Morse code and switchboard operator, storyteller, community matriarch. Born on May 13, 1920, in Gabarus, N.S.; died Jan. 3, 2014, in Gabarus, of cancer, aged 93.
Mildred Grant Gray was a Cape Bretoner born and bred, a lively and generous spirit who played a key role in keeping her community connected.
Mid was born at home in Gabarus, the second of three children of Wiley and Elsie Grant. She came from a long line of seafarers and merchants and was among the fourth generation to work in the Grant Store, which operated for more than 100 years until the family sold it in 1954. When Mid was young, supplies still came to the small fishing community by schooners.
Mid was educated in a two-room schoolhouse, across a field from where she lived her whole life. In 1937, she got dressed up and went to the “big city” of Sydney to take the provincial exams. Then came a two-year business college, followed by work as a secretary at the Sydney steel plant.
In 1941, she married her childhood sweetheart, Duncan Gray, with whom she had three children (Karen, Nancy and Albert). Duncan became a lobster broker but was often disabled by osteomyelitis, contracted from an infected appendix when he was 15. Mid worked hard to help make ends meet. In 1947, an opportunity arose for a good job at the Gabarus central telegraph office.
Mid was eager to learn Morse code to qualify, and started by practising with the temporary operator. A few months into her training, the operator died suddenly and Mid was immediately on her own. She stayed up all that night transcribing four “night letters” of 40 words each. Mid was hired as the full-time operator and held the job for years.
When the telegraph service ended, she became the area’s telephone switchboard operator until that, too, came to an end in 1976: Gabarus was the last community in Nova Scotia to switch to dial service.
During those 30 years, Mid was a one-woman information and emergency service. The telegraph and switchboard “offices” were in her home. The Morse code key sat on a desk in the living room and she often fell asleep there, waiting for the click-click of an incoming message. Later, wearing the switchboard headset, she could reach into her kitchen and around the living room to cook and clean.
When the switchboard job ended, she was 56, still young and healthy. One of the first things she did was take driving lessons and later was was able to travel the world several times, thanks to a generous Aunt Ella in Boston.
In 1990, after nearly 50 years of marriage, Duncan died suddenly in a drowning accident. Mid drew tremendous support from friends and family, and her role as a community hub continued. Every day her home on Memory Lane was filled with friends and visitors of all ages. She never forgot a detail about anything she heard. As she said: “I like to learn something every day.”
Mid was known for her wonderful storytelling and exceptional memory. Her stories of nine decades of change were captured in her book, Bringing Out the Untold Life (which I had the great pleasure of helping her to write). It was published less than a month before she died. At book launch events around Cape Breton, she signed hundreds of copies for admiring readers.
Along with her three children, seven grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren, her book is now part of Mid’s legacy. As one friend noted, “With the book written ... she could go out in the sparkle of stardom that she deserved.”
Mid was in good health until about two weeks before she died when she was told that she had stage four metastatic liver and lung cancer. She died at home with her family at her side, a few doors from where she was born, leaving with the same grace and dignity she demonstrated in her long life.
Claire Scheuren is Mid’s friend.
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