Frank and Sheila had been married almost 50 years when he died five years ago.
Seated at her retro red chrome table, in her sunny farmhouse kitchen, Sheila, a vibrant 73-year-old, looked back on her life and her marriage with mixed feelings.
The young couple bought their first farmland soon after their marriage. An acquaintance was giving up on a bush quarter in northeastern Saskatchewan, not far from the farm where Sheila had grown up. They cleared and broke the land a few acres at a time, mostly in winter, as they could afford it.
“The last bit we did in the summer and picked roots and rocks the rest of our lives,” Sheila said with a smile.
Sheila resumed her teaching career and over time the couple acquired more land and many babies — six quarter sections and seven children.
“Land was much cheaper than it is now,” she said. “The most expensive was actually the poorest quarter. We paid $6,000 for that.”
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Sheila had always thought she would marry a farmer and live on a farm. She liked working outside; she liked farm life.
But before their fifth wedding anniversary the marriage was in trouble.
“I remember counting the pennies,” she said. “I had to see if there was any possible way to get out. I really don’t remember what he was doing at that point but it wasn’t comfortable.”
Frank had a violent temper and he was physically and mentally abusive. He was also very personable. Her parents, who lived nearby, liked him very much.
“They knew there were problems, just not the extent or exact nature of the problems,” she said. “They didn’t know about the abuse. They never did. And our kids didn’t know, at the time.”
Sheila hung on through almost five decades of marriage and searched for answers for reasons that would explain his behaviour.
“He could be such a nice guy. He only turned his anger on me. He might be upset with someone else but it was quickly forgotten. But he never forgot he was upset with me.”
There were bad times but there were also good times. Sheila went back to university and some of the classes she took helped her to understand, if not accept, her husband’s behaviour. His father had been violent, and his mother often hid from him to escape the abuse. Frank hated that, but like the children of many abusers he continued the cycle.
At the same time, he was afraid of losing her. He worried that her education would take her away from him. But she stayed. Even when he confessed to an extra marital affair — after it was over — she stayed.
“I think the reason I stayed was because I really believed in my marriage vows,” she said.
It was like the marriage had a life of its own. It made a demand on me for a lifetime. But the farm also kept me here. We built this farm from bush, basically, together.”
Their daughter wanted to farm. If she left, if there was a divorce, if he remarried, the land would be divided; their children’s inheritance would be divided.
And, she reflects, they could be a pretty good team. They worked side-by-side on the farm. They made decisions and short- and long-term plans together. They shared the same political views. They loved their children and later grandchildren and great grandchildren.
“These other things I don’t understand,” she said.
The love was gone. The passion had died, but there was still something there, more than an obligation to the father of her children.
“I made promises to him and I was going to keep them.
“The interaction between us was really rotten at certain times but there were things we agreed on that were important to me, like organic growing and the farm itself, the work we put in together. I’m proud of it.”
When he confessed to the affair, she thought about leaving. She nods towards a comfortable-looking chair, near a large window.
“I sat in that chair and looked out at that yard and I thought, ‘I cannot leave this place.’ ”
She shared her thoughts with Frank.
She told him, “I’m not leaving; you can go.”
He replied, “Well, where would I go?”
“He had nothing else. That farm was all he wanted all his life. And so, we didn’t get along all that well, but we also agreed the farm was worth working for.”