In 2007 on a visit to White Rock, I sat down with my beloved Grandmother, Molly, to interview her. I was doing a series of interviews on world changers and believed she fit the description.
As we say goodbye to her after a beautiful life, I wanted to remember her and give the readers of my blog a chance to get to know a bit about the woman so many people loved.
– Interview: Molly Doka –
Molly Doka was born near Kipling, Saskatchewan in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. A first generation Canadian of Hungarian descent she grew up in a loving home on the prairies where she later became a teacher in a single room school house, much like the fictional character Anne of Green Gables she loved as a young girl.
Molly survived the Great Depression, saw family and loved ones go off to war, helped refugees adjust to life in Canada after escaping the Hungarian Revolution, and witnessed countless changes in Canada and in the world. An active member in her community, Molly is an elder at St. John’s Presbyterian Church where her deceased husband Kal once ministered. At 92 she still makes elder visits to the old folks in the community, is the secretary for the Women’s Home Mission Society, helps people in need and finds time to make a mean cabbage roll or cinnamon bun.
I sat down with Molly at her home in White Rock in January of 2007 with a desire to learn more about her life, to get her advice for young mothers and young people, and to get a fresh perspective on life in the last century. Because she has lived, consistently, a life of love and generosity helping countless people in selfless ways, I feature her as a living world changer.
Andrew Kooman: Tell me some of your favourite memories from childhood in Saskatchewan.
Molly Doka: I started school when I was six at Kipling School. One of my nice memories – my nice memories were always held at my dad’s theatre – was seeing a real Christmas tree with candles and decorations and a beautiful doll at the very top and us little girls hoped it would be for us, but we knew it wasn’t.
I remember my father singing at concerts in aid of the Red Cross in World War I. He would give his theatre to be used for such scenarios. He was a life member of the Red Cross Society. He learned many English songs and even Negro Spirituals like “Eliza Jane.”
When I was in middle school (grade 6-8) the girls and I were always angels for the Christmas pageant, wearing large gowns we’d have to sing a lot of Christmas carols. One Christmas we did a Japanese drill (a choreographed formation through the hall and back onto the stage). Our parents had to sew a kimono for us and we carried beautiful Japanese lanterns ordered from the city (Regina).
I remember in grade six our teacher reading us good stories, one chapter at a time. We always looked forward to that. That’s how I got acquainted with Anne of Green Gables.
AK: Is that a favourite book of yours?
MD: Yes, it still is. I’m reading Emily of New Moon right now. After school we’d meet at friends’ homes and colour pictures or make dresses for our little dolls. We all had dolls.
AK: But no television.
MD: Or radio. At our house we had a player piano with lots of rolls of beautiful music and a gramophone. We always had good music.
AK: How aware of the War were you?
MD: As children we didn’t hear about it from our parents. There was no radio. Dad would buy the newspaper, but only once a week. We knew it was a good cause.
Early in the 1920’s dad sold the theatre and we moved out to a farm one and a quarter miles from Kipling. Dad exchanged it with the theatre with Mr. Mann. So it was known as the Mann farm, the whole time we lived there.
AK: What type of farm was it?
MD: A grain producing farm with lots of land and horses. Dad always had hired help.
AK: How did your life change when you moved to the farm?
MD: My eight years there were the happiest of my childhood.
AK: Why so?
MD: My father had money. Those were carefree days. After harvest my dad and mother would go to Winnipeg by train to buy us new winter clothes. Many visitors came to that farm. As dad was now working in his small office in Kipling as a Colonization Agent, he would receive immigrants from Hungary, Poland and other European countries and enroll them for labour somewhere on a farm. His sons Gaby and Vic and hired men would do work on the farm.
AK: Did he like his job?
MD: Yeah, but during the Depression it petered out.
AK: What did you do those years?
MD: Strange to say about 1926 he again purchased the theatre and I saw many good films with stars such as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplain, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., John Gilbert, Norma Sheerer. As girls we played house and pretended to be those stars. I was Billy Dove – she was dark haired, so it fit me. My best friend was Laura LaPlante. Who’d ever heard of her? (Laughing) But we’d put on plays for our friends and would even try to do Follies with kick-ups, which I can’t do now.
