Mrs. Melvina Sullivan, Everyday Hero

This is a portrait of my mother. She was not a famous person, not well known even, and fairly typical of her time and place. For the most part, she did what was expected of her, sometimes a little less. She was a baker of bread, cookies, and pies.  She was a canner of berries, pickles, and jelly. She cleaned, cooked, gardened, tended livestock, and raised children. You might wonder, "Where is the heroism in all of that?" I would argue that my mother, like most rural women of her day, lived her ordinary life with great courage and strength.

Melvina "Vina" Sullivan was born Helena Melvina Phelan on February 12, 1925 in Morell, Prince Edward Island, the second youngest of twelve children. Her father Ambrose, a farmer, was the son of Irish Catholics. Her mother Melvina Stewart came from a long line of Scottish Protestants, a North American lineage that stretched back to some of the earliest settlers in New England, specifically to the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Nantucket.

Vina's early years would have been difficult. She was just 2 years old when her mother died from childbirth, leaving 8 boys and 3 girls in the care of their father, the youngest child having died along with his mother. Despite the sadness of her mother's absence and the grinding poverty of the 1930's, my mother talked about her childhood as if it were an adventure. She went barefoot all summer. She picked buckets full of blueberries along the railway tracks and sold them for a penny. She attended a one-room school where they used lead pencils and slates. She travelled for miles on foot, by horse and buggy, or by horse and sleigh.

By the time World War II began in 1939, my mother Vina was 14 years old. Most of her elder siblings were already grown and gone, and she had recently left school to look after her father's household. At age 16, Vina travelled to Charlottetown for the first time, a journey of 25 miles. She ate her very first orange. From there, she travelled on to Montreal to work as a nanny. She must have felt very lonely and out of place in this rich urban household. She did not remember the experience fondly.

Happier days awaited her in Toronto, where she joined her elder sisters Mary and Evelyn. It was 1942. Mary had a young and growing family, and Evelyn was newly-wed with a husband at war overseas. Vina settled in amongst her extended family and got a job in a factory.

By the time WWII ended in 1945, Vina was back in Prince Edward Island rooming with a girlfriend in Charlottetown. Now age 20, Vina was an apprentice hair dresser. Her early 20s appear to have been happy, filled with friends, dates, and dances.

In 1950, Vina met and married a farmer from Glenfinnan, Prince Edward Island, a rural community 10 miles from Charlottetown. My father, JD MacDonald, was part of a large extended family, whose ancestors had emigrated from Scotland's west coast in the late 1700's. They were proud Scots, and proud Catholics. The young couple set up house about 50 yards from JD's parent's home. Together they tended a large farm with about 20 dairy cattle, 15 beef cattle, and over 1000 poultry. Vina worked very hard. After 15 years had passed, their 2 bedroom household was bursting with 5 children (4 girls and 1 boy), one farmhand, and one married couple approaching middle-age.

Vina was 40 years old in June of 1965 when her husband JD was killed in an automobile accident. He died instantly. At the time, Vina's 5 children ranged in age from 14 years to 1 year. Everyone would have understood if she had fallen apart from shock and grief, but she didn’t. Vina spoke of how she had been able to accept her husband’s death as if this acceptance were a gift, a gift that allowed her to get on with the business of living. She had the support of an incredible rural community. Both she and JD had been very active in community affairs: Vina in the Catholic Women’s League and Home and School and JD in the School Board, Farmers’ Cooperative and Knights of Columbus.  Family, friends, and neighbours rallied around Vina and her children. They were very generous with their time and effort in the months and years that followed.

Vina was a single mother from 1965 to 1970. She moved her young family off the farm. They settled 3 miles away in Johnson’s River. Vina established a hairdressing business in their basement. There was a Clover Farm across the road, a Catholic Church next door, and lots of neighbours within walking distance. Vina didn’t drive so all of this was much more than convenience. (Eventually Vina got her driver’s license, in 1970 at age 45.)

New Year’s Eve of 1969 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Vina’s life. She agreed to let her friends arrange a date for her that evening with Peter Sullivan, a well respected widower with 7 young children of his own (4 boys and 3 girls). Peter had a good job with the federal government in Charlottetown, and lived about 4 miles away in the community of Southport. Vina and Peter began a courtship in the early days of 1970. Six months later they were married in a quiet early morning ceremony.  All 12 of their children were in attendance.

Wedding Breakfast, July 1970. Mr. and Mrs. Peter Sullivan and their 12 children.

At this point in Vina’s story, it’s difficult to separate her life from Peter’s. They were quite a team! All 12 children lived at home during the first year of their marriage. Vina delegated household chores like washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, baking biscuits, and peeling vegetables among the children. There was even a schedule on the fridge. Peter did the grocery shopping; dollars were stretched, but meals were nutritious and filling. By the end of 1982, all of their children had graduated from high school. Five had already earned a university degree or technical diploma. Three were married. Vina and Peter were now 57 and 58 years old. They had 4 grandchildren. In another 3 or 4 years, their “nest” would be officially empty.

For the most part, Vina thoroughly enjoyed life in her 60s and 70s. She returned to hairdressing for a time as a hospital volunteer. She completed her grade 11 GED. She travelled on holiday with a friend to the UK and then to Florida. She also travelled to visit her siblings, her children, and her grandchildren. Day-to-day life with Peter was quiet and pleasant. Church was central to them, as were visits with their children and grandchildren, now 19 in number.

Vina and Peter had been married for 32 years when Peter died from illness at the age of 78 (November 2001). By this time, Vina was in the early stages of dementia. Her mental condition would deteriorate significantly over the next 3 years until her sudden death – from natural causes unrelated to dementia– at the age of 79 (November 2004).

Mrs. Melvina Sullivan was an everyday hero who dealt with life as best she could. She raised her children well. She supported her community. Many of us owe what we are today to rural women like my mother, courageous and enduring. Thanks Mom.

Written by by Rosemary MacDonald
Edited by Kristine Scarrow


Christine said...

Very good article, Rosemary!

Rosemary said...

Thank you, Catherine, for the opportunity to pay tribute to my mom. Our Pink Thoughts is a great place to tell stories about women you admire. It's also great for aspiring writers who want to practice their craft. I hope your readers enjoy this article! ♥

Korri said...

Thanks Rosie for those well written words. I can share this with Linkin and keep it in our Family Tree info. I think of her a lot and she would have been proud of Linkin today especially proud of his knowledge on sign langue already at 18 months... We all will cherish these words
Thanks XO
Korri & Linkin (1st Grandchild & 1st Great Grandchild)

Dan MacDonald said...

Rose, this is an excellent tribute.
Thank you for writing it.

Anonymous said...

I still enjoy this article Rosemary - every time I read it.