Our childhood defines our personality. It shapes who we become. When Vilma Moretti had grandchildren, she realized that her childhood and theirs were worlds apart. They had absolutely no idea what life was like for Vilma when she was their age. Theirs was a world of computers, iPods, cellphones, texting, Instagram, and YouTube. Vilma thought that when they were grown they might be interested to know what it was like for other generations to grow up. She started collecting recollections—her own, and those of some of the many people she met every day while running Keith’s Restaurant, her family’s business at the intersection of Pelham Street and Highway 20, in Fonthill. The result was, “A Little Book About Us,” published in 2009, from which this series is excerpted. Keith’s is gone, but the stories remain.
Helen Lundy Abbott
Born August 12, 1906
I live in Niagara Falls near the Niagara River. I have an older sister and brother. I spend lots of time with my grandparents, who live close by, right on the river. I have three aunts. My one aunt has instilled in me the love of reading. I get to go wherever the book wants to take me.
We live near the town of Niagara Falls, so we have things like running water and a bathroom inside the house and electricity. Neither my father nor my grandfather have a car and there are not very many cars to be seen. When we want to go somewhere, we walk. When I am at my grandparents’ house I can ride their horse. We can go to Welland on the “Stub” train. It has only one car but it is so much fun to ride. We also go to visit my other grandparents, in Welland, by boat. We can go right up the Welland Canal. My grandfather is the jail guard at the Welland Jail. His big old stone house is right on the canal, and the boat stops right at his door!
I started school when I was 6 years old and went to Grade 1. The school is only a few blocks away and I can walk there by myself. My aunt took me on the first day of school, because she is a teacher there. Do you know what I did? I went to the front of the classroom, turned my back on my classmates and bent down and looked at them between my legs! I have never done anything like that again. My teacher scolded me.
We have a big school and every grade has its own classroom. I go to my classroom and sit at my desk, fold my arms behind my back and wait until everyone comes in. There is no talking. When the bell rings and the teacher tells us to stand up, we sing God Save the King and salute the flag. Then we say the Lord’s Prayer. We learn many things but my favorite is reading. At recess we play lots of games like hopscotch, skipping and Double Dutch and we play jacks on the basement floor.
My mother taught me how to knit, and I made 50 pairs of socks that were sent to the soldiers overseas. I put my name and address in every pair of socks so the soldier would know that someone was thinking about them. I received a letter from a nice soldier who wanted to plan a date when he came home. He must have thought that I was older because I can knit but I am only eight years old! I formed a group called the Knitting Club, but since I am the only one among my friends who can knit we just sit around, giggle and talk, and mother makes us hot cocoa.
My father is a carpenter and a builder. He makes toys for me out of wood. They are in different shapes and sizes and I have fun building things with these building blocks. He also made me a beautiful little sleigh and he pulls me in it when we go somewhere in the winter. I have chores to do on the weekend. Every Saturday I sweep out my father’s shop and he gives me 25 cents. That is so much money! The people who live next door own an ice cream shop. Guess where I spend my quarter? In the summer I help in the garden and do the weeding and vegetable picking.
I have a lot of fun playing. I have a pair of roller skates and I like to see how close I can get to the river. This makes my mother come chasing after me but she knows that I won’t fall in even if there is no fence.
Last week I decided to roller skate down Clifton Hill. I got halfway down but then I lost my courage. I will have to try that again! Sometimes the traveling circus comes to Town and I save some of my money to go to see it because I love animals.
In the summer, we go swimming at the park on Dufferin Island. There are not very many people there. The people who come to see the Falls do not come down here. One day I took the street car there all by myself. Mother had bought me a new pair of stockings. I love the colour—they are mauve. Anyway, I went into the little house to change into my bathing outfit and had a wonderful time swimming. When I got back to change into my street clothes I discovered that my stockings were gone! I didn’t think it was right to ride the street car back without wearing stockings so I walked home. It took me such a long time! In the winter, when the mist from the Falls makes the road icy, we go to Victoria Park and play “Crack the Whip.” There are never any people there and we have lots of room. We have to be careful not to get too close to the Falls as there are very few fences and we don’t want to fall in!
In 1912, when I was six, the Titanic went down. I thought it went down in the Niagara River because that is all the water I know but my father said that I went down in the ocean. What did go down in the River though, was the Ice Bridge. People would come from all over to walk on the Ice Bridge that formed across the Niagara River at the base of the Falls. This day, it must have been too warm or there were too many people on it and it broke up. Father said that lots of people drowned. I heard my mother and my aunties talking and they told the story of the young couple who had come to the Falls for their honeymoon. They were walking on the Ice Bridge when the part they were on broke away. Men had hung ropes from the bridge so that people who were in the river could grab them and might be pulled out of the water. When this couple got to the rope, there was only room for one, so they elected to go down the river together and they both drowned.
On Sundays we go to church twice. There is a service and Sunday school in the morning and we go to them. Then we go home and mother makes a chicken dinner. We have our own chickens, but we have to get it ready before we go to church. Father first kills it, cleans it then has to pull all the feathers off it. I help him sometimes. After dinner we walk over to my grandparents for a visit and we usually stay for supper. Then we go to the evening church service. There are lots of things happening at the church. We have socials and do a lot of visiting with the other people who go there. This is the only way we can see people, talk to them and find out how they are doing.
My sister started teaching and she saved enough money to buy a radio. Father listens to the news of the world and he finds out how the war is going. I like to listen to music while I read. We have a Victrola, and one record we have is the Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. ♦
Helen Abbott passed away on May 2, 2010, at the age of 103.
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