Shirleyan English’s story of Amy

06 May Shirleyan English’s story of Amy

First the statistics:

She was born Amy Elizabeth Bowerman, June 4, 1906. Married Elliott David Grieve, August 8, 1934. Had three children: Shirleyan, 1936; Sharon, 1939; and Sandra (Sandy), 1946.

Her name was Amy Elizabeth but her siblings called her Liz. No one else did. At less than five feet, she was short on height but long on resilience, initiative and personality, qualities that brought her through various periods of adversity throughout her long life. She was also a risk-taker and often a gambler. These qualities helped too.

When confronted with a problem, she used to say, “Well, how am I going to handle this?” She usually found an answer.

She grew up in Belleville, Ont. in eastern Ontario and was proud of her Loyalist ancestry. Her childhood was marred by an abusive father, Smith Bowerman, a contractor and builder; in Mom’s words, “he loved money.” He also had a ferocious temper. “One time for no reason, he was chasing me with a hardwood stick. Mother stepped between us and he dropped the stick and started to choke her.” But Amy was feisty enough to stand up to him at times. She recalled her father giving her a quarter and her older brother two dollars. When she questioned the amounts he shrugged and she fired the quarter back at him. When asked his reaction, she said, “He walked across the room and picked up the quarter.” But she had made the point.

At 17 she journeyed by train 400km to North Bay Normal School with her brother Bill, who was a year older. “My father gave all the money to Bill, who was to split it with me, half and half, except Bill never did share equally.” As a result, Amy ran short of money and had to write home for more. Her father refused. Fortunately, her older sister, Pearl, then a music teacher, offered to fund Amy’s education. Despite that blip, she enjoyed her time at the school.

Graduating in 1924 was a bad time economically and few teachers were being hired. Her father picked that time to tell her to leave the house. Actually, he said, “Are you still here?” Feisty as ever, Mom replied, “Oh, I can go.”

Unable to get a school or a job, she left anyway and went to live with her Aunt Amy, her mother’s sister. Then her uncle made a pass at her, asking for a kiss, which was so frightening she backed away, packed and left. She went to live with another sister, Ina, who was married with several small children. For the next two years Mom worked at Ina’s without pay, caring for the children and doing the baking.

Suddenly, her father was killed in a freak accident. He was sitting outside with a group of men when some dynamite was set off about a half-mile or so away and one of the rocks flew through the air, hitting Smith, severing his jugular vein without touching anyone else in the group. He died instantly. Mom immediately moved home to be with her mother, Anna.

With teaching jobs still few in number, she took a business course, winning two scholarships, and got a job in an office. “I wanted to pay board but Mother refused. I paid her anyway, $5 a week. Then at Christmas, she gave it all back to me.”

Finally, Amy obtained a teaching assignment, a one-room country school in Eastern Ontario near Bancroft, where a class picture reveals the pupils were obviously needy, some without shoes. She turned out to be an inventive teacher. She obtained permission from the Department of Education to offer a cooking class and taught the students how to make soup, with each student bringing an ingredient – a potato, a carrot, an onion – then everyone ate the results. “The girls did the dishes and the boys cleaned the floor,” she remembered. She also included classes in what would now be called home economics, asking students to each bring a sock with a hole in it, then she conducted a class in darning socks. She used to say that one of the best darners was a boy.

After a couple of years, her mother grew lonely and asked Amy to take a year off and come home. She did, but by the end of the summer she knew life at home was much too quiet for her. Applying for another school, she was assigned to Tomiko, a little spot in Northern Ontario 426km away on the railway line. As she stepped off the train, a group of men waiting on the platform commented to the station operator, “Shorty, here’s the girl for you!” He was only four inches taller than Mom and was shy of women. But walking home from school, she had to pass the station and he began to stand in the station’s door, waiting for her appearance. “I spoke to him because I spoke to everyone,” she recalls. “This went on for two weeks.” Then the family where he boarded asked the teacher to dinner, a common practice. Elliott walked her home and asked for a date that night. They were married a year later.

They had planned a quiet wedding, but Anna asked for a formal wedding since her other daughters had both eloped. When Mom wrote Elliott the news, his reply was, “If that’s what your mother wants, then that’s what we’ll have.” Both had taken a liking to each other. He was, in Mom’s words, “the most unselfish man I ever met.” So they were wed with Amy in a full-length white satin gown with pleated balloon sleeves of satin and lace and a trailing veil. They honeymooned in Montreal.

