An Olympian by anyone’s measure

Women like Celine Dion and Anne Murray rise to the pinnacle of their field, set vocal music records and are celebrated by music awards shows and extolled by media, peers, and adoring fans. The likes of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel will one day likely have statues raised in their honour to remember their contributions to politics. Marie Sklodowska Curie and Margaret Atwood will be written up in the history books for the outstanding talents they had in science and literature, which they used well to serve the world.

There is an unassuming selfless Canadian woman however, who eclipses them all, in my humble opinion, whom you probably have never heard of, but I really wish the whole country could.

She had the courage of David, the strength of Goliath, the wisdom of Solomon, the determination of Boadicea, and the beauty of Bathsheba. She accomplished in life a task so formidable and challenging that I do not think any of the above named quintessential women could have begun to tackle it, let alone possess the toughness of spirit essential for its masterful execution. In fact I know of few famous women, or men for that matter, who could have done what she did with her arduous life. That includes myself, my daughters, my daughters’ friends, this woman’s own children and grandchildren, the teachers I had, the politicians in my jurisdiction, the likes of Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama or even perhaps Mother Teresa! The jury might be out on my mentioning Mother Teresa, and I might be wrong , as I often am, but I would still place a bet like a Las Vegas gambler with a royal flush in spades, that even she, could not deliver what this woman accomplished.

The woman I speak of was born Yvonne Blanche Robitaille on July 14, 1921, in the tiny non descript hamlet of Stonecliffe, in the Ottawa Valley, which less than 150 Canadians called home. She was one of nine children in a French Canadian Catholic family, whose ranks swelled to twelve children when Blanche’s older sister died and left young children to be raised by her own mother.. Blanche actually had to quit school at 6th grade to help care for these little ones, which foreshadowed the gargantuan role to which her destiny called her.


She married a humble Irish Catholic man with 7th grade education, who loved her, shared her dreams and remained her faithful and committed partner, dedicated to their family  until his death some 43 years later. She was but a girl of 18 when she answered the call to her life’s work.

Blanche had 13 confirmed pregnancies and bore 12 healthy children, roughly spaced 18 months apart. One died at 6 weeks of age from pneumonia. Another died at 2 ½  years of age, when he fell from his father’s pickup truck.  The cherubic toddler was delighting in an everyday country ride with his 12 year old brother, who was driving the vehicle, in order to collect fresh spring water, available ¼ mile from his home, so that Blanche could wash the family’s clothes.

She was utterly unstoppable in her relentless drive to meet her children’s needs with nary a bit of help from anyone.  She did it on the meagre wages of a logger,  Austin James Jennings, her constant  hard working husband  who became a truck driver eventually, for Atomic Energy of Canada in Chalk River, Ontario. She raised her pride and joys in a modest three bedroom, clapboard, side of the road house of about 1200 square feet. It had no running water and a reeking tilted two holer outhouse, complete with a cluster of resident black spiders, spinning their fly catching gauzy webs over the glossy ripped pages of an outdated Eaton’s catalogue, the Jennings substitute for modern day rolls of Cashmere.

Blanche became an incredible cook. She laboriously prepared 18-19 loaves of ‘to die for’ bread twice each week, kneading the stiff dough at 2 o’clock in the wee hours of the morning. She garnered the vegetables for her family’s table from the prodigious garden which she and her husband tended solicitously and annually put down hundreds of jars of scrumptious pickles and preserves.. She skillfully concocted savoury meat dishes from a fattened  pig raised by a nearby relative for her and from any white tailed deer her husband was lucky enough to shoot during the short three week autumn hunting season. Once in a while, Austin took the children fishing and on a good day, a special treat of fresh fish was enjoyed by all.

She became an home manager extraordinaire, using a powerful steel round tubbed Maytag wringer washer for 2 full days each week and then hanging every item of a monstrous pile of laundry on the outdoor pulley clothesline with wooden clothespins, in order to dry them, no matter the weather conditions, summer or winter, in Eastern Ontario. She had to carry fresh water in a 16 quart metal bucket in order to do it, from a well, located some distance by foot from the house. She learned by herself to sew proficiently without store bought patterns, the simple requisite garments which were necessities for her children, her husband and herself in rural Ontario and  fashioned out of worn out, old adult clothing or 50 pound cotton sugar and flour bags. She could and did knit innumerable warm sweaters, patterned mittens and cosy socks that her brood required. And she could tickle the ivories quite well by ear if she ever found a spare second to demonstrate yet another undeveloped talent which she possessed.

