Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Oral Histories: Sharing Stories and Memories with the Verot Family

Members of the Verot family in front of their barn on the occasion of the Verot century family farm celebration in 2004. Photo courtesy of Alexina Verot.
My favourite thing in the world is to chat with older people, particularly seniors. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to eavesdrop on conversations and hear stories about the old days. It's a good thing I'm pursuing a career as a folklorist, then, since I get the chance to do that all the time. People's memories are precious. I recently attended a presentation by my friend and folklorist Lisa Wilson about oral history. Lisa mentioned that it is important to interview seniors not only because of their own rich store of memories, but because they also have access to an oral tradition that stretches even further back in time, stories and memories passed down from their parents and grandparents, and so on. This has changed and continues to change as our methods of communication become more technological in nature. Here is a link to Lisa's excellent blog Folk Traditions. As you browse through the pages, you will come across many examples of oral history. Lisa's work is an inspiration to me, and I am happy that I was able to conduct several interviews during the course of my barn research.

Each and every interview was special in its own way, and I left each one feeling like I had either strengthened an existing friendship or built a new one. I hope to eventually share snippets from each one of my interviews, but to begin with I will start with an excerpt of the very first interview I conducted this past fall with the Verot family about their 96 year old barn.

Sharon Verot had contacted me to let me know that her mother-in-law Alexina was very knowledgeable about their barn and that she would be great to talk to. And so on a late October day, a snowy one as I recall, I went to the Verot farm to interview Alexina, her son Dave and his wife Sharon. I knew Dave and Sharon quite well already since I attended high school with their daughter, Brett, but I had never met Alexina before.

Alexina Fradette was born in 1927 on a farm south of Radville in the Freda Lake district. She grew up speaking French and didn't learn English until she started walking to school with an English speaking neighbour. In 1945 Alexina married Peter Verot and moved to his farm southeast of Radville, in the Souris Valley area. They spent the next 35 years there farming and raising their family, experiencing many hardships along the way, including a destructive tornado or plow wind which partially destroyed the barn in the second year of their marriage. This was a devastating event since the barn was so integral to their livelihood.

I will let Alexina speak for herself now, to describe that event. All of the black and white photos in the video came from Alexina. She and her family took many photos over the years of their everyday life on the farm which are now kept safely in Alexina's photo albums. These photos are truly a treasure, and I am so grateful to Alexina for trusting me to borrow and scan them. If you have trouble with the embedded video, here is the Youtube link.

After the interview we all went out into the barn, and there Alexina lit up. Before anyone knew what she was up to, she had darted up the ladder into the hayloft. Despite  my fear of heights, I couldn't be outdone by a lady in her 80s, so I slowly clambered my way up after her. Alexina also pointed out many artifacts from the barn. It was a building she knew inside and out and those memories have never left her. It was an honour to hear some of them.

Alexina deftly climbs into the hayloft while Sharon watches.
Alexina poses with a cream can. The "cream check" was once a hugely important part of many farm families incomes.

Alexina examines some tack still hanging in its place in the barn.
Alexina on horseback in 1947, the same year the barn was partially destroyed by a tornado or plow wind.