Today’s Interviewer Is Marilyn Chapman
Today’s Interviewee Is Dorothy MacPhee
Dorothy (Dot) MacPhee is my Aunt. She married my father’s brother Michael. Her family, and my father’s, grew up in Hampton, New Brunswick during The Great Depression and World War II. She vividly describes what it was like to grow up during these difficult times. She talks of her Love for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren while offering her thoughts on modern technology and the state of the world.
The interviewer today is Marilyn Chapman, who is Dot’s daughter and my cousin. Marilyn engages her mother in a wonderful conversation that will provide us all with plenty of food for thought.
Please enjoy the interview!
He wanted $900 for the house, but Dad got him down to $800. Not only that, but he paid $10 a month, and when he couldn’t pay $10 he would pay $5. There were months when they didn’t pay anything.
Q. What is your full name and what year were you born?
A. My name is Dorothy Jean Robertson, and I was born on the 22nd of February 1930.
Q. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
A. I was born in a house in Hampton, on what is now the Kennebecasis River Road. It used to be 153, but I think they changed the number. I was born upstairs in the bedroom there.
Q. How many siblings do you have, and what are their names?
A. I have five. My older brother is Carl. Then I came along. Then I had a sister Ruby, a sister Phyllis and a brother Albert.
Q. What were your favourite memories from growing up?
A. I would say the ability to just go out and run and play. We always seemed to be outdoors playing, summer or winter. Christmas for us was always very special. I think we were allowed to ask for one thing. We never knew if we would get it because times were tough. I remember once I wanted new skates—I had been using my brother’s. My idea of skates were white boots with little picks on the end. I got up Christmas morning and there was a square box, and I thought those must be skates. I opened the box, and they were black. Dad saw the disappointment on my face, and he got right down beside me and said, “I got black because I knew you could clean them. If I had gotten white, they would get all scuffed up and wouldn’t last long”. That was one Christmas memory.
Q. Who was your best friend as a child?
A. Marjorie Gerow. There was a house between mine and hers, and she moved there when she was 4 years old, and I’m about 9 months older, so I must have been 4 or 5. We started school together, went through school together, and have been friends ever since. She still lives in this area.
Q. And do you still see her today?
A. Yes, that’s right
Q. What were your favourite activities to do?
A. We didn’t have many activities. We went to the Anglican Church, where we had a group called GA for girls. We went there and learned how to knit. In fact, we went to Saint John and I remember getting first place for knitting over-the-knee booties – that was really something.
Q. What is your least favourite memory from your childhood?
A. I remember when I was young, that was the depression time. Times were tough. Dad and his brothers owned a store down across from the agricultural hall, and it disappeared because nobody could buy groceries, and so it went under. Trying to find work was hard. In those times, if you dug your ditch across from your house, you didn’t have to pay taxes. Many people would rather not do that, so dad did that as long as he could, and then was continually looking for something to do to make some money. I don’t ever remember being hungry or cold. I know mom worried a lot.
Q. What person was the biggest influence on your early life?
A. Bertha Norman. She was a midwife. We were all born at home, and when the babies arrived, the mothers all had to stay in bed for a week and the dads had to work. So, there had to be someone to look after the kids and get the meals. Bertha was often the one to come, and she was great with the kids. She could tell great stories and was wonderful with us. In fact, I remember once when I was 7 or 8, mom used to always make homemade bread, and we never liked the crust. We used to stick it under the edge of our plates. Bertha said, “If you girls eat your crust for a month, I’ll take you into the city, and we’ll go watch the Snow White movie”. Well, that was a big incentive, so we did. It was the first time we went on a train, and the first time in the city. It was a long walk from the train station to the movie theatre.
Q. Did you enjoy going to school, and what were your favourite subjects?
A. I loved school. I enjoyed Math. I also enjoyed learning how to write properly. I wasn’t as good at French or Latin. I guess I enjoyed literature, and I always loved to read. When they asked you what you thought of a poem or whatever, my answer was always different from others. And I didn’t mind History.
