my Grandparents home as it was always called. After she died, my Grandmother promptly labelled it ‘Gladys’s room’. When I was older and came home on weekends, that very same room was where I slept. You have no idea how many times I thought I saw Gladys in the dark shadows scurrying around with her feather duster, and yes, still chain smoking. The room was always really cold, even in the summer, and it never stopped smelling of apples.
You see, Gladys could make anything out of everything. My Grandmother was an apple hoarder among other things, and always had a huge wooden barrel of apples in the shed. The top part of the bin held apples that were crisp and fresh, but, if you ventured to the bottom looking for a better apple, it was nothing but decaying fruit. So when Gladys made an apple pie she insisted on using the older apples, and worked her magic with them. Somehow the odd cigarette ashes sometimes found in that pie gave it that “je ne sais quoi” in added flavour. But Gladys like my Grandmother never bothered with tradition as even in her late years she was still the young woman who had been thrown off trains, begged at back doors of strangers and generally got by because she had too.
Hard times had driven her from home so a few rotten apples were not going to stand in her way of making a great apple pie as those issues were transient to her now. After all, any emotions she had been through in her life from love hate or fear- my Grandmother and apple pie now covered the whole territory for Gladys. She had left that life somewhere among the years of former crumpled packs of cigarettes and loneliness.
Fred and Mary Knight Cowansville Quebec – Photo from Linda Knight Seccaspina Collection