Oral storytelling is an important part of capturing the texture of history. It allows us to luxuriate in the small details and forgotten phrases that often slip away. In March, the Coquitlam Heritage Society had the great pleasure of receiving one of these story gifts.
Mary Louise Girardi was born at home in Maillardville in 1919. She was born a Girardi and when she married she became a Malfet.
She tells a story of how a priest once punned on her name: "You are a Malfet [poorly made] but really you are bien fait [well made]. He was extremely observant. At 91, Mary Louise is an elegant and articulate woman, and one can only assume that she was always thus.
Her parents, Catherine and Jean Baptiste Girardi, lived on a double lot at 810 Cartier St., which is the site of the current Place Maillardville. They bought the house in 1912 with the two half-acre plots for $400.
Have you ever noticed the stone wall that surrounds Place Maillardville and Our Lady of Lourdes Church? It is sturdy, low, rocks set in cement. It could be 100 years old but it isn't; this wall was built during the Second World War.
Here's the story: Marie Louise's father had dug up his second lot to make an orchard and there was a huge pile of rocks as a result of his excavation. He looked at the rocks and thought about his unemployed brother - jobs were scarce during the war - and then glanced at his 10 children. Wall making was the perfect job-creation partnership. In the 1930s, it was a practical solution to a practical problem: too many rocks, too few jobs.
The Girardi children and uncle worked on the wall for the better part of a summer. The girls would wash each rock by hand before passing it over to the males of the team, who were responsible for the construction. The result is still standing. According to Mary Louise, it was a happy undertaking and she did not mind giving up her free time for the endeavour.
Mary Louise's accounts of growing up in Maillardville paint a picture of a simple, secure and ordered life. It was a time when summer holidays could be devoted to building a wall with your uncle and siblings and there would be no resentment.
Stewing beef cost four cents a pound and bread was a nickel a loaf. Mary Louise's father earned $17 per week as a cooper for Swift's. There was no shortage of good meat. They grew their own fruits, vegetables and tobacco. Muscatel grapes provided for wine and personal distilleries were not uncommon. There was a fish truck operated by a local Chinese merchant who would provide the Friday fish while the milk was delivered from the local dairy in a horse-drawn wagon. The children all attended Our Lady of Lourdes school, which was next store. They were taught by nuns who were considered to be part of the family.
Through all this, with all the children and the hard work, Mary Louise asserts that her parents never exchanged a harsh word. Beyond the facts and dates, history teaches us many things.
Your History is a column in which, once a month, representatives of the Tri-Cities' three heritage groups writes about local history. Jill Cook is executive director of the Coquitlam Heritage Society.