The Doctor Rode Side Saddle – by Ruth Matheson Buck

I don’t know if I feel completely inadequate or totally inspired.  Maybe both.

I read a book one month ago, and I am still talking about it. That’s really saying something, because as anyone in my book club will attest, I read a book and immediately forget what happens in it.  A really fantastic book will impact me in a way that I can sort of piece together a sketchy outline of the plot for one or two days after reading it, followed by a transfer of that information into my long-term memory bank…..which doesn’t seem to exist…..or I’ve forgotten where I put it.

This book is totally different. I have been discussing it in detail with anyone who will listen. It has impacted the way I think about the people who settled the Canadian prairies, the equality of women, marriage and motherhood.

In the year 2013, women are busy.  We have jobs, some of us have fellas and family, some have wives.  We are driving the kids to football in the fall and to karate all year-long. We are doing the laundry and most of the grocery shopping. We are volunteering for causes and organizations that hold special meaning to us. There are exercise classes and pedicures and luncheons to attend. Busy busy busy. We like to call each other or get together so we can discuss how busy we all are.  Oh, that reminds me….there’s also all of those emails to answer and texts to read, and twitter and Facebook to follow. It’s exhausting and a little overwhelming.

Let me introduce you to my friend Elizabeth.

Elizabeth worked to raise enough money to go to school and become a teacher. She married her long time love when she was done her studies and they moved far away from their families in Ontario to start a school for children on the Onion Lake reservation on the edge of the boreal forest in western Saskatchewan.

After teaching for a few years, Elizabeth and her husband John Matheson had bought some cattle and started a ranch of their own. Elizabeth was now a teacher, a rancher, and mother of three girls.

There was inadequate medical service at the Onion Lake reservation at the time that the Matheson family was building their school, their ranch, and their family….so Elizabeth’s husband John suggested that she go back to school and become a doctor. 

It’s beautiful really, that he had this much faith in himself as a father and in his wife…but…I mean, what exactly was keeping him from going to medical school himself?  Elizabeth had three daughters, laundry and a garden, and a full-time job as a teacher! 

Realizing that this was probably a bit much to ask of his wife, John hired a little help for Elizabeth. With a new teacher at the school, she went back to Ontario and Manitoba to get her medical degree. She left her two oldest girls with their dad, but had to take the youngest with her to school. No big deal….I’m sure that studying for your finals in medicine while changing diapers is a breeze.

Elizabeth was able to reconnect with her family during the summers when she was home, and as a result….she had some more babies.  She would leave the older ones with their dad and bring the youngest with her to school in the fall. 

She achieved her goal, and returned to her home and her family as a full-fledged teacher, wife, mother, rancher, and now doctor.

She was the first doctor in the area.
This was in the late 1800’s.  She served a very large radius, including Frog Lake, Fort Pitt and Onion Lake on horseback.
That’s right….no Facebook, emails, twitter or texts.

No power, no telephone, no water, no cars, no snowplows, not even a railway for many years.

The school that Elizabeth and John started also provided room and board to its students. It wasn’t a residential school, this was before the residential schools were started. Students came to school, and stayed with the Mathesons because it was too far for many of them to walk back and forth from their own homes. Elizabeth and John were their guardians, making sure they had food, clothing, a home and an education.

No hospitals…..all of Elizabeth’s EIGHT children were born in their house. The first daughter was born while John was hosting an officer for tea in the next room. Elizabeth served the tea. The lady who was helping her deliver this first baby, quietly interrupted the mens’ visit to tell John that he was father to a healthy and very large new baby girl.

No stores. Every spring John and the other men would haul furs and other goods in wagons to trade in Edmonton…..with horses….along the riverbank…..crossing when there was shallow water or sand bars to walk over.
At the trading post in Edmonton, John would get supplies for his school and family for the following year. Most of their food was grown on the farm and in the garden, but they needed to buy sugar and coffee, and fabric to make clothing for themselves and their students. 

The return trip was probably a lot more fun.  The men would build a scow on the riverbank in Edmonton, and float back down the river carrying their supplies.

Somebody must have taken the horses home, but I presume that load would be lighter, and therefore faster. I’m guessing that a return trip from Edmonton along the river on horseback would probably only take a week or two….assuming you didn’t have any problem with bears or cougars.

So you can see my struggle. As a mere mother of three, a rancher, a sometimes writer and a wife….I feel like a total underachiever.
** Funny side note – my spell check wants to change ‘underachiever’ in this post to ‘overachiever’.  Thank you spell check!  I appreciate that.
However, this book has given a glimpse of a life lived fully, which is something that we are all very capable of. Elizabeth lived her life the way that she wanted to. She didn’t take time to ponder whether the men would accept her as their doctor,  she merely became their doctor.  She was undaunted by making house calls on horseback in a snow storm with her latest newborn arrival bundled up with her.  She considered her family in her decision-making, and ensured that they would continue to thrive while she followed her dreams. She empowered her daughters and she educated her son.

Did I mention that she also travelled to India as a missionary before she married her husband?  Think about that trip for a minute….horseback, train possibly for part of the trip, and a boat with no GPS navigational system or satellite phone.   Say it with me….OMG!  I’ll bet they didn’t even make Gravol back then!

It was about 45 years after she had left Onion Lake that Elizabeth died. Her funeral was at Onion Lake and she is buried there beside her husband. After all of that time, there were very few people who had first hand memories of their doctor and teacher.  However, a hockey game that was being played at the same time as her funeral paused for a moment of silence out of respect for the Matheson family, and the church was full to overflowing with people who wanted to attend her memorial.  That is a life well lived, and a story to be remembered.

This summer I will travel to Onion Lake and find Elizabeth’s grave. I want to see where the school was and where she lived. As a show of respect for her and the life that she lived, I will saddle up my horse….
…and leave him at home! 

Driving in our ‘luxurious’ vehicle on the paved highway, while enjoying the air conditioning, the GPS navigational system and the blue tooth telephone seems like the perfect way to show Elizabeth my appreciation for the progress that she helped bring to the area where I live.

Her story will stay with me as a reminder to move forward without fear and to pursue the impossible, because after reading the true story of a woman who travelled, excelled at two full-time professions, raised 8 children of her own and countless others, and who was a loving servant to her family and her community….without any modern conveniences….

Nothing seems impossible.

“What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.”  – Theodore Roethke



7 responses to “The Doctor Rode Side Saddle – by Ruth Matheson Buck

  1. Wow I really under achieve! Thanks to both of you for making me get off my butt!

  2. It’s a great story, makes me think that we are capable of doing so much – as I sit around this morning drinking coffee….

  3. Google will help you learn she returned to Winnipeg and worked as the Assistant Medical Supervisor of Public Schools for another 30 years (to 1948, age 82)
    also – the Dec 2012 “Saskatchewan Anglican” has an article about Onion Lake and pictures of the Matheson’s headstones

  4. Fantastic! Thanks George! I’ve been asking some of the locals and I think I know where she’s buried. Hopefully by summer I will know where she lived too so I can go and stand there. It would have been great to know her!

  5. Nice to see that some ‘younger’ women are reading about the amazing women who forged the prairie trails and gave us a unique heritage. I’m reading the book now but was ‘introduced’ to the Mathesons when I did my master’s thesis on the Onion Lake Agency and the changing subsistence patterns of the Cree people during the time they were there…. born and raised in Lloydminster, I must applaud you for your interesting blog:)

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