Farris and family: It’s a wonderful life

By Janice Christie    

SHEET HARBOUR – Josephine Farris was born October 2, 1933 in South Branch, Newfoundland. She was the ninth child of Narcis and Julia Aucoin, who later had five more children. “My father worked in the woods and ran a farm to feed the 16 of us…He raised chickens, and cows and had a vegetable garden. My mother did the cooking and cleaning for the family.”

When Josephine was 15 years old she began work as live-in help where she cared for children and did housecleaning. “I was paid so very little for the work I did, about $2 a week, that at age 16 I left by train for Halifax. I went alone but I had two brothers there and an aunt and uncle who I lived with. I became a housekeeper and received $8 a week pay. In the 1950s I worked at Moirs chocolate factory making chocolate wafers and candy and made $10 a week.”

A former beau, Jim MacIsaac, followed her to Halifax. At age 17 they were married and they started a family; Allan, Debbie, Linda and Carolyn. They lived for a while in Windsor Junction where daughter Wanda was born and they eventually made their way to Port Dufferin on the Eastern Shore. “I then had Florence, Ronnie, Jimmy, Ricky, Laurie and Sherry.” When her youngest child, Sherry, was five months old...the marriage broke up. At age 28 Josephine was receiving $22 a week from welfare...to feed herself and her 11 children. Her oldest son, Allan, helped feed the family by snaring rabbits, shooting deer and moose, catching fish; doing what he could.

“A couple of months later...the unthinkable happened,” remembers Josephine. “I had Jimmy and Ricky in the living room and Sherry was in her crib. The other children were in school. I heard something in another room and when I opened the door...a blaze of fire leaped out at me. It burned my forearm and the side of my face.” She closed the door and pushed Ricky, at age three and a half, outside and warned him not to come in. She picked up Laurie and had to go through the fire to get Sherry in the crib.

“I remember I was wearing my bedroom slippers but I broke the window out in the room and got out with Laurie and the baby in my arms. I got Ricky and we walked in the snow to Aunt Sally’s.” The suspected electrical fire started in the attic and the house was razed to the ground. “We lost everything...every stick of furniture, all our clothes, the children’s toys and even my purse...with the little bit of cash I had. Everything was gone and I did not have insurance. The other children didn’t know their home was gone until the bus pulled up after school.”

The family was temporarily dispersed. Josephine and six of her children stayed for a time with Aunt Sally who had 13 children of her own. The other five stayed with teachers. The family was separated for several months until Josephine was able to attain a little house that belonged to Tom Barkhouse. “It was a two bedroom and the boys slept in one room with the girls in the other. I slept on the coach.”

Eventually Josephine was able to secure a loan and bought a house from Tom Richardson. Her older children, Allan, Debbie and Linda who were now in their late teens, left home for Halifax and Antigonish to work. “I still had eight kids at home and $22 a week. I couldn’t change a recipe because I might go short. Once I made $12 extra a week doing housecleaning but someone reported me.”

Then the biggest heartbreak of Josephine’s life occurred. “My two oldest daughters, Debbie and Linda, were home for the weekend. I didn’t want them to go out but they wanted to go out with a friend and so they did.” Josephine’s eyes well and her voice breaks with emotion as she says quietly, “There was a car accident and Debbie never came home.” Linda , in the back seat of the car, suffered a broken leg but Debbie, age 17 at the time, in the front seat, was fatally injured. She died in the ambulance shortly after it left Sheet Harbour for the city.

Florence, Debbie’s sister, was eight years old at the time of her sister’s death. “I remember her as wonderful and only have beautiful memories of her.” Florence’s favourite thoughts of Debbie are when she came home from Antigonish. “I couldn’t wait for the weekends. I would stand on a chair and when she came through the door...I would jump into her arms.”

The loss of her oldest daughter was devastating for Josephine. “I would cry and cry and was not sure I could get over it. I spent a lot of time sitting on my couch.”

Florence recounts that a minister at the time, Rev. Gordon Neish, came to see her mother. “He gently reminded Mom that she had other kids and that she had to move on. He helped her recover and get back to living.”

Six years later, when Josephine was 34, she was courted by a young man named Johnny Farris. Ironically, years before, Debbie had been the one to introduce them. Johnny, as it turns out, was smitten from the first date. The couple dated for three years and eventually Josephine, who was eight and a half years Johnny’s senior, said to Johnny, “This relationship is not fair to you. You have no children and I have 11.”

A few days later Rev Neish returned to Josephine’s home and said, “Johnny wants you to come over for ‘instruction’.”

Johnny wanted to get married. Josephine smiles so sweetly as she says, “Johnny loved my children as he loved me.” If the children needed discipline Josephine says Johnny did not raise his voice. “He never scolded them. He would invite them out for a drive in the car and he would chat with them.”

Johnny worked for Parker Brothers as a painter and later was foreman at the Ship Yards in Halifax. He was, Josephine reflects, a well-respected and well-loved man who was a very hard worker. He worked at renovating Josephine’s house, creating a home for all of them. After they married, Johnny asked Josephine, “Would you consider having a baby for me?”

Josephine says, “I loved all those babies...and I wanted to have another baby in my arms.” So... when Josephine’s youngest was ten, she then gave birth to her 12th and final child, Tanya. “Johnny was so proud, I’m telling you, that when his daughter was born he took all of my kids up to ESMH and the nurses just turned their heads and let him take every one of them in to meet Tanya.”

“Over the years we travelled together all over Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, enjoying camping, bon fires and cook outs. We bought a cottage back home in Newfoundland and for twenty-three years, we never missed a year, we went back home to that cottage.”

Josephine started an upholstery business which she ran, out of her home, for over 20 years. She taught Tanya the skill and together they worked at it for another eight years, in a shop at Tanya’s house. Josephine worked for a number of residents in the community of Port Dufferin; cleaning, wall papering and other odd jobs. “They were all wonderful people and I loved every one of them!”

In August Johnny was diagnosed with a heart condition with leaky valves and cancer of the liver. “He, thankfully, had no pain...he just was very tired. He was devastated when he couldn’t work like he was used to.” Josephine and Johnny were married for 46 and a half years when he passed away last month.

Florence says of Johnny, “He was the only father I ever knew. He made Mom happy and he always welcomed each of us and our families as we grew.” Florence continues, “We had such a strong mother. When her first marriage broke up...if she couldn’t have handled it...we all would have been sent to different homes.”

Josephine raised a remarkable family of well adjusted, productive, kind and giving adults; all of whom went on to raise wonderful families of their own. Josephine has 21 grandchildren; 26 great-grandchildren; three great-great grandchildren; and three on the way.

She is a resilient woman, who at age 84, is independent, capable and still going strong. Her next intention is to join the local Lions Club and work alongside many of her family members and contribute to the community of the Eastern Shore.