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  • The Horse Woman

The genetics of tenacity

So today I would like to tell you the story of Annie Levica (her middle name, not her last name). The purpose of this story, besides giving Jane Austen readers a true story to prove that Jane wasn't just whistling Dixie, is to show how you can find your own strength when you are backed into a corner. Robertson Davies used to write that character traits could be bred in the bone, but that what you do with them is based on your choices.

And so we begin.

Annie Levica was born at the end of the nineteenth century, when a sunrise pink of emancipation and education were coming to women in the big cities. Alas for Annie, she was born in rural New Brunswick. In New Brunswick at that time, and in some places much later as well, a father was very concerned about the plight of his daughters. They could not vote, and heaven knew they could become victims of unscrupulous men,unscrupulous people, so that kindest thing a father could do was to marry them off at a young age and know they were "looked after".

And so at the tender age of sixteen, Annie was married off to a much older man, and her family could comfort themselves that she was in a good situation. Her situation was so good, and apparently that of her husband as well, that by the time Annie was thirty, she had eight surviving children. It was common to lose pregnancies in between, so it's possible she was almost constantly pregnant for fourteen years.

The farm owned by Annie's husband was sufficiently productive that they lacked for very little, and as long as the farm kept producing, things swam along nicely. What Annie did not know, and it wouldn't have mattered if she did, was that her husband had undertaken to help her brother in law who was enjoying less success. In order to prevent the brother in law from losing his farm, Annie's beloved and now elderly husband mortgaged their farm to get the brother in law out of debt.

Those familiar with the writings of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters know what happened next. Annie's elderly husband died, leaving her with eight children and a mortgage on the farm. Of course, the brother in law was utterly unable to pay off the loan (or wouldn't), and so the farm was seized by the bank and Annie and her eight children were left in desperate straits.

Homes were found for the younger children with family and friends. And the only option left for the older children was servitude. Yep, you heard me. My grandmother Mary, as with some of her siblings, became a servant. She worked as a house maid in the home of a Protestant minister (not sure the denomination). No doubt the minister and his wife honestly thought they were kind to poor Mary, especially since she was only Irish after all. I mean, she had been from a good family even if they were Irish, but God wouldn't land that kind of misfortune on those without sin. Mary did not appreciate their kindness they way they thought. Determined to finish high school, Mary would study in her dark attic room with a candle or an oil lamp each night after her chores were done and preparations were made for the next day. Her employers said disparagingly "Irish thinks she's going to be a teacher". And Mary did finish high school and went to the normal school in Fredericton with almost every penny she had ever scratched together.

But now, let's get back to Annie. With the loss of all of her children, the older ones blaming her for their horrible situation, the loss of her home, Annie did what many of us would do, and certainly any Austen or Bronte heroine, she had a nervous breakdown. Not surprising, as nothing in her life had ever prepared Annie to deal with the dreadful mess her husband had left. Somehow, friends or family saw Annie's plight and took her to the Provincial Hospital in Saint John, the only mental health facility closer than Montreal.

Six months later, Annie Levica emerged from the hospital. But she was no longer Annie the helpless woman, Annie who had been abandoned, Annie who had heartbreakingly to give up her children. This Annie was self determined, sharp, and she had a plan.

Somehow Annie scratched together enough money to buy a small farm so that she would have somewhere to live. Then probably using borrowed equipment and the help of friends when it was available, Annie built pens. Many pens.

In an age when the greatest fashion accessory was the pelt of a fox draped around one's neck, Annie started a fox farm. Fox pelts were a valuable commodity, especially for foxes raised right, fed right, treated right. Think of Annie's hands now blistered from swinging a hammer, from splinters, from putting trees she had felled through a big saw to mill them into boards. Imagine her venting her anger, cementing her determination, with every swing. Imagine her once beautiful dresses, dirty around the hem with soil, sawdust, fox feces, and tree sap. Annie was fighting back.

Annie lived to a ripe old age, and when her financial fortunes had sufficiently turned around, she got out of foxes. Eventually she remarried, to a kind dutch sailor who had settled in Saint John. In her old age she visited

the homes of friends and family members and tended them when they were sick, helped them when they were old and infirm, and was generally kind to many.

Some of the children forgave her, those who landed in good homes and were kindly treated. But Mary, my grandmother, who taught throughout her life and married my lovely, gentle grandfather, never ever forgave Annie for placing her with people who called her "Irish" and who ridiculed her hopes and dreams. Mary who was every bit as tough as Annie and so much like her. I hope they have met in the afterlife and mended their fences.

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