Here columnist Michael Gates’ grandmother holds a two-metre long rattlesnake on the end of a garden rake. Homesteading in southern Alberta 100 years ago was parched, exhausting and fruitless, says Gates. (Gates collection/Submitted)

Here columnist Michael Gates’ grandmother holds a two-metre long rattlesnake on the end of a garden rake. Homesteading in southern Alberta 100 years ago was parched, exhausting and fruitless, says Gates. (Gates collection/Submitted)

Snakes and string and my grandmother

A look at family history

I have Polish ancestry on my mother’s side of the family tree, but I‘ve seldom spoken about them. The Sosnofskys came to the Detroit area of Michigan in the late 19th century, and my grandmother, Antonina (she called herself Adeline) was born in 1899 and moved to the prairies of southern Alberta around 1914 where she remained for the rest of her life.

Somewhere in my boxes of family papers, there is a document that states where in Poland they came from, but my grandmother never talked about that; it was always about where we were going. She had several sisters, including Dell and Madge and brothers John, Cass (Casimir) and Stanley.

One of my ancestors was even a U.S. congressman: John Sosnowski (there are a half dozen different spellings of the family name) was the representative for Michigan’s first congressional district from 1925-1927. He was a Republican.

In 1917, my grandmother married my grandfather, a farmer named Joe Andrew Brown, a man I met only once as a young lad, just before he died. Together, they had three daughters, including my mom. Inheriting one of the most common American surnames helped to disguise her Polish ancestry. I can piece together her early years in Alberta from photographs, a few documents, and what little I was told.

Homesteading in southern Alberta in the early part of the 20th century was not easy. The land was barren and baked dry by the sun. Not a tree can be seen in any of the family photos from that era. Farming was hard work, but attempting it in desert-like conditions was very tenuous. Life was bleak and harsh – more of an existence.

My mother talked about the heat, the parched landscape, and bathing in the small stream that crossed through the family farm. She said they ate fish from this stream to augment their diet, and remembers how bony they were. She also remembers sitting in the water, watching snakes swim by them.

This was rattlesnake country. I have two photos that speak to this: one shows my grandmother holding a dead two-metre-long rattlesnake from the end of a garden rake. More interesting is the photo of my grandfather holding the same snake on the same rake, but in this picture, the snake is alive and thrashing about.

After surviving the harsh conditions of southern Alberta, life dealt my family another blow in Calgary during the years of the Great Depression. My mother remembered her shoes wore out and they could not afford to replace them. Instead, they inserted cardboard as liners. The children at school made fun of her for this.

After the Second World War, my grandmother secured a job as a chamber maid in the Alexandra Hotel on Ninth Avenue in Calgary. She lived on the premises, in a suite on the fifth floor. I remember watching the Calgary Stampede parade from the window in her apartment that overlooked the parade route.

By the 1960s, my grandmother was living with my great aunt Madge (also named Brown) in an apartment on Seventh Avenue. By all appearances, the two sisters got along well. Aunt Madge was born in 1891, and in her younger days she was quite a looker. Looking through old photos with my grandmother, I learned that the men in photos with Aunt Madge were her various husbands, nine in total.

Apparently, Aunt Madge was an exceptional cook. Family lore has it that her name had been used as an endorsement for a large Canadian flour company back in the early days.

By the time I knew her, Aunt Madge was cooking only for herself, and had ballooned to 200 kilograms. She once lost her balance and fell, and had to call in the fire department to assist her in getting back to her feet.

When their brother John passed away in the 1960s, the Brown sisters moved into his small four-room house in the Montgomery district of Calgary on 16th Avenue. The Trans-Canada Highway went right past the door. They were living there when I moved into the residence at the University of Calgary. A year later, Aunt Madge passed away, and I moved in with my grandmother while I continued my studies.

The arrangement was simple. For $35 a month, she fed me and provided accommodation so that I could continue my education. I took the bus, or walked to my classes. In time, I acquired a 10-speed bike and rode to the campus. In exchange for room and board, I would assist her with a variety of simple chores. This never amounted to much work, considering the support she was providing me, her only grandchild.

After she had a cement floor laid in her basement, I was able to set up my drum set and for the next three years, would practise up to three hours a day. I became good enough to supplement my summer income by playing drums in various bands that played the bar circuit in Calgary. Consequently, I was able to complete my education without accumulating any student loan debt.

It never occurred to me to think what it was like for my grandmother to endure my constant drum pounding, considering that a neighbour two doors away complained about the racket.

Grandma Brown lived a frugal life. She saved string (there was a huge ball of string in the bathroom closet); she turned her cigarette packages inside out and used them for note cards. She would flatten paper towels after they had been used, and lay them on the kitchen table in the sunshine to dry so that they could be used again.

I will never forget the love of my grandmother, who cared for me during my student years. She tolerated my youthful behavior, she taught me frugality by example, and helped me to complete my university degree.

Someone once commented about how I had it made, by going to university, implying some sort of privilege to that achievement. Little did he know that I did it on a shoestring and with my grandmother’s loving care. I don’t know how I would have managed without her.

Grandma Brown never complained. She never lectured. We got along. And I loved her for it. She only completed Grade 3 before leaving school, and she never talked about the circumstances surrounding that departure. In fact, she never talked much about our family past. It was only when a Polish immigrant moved in across the alley from my grandmother’s house that I learned that she could speak Polish and helped this woman make the transition to living in Canada.

For my grandmother, it was always a matter of looking forward, not back, and that inspired me to think about my future and who I wanted to be. Little did I know then that my future would lead me to the Yukon.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at