Remembering Mabel


Since moving to the County to become editor of The Highlander, I’d been acquainted with Mabel Hewitt (Brannigan).

I’d seen her at Legion functions, including the annual Remembrance Day commemorations. I’d waved as I drove by when she was using her walker to go down to get her mail from the post office in Minden, or to the grocery store for milk and bread.

But it wasn’t until 2020 that I actually got to know Mabel. It started with an email. The 96-year-old Second World War veteran wanted to write about County soldiers who’d served in the war. Many had died in the intervening years. In fact, when she was interviewed for The Highlander’s Veterans of Haliburton County video series just before I arrived, she commented on how she had no friends of her own age left.

As a veteran herself, she believed strongly that she was the one left to tell their stories, and to do so before she, herself, passed away.
I was intrigued by the idea and wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea with a lady prepared to embark on such an ambitious project as she neared her 97th year.

Needless to say, that cup of tea turned into many cups of tea.

By the time I showed up in her kitchen, Mabel had already hand-written about half of her stories. As I began to decipher her handwriting, I realized she indeed had tales to tell. We struck an arrangement. She would continue to hand-write her stories, since she did not type them on a computer, and it was my job to start making digital copies. I took the first eight then and there and got down to work. Then, once she had compiled a few others, I would drop in for a visit.

She had a sharp memory. She had a superb knowledge of Canadian history. She was up on her current events. We both shared a love of storytelling and writing, so we had plenty of things to chat about. I soon realized what had begun as a bit of work shifted to something more. I enjoyed our visits. I looked forward to them. This became clear when, in March 2020, I could no longer go in-person to collect her stories. Instead, she started mailing her instalments. In addition to typing them, I edited, but found few mistakes. The most time-consuming part involved finding archival photos from places such as the National Archives, to accompany her tales.

And it was only at the very end that the anecdotes she had shared over cups of tea came hand-written in the mail…her story of her time during war, from Yorkton, Saskatchewan to Ottawa.

What stuck me, as her obituary rightly states, is Mabel was a pioneer for independent women her entire life, even as a wife, mother, and grandmother. She worked, she volunteered in the war effort, she changed paternalistic thinking by going from having membership denied at the Haliburton Legion, to becoming its president. She then brought The Mabel Brannigan Royal Canadian Legion Branch 636 to Minden.

I was not surprised to learn only this week that she went back to school in her 80s, taking university courses, and got her driver’s licence back at 91.

One of our last e-mail exchanges was when COVID was still dragging on about a year ago. Never one to complain, she said she was doing alright. She’d been through a war after all. Pandemic hardships paled in comparison. I thought of all she’d seen since being born in 1924 – very nearly 100 years ago – and all that she’d done. It has indeed been a life well lived.