Q. Give me some examples of how life was different for you as a child as compared to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A. To begin with, we had an outside toilet. We had a well in the front yard, and had to carry water into the house. Dad did get the water into the kitchen sink, but the water had to be carried in and heated on the stove to do a wash, to have a bath, or anything big like that. In the summer, when mom made preserves, it was a big boiler on the stove and a rack with the bottles to go in. And in the summer when the well went dry, there was another well over past the neighbours in a big barn. I remember carrying two pails of water and thinking “this is really heavy” and my shoulders would ache afterwards. I do remember sitting at the dining room table and doing my school lessons by lamplight. We did get the phone, it was up high enough, so the kids couldn’t reach it. I also remember getting a radio – I think you needed a license, $5 a year to have a radio. And we had bedtimes. I remember when we were quite young, mom and dad took us up the road a couple of miles to a house and there was a dance, and we would watch them. If we got tired, there were beds upstairs where we would go lay down until it was time for them to pick us up to go home. There were very few cars around, so we walked around everywhere. There were also no snow days with school, so you walked to school no matter what. We very seldom missed any days. Our neighbour next door had a car, and so did Mr. Gillis up the hill – that’s where I had my first car ride. He took his wife, one of his daughters, my mom and me into the city. We went to a theatre on Union Street and saw a movie, and then we went back to the car in the Golden Ball parking garage. I remember getting in the car and going round and round until we got down to the ground floor.
Q. How old were you when you married Michael?
A. I was 20 years old.
Q. Did you have a job before you were married?
A. My mother always wanted me to be a nurse. I remember from way back when, she would always say, “Dorothy will be my nurse”. I applied to go into nursing, but I wasn’t old enough yet. You had to be 18, and I was only 17 when I graduated from school. So, I went to work at a general store at the station in Hampton. My uncle, Willard, managed it. My future brother-in-law, Ervin, drove the truck to deliver the groceries. I worked there for a little over a year until I was able to go into nursing. I was in nursing for a year and a half and decided it just wasn’t my cup of tea. And then I married Mike in 1950.
Q. How many children did you have? What are their names?
A. I had 6 children. Maureen, Micky, Marilyn, Steven, Robbie, and Shelley. Robbie only lived about a month, he had problems with the arteries in his heart. They didn’t connect properly, and the blood pooled down to his liver. There was no surgery for that back then, so he didn’t survive.
Q. Was it easier to raise the boys or about the same as the girls?
A. I think it was easier to raise girls. They were pretty good. Occasionally, you couldn’t get the same control of the boys. But they all turned out pretty good.
Q. How many grandchildren and great-grandchildren do you have? What are their names?
A. I have 12 grandchildren. Maureen has Jennifer and Matthew. Micky has Alex, Nick, and Michael. Marilyn has Christy and Craig. Steven has Andrew, Robert, and Emma. Shelley has Samantha and Brandon. For great-grandchildren – Maureen has Finn. Micky has Liam. Marilyn has Kaitlin, Gage, and Cove. Christy has Griffin, Hawksley and Cassin.
Q. Would you consider yourself a spiritual person? If so, have you always been?
A. Yes, I guess I am and always have been. I always went to church and Sunday school growing up. There were years when I was living in Calgary when I didn’t get to church. When we lived in Halifax, I did. Marilyn was just a baby, and she hadn’t been baptized, and the minister was at the door and said he would like to baptize her. I told him I don’t know anybody who could be her godparents, and he said, “you and your husband can be”. So, I started going to that church and really enjoyed it. There were a lot of nice, younger people with plenty of kids going too. I taught Sunday school there and belonged to the lady’s guild. I’ve been going to the Anglican Church here in the Renforth area since 1966.
Q. How do you think your life would be different if you didn’t believe, and how has it affected you over the span of your life?
A. It has given me the most strength through the hard times. I’ve got children who went to Sunday school and young people’s groups. They’ve gone off on their own, so it’s their decision – whatever they want to do. But I think believing makes you stronger.
Q. How has your belief in God helped you in times of tragedy?
A. Just knowing that there’s something else besides what’s here, and hopefully, everybody is at peace wherever they are.
Q. What brings you the most joy in your life?
A. Family. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I feel for people who don’t have family. There will be problems, always ups and downs and things don’t go right, but there’s always somebody there.
Q. What do you look forward to every day?
A. Getting up in the morning at this age. I look forward to chatting with my friends. Marilyn is excellent at making all of my meals, fixing my knitting and finding stuff for me. I enjoy going out for walks and when people pop in to chat. I have a friend who takes me to church. We used to go out for meals but since COVID-19, it had been more difficult to do, and now some of my friends have passed.
Q. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
A. Right here in the Maritimes. I’ve been to New Zealand and did really enjoy myself there. But I’m happy to stay here in the Maritimes. When you think of what’s going on in the world, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Q. What things make you feel the most thankful?
