Maida, Mrs. Arthur Knowles, was widowed at the start of the Great Depression. She writes that her husband’s illness cost them every penny they had. And worse was to come: the small company he had owned folded like so many others in those years, leaving her with almost no income.
As she struggled to make ends meet in Toronto her three young sons had too much time to roam and, being quite inventive, they were getting into too much mischief. When the police showed up at her door and informed her that her boys were trying to dig a tunnel into the movie theatre next door, she knew she had to find something better for them to do, so she made the decision to move back to her grandfather’s farm in eastern Ontario.
Here, nestled in the orchard near the banks of the St. Lawrence River, the old red brick house was still standing – barely. It had been unoccupied for years, but she hoped to make it liveable again and bring the neglected apple orchard into full production. Here on their farm the boys could work and roam with no danger of becoming delinquents.
She kept a diary of those challenging years on the farm and later published it as Apples Don’t Just Grow, using her second married name, Maida Parlow French. It’s a very interesting read if you can lay your hands on it. It was published in 1954 by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. I’m going to retell several accounts in my own words.
The boys were thrilled when Maida told them how her forebears had been granted this land by the King of England way back in the 1700s. When the ancestors arrived the land was nothing but a forest; those hard-working pioneers had chopped down the huge maples, dug up stumps, seeded grain fields, and made themselves a home. Eventually someone had planted MacIntosh trees and earned a good income from selling apples.
And this is what they were going to do: earn their living from her Grandpa Parlow’s orchard. Her sons were all gung ho about the adventure–and their friends all envied them. Maida, on the other hand, was understandably reluctant to leave the city and the only life she’d known. A farm needs a farmer; she was an artist, a portrait painter, who knew nothing at all about farming.
The boys assured her they would be the farmers. They had muscles already; they were growing every day; they could work the land, plant the crop, and reap the harvest. She wouldn’t have to worry about a thing; soon they’d be doing it all. She looked down at her eager nine-, eight-, and five-year-old city boys and prayed their dream would come true.
They left Toronto on the morning of May 15th; David, Warwick, and Alan flattened their nose against the bus windows to see the farmland passing by. They had dozens of questions as they watched farmers ploughing fields with teams of horses – something completely new to them.
Then suddenly all three had to go to the bathroom – right now. Maida went forward to talk to the driver and he made a stop beside a small hotel in one of the little towns. She led her boys up the dimly lit stairs to the toilets and waited for them. Then she made sure they washed their hands.
“Hurry, boys. The bus is waiting.” She tried to hustle them quickly back down the stairs again. Suddenly Alan sat down in the stairway and refused to go on.
“Come on, dear. What’s the matter?”
Guilt written all over his face, he opened his hand; it contained a sample bar of soap pilfered from the Ladies’ room. Those wrapped squares fascinated him so much he’d yielded to temptation; now his sin weighed heavily on his tender heart.
Normally Maida would applaud such a keen conscience and march him back up to restore the stolen goods, but the bus driver was tooting impatiently. “There just isn’t time to take it back,” she told him but he wouldn’t budge. He began to wail as she scooped him up and carried him back to the bus.
People whispered to each other as they boarded, some asking, “Whatever is the matter with that boy?” She dare not explain that her darling five-year-old was a thief, so she became an accomplice by concealing the evidence. Frowning fellow passengers eyed her suspiciously and surmised that she must have beaten the poor little guy for some insane reason.
Finally Alan stopped sobbing and they all watched for towns as they came into view: Cobourg, Belleville, Amherstview…
“Wow! This sure is a long street,” nine-year-old David remarked.
“And this is the street we live on,” she said. “Just a few more hours and we’ll be there.” The boys were astounded that they could live on this very street.
Kingston, Gananoque, Brockville… Then the bus passed through Iroquois. “Just a few miles to go now,” she told them, feeling a rush of excitement.
Soon the bus was slowing down for Parlow Road. They quickly gathered their things together. As soon as it stopped the boys rushed to the door, joyously proclaiming, “We’re there!”
She and her children stepped into their new life – and a drizzling rain.