Women's history disappears like meals placed before
hungry men, kisses on children's cheeks, aging parents nursed until they
- 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 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
Learning to read
Women's history is written in
freehand beading on
jackets, patterns of even stitches
through patches and carded
loops of cotton crocheted into lace.
It follows rules of even rows
of vegetables in gardens, jars of
preserves on pantry shelves,
hung to dry in the sun.
Women's history is telegraphed
in the rhythmic scraping
from a hide, the turning of a
butter churn, the scrubbing
washboards or river
stones. It is a code we have
not learned to decipher
trained our ears to hear.
Women's history is darned
into socks, punched into
dough like letters of
braille poked into thick paper
with a stylus. We are
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
They keep their house so filthy, no Stoney
will darken their
door, nor share any food
they prepare. No neighbours at all
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
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
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.
Serviss, Shirley. Reading Between the Lines: Piecing
Together the Life of Elizabeth Boyd McDougall. Edmonton: Rowan Books,