That's my grandmother, Theo Mercier, caught as the shutter closes—leaning forward, squinting at the camera, supporting her weight on the back of a deck chair, a cigarette between the fingers of her right hand. Her uniform crisp with starch and smooth from a hot iron—bright white against the lumber piled around her. The wind off the water lifts her apron and ruffles the hem of her dress. Behind her, two young men raise a rondeau cooking pot, framing her head with an aluminium halo.
The photo was taken between 1934 and 1939 on the S.S. Easton, a coal-fired bulk freighter. It carried pulpwood, grain, and coal along the St. Lawrence upstream into the Great Lakes and back out to ocean-going vessels in the Gulf.
In her early 20s, she was the cook. In the crowded galley, she would have been a commanding figure at five foot eleven. The men in the photo were her crew. Some, maybe all, would have been transient, earning their keep on the way to lumber camps and pulp mills or leaving rural villages for the promise of work in cities like Montreal or Toronto.
Theo would have hustled them along as they cut beef chuck for stew, peeled potatoes, washed dishes, or whisked Bird's custard powder into boiling water and layered it with canned fruit into parfait glasses.
I imagine them hauling fresh supplies bought at the newly opened Atwater market in Montreal, back to the boat along the Lachine Canal. Following in her wake up the stairs for pork, poultry, and boudin noir and then downstairs for vegetables—new potatoes, fat leeks, big heads of cauliflower and broccoli, squash, and apples for fritters and crisps.
When I first saw this image about a decade ago, I was touched by what we had in common. Until that point, I did not know about her early life. Theo was a cook, like me. Her skill at the stove was a talent of value on boats.
There are recipes from that period in the two handmade cookbooks I have of hers in my kitchen. The crew on the Easton might have enjoyed fricassee of veal, chicken pot pies, golden breaded pork cutlets with applesauce, omelettes for breakfast, or ripe, cold tomatoes stuffed with liver pate.
In one of the cookbooks is a pamphlet from 1930, The Magic Cook Book. She circled a recipe for Sour Milk Biscuits made tender with butter and lard and baked quickly in fierce heat to an airy lightness. They cost pennies to make and would have been filling with a bowl of her soup—made from scraps and leftovers and tasting like riches.
The American writer and naturalist Henry Beston wrote about life along the river in his book, The St. Lawrence. About the local cooking, he writes,
"There is no more excellent cooking of its kind than countryside French-Canadian. French provincial in its tradition, simple and good in its recipes and wisely skilled in its simplicity, it lives wholesomely and well from its resources of farm and field…A particular touch of Old France is the excellence of the omelets; you can get a good omelet anywhere, not the whipped-up egg-foam monstrosity, but the true French thing, the small omelet of tradition beaten with a fork and fried in country butter. Serve this with a wedge of honest, home-baked bread, a pat of butter to one side, and a bittock of homemade wild strawberry jam, and one's hunger and weariness make their own grateful prayer."
The cargo on deck of the S.S. Easton might be a clue as to the boat's location (coal coming from England might have been in the holds below). Canallers with French Canadian crews carried pulpwood from lumber camps along the shores of the Lower St. Lawrence to mills like Consolidated Paper Corp. at Trois-Rivières or further west to Montreal. During that period, boats with similar cargo can be seen in the Lachine Canal. The Easton worked the same stretch in the 1950s, carrying supplies to build the Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway.
Maybe it was in the Upper St. Lawrence between Kingston and Montreal. Historic film footage from the 1930s shows a coal-fired caneller on the river near Prescott, Ontario, and another waiting to go through a lock.
Or it could have been on a Great Lake like Michigan, near the shoreline seen in the distance. There's a record of the Easton arriving from Montreal at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on Friday, October 25, 1935.
My grandmother was not the only woman cooking on canellers during the depression. I like to imagine her crossing paths with other women in ports. Maybe on that Friday in Manitowoc, Theo and another cook smoked cigarettes and swapped stories and recipes over a burger at The Beacon Lunch.
Theo needed to earn a living. She had a baby back home, being raised by her parents as their own. Later there would be bills for boarding school.
At the time, French-Canadian Catholic families with daughters who were young unwed mothers were expected to step in. Adoption would not be a real option for another twenty years or more. Unwanted children went to orphanages. The circumstances were terrible, and good choices were in short supply.
There must have been an understanding between all of them that the odds of finding a man and securing a future were higher if she were away, without a child. At home, her story would have been shared in whispers.
If it was a strategy, it worked. The young woman squinting at the camera met Harry Reid, an apprentice in the engine room. He was a gem of a man. I can't imagine what the conversation about the truth was like between them. He saw things in her he liked.
My grandmother spent a good part of her 20s working on boats on the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes. Those early days of autonomy, adventure, and new love helped reshape her wounded spirit. In the galley of a caneller, Theo got to experience life as a young free woman.