A. I would say my family. I feel fortunate to have a house of our own that we can stay in. And that I’ve got enough health where I’m really not a big burden and can get up and do things for myself. I really am thankful for that.
Q. Tell me a story about each child. Perhaps something that they did to annoy you, or that made you laugh.
A. Maureen – I remember she was really pleased when we lived in Halifax and I took her downtown to a movie, and we got a milkshake afterwards, and she thought that was wonderful. Mickey – I remember he was always one who had to be there when anything happened. We had recently moved to Halifax, he must have been 4 or 5. One of the men Mike worked with wife came to visit, and she had no family—she was really nice. Mickey was so annoying, I told him to go down to the basement to the playroom to play. I put the latch across the door, and next thing I knew he came up and banged at the door and the latch came right off and out he came. I thought, she’s going to think I can’t handle a child. Marilyn – She was a very passive child. I remember telling her that she can’t go across the street to her friend Cathy’s unless I took her. I practiced saying that to her numerous times. I looked out the door one day, and she was across the street. I went over and got her and I thought “I told you I would spank you if you did this”. The bathroom was right at the back door, I brought her in and sat on the toilet seat with her across my knee with the brush and I thought, “Oh, I can’t do this”. She just laid there patiently waiting for me to do it. I think I tapped her once and that was it. Steven – He wanted a car. We lived in Renforth at that time, and he finally got a car. Our driveway down to First Street was really quite steep. He had parked it at the end, and we looked out the window and I guess he didn’t put it in park and the car had rolled out of the driveway and across the street. Thankfully, there was a big tree in the yard, and it just nosed into that. Shelley – I never had any problems with her. She would say that she saw all the other kids get into problems, so she knew what to stay out of. She loved her music. She used to lay on the living room floor in front of the stereo and play the record set she liked. She loved ballet. It was a bit expensive. There was a little store and post office at the bottom of Fox Farm Road. The lady there asked if I would be interested in working there, and I thought “I don’t think I could figure out all that post office stuff”. But I did go to work there part-time, so I could earn money and pay for Shelley’s ballet and make her all kinds of costumes. But it was worth it because she thoroughly enjoyed it.
Q. What were the best things about growing up in Hampton?
A. Well, it was always having the same friends. Some of the people I started school with – 3 of us ended up graduating together. We learned to ride bikes together. Dad often drove a bike to work, so he got a couple that we borrowed when we could. When I was about 13, a group of us decided we would have a knitting club. We were all going to knit socks. Marjorie, my friend, was there. Down the village, a baker’s daughter, Jean, was there. Across the bridge, there was Kelly girl. And over past the school was Eddie. And we went from house to house. We were allowed to do this once a week. We took our knitting and spent a couple of hours chitchatting. All of our mothers, except for mine, knew how to knit, so if we ran into any problems, there was someone to help us. There were all different kinds of yarn. That was a great time for us. We went skating over at the station, where they had a rink. My sister Ruby and I used to walk over. I was using those skates my dad bought. — they did me right through high school. I understand times were tough back then, and we didn’t have a lot of money. The only day my dad had off was Sunday and Christmas Day. So, we had to get a salesman who came into the store regularly to get the size of my feet from Dad, pick up my skates and bring them home to Dad, for my Christmas present. I did a lot of skating. We used to go down on the Kennebecasis river by the bridge. There was never any worry about somebody picking you up or harming you – you never heard tell of that back then. I just remember one Halloween, I went out with a group of kids, and we pushed over a couple of wood piles and one gentlemen came out the door and chased us. I could hear him behind me, and I was running as fast as I could because I knew if he catches me, my dad would either kill me or make me go back and stack them.
Q. There have been many technological changes in your lifetime. What ones made your life easier, and what ones did you feel were unnecessary?
A. It was much easier to have the lights in the dining room to do your schoolwork rather than a lamp. A lamp wasn’t bright enough. The telephone was fun, not that we were able to use it that much, but it was nice for mom to call the doctor or anything like that. We didn’t do any long distance calling back then. The radio was delightful – we were allowed to listen to Fibber McGee and Molly. Then there was a program with someone who flew planes, and you could listen to and then collect cereal box tops that you could send them away to get little prizes. I think his name was Howie Wing. And of course, we had to bed at 8 o’clock at night. I liked the TV, but at times it could be unnecessary. There’s a lot of good that comes from it. I know my husband really enjoyed all the sports and there were programs I enjoyed. But it can be time-consuming. It’s a babysitter when you get older. I’m not really into technology, such as the iPad that I talk to Maureen on. It’s nice where I can talk to my daughter in New Zealand and see her and my grandchildren, but I think it’s too much for the kids and people who are always on them.
