Matriarch, legend in her own time, mistress-of-all-trades. Born on May 27, 1920, in Boyd’s Cove, Nfld.; died on March 21, 2014, in Toronto, of pulmonary fibrosis, aged 93.
Life did not get off to a smooth start for Carrie, born to Arthur and Suzanne Robinson in Boyd’s Cove, Nfld., in 1920. The third of four children, she lost her mother by the age of five, and from the age of eight, she kept house for her father and brothers.
But even before then, calamity had struck. At age two, Carrie was playing in the woodpile with her four-year-old brother Jack, who wanted to try his hand at wood chopping. He asked Carrie to hold the log for him. The axe fell, and took four fingers on her right hand with it. Her father found one of her fingers among the wood chips, dosed her with whisky, and sewed it back on with a needle and thread. The other three fingers were never found, so she went through life with only a baby finger and a thumb on her right hand.
But what she managed with that hand was extraordinary. As a young woman, she kept house for a well-to-do family in Grand Falls, Nfld. At 23, she married Daniel Ricketts and in the space of 13 years gave birth to three daughters and five sons. Daniel was away most of the time, working in the mines in Quebec, so she raised their children on her own, in a home without electricity or running water in Knight’s Cove, the outport village where Daniel grew up.
Both mother and father to her brood, Carrie ruled with an iron fist. When one daughter and a friend stole a carrot from a neighbour’s garden, the other girl’s mother laughed it off, but Carrie meted out swift discipline: a public apology to the neighbour and a thorough trouncing at home. In spring, the harbour filled with ice pans, and the children took great glee in “skipping the pans” – but regretted it upon receiving stern spankings at home. Her children later recounted these tales with great laughter, though it was difficult for her grandchildren to associate such stories with their genial (if stubborn) Nana.
Her son Danny, known later in life as Robert, was born with serious disabilities. Carrie was ahead of her time in how she cared for him, and in how she insisted he be treated. At that time, it was common for children with disabilities to be hidden away, but he was very much part of family life and the life of the community.
All but one of their children eventually moved to Ontario. So when Daniel retired, he and Carrie began spending their winters in Toronto, returning to Newfoundland each summer. After Daniel died in 1985, Carrie continued this pattern on her own, right until the end, astounding everyone with her prodigious energy: cleaning the house thoroughly to open it up, baking bread, picking berries, making jam. Neither her children nor her 13 grandchildren could keep up – and heaven help anyone who tried to persuade her to pace herself.
In 1996, the death of her third son, Loyola, in a traffic accident was a terrible blow and she turned to her Catholic faith for consolation, as she did in 2008 when Robert died of cancer.
Carrie’s good spirits and her good humour persisted until her death. Last fall, she was regularly walking two or three kilometres at a stretch, but her final two months were beset by frustrating limitations. Unable to walk across a room without losing her breath, she crocheted up a storm. And while her lungs ultimately failed her, her mind did not: Until two days before her death, she was eagerly reading the newspaper and playing solitaire on an iPad in hospital. She was so strong, so powerful, so resilient, that somehow it seemed she would never die.
Kelly Quinn is Carrie’s granddaughter.