Today is my grandmother’s birthday.
Margareta Sawatsky Peters was born on May 17th 1900 in Gnadenthal, a village in the Mennonite colony of Baratov- Schlactin in Ukraine.
Grandma loved school and was very sad when she had to quit attending after finishing grade six. She was an excellent student who loved to read. She had an amazing memory.
Well into her 90s she could still recite long German poems with flair. Before I went to visit her in her retirement years I would often go to a German bookstore to pick up a new novel for her.
She never lost her love of books although while she was raising her six children and helping run a large farming operation there was seldom time to read.
Grandma was very musical. In her childhood home, they had a guitar, an accordion, a mandolin and a balalaika. My grandmother and her three sisters as well as their mother, could all play all of the instruments competently. Grandma also enjoyed singing in the village choir.
Grandma didn’t talk much to her grandchildren about how she survived during the Russian Revolution but in taped conversations with one of her daughters, she described that tragic time.
So we know about the devastating famine her family experienced, the nights she and her sisters hid in the hayloft when the bandits would descend on their village as Grandma said, ‘like a plague of locusts’ and the way the bandits led by a man named Makhno once put a gun to her father’s head. She and her sisters peeping out from the bedroom door were sure their father would be shot.
Grandma’s family immigrated to Canada in August of 1923 and Grandma got a job as a nanny for the A.D. Friesen family in Altona, Manitoba.
You wouldn’t know it from Grandma’s serious demeanour in her wedding photo but she loved to laugh and had a marvellous sense of humour. She could come up with these witty one-liners in almost any situation.
She made friends easily and one of my aunts noted that her friendships often included people on the ‘fringe’ who others might not have made time for.
Her grandchildren loved spending time at their grandmother’s house. We had so much fun there with all our cousins. Grandma made us feel special and was proud of us.
Two of my aunts lived out of the province and her regular letters to them were full of glowing reports about her grandchildren’s accomplishments.
At her funeral in 1999 four of my cousins and I talked about our grandmother and how she had been the one to draw our family together.
One way she did that was around the table where we enjoyed her wonderful food – her chicken noodle soup, pickles, plumi moos, klops, homemade bread and white cookies.
Another way my grandmother Margareta drew her family together was through her dedicated daily prayers for our well-being, through her music, through the afghans she knit for each of us, through our birthday cards which always arrived in the mail with a one-dollar bill tucked inside, through the Easter baskets filled with treats she prepared for each of us, and through her delight in seeing us together.
Because my grandmother lived to be nearly a hundred years old she also had a warm relationship with many of her great-grandchildren.
Today is my grandmother’s birthday and I’ve been thinking about her a lot in the last while. She provided me with a wonderful role model to look up to as I grandparent.
Interestingly today two of her great-great grandsons, including one of my grandsons, are celebrating their birthdays too.
One great-great-grandson is turning three and the other seven.
They were both born on their great-great-grandmother’s birthday.
She would have loved that!