An initial memory of my maternal grandmother, Edna May Speers Meuser, is one of a gracious, kind, and gentle lady who enjoyed playing cards – not the usual game you might imagine, because she came from a Methodist background and cards were not really accepted entertainment, but a card game called ‘Authors’, with the suits named after literary notables such as Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the cards with the names of books such as Jungle Book, Little Women and Winnie the Pooh. You see my grandmother was what I would consider a literary aficianada and she was trying to teach us about her love of literature. When at about 8 years of age I asked her if she’d play the card game ‘Cheat’ with me she just about dissolved in tears, because in playing cards she was also trying to teach us life lessons about qualities such as integrity. She was a teacher of English and Literature, infusing her lessons with Christian ideals.
Edna May Speers was born over 130 years ago in Manitoba in 1883, one of 6 children. She was the first child born in the township of Woodworth, about an hour west of Brandon, Manitoba. Her mother was widowed at age 44 with 5 surviving children ranging in age from 4 – 15 years old. There was a strong focus on education in this family, although poor, with 4 of the 5 surviving children graduating from university. Our own grandmother was the one that did not receive a university education but she did secure her First Class certificate and she attended Normal School in Regina as well as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1905 for 2 years. In her own words, “All five but me have University training. Books and life have been my University.” She credited her mother, who had aspired to be a teacher, but lacked the opportunity to train, for sacrificing any material thing to see her five children get an education. In a letter dated Apr. 30, 1913 to Edna a few months before she was married, her mother wrote: “I figure it out you will have just as good an education as any of them, Edna. Was it 21 or 22 months you studied at the Institute? An Arts course is just 28 months. Then you were in Chicago where many of our students go for Post Graduate course. And over 4 years of Chinese study, with travelling thrown in, which is an education in itself, I think of you as being as well educated as any of my children.” Apparently it was in Regina at a skating rink where Edna met the man she later married – Edwin Nelson Meuser. In fact we believe that our grandfather Edwin Meuser may not have found his way to China and stayed over a 40 year timespan were it not for his love for our grandmother Edna who, we think, he followed there. He was a young pharmacist from Ontario who had also attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. In 1908 Edna May Speers was appointed by the former Woman’s Missionary Society to the West China field where she served in Jenshow and Junghsien. She opened the Missionary Society Boarding School in Junghsien in 1911. To leave Canada at that time and start a life in a culture so vastly different from what she was used to in Canada must have taken tremendous inner strength and courage along with a great sense of adventure. It appears that there was a strong, supportive Canadian missionary community already in that part of the world. Edna’s sister, Dr. Ada Belle Speers, worked as a physician in China for many years and her mother went to China for one year in the 1920’s. From what we understand from family records, Edwin came to China in 1909, perhaps following his true love, although some records indicate he had spent some years on the Yangtze River boats prior to 1909 posing as a Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion in order to avoid death as a foreigner and also to fully learn the language. Edna had a firm grasp of the Chinese language and later she would translate Edwin’s tracts so that his university lectures in pharmacology at West China Union University were given in Chinese.
According to British law governing aliens in a foreign country, Edna and Edwin were married at the British Consulate on July 4, 1913, by a minister named Rev. William Smith, one of the earliest medical missionaries of the West China Mission, who later married her sister Ada and became her brother-in-law. Incidentally this same missionary minister who was from Ontario married our own parents, Helen and Arthur Lennie, at Emmanual College, University of Toronto 30 years later in 1943. Edna and Edwin Meuser were unable to attend this wedding since they were working in China at the time.
Four Meuser children were raised in China in their early years, with Margaret born in 1915 at Chengdu, Dorothy in 1919 at Mount Omei, and George in 1923 at Beh Liu Din. Our mother Helen, the second child, was born in June 1917 in Brandon, Manitoba at the Speers family home while the Meuser family was on furlough. After Helen’s birth and the end of that furlough the family moved back to China for seven more years where the children attended the Canadian School in Chengdu and spent time in the hot, steamy summers at Beh Liu Din in the cooler mountain area. We have photos of the bungalow in the mountains and lists of the contents provided for the families. Our mother shared with us stories of that time about childhood friendships, learning to speak Chinese, singing songs in Chinese, enjoying the food with the help of cooks, and traveling with the assistance of coolies, sometimes over treacherous gorges on rickety rope bridges. She also had frightening memories of bullets whizzing over the family compound. Other than that it seemed to be an exciting and idyllic childhood.
After the next furlough in 1925 Edna Speers stayed in Canada with the 4 children for seven years and they were registered at school in Saskatoon, while Edwin secured a position as Interim Dean at University of Saskatchewan. He also attended university courses at University of Pennsylvania, securing his doctorate, and did extensive fundraising and advocacy work for his project of opening a College of Pharmacy at the West China Union University.
Edna essentially raised the children as a single mother in Saskatchewan in the 1930’s during the depression while Grandpa headed back to China and opened the College of Pharmacy at West China Union University in 1932. Such was the life of a missionary, where choices were made and sometimes family members would not see each other for seven years at a time. Stories we heard from our own mother indicated that it was a challenging time for Edna raising 3 teenage daughters and one boisterous son on her own in Saskatoon. We also heard stories about the depression and about beggars coming to the back door of the family home in Saskatoon asking for a meal. The door always seemed to be open at Grandma Meuser’s home at that time and also in future years. When the girls were settled in university Edna Speers Meuser returned to China with her youngest child George who would have been about 15 years old and she likely continued her work at WCUU in the Language Department.
