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On a brisk February morning, seven-year-old Jean Steeves huddled under the quilts of her shared bed, tucked snugly between her sisters. Fingers of cold searching for exposed skin had roused her. On any other morning, she could have wiggled closer to Betty for warmth and fallen back to sleep, but on this day the crispness of the morning air was broken by a strange cry, and she stirred.
"Betty, wake up," she nudged her sister. "What's that?"
[ln1] Nine-year-old Betty turned away and mumbled, "It's just an old tomcat."
Jean tried to settle back to sleep, but the weak cry came again.
"That's a baby," she insisted, scrambling over Betty and across the cold floor. "Mom's got a new baby!"
Betty crawled out after her sister, trying not to wake little June, who still slept soundly, oblivious to Jean's excitement. The two girls slipped out of the bedroom to discover that Jean had been right. In the living room they saw that a rocker had been pulled close to the heater-fire, and a small bundle lay cradled in their Aunt Leone's arms.
"Her name is Janette," Leone whispered in answer to their excited questions.
"Can I hold her?" each girl begged.
"Not right now. She's not a very strong baby. And we need to be pretty careful with her for a while," Leone explained, choosing her words cautiously. In truth, there were several furrowed brows at the sight of the sickly infant. Even as the older sisters reveled in the discovery of baby Janette, their mother wept alone, struggling with the possibility of losing her new daughter.
Thoughthis young woman had only recently discovered a personal faith in God, scattered across the Canadian prairie that surrounded her stood home after home of those who knew the power of God firsthand.
As the news of the newborn traveled on, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbors were praying fervently for the tiny addition to Fred and Amy Steeves' family. Earnest tears were shed on her behalf, and each prayer reached the attentive ear of the Father.
During the next few months, Janette's little body did gradually gain strength and health, and the prayers for her changed to words of thankfulness.
As she grew, Janette learned by observation that the lives of the family members around her were woven closely together with the values they upheld. Church, faith, and God were a part of her everyday world and conversation.
What Janette did not know was that this family had not always held such strong convictions about the One whom they now considered Lord. Though a thread of faith ran from generation to generation, each member had come to his or her own decision about building upon or rejecting the foundation that had its beginnings hundreds of years before.
Janette's parents, Fred Steeves and Amy Ruggles Steeves, were simple folk—prairie farmers like many of the characters in her stories—and had descended from two long lines of colorful people.
On one side of the family tree, Fred's family had flourished near the shores of the Canadian east coast until his own father had chosen to travel west. Amy had been born in the United States, and over the course of time, her family had also arrived in the wide spaces of the Canadian prairie, searching for productive land and a place to call home.
When Fred moved to Alberta as a young boy, his family left behind an amazing number of relatives. In fact, a remark concerning the Steeves clan is that "it is more than a family—it's a nation!"
It was in 1766 that the first Steeves family—"Stief" back then—came to settle in Eastern Canada, and their descendants soon numbered in the thousands. In fact, about forty years ago Esther Clark Wright, a family historian, estimated the number to be between fifty and one hundred thousand. And, of course, Mrs. Wright was not including the generations that followed the publication of her work.
The Steeves family emigrated from Germany, seemingly to find freedom of worship. Although the family is uncertain as to when Heinrich and Rachel Stief came to North America, records show that in Pennsylvania on January 27, 1766, Heinrich signed an agreement with John Hughes, an entrepreneur of dubious intent. With the weight of this momentous decision heavy upon him, Heinrich prepared to uphold his end of the bargain. He would sail to what was then Nova Scotia and settle with his family in the Petitcodiac River area.
According to Samphire Greens, a book published by Esther Clark Wright about the history of the Steeves family, Mr. Hughes' part of the agreement was to give each settler one lot in a town that was to be built, as well as "two hundred acres of good land for every family of five Protestant persons." Further stipulations were made as to how the land was to be developed and farmed by the settlers, and the payment terms specified.
