Last month when I made a presentation at the Museum of Lennox and Addington in Napanee, Ontario, I was asked how I became interested in this research about the quilt-making and other handwork by Canadian women during the Second World War. One of the reasons, I explained, is because my maternal grandmother was a quilter and a member of a Women’s Institute well into her seventies, and she continued to quilt with the Institute weekly. I imagined that she had participated in this charitable production in wartime – it just seemed like something she would do – but I couldn’t prove it.
On my Instagram account, November 10, 2022, I wrote: “My grandfather had survived the Great War. But in 1939, at the age of 40, he enlisted voluntarily for a second time. With five children to feed and having been unemployed through much of the Depression, he set out, leaving my grandmother to raise the children and care for the rural home. As a member of the Women’s Institute in Long’s Creek, New Brunswick, I believe that she was busy with other women in her community busily sewing and knitting for the Red Cross and other charitable organizations.”
Lydia Ruth Burden Boyd (Nana Ruth to her grandchildren) was almost 40 when war was declared. She and her husband, Gordon Alexander Boyd lived in Kingsclear, New Brunswick, in a big rambling house that had once been a roadside inn. Gordon enlisted as soon as war was declared, though thankfully was not sent overseas, likely because of his age and the size of his family. My aunt, their daughter, thought that her mother had been a member of the Women’s Institute in Kingsclear, but also thought that if her mother was making quilts at that time, they would have been for her own family – needed at home for bedding for her children and for boarders. But in my heart, I sensed that no matter what her family needed, Nana Ruth would have quilted for the war effort if the opportunity had been offered. I just wasn’t sure I would ever really know.
Last week, I shared these thoughts with Peter Laroque, Art Curator and Head of the Humanities Department, at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. When I arrived back to my little rental abode in St. Andrews after my visit to Saint John, this clipping from him was waiting in my inbox.
There is no doubt to me that the ‘Hands Across the Sea’ club was doing handwork for the war effort – the name alone says as much.
My research is not about my grandmother. It is about the hundreds of thousands of women and children who participated voluntarily on the home front in Canada during the Second World War, and particularly in sewing and knitting. And it is about the quilts that help to tell the story of the lives of everyday women whose names are very often never known. But today, this research has a new layer, and that is the personal connection to my grandmother and the women she quilted with in New Brunswick. In a future post I will share some of the information I found this last week in the Red Cross Minute Books at the Provincial Archives in Fredericton that shed light on the work done by the ‘Andover and Perth’ branch of the Canadian Red Cross during wartime. I also look forward to re-examining a quilt, quilt tops and blocks in my possession that were made by Ruth, and consider how the construction and design of war-time quilt-making likely influenced her quilting for the rest of her life.
But tonight, I sit alone with the spirit of my grandmother, reaching out for those hands I once held and which held me. I now know that the hands which made a quilt for me, all her children and grandchildren, also made quilts for the people in need ‘across the sea’ in wartime.