Q. Is there anything that concerns you about the future?
A. I think the world is in a terrible mess. There’s not the care in the world that there used to. There are wonderful people, but there are so many more who have no thought for the poor or the hungry. The vibe between the rich and the poor is worse than it used to be. Because people live in big cities—there is not the care or the thought for your neighbour like there was when we grew up. I remember my mother saying, “Hey, take this down to so-and-so because they don’t have much to eat”. I remember when she died, there was a boy who came to the funeral who told me, “You know, plenty of times the only thing we had to eat was what your mom sent down to us”. I never realized it at the time, but we never went hungry. I guess mom was more aware. There was an older gentleman who lived next door, Eddie, who she used to make stew for. It’s gotten to a point where you don’t believe anything you see or hear anymore. The rich just seem to be getting richer. I’m sure there are some of them who are helpful, but it seems to be a money grab. It’s not the world I grew up in, and maybe that’s why I find it hard. I remember with my dad, if you had an agreement with a handshake, that was it and you trusted the person. Today, you don’t know who to trust, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I hate to think what my grandchildren have to grow up in. I hope that their parents are good with instilling the proper beliefs in them. I’m sure they will. They are smart little kids.
Q. What person did you most admire over the years? It could be someone you know, anyone alive or dead.
A. That’s a big question. I’m thinking of Nelson Mandela. The rights of the African people. And I also think about the people who fought for Native rights. I think they’ve been given a really hard time. I remember being back in school, and I was maybe 12 years old – there was always a group of Natives that came to Hampton for so many months, and they made axe handles and baskets that they sold. During that time, 3 of them came to the school – there was a young boy and two young girls. They weren’t there that long, but we all played together and didn’t think anything different of them. You were brought up always to think they were terrible people. It’s a shame that they were labeled that way. It makes your heart ache when you think of all those children who were killed or died at the schools they were sent to, and to take little children from their families. I would hate to have that happen to me. I also admired my CGI leader, she was a really nice lady who gave me a little more confidence. She seemed to bring the good out in you and made you feel that what you were doing was right. CGI was a United church girl organization center who helped guide us. And of course, my parents. You don’t realize how formative they are in your life until you get older, and they aren’t around to thank.
Q. Do you have any other memories from childhood that sticks with you?
A. I really had a good childhood. But I know it was not a good time for my parents. It was 1929, with the big collapse. Dad and his brothers lost their store, I must have been about 4 years old. There was no work and there was no money. I remember Dad saying you could walk to Bloomfield and couldn’t find any work. The farmers were finding it hard too. But they would always find a potato or an onion to give them—Dad loved onions. I remember Mom crying, it was the only time I’ve ever heard her cry. Dad had to cash in his life insurance, and he just said to her, “I don’t have any more money”. It was a rough time for them. In 1929, they lived in the house next door that they rented. The McKnight family lived in the house that they bought. He was heading back to Ontario as he had family up there. He wanted $900 for the house, but Dad got him down to $800. Not only that, but he paid $10 a month, and when he couldn’t pay $10 he would pay $5. There were months when they didn’t pay anything. I don’t think the McKnights were any better off in Ontario. Mom used to write back and forth with Mrs. McKnight and I read some of those letters, I have in our family history– they had an equally hard time up there. But they had family to rely on. I think I must have been 12 or 13 and Dad had an uncle in Saint John that I had never met. He passed away and left $300 to dad and his other two brothers. I remember Dad saying, “I’m paying off the house”. After he sold it, he said to me, “I can’t imagine anybody paying this for this house”. And then I remember going to visit when my daughter Maureen who was here visiting from New Zealand, and she said she would love to go up to see the house. We drove up and Marilyn had met the man who lived there because he was a patient at the dental office where she worked. I said to Maureen, “I’m just going to go knock on the door and see if he would mind if we looked around the outside of the house”. So, we knocked on the door and I told him who I was, and he told us to come right on in. I told him I was born in the bedroom right upstairs. He let us look around, and the upstairs looked the same as when I grew up. But they had changed the downstairs all over – it improved the house even more. When I told them what Dad paid for the house – he said he would rather not tell me what he paid.
Thank you for answering my questions.
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— Transcriptions and co-editing provided by Shalyn Arseneau
— Writing and co-editing provided by Allan MacPhee