It was while I was teaching English at River Echo Language School several years ago that I first met Lima Plunkett. Lima Plunkett was 85 years old and living at Wakefield’s old-age home and the day I came knocking on her door, along with my Swiss student, Lima pulled me into her room with her knobbly hand and said to take a seat. “But please don’t ask for tea or cookies since I don’t have any. This ain’t exactly the Hilton.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry. We’re fine without. We just want to interview you.”
Her face scrunched up as if she’d bitten a lemon. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”
I explained that my student was studying English and wanted to learn not only new vocabulary but also what life was like in Canada seventy years ago. We were going to record the interview and later transcribe it.
Lima perked up. “I could talk a blue streak if you let me. People don’t usually talk to me around here.” In a stage whisper she added, “They’re all French. In the old days it was Masham that was French and Wakefield and all up the line was all English-speaking. All Irish farmers. Now everything’s mixed up.” She turned to gaze out the window as if lost in the past.
I started recording Lima just as she was saying this about the Irish farmers. The other day I was going through some old files and came across that transcribed interview. Here it is word for word:
Laurie: Can you tell us where you were born, Lima, and about your life when you were growing up?
Lima: I was born upriver from Wakefield on a farm. Had ten brothers and sisters. My mother worked all day—milking cows, cooking, cleaning clothes, cleaning house, baking bread, churning butter, having babies.
Laurie: Women sure worked a lot in those days.
Lima: Men thought women were cows back then. A new calf every year. I don’t go for that crap.
Laurie: It sounds like you were ahead of your time!
Lima: I still am. Except now I want to go back in time.
Laurie: I understand. So how is life different now than when you were growing up?
Lima: Life is all together different now. Nothing is the same. Those were hard times, but we didn’t know they were hard times. Since we lived on a farm we were never hungry. All our food came from the farm and everything was home-made—bread, pickles, butter, canned vegetables, everything. My mother made everything.
Laurie: How do you think things are different for children today than when you were young?
Lima: We had so much fun when we were kids! Kids don’t have fun today. Today, kids come home from school and watch TV, or stare at the computer or play video games. We used to play outside every day. All year long.
Laurie: Did you swim in the river?
Lima: No! There were dead cows floating down the river. Farmers threw their dead cows in there. Other kids swam in the river but I never did. Mostly it was boys swam in the river. Maybe a couple teenage girls. Not me.
Laurie: Did your father or brothers go to fight in the war?
Lima: Nope. They were lucky. They didn’t take farmers in the war. They were needed in Canada to grow food.
Laurie: What was school like?
Lima: I went to a one-room school house. There were 50 kids and one teacher. There was an outhouse but I never went inside. Not once.
Laurie: Why not?
Lima: Because there was a hole in the back of the outhouse and the boys looked inside the hole.
Laurie: Oh my. Did they ever get caught?
Lima (laughing): Of course not! The teacher was too busy. Too many kids to worry about something like that. Those poor women teachers.
Laurie: How did you get to school?
Lima: We walked two and a half miles to get there. Snow or rain, didn’t matter.
Laurie: Did you like school?
Lima: I didn’t learn much of anything. I had to quit at age 15 to look after my grandmother. There was a lot of work that kids had to do back then.
Laurie: What did you do at Christmas?
Lima: Christmas was wonderful! We looked forward to it for months. We decorated a tree, had a Christmas concert that everyone in the village attended. Then on Christmas Day we each got one orange, one apple and some candy. No toys. No bikes. It was different back then but we didn’t know any different. It was the best day of the year.
Laurie: Did you have a job when you were older?
Lima: I worked in a candy story in Ottawa. It was the only job I could get without an education. It paid $17 a week. I made enough money to buy my own wedding dress.
Laurie: Oh, a wedding dress! How did you meet your husband?
Lima: At a dance in Wakefield. Up the hill off of Burnside where the Wakefield School is—or was!—there used to be a dance hall. I’d go there every Saturday night with my boyfriends. My father never knew. One night at the dance, when I was 25, I met the man I wanted to marry. His name was John Plunkett. Or Jack.
Laurie: And what was Jack like?
Lima: Handsome. Until he wasn’t. Hard worker. Until he wasn’t.
Laurie: I see, and what did he do for work?
Lima: He was a farmer like my father. We had a farm near Farrelton, up the river.
Laurie: Did you go to church when you were young?
Lima: Yes! Everyone went to church. But I don’t go now because there aren’t any Catholic churches in Wakefield.
At this point in the interview, Lima jumped up and shouted, “Shut the window! That woman is going to have a cigarette out there!” She raced over to the window to slam it shut and then sighed extraordinarily loudly and looked back at us, shaking her head.
Laurie: Do you like living here, Lima?
Lima: Yes, it’s heaven.
Laurie: Oh, that’s good! I wasn’t expecting you to say that.
Lima: But I hate the food. Rotten food. They feed us hotdogs. Can you imagine? People eat so much junk food these days. Not when I was young. We ate real food. And people are so fat now. Didn’t used to be like that. Nobody was fat. And mothers nursed their babies back then. Not today.
Laurie: I don’t know about that. I nursed my baby and so did my friends. So you did too?
Lima: I couldn’t. I had no nipples on my tits.
Laurie: Oh. Okay. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that.
Lima: It’s real.
Laurie: I believe you.
Lima: That woman is still smoking out there. Does that all day long. Can’t believe she’s still around.
Laurie: Do you ever get out of here, Lima? Did you go to the covered bridge last weekend? To the concert?
Lima: To see those naked grannies?
Laurie: They weren’t naked on the bridge. That was just a photo in the calendar one year. So I take it you’re not a Wakefield Granny?
Lima: Me? No way!
Laurie: Would you do anything different in your life, Lima? And by the way, Lima Plunkett is the best name I’ve ever heard.
Lima: They used to call me Lima Bean. Hated that. And no. No, I wouldn’t do a single thing different.
Laurie. Oh, that’s really nice. I’m happy for you! I bet lots of people wouldn’t say that. They’d want to change something. Do you have any questions for us?
Lima: No. I’m too old to ask questions.
At this point I must have turned off the recorder. I went to visit Lima Plunkett one more time at Le Manor and she didn’t remember me. But when I reminded her of some of the things she’d told us, her face changed and she suddenly looked younger. She started talking, her stories pouring out all over again, stories that must have been tucked safely away in a crevice of her lively mind. I heard that Lima died in 2014 at age 91. I hope those memories kept her company until she died. We should all wish for such a blessing.