It must have been very difficult for her when she returned to China not to have witnessed significant family events such as the marriage of her daughter Helen in Toronto, or to have been present at the birth of grandchildren in Canada. This would have been the way it was for many missionary parents. She maintained contact by frequently writing or typing newsy letters on onionskin and later aerogram, fitting many words on each page, sometimes in the margins and on the envelopes. It would be more economical that way. With her background in Literature, Edna was a wonderful letter writer and would eloquently share her thoughts with her daughters who were at the University of Saskatchewan, and then later with our parents in Toronto when they were married. We have some of these letters and they reveal a philosophical, sensitive and caring mother clearly interested and concerned for the well-being of the family. Her insightful book reviews and political views were shared with our father in some of these letters. Descriptions of various university, church and family functions, parties and receptions held in China, as well as the fire in the Dentistry Building, are vivid and entertaining. The focus of the letters was never on herself; however, in one letter she shared thoughts about her 16th and 17th Century Prose class having 13 students who were stimulating and receptive, and the 50 students in her Sophomore Reading class expected to be reduced to twenty-odd when the Head of the Dept. got another classroom and another teacher. Our grandmother was also a very religious woman and was guided by Christian principles, putting others first and showing kindness to those around her. Her letters often contained Biblical references and pertinent helpful quotes. About this time, as reported by her daughter Dorothy, she also did BBC commentaries where, as an advocate of justice, she would examine both sides of a situation.
In 1939 an opportunity presented itself for the eldest Meuser daughter Margaret and her minister husband Alf Day to also become missionaries in West China, so they joined the mission, and their 3 children Dorothy, David and Diana were born in Chengdu, on the university campus, and grew up knowing their grandparents well from a young age. David recalls with fondness his grandmother patiently reading from Uncle Remus’ books about the antics of Bre’er Rabbit matching wits with Bre’er Fox and Bre’er Bear and also Aesop’s Fables. Diana remembers her grandmother calling her ‘Precious’. She also attributes her love and respect of all living creatures (big and small) to her Grandma.
In 1949 as we all know, the political situation changed in China and the missionaries were no longer welcome, so made their way back to their home country. There was a goodbye party for the Meusers in Chengdu where they were given a banner by the Faculty of Foreign Language Department at West China Union University honouring 40 years of service, and Edna Speers Meuser’s contribution to Language Study. Dr. and Mrs. Meuser left China in 1950 to start their new life of retirement in Toronto.
Travel back to Canada by way of England involved a trip to Hampton Court and the National Gallery and opinions were shared concerning the huge and beautiful tapestries and the grounds which Edna described as works of art and included reference to Walter Scott’s description of the ‘delicious varieties’ of pruned roses. When they returned from China the Meusers bought a home at 34 Woodward Avenue in Thornhill across the road from where my sisters and I grew up. We remember well our grandmother having a beautiful garden, with many perennials, including peonies, roses and a large Willow tree in the yard. Grandma would invite local children to enjoy the flowers, pick them and take them home if they wished. We also remember having family dinners (Chinese of course) at their house, reading, playing with cousins and running around the yard. Their home had many touches of China including photos, dishes and bowls, chopsticks, paintings, Chinese chests, carvings and hangings, some of these now in the homes of the grandchildren. The Meusers became active members of the Thornhill United Church and gave talks about their life in China. Grandma Meuser also wrote book reviews for the United Church Observer and continued to advocate for the church in China.
Our grandfather, Dr. Meuser, kept in touch with many of his pharmacy students, and one in particular became a family friend. Paul Sun came to Canada in 1949 with the help of Grandpa to work at the University of Toronto. Eventually Paul’s wife Aileen and 2 young sons were reunited in Toronto in 1957 with the Meuser family meeting them at what was then Toronto International Airport. We all became family friends with the Sun family and continue to maintain contact. Grandma Meuser called herself Paul’s Canadian mother and helped to nurture this lovely family new to Canada by sharing holiday dinners and special occasions.
Grandma Meuser said about her own mother that “nothing kept her from instilling into us a real appreciation of beauty of form, sound character, and anything that, like a flower, can exhibit beauty.” She could have been talking about herself. Memories of our grandmother are of a strong, academic, intelligent, family woman with an eye for beauty and detail. She was gentle and kind, displaying compassion and empathy for others – an inspiring role model for generations of the Meuser family. At the United Church Board of World Missions Annual Meeting in 1965 it was reported that “Mrs. Meuser made a valuable contribution both in the home and in the community. Her quiet and gracious manner endeared her to all whom she was privileged to meet. She will be remembered with deep affection by the many, both Canadian and Chinese, whom she served so well.” She was remarkable in the resilience she displayed, as did many of the women of that time and place, in adjusting to new experiences in very challenging times.
Edna Meuser passed away in 1964 at 81 years of age leaving her husband, two married daughters and a married son as well as 11 grandchildren. The teaching gene from our grandmother appears to have carried on to some of her own children, grandchildren and now great grandchildren, and perhaps it’s partly our grandmother’s spirit of adventure that has inspired another generation to seek new experiences in faraway places. Some have travelled to China to teach, as Edna’s great grandson Philip taught English in Sichuan and now Libby’s daughter Maryanne is presently teaching young children in Dongguan under very different conditions than those of over 100 years ago.
Our family appreciates the opportunity and is honoured to share some of our own Meuser family history with those who have a connection to West China.