In those days we were able to send letters to the Hollywood studios and request pictures of our favourite actors and actresses. Wouldn’t those be valuable now? My sister Mary was a cleaner-upper. She’d throw things away when as a teacher I had to go out of town. I couldn’t take anything with me, so I’d come home and things like my Hollywood photographs would be gone.
AK: Did you have a lot of pictures?
MD: Oh yeah, beautiful pictures. My dad would use them at the theatre and keep them in folders. And we’d write up something smart with the photograph to promote the movie: 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. 35 cents was the most if it was a special film.
AK: What was a 35 cent film?
MD: Probably something like Ben Hur that cost more money to bring into town, so we’d have to charge more.
Then the Depression came. 1930. Everything changed. Dad had to mortgage all his property. [Crying]. And he lost everything. His friend foreclosed. We didn’t even have a house.
AK: How old were you then?
MD: I was 17 by then. Dad was able to rent the farm that had been his step-father’s homestead, also owned by a mortgage company. My Uncle Charlie had to mortgage that – a certain percentage of the crop had to go to the company every fall. Fortunately we could take our furniture, anything that was moveable, even though the home was mortgaged.
AK: Where did you go?
MD: I had to stay with my aunt and uncle who had a house in Kipling to continue my education. And the following year in Plunket where my sister Irene lived with Albert her husband. Those were sad years because I left all my dear friends. I was so homesick for them. It took me awhile to get over it, to make new friends. My father was able to farm that land until he paid off the mortgage.
AK: How long did that take?
MD: Probably from 1930 to 1970. When he felt too feeble to carry on he sold it for a mere $15, 000. We were all away from home and couldn’t help him out. He had to make his decision. He built his own house in Kipling for him and Momma. He took wood from the huge barn on the farm and built it. He was that kind of man, he could do anything.
AK: What was it like to leave home and start your work as a teacher?
MD: Hard. I studied at Teacher’s College in Regina for one year for a fee of $100, a promisary note to the government. It took me six years to pay it back. In 1934 I was fortunate to be hired to teach in the school in our home community in Bekevar called Kossuth.
AK: What does Kossuth mean?
MD: The school was named after the Hungarian patriot Louis Kossuth. In Europe there was a year of revolutions when countries were rebelling against overlords. Louis Kossuth was driving for independence for his country from Austria. He even made a trip to the United States seeking their aid, but it was refused. Eventually Hungary won its independence and it was commemorated every year on March 15. Dad always arranged concerts and was the master of ceremonies on those days.
Teaching at Kossuth I was able to live with my mom and dad again.
AK: How old were you at this time?
MD: I was 19 when I started teaching.
AK: Was it nice to be back home?
MD: Well, it was good. I didn’t have to worry about anything, considering my salary was $250 a year. Can you believe it? And that was considered rich to the other girls in the community. But living at home had its limitations. You’re always under someone else, not really free to be yourself.
AK: Did you like being a teacher?
MD: Yeah. It was good, but difficult. I followed a man who used the strap on the children and was expected to do the same but I couldn’t. There were eight grades and the ninth and tenth to supervise with correspondence courses. Every subject under the sun.
AK: What was your favourite course to teach?
MD: Probably English.
AK: Was it free or a strict curriculum?
MD: Oh, I had to follow the curriculum to the T. We dreaded the yearly visit of the inspector, hoping the kids would behave and answer the questions. I’m thankful I always received excellent reports.
AK: How long did you teach?
MD: Five and a half years there. In January of 1939 I decided I needed a change and applied for and got a position in Gainsborough at a school offering $600 that was 12 miles from town. That was quite a trip. Early one morning my dad drove me by sleigh to the CP terminal at Bender, probably six or seven miles. I boarded a freight train with a caboose at the end where I travelled. A small train. They called it “the peanut.” We went east to Manitoba where I had to change trains and travel south and west to my destination in Saskatchewan. A young couple met me at the station and we had to drive twelve miles to my school district. I nearly froze, it was so cold. Imagine moving in January. It was crazy, but when you’re young you do stupid things.
AK: How long did the trip take?
MD: Two and a half hours. The horses were hungry and weak. It was the Depression. It was so cold. Waking up in the morning in my room my coverlet was frozen from my breath. I wonder how I survived. [Crying]. I’m glad my mother didn’t know about it. Every day for lunch I had a sardine sandwich – I didn’t know what a sardine was before then – and didn’t get to eat supper until after 8 PM.
