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In Their Own Voices

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Women's history disappears like meals placed before hungry men, kisses on children's cheeks, aging parents nursed until they die.

- Shirley Serviss

Shirley Serviss is a poet, editor, essayist, freelance writer and writing instructor. She has two published collections of poetry, Model Families (short-listed for the Alberta Book of the Year) and Reading Between the Lines (short-listed for the Canadian Authors' Association Exporting Alberta Award). She co-edited Study in Grey: Women Writing About Depression, is an "artist-on-the-wards" at the University of Alberta Hospital, and is co-editing an anthology on women in mid-life.

Shirley Serviss Cover Shirley Serviss explored the life of Elizabeth Boyd through poetry, often writing in Boyd's voice. Recognizing the lack of reference to either Abigail or Elizabeth in the otherwise prolific writings of John McDougall, she remarked "I am not sure whether it says more about the man or the times that such a prolific writer could devote so little space to his two wives and his numerous children."

Learning to read

Women's history is written in
freehand beading on buckskin
jackets, patterns of even stitches
through patches and carded wool,
loops of cotton crocheted into lace. 
It follows rules of even rows
of vegetables in gardens, jars of
preserves on pantry shelves,
washing hung to dry in the sun.

Women's history is telegraphed
in the rhythmic scraping of hair
from a hide, the turning of a
butter churn, the scrubbing
against washboards or river
stones. It is a code we have
not learned to decipher or
trained our ears to hear.

Women's history is darned
into socks, punched into
bread dough like letters of
braille poked into thick paper
with a stylus. We are too blind
to read it. We miss the messages
written in recipe collections,
carved in the crusts of pies.



 "Two white men came and camped beside us . . .
 They were well educated but not civilized."
- Elizabeth's speech "Pioneering in Alberta in 1873"

Two white men built a shack beside us.
It would be nice to think they could be
neighbours. They are educated men -
one English no less - but we have discovered
them to be more uncivilized then the Indians.
They keep their house so filthy, no Stoney
will darken their door, nor share any food
they prepare. No neighbours at all
would be better than having such men near,
our husbands far away. I'd say we have
more to fear from them than we do from
the Indians we've barricaded ourselves against
behind our stockade.

Planting a garden

"Sow only with a waxing moon;
you're likely to have rain quite soon."
Sifting this dry soil between my
fingers a week before the full moon
I hope there is truth to my mother's tale.
I comb my long hair to line
the trenches as I have seen her do
to trap the bugs, enrich the earth.

"One for rook, one for crow,
one to die and one to grow."
She cast her seeds generously along her
long, straight rows. My few seed
potatoes, turnips and barley are too
rare to be reckless, I plant each one
with care. Cover them with prayer.

Citation Sources
Serviss, Shirley. Reading Between the Lines: Piecing Together the Life of Elizabeth Boyd McDougall. Edmonton: Rowan Books, 2000. 

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