On June 20, 1766, Heinrich and Rachel stood on deck with their seven sons and watched as the docks of Philadelphia faded from sight. The Delaware River stretched on ahead of them, and as the ship entered the salty waters of Delaware Bay it swayed rhythmically with the waves. Tree-lined hills flattened into broad marshes, and soon, rounding the point of Cape May, the great Atlantic Ocean swelled before them.
Lewis Stief, the youngest son, gazed in awe at the vastness of the rolling waters. He had no memory of his family's voyage across this mighty ocean several years before. The America they left behind burned with the growing fever of revolution, but what lay ahead held dangers of its own—even his young mind understood some of that. But a glance toward his father and older brothers, who seemed so tall and strong, filled him with courage. Even the cold wind that cut against his face could not drive the excitement from him.
The ship sailed north to the Bay of Fundy, pointing like a broad, muddy finger out of the Atlantic Ocean, stretching upward past the coast of Maine and separating what is now New Brunswick from Nova Scotia. Famous for its extreme tides, navigation of the bay and the streams that feed it is very difficult. Ships caught in it while the tide is going out are gradually lowered fifty feet, sometimes becoming mired in the muddy floor until the ocean once again washes in to flood the area.
Into this basin sailed the ship carrying young Lewis and his family. They continued on to the northernmost stretch of Chignecto Bay and into the Petitcodiac River mouth. Here the swells churned as the rising tidal waters crashed against the flow of the river, driving it back in the direction from which it had come.
Few settlers had yet entered this wild countryside, but its beauty and natural bounty would cause many to follow. The rolling hills of the coastal areas, covered with pine and spruce, gradually changed, ridge upon ridge, to the inland mountains where oak, maple, ash, and birch sheltered thriving animal life. Deer, rabbits, and game birds were plentiful, and Atlantic salmon could be pulled from most streams and rivers. The land itself offered lumber aplenty, along with spacious areas for cattle to thrive and abundant rainfall for crops and gardens.
Even with the bounty of the land, these new settlers were very uncertain about the impending winter. John Hughes had promised a ship bringing supplies, and they watched the bay intently.
Many nights found Heinrich gazing at the water and praying earnestly in his German mother tongue for God's provision for his family and their new neighbors. He had made the decision to sail to Canada, believing it was God's direction for his family, and now his own faith was being tested. Would God provide?
During the anxious weeks of waiting, turnips and a swamp green called samphire were reportedly their main source of sustenance. Then God provided His own means of help from an unexpected source, proving once again that He is faithful.
The solution actually had its beginnings ten years previously when the area around Monckton township, the land the Steeves family now occupied, had been settled by a group of Frenchmen known as the Acadians. After England claimed the land and expelled these French settlers in 1755, a scattered remnant remained hidden deep in the forests.
The story continues that one day an Acadian named Belliveau appeared cautiously from the woods. Apparently he had recognized that the settlers needed help and, after making certain that they did not speak English and were not a threat, felt he could risk coming to their much needed aid.
This man taught them how to snare rabbits and other game, to make maple syrup, and to kill shad and salmon in the shallow river waters when the tide had ebbed. With the skills needed to survive in their new environment and increasing confidence that they could conquer this land, the settlers began to establish themselves, successfully working the land to meet their families' needs.
Eventually, Heinrich Stief anglicized his name, becoming Henry Steeves. His sons married and spread across the area on farms of their own.
Of these descendants, perhaps the best known is William Henry Steeves, a fourth-generation Steeves and one of the Canadian Fathers of Confederation. There is a famous Canadian painting by Robert Harris of the dark-suited, dignified gentlemen who bound the provinces of Canada into Confederation. Here William stands, on the left, proudly representing his province of New Brunswick. In the community of Hillsborough, where he has been honored, his house stands as a museum. Though we cannot claim his parentage, as he came through the line of Heinrich's son Henry while we descended from Lewis, we appreciate this distant connection to Canadian history.
In the early years of settlement life, while the local population was still small, intermarrying was quite common. Two of Heinrich's great-great-grandchildren married on June 22, 1896. Robert Steeves was the son of farmers, but to this trade Bob added the skills of carpenter, blacksmith, and handyman. His distant cousin Kathryn Steeves was orphaned at the age of eleven and went to live with an older sister who had married a judge. The little sister was given the best that life could offer. She was educated, refined, and lacked nothing. Trained as a teacher, Kathryn spent some years in the occupation.