I soon learned that the district had no money. Lucky I had a little with me. I paid $9 for room and board.
AK: So you didn’t get paid?
MD: We had to wait for the government grant. The government gave $1 a day for each of the 200 days: $100 in spring, $100 in the fall. The farmers had no crops so they couldn’t pay taxes which helped support the school board, so the schools were in bad luck.
AK: How long did you stay there in Gainsborough?
MD: Just until June. I resigned and accepted a school near Swift Current where they promised a good crop – that was the drawing force. It was the same story there. No money, until after harvest I guess. We started teaching after August in those days. Nobody wanted to board the teacher. They felt the teacher should have extra special things. But I said I’d eat whatever they had. I stayed there a year and then got married. Enough of this nonsense, I’ll let my husband take care of me.
AK: What did you learn from those experiences of hardship?
MD: That I had to trust in the Lord to take care of me and to keep a cheerful attitude, because I was doing something worthwhile in spite of the loneliness and difficulties. None of the country schools had libraries or equipment. You had to improvise everything. I was fortunate that I had a good imagination and training, from my dad.
AK: What sort of things did you learn from your father?
MD: Lessons in life. Knowing the Lord watches over us, that you can do it, Lord helping you. He had the philosophy that if anyone else could do it, so could you, and that you weren’t alone because God was with you. I had my Bible in English and Hungarian and I read it every night so I wouldn’t forget my Hungarian. When I lived at home my dad asked me to memorize a poem for March 15 – a Hungarian poem. Twenty-eight verses with four lines per verse, using words I never heard. And I learnt it! [Recites part of the poem, the story of two Hungarian brothers, soldiers brought before a cruel leader and condemned to death. The mother of the boys pleas with the heartless ruler to give her mercy, lest she die from the despair. The ruler allows her to choose one son to live, the other to die]. “The only Jewels she wore were her tears.” When I recited it every woman in the room cried.
AK: You enjoyed poetry?
MD: People said they knew when I was on my way home from the school at the end of a day of teaching because they could hear me singing across the fields. Walking home from school I would try to memorize William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” which I think is Greek for “Do you have life?” I would try to memorize this long poem and would you believe it I memorized the whole thing?
AK: What was it like to be a young woman growing up on the prairies?
MD: In the country districts teenagers saw one another at church, at dances and on Sunday nights. Sundays were a working-boy’s only free day. In Bekevar boys would go on horseback to visit at homes where there were young girls. Often two or three, even four boys, would arrive for an evening visit playing cards and maybe getting a good night kiss. As young women we did not think a date with a young man would be more than a little spooning. Having sex would have appalled us and stun us that one would even think of such a thing. If a girl did get pregnant we knew the man responsible would marry her. That was expected.
Our dates were fun times, perhaps just at a Sunday evening gathering with other young people at someone’s pasture to play ball or games. Eventually certain couples would pair off. Several young men called on me on Sundays but I made sure they’d understand we were only friends.
AK: How did you meet Cal?
MD: With our families living in the same community everyone knew who the families were and what children each had. So, I guess from the time I was a little girl I knew there were two cute little Doka boys who sat with their mother during the church services – for it was only on Sundays families would see each other at Church and got invitations to one another’s homes for Sunday supper. The Church services were from 2 PM to 4 PM.
I was a teacher at Kossuth School when I really became aware of this nice young man at a dance during the Christmas holiday when he was home from Regina where he was attending a Collegiate taking grade 12. After that year he attended Teacher’s College, then called Normal School, in Regina. When he had to select a rural school where he was to do a two week “Practice” under a teacher, naturally he chose Kossuth School. He could stay with his parents and he already knew the teacher. We had good talks after classes and our friendship grew. That fall he accepted a school just three and a half miles from mine so for three years we saw each other often and exchanged notes to one another, passing them to each other on Sundays after the Church Service. He visited me often and sought my advice concerning his future plans. He then accepted a school in Western Saskatchewan, many miles from where I was so it was our weekly letters that melded our friendship closer and finally in 1939 he asked me to be his wife and put a little diamond ring on my finger!
AK: What was it like to be a mother and a minister’s wife?
