When Mary Franklin rang in her 100th birthday, friends and family met where she made her home for half a century: Moberly Avenue.
Mary bought a house there in 1954, for $8,900. A painting of it hangs in her room at the Beach Arms and shows a bright spring day.
Beside it is a photo of Mary and her daughter Doreen, who Mary was raising on her own. Her husband George had died of pneumonia when Doreen was still a toddler. And Doreen herself passed away when she was just 27, from lupus. “That horrible thing,” Mary says.
But flowers and birthday cards were still pouring in to the Beach Arms last week, and from all over Canada. Mary has had more time than most to make friends, and maybe more reasons to make them.
“Golly, I don’t know,” she said when asked how she handled the losses in her family.
“I got so many friends that lost their family the same way,” she said. “We all stuck together like glue. Our neighbours were our family.”
Mary’s first neighbours were farmers in Matheson, Ontario, south of Timmins.
Her parents Phillip and Violet Bartlett settled there as homesteaders – the government gave them lumber for a house and 165 acres of land, provided they clear all the trees off it themselves.
Mary was born on the second floor of the family farmhouse on May 1, 1914.
She was too young to remember it, but Mary counts herself lucky that her family was on the safe side of Black River in 1916, when a huge fire burned out most of the farms nearby.
Mary does remember all the good food she ate right off the land back then: sourgrass, blueberries, cranberries, wild mint, nuts that grew in the clay-heavy soil. She also remembers the work.
“Oh heavens, all we did was work,” she said.
She and her three brothers had to stoke wheat and pitch hay. They had no flush toilets and no electricity, though Mary did get to ride a horse two miles into town.
“Don’t kid yourself,” she said, laughing. “There was no such thing as fooling around.”
Mary went to a one-room country school for Grade 1 to 8. She is still in touch with one of the younger boys in her class, now 94, who later became the teacher at the school.
By the time she was 15, Mary was among the older students who had to help walk or even carry younger boys and girls to class.
That’s what she was doing when the blizzard hit. It was -40°C, with cutting snow, and all she had on her feet were double socks and rubber boots.
Mary didn’t realize it until she got to school, but her feet had frozen solid, like meat in a freezer.
“I can see myself sitting there,” she said.
Two classmates, Jimmy and Emerson, rubbed her feet and then filled a washbasin with water so she could dip them in and warm them.
“I never saw such big feet in all my life,” she said, laughing.
But Mary’s feet looked so bad the boys soon ran for help.
They found Gabriel Whiteduck, who hitched up two horses and a sleigh to take Mary to Matheson’s small missionary hospital.
“God bless him, when I think of it,” she said. “Good thing he was there because I don’t know what we’d have ever done.”
Three times on the way to Matheson, Mary saw Gabriel dismount to shovel a path so his horses could keep going in the deep snow.
When she finally saw a doctor, the news was awful – Mary was booked to have both feet amputated at a bigger hospital in Toronto.
But Mary’s father refused. Meanwhile, Whiteduck spoke to others in the local First Nation who came and rubbed Mary’s feet with a tree extract used in aboriginal medicine.
Mary couldn’t walk for a year, and the skin on her feel peeled terribly. She even dislocated her shoulder one night, when she was trying to use her crutches and go downstairs for dinner.
But by the winter of 1930, Mary was well enough to move all the way to Toronto and start work.
Too young for a regular job, Mary worked as a mother’s helper for two years before landing a sweet job at Laura Secord.
She met George while sending a trunk back to Matheson via Union Station – he was working for his father’s cartage business. They traded numbers on her way home, and dated for three years. They married in 1940.
During the war, Mary joined the 9,000 people working at a huge munitions plant in Pickering, where she filled shells with gunpowder.
“We were underground, like moles,” she said, adding that the plant was buried in case of explosions.
Mary made 50 cents an hour at the plant (men made 80) until it closed in 1946. She moved on to the Amalgamated Electric factory at Queen and Carlaw, and would work there and do machine operator jobs at General Electric and Westinghouse for 18 years.
With George gone and Mary working, during the week Doreen would stay with friends Roy and Anne Adams. Together, Roy, Anne and Mary took in children through Children’s Aid, partly so Doreen would have company. When he was two, they adopted Arnold, who became like a brother to Doreen, and a son to Mary.
“Oh God, I loved kids,” Mary said.
A few years after she settled into the house on Moberly, Mary would be absolutely surrounded by kids – for a dozen baby-booming years, she was the lunchroom supervisor at Wilkinson Road Public School.
“When I went there, those poor little beggars, they had nothing to play with,” she said. At a nearby Goodwill store, Mary found a treasure trove: soccer balls, tennis balls, skipping ropes and jigsaw puzzles.
“I bought the whole she-bang,” she said, laughing.
A carpenter made her a big cupboard for storage, and Mary had kids sign the toys in and out at lunch so nothing got lost.
“They were good, God bless those kids,” she said.
Seeing that some children came to school with no lunch, Mary also ran other missions to the nearby Dominion supermarket, where she bought boxes of Premium-brand crackers and big jars of jam and peanut-butter. Soon the students found their lunch tables loaded with plates of free snacks.
Mary spent her whole working life between Matheson and Toronto, but when she retired and drove west on a cross-country road trip, she and her pal Millie Johnson had people to see everywhere they went. From Mary’s brothers to friends to her sister-in-law, they had people to stay with in cities from Sudbury to Winnipeg, Regina to Port Alberni.
“Gosh, what a trip that was,” Mary said. “I found them all.”