Conversations with Mary-Lillian Dyck

Until a couple of years ago you could find Lillian Dyck volunteering in the local Sally Ann thrift store.

Until a couple of years ago you could find Lillian Dyck volunteering in the local Sally Ann thrift store.

Nothing unusual about that except that Lillian is about to celebrate her 100th birthday. Born June 30, 1912 in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, Lillian was a middle child of 13 children born to William Henry Ross and Mary Matilda Powell, both born in Nova Scotia of Scottish heritage. She is the only living sibling left of her family. Lillian attended school in New Glasgow until 17 years of age when she left home and moved to Saskatchewan. She found work in a café and that’s where she met her first husband Abe Burden. They had one son, Ken. The marriage wasn’t a happy one and soon the couple split with Ken going with his father. Lillian met her second husband, Abe Dyck, in 1942 while still living in Saskatchewan. The union produced five children, Carol, Bob, Harry (who died at birth,) Donna and Mary.  The couple lived on a Mennonite farm as Abe was a German Mennonite and also in Coaldale and Taber before moving to the Old Loop area of Corbin in 1949 where the family lived in old range cabins that used to be Canadian German prisoner of war camp housing. 

Life at Old Loop was harsh. No electricity, water and only wood for heat. Snow was melted over the stove for water, in summer water had to be packed from a quarter of a mile away. Lillian and the kids bunked in one cabin, Abe in another.  Bunk beds lined one wall of the cabin, in the 1952 winter Bob recalls that “there was 35 feet of snow on the level; we had to tunnel out of the house. It was bad, in mid- January of ‘53 it was 75 below, then it warmed up to 55 below. We never missed a day of school either. I recall going outside without a coat at 35 below. We were a lot healthier back then.” 

When four-year-old Bob contacted Polio, he was completely paralyzed, the doctor wanted to put him in an iron lung but they refused. Instead, the Sister Kinney treatment of massaging the muscles was used and in three months he could walk again. He says “Mom wheeled me to the hospital in a wagon.” The family was now living in Middletown where the kids attended school in Natal. Abe worked for Crowsnest Pass Coal Company and in 1967 lost his right arm in an accident at the Tipple in Michell. They lived behind the coke ovens in a house situated along the hillside. Their next move was to Natal to the front apartment of Ada Petovello’s house with Ada and her husband living in the back area. Snow was boiled in an oval copper container to provide warm water to fill the tub. “Everyone had a bath in the same water.”

By 1954 Lillian and Abe had parted ways and she found work in the Alexander café in Natal waiting on tables. Those were the days when six hotels were in the Natal and one in Michel. Carol, who was now 14, also found work there and Bob, 13, cleaned the café after it closed down at night. Lillian spent most of her life working hard as a waitress and cleaner, finally quitting at age 63 only because she had developed back problems. “It was a tough life growing up, a struggle all the way through,” says son Bob, then adds, “Mom is the best woman on earth, she is a great mother, she did all she could bringing us up by herself, we all turned out fine.” When asked about older photos, “no photos taken, we couldn’t afford it.” Lillian couldn’t find a place to rent in Sparwood after Natal went down so she moved to Fernie where she has lived ever since. With a history of Salvation Army (her mother was in uniform and so was she) during her years in Michel she attended the United church as there was no Salvation Army there, in Fernie she joined again. She loves gardening, knitting and crocheting. Also canning and making jams.

“She taught all of us how to cook and bake, I can remember her baking 24 loaves of bread a week. She has a green thumb, she can take a dead plant and bring it back to life,” says Bob. Lillian is friendly and outgoing, she never has a bad word to say about anyone and has always helped those less fortunate than herself. Four years ago for her 96th birthday she was finally reunited with her first child, her son Ken whom she had lost touch with when his father had taken him away. It was quite a tearful reunion. Ken will also come to celebrate her 100th birthday. Lillian has 10 grandsons and 11 great- grandchildren. Still feisty and independent, Lillian lives on her own in her house. On a comment made that she might live to be 120, Lillian replied, “Not 120, I’m shooting for 150.” Lillian is proof that despite all hardships thrown at you, as long as you keep a good attitude life can be long and fulfilling. 

Congratulations on your 100th Lillian, and best wishes for many more birthdays.

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