After their marriage, Bob built a beautiful three-story house that looked out over the gentle slope of fields in Elgin, New Brunswick, and planted fruit trees for Kathryn in the big farmyard. A covered porch opened into the large entry where he worked long hours to build an elegant, wooden stairway. A kitchen, parlor, spare room, and dining room—embellished with a bay window and butler's pantry—completed the main floor. A second covered porch graced the kitchen's entry from the yard.
Six bedrooms were scattered around the second-floor landing and another staircase led to a large, floored attic. It was a home worthy of the woman for whom Bob built it.
Robert and Kathryn's first son, Carl, arrived shortly after their first anniversary. Three years later a beautiful daughter, Julia, became the apple of her father's eye. Horace followed two years after Julia and in the next year, Fred, who would be Janette's father. A second girl, Evelyn, was born in 1905 and was followed in 1906 by their fourth son, Jack, bringing the number to six.
When baby Jack was not yet a year, tragedy struck the Steeves family. In February 1907, whooping cough spread among the children. Kathryn was forced to call a neighbor woman for help in caring for her sick little ones.
The large house echoed with their fevered cries. Kathryn rushed from one child to the next. Soon baby Jack had the added complication of pneumonia, and the tired mother focused her attention on her weak infant. Only little Evelyn seemed untouched.
For this small child, the house seemed to be a foreign place. Rooms once echoing with laughter were now hushed and somber. Evelyn longed to find someone to play with, and wandered through the quiet bedrooms filled with feverish bodies until she discovered Fred.
This four-year-old brother, whom the family had lovingly dubbed "Buster," lay in a cold sweat, his body drained of strength from fighting the illness. Evelyn reached for his exposed arm and patted it gently.
"Poor Ba," she whispered. "Poor Ba."
But soon Evelyn also had fallen ill, and Kathryn was forced to turn over the nursing of her toddler to the capable neighbor lady. It was necessary for her to remain with baby Jack for most of the long hours.
One morning as Kathryn brushed past the other woman who was holding a weakened Evelyn, the chubby arms reached out for her and the tiny eyes searched for her attention. Though Kathryn longed to take the little girl into her arms, she knew she could not take precious time away from her other nursing duties.
It was the last time she saw little Evelyn alive. In the next few moments, the small body succumbed to the illness, and she was gone.
Kathryn struggled with the guilt of that last glimpse and pain of losing her precious little girl. The child was laid in a grave near their wonderful home, but much of the joy it held seemed to have left with tiny Evelyn. Daily routines were empty, laughter less easily achieved, though one by one each of the other children returned to health.
Bob, too, was having great difficulty dealing with the death of Evelyn. Reminders of her were everywhere—the places she had played and the times she had watched him work, filling his ears with her happy chatter. It was as if he were haunted by the joys she had brought to their home.
The following winter, Janette's grandfather Bob escaped those painful reminders by accepting an opportunity to manage a large ranch in Clear Lake, Alberta, which had an absentee owner.
Soon Kathryn received word that Bob wanted the family to follow. The work of packing their household possessions followed, and at last it was time for the final trip down the worn lane, away from the lovely home they'd enjoyed for ten years.
How difficult it must have been for Kathryn as she stood for the last time at little Evelyn's grave to bid her farewell. But she was forced to turn away and join the family she now must see safely to Alberta—hundreds and hundreds of miles away.
Kathryn had many difficult days adapting to her new life. She had left behind her friends, her beautiful home, a lifestyle she loved, and the grave of her fifth child—in exchange for open prairie, isolation, and the hard work of a pioneer woman.
But Kathryn was a determined woman and kept the standards for her family high. She insisted on raising them in cultured style, as a lady and gentlemen, despite the rugged prairie life they endured. Etiquette, education, and many dreams went into the rearing of them. Her greatest hope was that her sons would become fine men, perhaps doctors or lawyers. And to this hope she clung.