MD: In my day a lot was expected of a minister’s wife. I was prepared to fit into that role: teaching Sunday School, leading Bible studies, visiting with my husband, having my house open for any and all meetings, and receiving visitors to feed them and give them a bed for the night – other ministers, missionaries, and so on.
No call for help was ever neglected or over-looked. We made regular visits to the church members. We were together at funerals and at weddings. We attended PTA meetngs together and when living in Calgary other organizations such as the John Howard Society. A few times when [my husband] was out of town visiting other areas I had to substitute for him. He expected me and believed that I was able to do so. Things like giving an address to new Canadians at their Citizenship Coronating Ceremony –what a job! Or interpreting before a judge for two Hungarian immigrants who had violated the law, which was very difficult. And meeting the first refugees who arrived in our district after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956-57. And I entertained a lot of visitors in Kal’s absence.
Around 1956 during the unrest in Hungary, Cal had arranged through a letter to the government for a former barracks used to train soldiers just outside of Abbostford during World War II to be used as housing for the streams of Hungarian immigrants entering Canada. Kal was out of town doing work when the first two immigrants arrived. I received a phone call requesting that Kal come to the train station to help the Hungarian couple. I went for him and greeted the young couple in Hungarian. The woman hugged me and started to cry, the first words of Hungarian she had heard since arrived in Canada. I brought them home and we waited until past midnight when Kal came home to meet them. Kal was always busy there with the many Hungarian refugees who eventually lived there. Helping resolve disputes – people expected to get jobs immediately upon arrival in Canada and he had to reason with them. He helped people find jobs.
One lady begged me to buy almonds and other rare ingredients for her and to use our oven so she could bake special Hungarian baking she missed so much. So there I was buying expensive ingredients like almonds that I never bought for our family. We lived on a minister’s salary – $1800 a year. And she baked all those beautiful things and then she left. Can you believe it? She didn’t even let me taste a cookie!
AK: A lot of women today struggle to balance their roles as mothers with careers. How have you seen the role of the mother change?
MD: Working mothers today are missing the best part of their lives. What is more gratifying to a mother than to watch every new development in their children? First steps, first words, cute actions, the closeness of a child, a child running to mother to kiss a bruise, to enfold in a warm hug, to bake cookies with, to walk hand in hand and speak of God’s wonderful world. Working mothers only get a small portion of these things.
AK: What advice would you give to young mothers?
MD: My advice? Plan your budget and time on one salary and care for and instruct your children in your home.
AK: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the world in your life time?
MD: There have been many changes. From horse and buggy to cars and planes; from cutting and stooking grain to combines; from small family communities to urban centres; from wood stoves and coal, oil lamps and well water to electric and gas stoves, electric lights, running water from the tap; from piano or gramophone music in a home to radio, television, computers, CDs and VCRS; from frequent family get-togethers to meetings often only at a wedding or a funeral; from family home-cooked meals together to fast foods, delivered foods and restaurants. A young bride had to be a good cook, a mender of socks, good at house keeping. Now often the husband takes on these roles. Earning and having money seems to be the important issue in today’s living. We were satisfied with a little. Now it seems the more you have the more you want.
AK: How has your faith informed your life?
MD: Being brought up in a Christian home I can’t remember any time when I had not believed in God. That knowledge, that God is a heavenly Father, that he gave His Son to redeem the world, that God knows us and hears our prayers, these have helped me in all my situations. I always knew God was taking care of me. In my loneliness, difficulties, anxieties, sorrows and above all joys, I felt they were all in God’s plan and He would see me through them and in them. Without that faith I would have been a bitter, unhappy person without hope. Thanks be to God. He is. He cares.
AK: What sort of things do you think about at this point in your life?
MD: When I am not reading or occupying myself with puzzles and things, my thoughts are often of those dear ones who have gone before, and also wondering how my children and thier families are. Musing on the sad state of our world: the poverty, the sickness, the unbelief, the wars – when will all this end? Who should I write to? Who should I phone? Can I help someone today?
AK: What advice would you give to young people about living well and living long?
MD: What advice can I give?! (Pause). Eat good food and regular meals! Don’t worry. You may be concerned but don’t think problems will be solved by worrying.
Take time to listen to beautiful music. Read good books, especially by good, God-loving authors. Take time to read God’s word and to pray. Give thanks always. Love one another. Enjoy a good hobby.