Annie Woods, 1911 - 2006
In the early 1900s, James and Letitia Stewart were hardworking farmers in the hamlet of Ballymacpeake, near Ballamina in the District of Bellaghy in Northern Ireland. On September 5, 1911, the Stewarts welcomed another daughter into their family—she was christened Annie and became a middle child of a family of ten siblings.
Annie’s grandfather had been the record-keeper for the area, responsible for registering all births, deaths and marriages. The ledgers he maintained were kept in big pockets on either side of a great chair in his sitting room at home. Whenever there was a death, birth or marriage, the local townsfolk would arrive at Annie’s grandfather’s home, where he would sit in his great chair and duly record the news in the ledgers.
Though the family was poor by today’s standards, as landowners they felt rather privileged. They could afford to employ a hired man, who was always referred to as “our James” by the family. One of Annie’s regular errands as a child was to take tea out to the field where “our James” and her father were working. Rather than take a long, slow route, the spirited Annie jumped the ditches, tea in hand, and returned home soaked with tea; she was firmly scolded for such carelessness—with all the family’s washing done by hand, laundry was no laughing matter.
Once a year the Stewarts purchased a bolt of cloth from a local merchant, and all the girls were sewn a new frock—each one identical—a distinction much bemoaned by Annie, who was thus known throughout the hamlet as “one of the Stewarts”.
Annie grew up in a traditional farm home where her mother cooked on an open hearth—a fireplace with big black griddles and swinging pots. Every morning, hot scones were baked on the open hearth, a breakfast tradition maintained by Annie with her own family, from the same recipe handed down by her mother. Another tradition Annie kept up was potato bread, called fadge which was baked from a mixture of mashed potatoes, flour & butter, then fried in an open skillet. When Annie left home, she maintained fadge as a Christmas tradition, and even in her 90s, Annie made fadge to take along as traditional treat when she would visit friends at Christmas.
Annie attended a one-room school, where her entire schooling was with a Miss Gillespie, a rather impatient teacher who became frustrated when her students showed difficulty with their lessons. Annie often felt intimidated by Miss Gillespie’s stern demeanour and frequent scoldings; in fact, her teacher’s oft-spoken admonition: “Teach you—you could not—good, bad or indifferent,” was a lesson Annie never forgot. Teaching at that time was done by rote, and even in her 90s, Annie could still recite the names of all the rivers in Ireland, the major cities of Europe and many other lessons committed indelibly to memory.
In spite of her good standing at school, Annie, as a girl, was entitled only to an elementary school education. Roles for the children of farmers were strictly delineated: boys, if they were the eldest, were fortunate to inherit the family farm. A second son might be lucky enough to inherit from an uncle or other relative who had no sons of his own. Other sons worked at farming, though they could never aspire to owning land of their own. Girls were simply expected to marry farmers and carry on the traditional roles of hardworking farm wives.
Annie’s parents were very strict Presbyterian and the family attended a Covenanter Church, where there was no music or hymn-singing permitted. Instead, psalms were sung à cappella, led by a single tone sounded by the psalm leader. Each family sat in assigned pews, facing a high pulpit from which the Speaker would address the congregation. Beneath the Speaker’s pulpit was the reader’s platform; it was from this platform that the scripture reading would be delivered and from where the psalm leader would sound the “tone” to lead the congregation in the singing of the psalms.
Sunday traditions were rigidly maintained, with Sunday clothes—not worn at any other time—laid out every Saturday night, ready for the following days’ observances. Other Sunday “rules” also applied: for instance, absolutely no work was done and no games or boisterous play of any kind was permitted; children’s activities would range from quiet reading to perhaps searching for birds’ nests in the hedges—any noise from the children was absolutely not tolerated.
Other traditions included the stately Irish funeral procession, where visitations were held in the parlour of the home of the deceased. Following visitation, a wagon drawn by six black horses carried the coffin to the cemetery for burial. The wagon was followed by a regal procession, with an escort of townspeople, clad entirely in black, following behind the family of the deceased who walked in somber silence directly behind the horse-drawn wagon.
Within this rigidly maintained traditional Irish upbringing, the high-spirited Annie often found herself at odds with what was expected and what was in her own mind to do. But in 1929, a unique opportunity suddenly arose for Annie. A letter arrived, from her mother’s brother James (Annie’s Uncle Jimmy), who had resettled in the US some years earlier. James offered to sponsor two of the Stewart girls to emigrate to the US to find work. The cost of passage was, of course, to be repaid by the girls as soon as they were able.
It was decided that the best candidates for this tremendous opportunity were May, who was 20, and Annie, aged 18. Though the advantages of seeking a new life in America were unmistakable, it was assumed that the girls would never be seen at home again. And so, in accordance with tradition, a “wake” was held by the community as a final good-bye.
Annie and Mae boarded the Steamship Cameronia and arrived in New York Harbour on December 23, 1929. Annie’s first official address was on fashionable Fifth Avenue, where she worked as a domestic for a wealthy New York family. Annie learned much about the finer points of American society, as a housekeeper in sophisticated New York households.
Mae and Annie were both able to secure employment, and though the Depression had hit hard, the two young women always had enough work and their own accommodation, and soon saved enough money to repay Uncle Jimmy the cost of their passage to America.
In the 1930s Annie met Henry Woods, the son of a farmer from County Longford in Southern Ireland, who was visiting New York from his home in Canada. Henry had left Ireland for Canada during the Depression, where he found work on the trap lines in Northern Canada near the Moosenee Express Rail line.
