Annie’s short life haunts me and I feel driven to write about the agonizing drama of her death. She died a long time ago, in an uncultivated farm field, supported by an old snake fence that was lined with patches of wild rose bushes.
Summers at my grandmother, Nanny Dewar’s Prince Edward Island farm were time-outs, a kind of breathing space from the commotion and disturbances of our family life. I am remembering 1960, as it was the only time I had seen great-uncle Georgie. He lived his life as a hermit, “money under the mattress and so on”, in the rundown farmhouse that was a field away from the home of his brother Frank, who was Nanny’s husband and my grandfather.
The three of us girls, all under the age of ten, were told not to cross the field and not to go over to Uncle Georgie’s house. The thorns from the wild roses would not only scratch us, but Uncle George would get out the buckshot and shoot you in the rear. We never took this threat seriously. It never stopped us from playing the game of chicken, where we would run through those wild roses to the edge of George’s house and run back, to see if we could make it and avoid death from Georgie’s shotgun. It was fun.
One day we were playing at the shore, which was across the road from the farm, and I wandered off by myself. I rounded a corner and stopped dead in my tracks; I was right in front of Uncle Georgie who was soaking an infected toe in the salt water. Time stood still and magic happened. A force of energy swirled through the air and surrounded the two of us. No words were spoken but I knew he adored my little girlness (my little Annieness) and I knew that I loved him. The force disappeared and I ran back to my sisters and continued my life. Only later as an adult did I connect this memory to the story of Annie’s life.
It was the summer of 1888, when great-grandmother Mary, sent her three children, Frank, Georgie and Annie out to play, after their chores. Guilt often washed over her when she became aware that her children had to help run the farm and never had enough time for play.
Big Frank was 10 years old, and was always devising games for eight-year-old Georgie and five-year-old Annie. Frank was inventive with games and overall enjoyed the company of his brother and sister. He thought of a good one called, “who’s going to step in cow-pies”. They would have to climb over the snake fence, run to old Bessie, the milk cow, slap her on the back, and run back to home base without stepping in cow dung.
Frank would go first to show them how to play. In one fell swoop; his legs loped over the low part of the fence. He ran with the agility of a pre-adolescent and his light-footed run followed in tandem with an astute, perceptive, quick-witted mind: a mind that was able to avoid every bit of those cow-pies. After slapping Bessie, he turned around and while running back, he took great pleasure in glancing up and seeing the admiration in Georgie’s and Annie’s faces.
Georgie, who was not as coordinated and clear-thinking as Frank, didn’t jump over the lowest part of the fence and this forced him to make two moves to get past the fence. His caution could only be described as the sweetness of a child learning how to synchronize his mind and body with the workings of his world. He slapped Bessie, hit several large pies, and ran back, looking for a “see me” reaction from Frank and Annie.
Mary heard the pleasurable sounds of her children as she spun wool on her new spinning wheel. The pangs of conscience left her for the time being. She thought of her husband Peter who was preparing the next sermon for Sunday service in the cubby-hole in the town’s small white-shingled United Church. She wished that he could enjoy the laughter of his children more often and that he was less burdened with responsibilities. Life was hard but it had its joys.
It was little Annie’s turn, and she climbed over the fence with all the delicacy of a five-year-old. She had a ribbon in her long blonde hair and wore a plain pink cotton dress. Brown ankle boots that laced above the anklebone supported her small feet. Her eyes sparkled and her smile was sweet and innocent. As she ran to Bessie, Frank couldn’t help adoring his little sister, with her hair flying and with his understanding that she was running for the sheer body pleasure and that her mind had not made the leap into the anxieties of farm life. He felt a longing for his own earlier time: a time without farm chores and schoolwork. He watched Annie’s small hand slap the hind leg of Bessie and felt slightly sorry that she wasn’t old enough to avoid the pull into cow muck. Two-thirds of the way back, he noticed that she scratched herself with a wild rose thorn because she was trying to avoid a large patch of pies. It made him uncomfortable and he felt dazed. Annie ran on with courage and pride in her tiny chest. When she got to the greyed weather worn snake fence, her dress caught on a protruding snag of wood, and she fell over the fence. It took Frank and George a few lifetime seconds to realize that she had slit her throat on the old wire than bound the snake fence together. They watched in horror as life slowly drained out of her beautiful little body.
Annie’s body died that day but not her soul. The echoes of Annie, Frank, Georgie, Peter and Mary’s suffering have lacerated my soul. Annie is not only in my consciousness but also embedded in my being. The trauma of her story comes to me often and always with enormous grief. I have learned that the echoes of suffering from her dramatic death, help to remind me not to rise above the fragilities and vulnerabilities of my life or life in general and to go on in my everyday pursuits that support a healthy participation in life. I understand that pain has to be conscious and integrated with everyday life. Wild rose bushes can scratch and burn but they also provide beauty in life. Many times when I catch the smell of roses, I am reminded of the life’s lessons I have learned, of many more on the way, and that somehow Annie is gently prodding me onward.
I’ve written previously of my beloved grandmother and for those readers, who remember her name, I feel obligated to share this with you to further honour both you and Annie. When I wrote this little story, the only part of the memory that I couldn’t recall was Annie’s real name. I never felt right about this, so I recently asked my elderly father whether he could remember her name. When he said “Pearl” an overgrown stone hit the pit of my stomach and I felt dizzy. Frank married a woman named “Pearl”, my grandmother, keeping the memory of his beautiful lost sister alive by repeating her name every day of his married life. What now, do I have to learn, since the very sound of the word “Pearl”, is and continues to be so vital to my life.