Four years of living and farming on the prairie passed slowly, with frequent moves from one ranch to another. As a hired worker, Bob was unable to immediately replace the exceptional home the family had known. But in 1911, when their eldest child, Carl, was fourteen, Bob moved the family to a homestead at Yetwood, Alberta.
The move brought mixed emotions. For Bob it was a wonderful feeling to once again work his own land, but upon surveying the eight-by-fourteen-foot granary that was to be their home until the new house could be completed, Kathryn could not share his enthusiasm. Far removed from the comfortable life she had known, she shuddered at the work that lay ahead of her.
However, in rather short order, Bob had completed a second house. Here the family added two more children, Ralph and Walter. The large home became the Yetwood post office, and the Steeves traveled by team twice weekly into the town of Champion, fifty miles round trip, to pick up and deliver the Yetwood mail.
Bob also established himself with a small community store. But later, when the Depression hit, even the store was lost, and again Kathryn found herself teaching school in order to help support the family.
Days were long and busy for Kathryn. Supper would be needed on the table shortly after she had arrived home from her teaching position, and there were many other household chores that would need her attention. And Walter, her youngest child, was only three years old, far from independence from his mother.
The fact that Julia was quickly approaching womanhood and could carry a woman's share of the work at home was a great help. But on the heels of Julia's achievements in womanly skills, Kathryn knew marriage would soon follow. Then Julia would be leaving to begin a home of her own.
And Kathryn was correct. Julia was courted and won by a young man named Bernard Gray. Kathryn was pleased—but the empty kitchen that greeted her when she returned home haunted her. Her boys rushed in and out of the house, but there was no daughter with whom to share the burden of a woman's work and the pleasure of women's conversation.
When word came months later that Julia had fallen ill, the family was fearful. The flu epidemic of that year had been quite severe, and Julia, especially, was in danger. The life of the child she carried was threatened by a premature birth, and Julia's body had already weakened from her illness.
After fighting many hours, the tiny infant arrived, and died shortly afterward. Dark days followed when Julia also succumbed to the disease. The grief of her young widower punctuated the family's own heartache, and there were few dry eyes at the funeral service. Family members and neighbors alike felt the pain of such bitter loss and wept for the young wife and mother who lay in the coffin, cradling her tiny infant in her arms.
Fred Steeves, who would be Janette's father, was then a young man of nineteen. His broad shoulders sagged as he turned from the crowd of mourners, tears streaming over his cheeks.
A neighbor girl, Amy Ruggles, wished with all her heart she could say something that could bring him comfort. Fred was a good friend to her, and it was so difficult to see him in such pain.
At the time she had no way of knowing that this man would someday be her husband, and that in the many years of their married life, this was one of the few times she would see him cry.
All in all, life on the prairie had been difficult for Bob and Kathryn Steeves' family. Even with his many skills, Bob experienced much bad fortune. Kathryn continued to struggle against the crude lifestyle of the prairie, but she was still determined to do her best for her sons.
Carl, her eldest, chose a life of farming alone on the prairies. By the time Janette was old enough to remember her uncle, he was almost a recluse. Brilliant and creative in technical things, he was also withdrawn and odd, and children who did not know him well were afraid of him. Carl remained a bachelor, though there was at least one sweetheart. A teacher had come to the area from the East but she returned home, so it was assumed she hadn't shared his feelings.
Horace, next in line, eventually became a druggist in a small town in northern Alberta. Over the years his visits with other family members were few and far between. When he did arrive, the country cousins were in awe of him and his family. The shiny automobile that pulled into their farmyard carrying unfamiliar people in fine clothes was somewhat intimidating to the shoeless children who welcomed them.
Janette's father, Fred, was the third son. His younger children knew him as a farmer, fisherman, and hunter, but earlier in his life baseball had been his great interest. And he was good at playing, once even pitching a no-hit, no-run game. His wife, Amy, who attended this game, said, "The only chance for the rest of his teammates to play was when they got up to bat."