While Henry convalesced from surgery, he stayed in New York City with a relative. Following on the standing tradition of Irish immigrants, both Henry and Annie congregated at an Irish Club where Henry’s Uncle Bill, a friend of Annie’s, introduced the two. They became friends and continued their friendship through correspondence, after Henry returned to Canada.
When the war began in the late 30s, Henry enlisted with the Forestry Division of the Scottish army; his experience on the trap lines and lumber camps in Northern Canada had made him an expert trapper. He was given the responsibility of helping to feed the Scottish troops.
In 1943, Annie enlisted in US Army as a WAC (Military Police), stationed in Florida. Poor health precluded her from travelling overseas, a turn of events that deeply disappointed Annie, and she received an honorary discharge from the US army.
A year later, following the completion of his military service, Henry wrote to Annie proposing marriage, “if she agreed to take the train from New York City to Toronto.”
Annie did agree, and on April 1, 1944, she arrived in Union Station, where she found Henry waiting for her. With Annie dressed in the customary dark wedding clothes and a fine black hat, and Henry suitably attired in his only suit, the two went straight to the Minister’s house and that afternoon, with the Minister’s wife as a witness, Annie became Mrs. Henry Woods.
When Annie could not comfortably settle into rural life in the Northern wilds of Canada, Henry found factory work in Toronto, and the couple moved. The Woods’ took up residence in a multicultural East York neighbourhood of Toronto, where they remained throughout their working years. Their only child, Leta (short for Letitia, after grandmothers on both sides), was born in 1947.
Annie became very active in her church, Westminster Presbyterian, and served her East York immigrant community with tremendous dedication. Annie was deeply involved with the sick and aging, offering assistance to anyone in need and readily embracing all cultures.
Leta, by example, learned respect for other cultures, a factor which Leta believes led to her eventual career as a missionary in Africa.
During Leta’s teen years, Henry and Annie bought a cottage in Collingwood, Ontario. Annie took a job with The Robert Simpson Co. in Toronto to earn the few extra dollars needed to enjoy cottage life, while still saving for Leta’s post-secondary education. In the mid-’70s, Henry retired and the Woods made the permanent move from Toronto to Collingwood, purchasing a chalet on Georgian Manor Drive. Annie lived in the chalet until she was in her 90s, when her health required she receive full-time nursing care. Henry died in Collingwood Hospital in 1979.
Shortly after Henry’s passing, Leta and her husband Neil, who had married in 1968, left Canada for their assignment as missionaries in Senegal and Nigeria, West Africa. They left Canada with their two children, Peter, born in 1975, and Miriam, born in 1977, to teach at a new school for the children of New Tribes Mission.
Annie never returned home to Ireland but she did make the long trip to Senegal to visit Leta and her family. One story that illustrates Annie’s resilience and strength of character occurred during that visit. Leta recalls the incident well. “We had been up-country to the interior, visiting one of the villages; my mother wanted to see some of the work we were doing with the Manjack people. The only transportation available in these remote areas is the “bush taxis”, as they are called—pick-up trucks with benches for people to sit on. These vehicles transport both people and livestock, often simultaneously. We boarded the truck, my elderly mother taking a seat on one of the rough benches, and with only one seat still vacant we thought we were going to be very lucky for the long drive home. But we were not.
“The last seat was taken by a farmer who was travelling with his herd of goats. The farmer climbed inside the back of the truck and occupied the vacant space on the bench, while his goats were tied up on the tin roof that acted as a sun canopy over the seating area. The canopy was in very poor condition, the tin almost shredded with wear. On the 2-hour drive back to our village, the goats panicked, and their natural reaction was to urinate copiously. The urine, of course, ran down in streams through the shredded tin canopy and all the passengers suffered the dismal consequences. But rather than voice a single word of complaint my mother’s only comment was that we would have to ‘take a good shower’ when we got home. And then she just laughed about it. That shows you the sort of person my mother was.”
The people of our village were awed and honoured by Annie’s presence, calling her Musekaba—(musekay-ba), meaning “elder”.
Annie often looked on her life as a book of many chapters. At the age of 95, she was looking forward to the next chapter, which was going to be “Nova Scotia – Another Adventure”. Leta had made arrangements for her mother to move to their home in Nova Scotia. Though Annie had enjoyed very good health all her life—in spite of two battles with cancer which she fought and won—Annie encountered a series of setbacks, which began when she broke her hip in 2005. Though very disappointed that she would not be able to join Leta and her grandchildren in Nova Scotia, Annie characteristically took matters in stride. At age 93, she moved into the Collingwood Nursing Home and adjusted admirably to her limited mobility and her new life.
Annie’s grandchildren, raised in the field, enjoyed a very special relationship with their grandmother, rejoicing in any time they spent with her. Both have become “world citizens”, following in the footsteps of their parents and their grandmother in service to others in need. With plans to return to Africa, Peter intends to work in rural development and environmental conservation, while Miriam (christened Miriam Letitia, to carry on the family name) also plans to work in Africa, as a registered practical nurse with AIDS orphans or refugees.
Leta’s lasting impression of her mother is a woman of tremendous character who persevered through all of life’s challenges, without complaint and always in service to others. Even physically, Annie was the image of strength, standing tall at 5’9” and always determined to stand very straight, even under the constraints of restricted mobility.
“Before she went out for a walk,” Leta recalls, “my mother would ask the nursing staff to push her so she could stand straight; everybody always commented on how straight her shoulders were.”
Those shoulders remained strong through a long life of quiet purposefulness. Annie passed away in Collingwood on August 5, 2006. She will be long remembered by all whom she touched by her kindness, her faith and her example of unwavering grace.
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