Amy only taught once more, also during the war, in a three-room school in Elk Lake village, where Elliott was the station agent. She stepped in as principal when the former principal was fired for drunkenness. She taught the upper classes (grades 7 through 10), and called on her business school training to teach business courses and typing for the highest grades, with a view to providing experience for jobs outside the village. “I had some very clever pupils in grade 10. Margaret Giles for instance, was smart but poor.“ The education department not only gave permission for the course, but issued a diploma to each student who passed. Margaret was able to find a job in a hospital office in Hailebury, Ont.

Life was happy and comfortable, but troubles lay ahead and Amy’s resilience was put to the test during a downturn in the family’s finances. Elliott had to transfer jobs and location on the Ontario Northland Railway with a reduction in pay.

They moved to North Bay, where their first house was small, cheap and cold. January cold. They hadn’t the money to pay for the house entirely so took out a mortgage. In those days the holder of a mortgage could demand total payment whenever he wished. And their mortgagee wished – immediately. Apparently he had a reputation for doing this, then taking back the house when the owners could not pay. In danger of losing this house, Amy wired her mother for a loan and was able to pay the house off. The mortgage holder was furious.

The family moved within weeks to a larger – and warmer – house. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long to realize Elliott’s income wouldn’t cover the expenses of a house and family of five. This bigger house was the solution. It was a two-storey, spacious building with three bedrooms, a fully finished attic and a large, insulated summer kitchen in back. The plan was for the kids to sleep in the attic, and Amy and Elliott in the living room on a pull-out couch. The second floor bedrooms would be rented out. Elliott was aghast at the plan but Amy replied, “But Elliott, what can we do?” So, he accepted, adding, “Don’t charge too much.” She settled on $6.00 or $8.00 a week, depending on room size.

She cleaned the bedrooms, starched the curtains, waxed the floors until they shone and put a sign in the window. About a week later, a taxi driver arrived and asked to see the rooms. He said he often picked up passengers at the nearby train station asking him to recommend an inexpensive room. He arranged with Amy to bring them to our home. Surprisingly, this solved the budget problem. Within six months Amy was earning more than her husband. She never told him.

Elliott died suddenly of a massive heart attack in 1956; he was only 48. Amy was 50 years old and bereft. But with two daughters in school and the eldest a single mother who was separated but thankfully working, she knew she faced a challenge to support this family. The present house wouldn’t do to rent rooms. But the real estate market in North Bay was booming at the time and seeing a sales ad for a cheap house, Amy decided to buy it and sell at a higher price soon afterwards. “I bought the house but couldn’t close on it because I didn’t have the money. My lawyer offered to buy my car (an Oldsmobile).” Somehow she found the money to close (she never did say how.) The real estate agent who covered the sale then proposed that when the first house sold (and it did) that she buy another house he had listed, promising to sell it at a higher price within a week. She did and he did and they began working together, flipping houses. “Within seven months I had money for the house, I still had the car and had $1,000 in the bank.”

Amy had discovered she liked business and had a flair for it. She kept all the mortgages on her houses. “I think that’s why the banks trusted me…banks never turned me down – funny about that.”

With money in the bank, Amy and her daughters decided to take a trip to California. While there, she bought a house (of course) and rented it out for years, adding to her pension income. Eventually the renters bought the house but again, she kept the mortgage.

Sometime in the 1960s she heard on television news about former mining houses being offered for sale in the village Cardiff, Ont. at reasonable prices to retirees. “I didn’t have any money but I went to the bank and said I had an opportunity to buy a house at a reasonable price and they loaned me the money – they even asked if that was enough!” She bought one and lived there on her own for more than 20 years, thoroughly enjoying village life and travelling.

And she got back at the mortgage owner who nearly took back their house those many years ago. He had bought one of her houses but she owned the mortgage. He offered to pay off the house, at a discount of course. She refused. She kept refusing even though the letters kept coming. One month he missed a payment and Amy had great satisfaction in going to his office and asking, in front of the staff, why she hadn’t heard from him the previous month. He paid immediately.

Amy was more than a gambler, she planned her moves carefully, even planning her funeral when in her 80s right down to picking out her casket. She had a remarkable mind. Even into her 90’s, with her sight dramatically diminished by macular degeneration, she was able to work out in her head the compound interest on real estate investments. She did that to pass the time.

On the whole, she had a good and successful life: a teaching career, a love-filled marriage and happy family life, many friends, a wealth of real estate adventures and the ability to gamble and win. She never remarried, although she had two or more offers. Her reasoning was that “there was no spark there.” She died at 101.

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