She became a stellar mother guiding her boys to skillfulness in outside work and her daughters to competence in dusting, floor cleaning, ironing, dishwashing and other such inside household tasks. She provided exceptional emotional care to every child I am told, and always dealt with each individual patiently and positively. She championed education for every one of them and wanted her daughters, especially, to do better than she had been able to do. She wanted them to have the choices that a good education afforded and encouraged each progeny to set their sights on what they could become and built in them the fight and determination to achieve their dreams. Her proudest moments were experienced while attending her offsprings’ graduations to which she encouraged every child to aspire. She welcomed all comers to her home at any time,  with charm, warmth and hostess aplomb unusual in her social world. Her children, without exception, respected and loved this gentle woman, their absolutely superlative mother!

Blanche was a devoted servant of her Creator and was a strong believer in her Roman Catholic faith. She followed what her parish priest assured her was true, taught her children the long-standing lessons of her religion and often prayed tirelessly until 2 am doing Novenas for her children who were having trouble staying on the rails with normal kinds of growing up problems. Her singular break from the onerous job her fate assigned her was going to Sunday mass for 1 ½ hours once a week, ensuring of course that all her scrubbed up little angels came with her!

Blanche was widowed in her 50’s, and retired in her late 70’s long after her children were launched. She decided to babysit three more youngsters for a local teacher for many years after that, and volunteered at her church. Her children bought her a quaint little renovated 2 bedroom house closer in town, with all urban amenities and decorated it for her in pink and grey as she wished, with brand new furniture, a prized long overdue dishwasher and a few other pretty things she never dreamed of owning before. She enjoyed playing bingo in Pembroke and continued to do her own cooking, her own cleaning and her own gardening until she was well into her 90’s. Even then, she only got outside help for a few weeks before passing to meet her Maker and receive, I know without a doubt, her eternal reward in heaven.

Yvonne Blanche Robitaille died on April 16, 2016 and was buried in Stonecliffe where she was born. She was laid to rest beside her one and only husband in the ill kept cemetery beside Our Lady of the Snow Parish church. The simple graveyard contains about 75 headstones and the old church itself has been closed for many years, as few people live in Stonecliffe anymore. The name on her copper coloured granite headstone is a variation of the name she was given at birth which her firstborn was unable to explain. But overtop her name is the word ‘Mom’, the reason and purpose for which she was born. The engraving to the the left lists  Austin James Jennings as ‘Dad’, and his dates of birth and death also.  Below, is the date they were married and an epitaph,  which reads ‘Gone But Not Forgotten’.

That is all it says about this stellar, exemplary specimen of a an incredible woman in Canadian history. She was a mighty force in her children’s lives. She was a fortress in any storm they got caught up in.  She was an Olympian by anyone’s measure in the game of Motherhood.

Blanche was a woman of her time. She was deprived of opportunity to what kinds of things get written about in books, medaled for high standards or recommended for entry into a Hall of Fame or for the Order of Canada. If opportunity had been there she could have easily been a doctor, a teacher, a politician, a seamstress, a chef, a manager, a family counsellor, a performer, a model, a nurse, a businessperson, a financier, or a five star general in our Canadian forces! She had the qualities and traits to be almost anything I think, and had the perseverance, determination, energy, drive, values and strength of character that are common to our most gifted and talented people.

But she chose to be a mother. She was gifted on steroids at that. And yet the recognition that we give this kind of performance in life for the most difficult and ultimately most important role anyone can be assigned on behalf of anyone else, is not acknowledged in any public way by our society. No ribbons, no citations, no medals.

I think it is time we changed that.

Women serve the world each and every day in many ways. And the service they provide as ‘Mothers’ is life altering for everyone of us. An essential service. A role which impacts princes and paupers in such pivotal ways that when we witness a exemplary individual reaching the epitome of a calling, like Yvonne Blanche Robitaille Jennings it is high time we gave it the recognition it is due.

I repeat. I think it is time we changed that.

Perhaps Yvonne Blanche Robitaille Jennings could be considered for our country’s recognition of phenomenal achievement beyond all reasonable expectations of the best of us as a gifted ‘Mother’.

This woman deserves such recognition. She deserves national, public recognition for her astounding and inspiring life service. It  was an exemplary accomplishment by Blanche!  Simply astoundingly unbelievable to any of us today, if truth be told.

Would it not be something if this year’s Mother's’ Day was the catalyst for publicly honouring women like her! Perhaps Yvonne Blanche Robitaille Jennings could be the first to be recognized for her contribution! Her contribution as a mother!

Let her epitaph be forever true: Gone But Not Forgotten.

It would advance appreciation of women’s contributions to the world, to know that future schoolchildren, studying great achievements in Canadian history books might have mothers remembered in them. May our descendants seeking giants among Canadian women in the past, someday read about Blanche —

Gifted Canadian Mother

Yvonne Blanche Robitaille Jennings

Order of  Canada Recipient, 2019.

Awarded because she is an Olympian by anyone’s measure!