Fred himself told an amusing story of a game where in one inning he struck out the first four batters at the plate—and, amazingly, the opposing team still scored. Apparently the catcher simply could not hold on to the ball and each of the batters had run to base on the last strike when the ball had rolled out of the catcher's glove.
A friend of his has said, "I loved to watch Fred play ball. When he got up to bat, he'd look as if he wasn't going to do anything. Then he'd hit that ball and it'd go and go and go—and never touch the ground!"
Fred played on several teams in southern Alberta, often with his younger brother Jack, but his favorite team was the Enchant Nine. He was paid a small amount each game, which, in the early years of his marriage, was counted on by his family as their livelihood. Other teams did not treat him as well, at times even insisting that Amy pay to watch the game.
Many years later, when his daughter Sharon sat with an elderly Fred to choose old family photos for reprints, he picked the picture of the Enchant Nine out of the album and handed it to her. A quiet man, his words often were few, but she knew he was saying, "This shows what was important in my life. You need to include a copy of this."
Jack, in the middle of the family line, became a successful farmer and businessman. For some years he sold International Harvester equipment and at the same time managed a farm east of town. Later he sold both and moved farther north to raise purebred Hereford cattle. He married Amy's sister, Laurine Ruggles, so their children and Janette's siblings referred to themselves as "double cousins," becoming close friends and swapping offspring back and forth between the two homes for various reasons over the years. For Janette, it was like having two sets of parents and two batches of brothers and sisters.
Ralph was the next-to-last of Fred's brothers. He also remained a bachelor, though it did not seem to be for lack of interest. Apparently there simply had not been the right girl at the right time. Janette was sure this uncle would have made a wonderful husband and daddy. He was always patient and loving, spoiling her over the years and looking out for her whenever he could.
Walter was the baby of the family and still a young boy when Kathryn felt she could no longer endure the harsh life she was living. She took Ralph and Walter and moved into a small house in the town of Champion, twenty-five miles away, seemingly confident that Bob would follow. But this did not happen. Family and neighbors who knew them were grieved to see two fine but stubborn people hurt themselves and the family they loved by allowing years of growing resentments to drive them apart. It seemed apparent, though, that neither was willing to take the first step toward compromise.
Later, when Jack married, Ralph and Walter returned to the family home to live with him and his new bride, Laurine. This meant that, young as she was, she began married life with not just the care of a home and new husband, but also of Jack's father, two teen-aged brothers-in-law, and a hired hand.
After watching her youngest son return to farm life, Kathryn gave up hope that things between Bob and her would change, and she moved to the city of Calgary. The rift and separation was hard on all the family members—even those sons who had already married and were on their own, for they had deep love and respect for their mother and yet felt they could not side with either parent.
It was hardest, perhaps, on the younger ones. As soon as World War II broke out, young Walter enlisted in the Canadian Army and was sent out as a telegrapher with the Communications Corp. He spent most of the war years overseas, met and married an English girl, and brought her and their baby girl back to Canada with him after the war. He then used his G.I. Bill to go back to school.
After some difficult years, he realized his dream of becoming a druggist—only to be the first of Janette's uncles to die. Walter was fifty-four when he suffered a heart attack, leaving his wife and four grown children to cope with the sudden and unexpected loss.
It would be wonderful to be able to write that all Janette's family members were believers. Many of the Steeves clan are. Though little is known about the spiritual status of Kathryn, she left behind a well-marked Bible. Her husband, Bob, who used to delight in silly arguments concerning popular religious trivialities such as "How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?" did not make his peace with God until shortly before his death, this due to the urgings of his daughter-in-law Laurine.
Bob and Kathryn's sons grew up with some spiritual training, though morality and proper living were what had been thoroughly stressed. As the boys passed into manhood, they did not seem to feel that a personal commitment to God was important. And for some of the brothers, there followed many years uncommitted to the Lord who had touched the lives of their family all the way back to Heinrich Stief, and no doubt beyond.
Janette Oke: A Heart for the Prarieby Laurel Oke Logan
Copyright © 1993, 2001, Laurel Oke Logan
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.