The Lucky Girl

Maryann Hetherington made what they used to call “a good match.” There she is in the photograph above, aged seventeen, the lucky girl who would be courted and won by John Dolmage. Her family was among the first to settle in what would become Souris, Manitoba, and had wasted no time in becoming prominent citizens. He was eligible, to say the least. An advantageous match in every respect. painted postcard souris

John Dolmage had arrived in town around the same time as the Hetheringtons, in 1881. He was twenty-one years old and chock full of good old-fashioned pioneer spirit and capitalist ambition. Before too long, he had built one of the first general stores and was serving as secretary of the municipal council. On the side of his store building he painted “J. Dolmage, Prop” in big bold letters. He was appointed first postmaster, and would one day be mayor.

They married in 1884, and built a house on the street along the river across from downtown; a fine large brick house with a veranda and a live-in housekeeper and a widow’s walk. They had eight children. One of them eventually became my Grandmother, among other things.

Dolmage House in Souris
The John Dolmage home, Souris. If you are able to zoom in on it, note the shadowy figure on the steps. It may be John. Maybe it’s a ghost.

 

One day Maryann was baking bread. She took off her wedding ring and put it on the window sill as usual. Just then a band of gypsies (really) came to the front door to sing a tune or to make their bear dance for money or what have you. As it turns out, the dancing bear was how they created a distraction while one of the band went around the back of the house and swiped the ring off the windowsill. Maryann was understandably upset at the loss. John went to the jewelry store with two of his daughters to pick out a replacement, which I now have. Judging by the number of stones and the quality, I’d say John’s store must have been doing rather well.

Incidentally, there may not have been an actual dancing bear, but the rest of this story is true so far as I know. The story is better if you’re picturing a bear and hearing tambourines. Most stories are better with bears. Look at World War I. Without Winnie-the-Pooh, that would hardly make a good story at all.

One of the few other stories I know about this family was that the eldest brother used to hurry to get home after school to make himself a piece of toast on the wood stove. If you have ever had wood stove toast, you will know that this is a lovely thing, especially with home-made bread. You will also know that the fire has to be just right. He would get home before the others, make his piece of toast, and then quickly build up the fire so that the flames were too high for anyone else to make toast when they got home. Nice. One of the other things I know about the Dolmages of Souris is that my grandmother hated cats all her life because whenever their cat had kittens, she was the one elected to drown them in a gunny sack in the river. Why this task fell to the second youngest daughter, and not, say, the guy who cared for nothing but his own toast, I am not sure. Compassion, a thoughtful concern for the feelings of others, may not have been this family’s strongest trait. I could be wrong.

souris main streetSometime about 1912, the Dolmage clan convinced John to take a partner. This nephew had been away to business school in the big city, and now needed a place to start in. So the sign on the side of the building was repainted to say “Dolmage and Lee.” The nephew had a lot of new-fangled notions about business, and set about making sweeping changes to the way the store had always been run. The place tanked fairly quickly. You probably saw that coming.

By this time the children were starting off on their own. One daughter had gone off to be a missionary in China. Two more were  embarking on teaching careers in Winnipeg. Two of the boys were homesteading out in the sticks somewhere. John, maybe feeling he had too much time on his hands now that he was no longer in business, decided to take a trip to his son’s farm to help out. He planned to stay several weeks.

My mother often drops little “story bombs” on me. It is hard to tell if she is starting to remember things inaccurately or if she has simply lost her filter, and is now talking about things that no-one was ever allowed to talk about. Whatever is going on, it’s interesting as hell to get her talking. So one day we were looking through old photos and things and I was asking questions and she said that while John was visiting his son, he “had a heart attack while he was looking into a well and fell in and drowned.”

Hm. Odd.

And I said: “wait a minute, Mum. Just after he went bankrupt, he happened to be looking into a well when he happened to have a heart attack and fall in?” It wasn’t until I started asking questions that it occurred to my mother that the story she had been told, that the widow had been told, that everyone in Souris and indeed everyone all down through the generations had been told if they were interested, was almost certainly a polite and protective pile of bull, born of compassion or shame or a combination of the two.

The older I get, the more likely I am to think that things are going to hell in a handbasket. But I will allow that there is at least one positive change happening. We haven’t entirely erased the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide, but we are working on it. Sometimes now you see an obituary where there’s an acknowledgement that this was a person who, for whatever reason, found life untenable and chose not to go on. Or a person who desperately needed help that, for whatever reason, was not forthcoming. John Dolmage’s obituary said that he “died suddenly.”

Maryann was left destitute. The fine house had to be sold and I don’t know why, but the family packed up some of her best belongings: china, crystal, embroidery sent home from China and so forth, and boarded them into an attic room during the process of selling. I imagine this was to keep it all safe until they figured out where Maryann would be living. One night someone broke into the house and opened up that room and smashed everything to bits. I would love to know who did that, and why.

Gram Dolmage cropped

Maryann had to move in to Winnipeg and she lived there in an apartment on Ruby Street with her daughters. She had very little at all in the world except her clothes, of course, and the ring John bought to replace the one the gypsies stole.
Am I sorry I asked the questions I asked my mother? I might be. She didn’t seem upset, but does anyone need to start wondering, at eighty-six, if their back stories hold water? Some stories, especially in families, might be best left unexamined. I have known that for a long time, but the questions asked themselves before I thought. I like to think I’d have been less rough-shod about it had I been talking to the widow herself and not just blurt it right out:  “Maryann, did you know?” Could I have resisted the temptation to ask? There’s no way to know for sure. Compassion may not be my strongest trait.

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©2016 Ellen Peterson. Ring Photo by Carly Peters.

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