Settled quietly in a secluded tall, thick growth of evergreens at the end of a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Kitimat is a house a family built.
A swing set sits front and centre in a large yard that, while busy with a utilitarian shed and garage, has an easy expectation of children playing and reminds one of a prairie farm homestead — just with more trees.
Inside the house, family pictures adorn the walls and a large, comfy kitchen and dining room is the apparent, well-used centrepiece of the house.
It is a house, but quickly one discovers, it is a home. A home built both literally and figuratively by and for family.
For 30 years, Joe and Anne Slanina have called this house home — home for six sons, six daughters.
But that’s just the last half of the story.
On Feb. 11, 2016, Joe and Anne will celebrate with their large family 60 years of marriage. A marriage that started in very much less comfortable surroundings.
On Feb. 11, 1956, as a man strummed a guitar in a tiny trailer next to the relatively new Alcan smelter site in Kitimat, Joe, 19 almost 20, and Anne, 21, exchanged their vows. Vows that have lasted 60 years and have their beginning with a Kitimat connection reaching all the way to the Peace River area of Alberta in the mid-1950s.
In 1934, Anne was born in Bluesky, Alberta, a very tiny dot on the map and Joe was born about two years later in High Prairie.
Anne was the second oldest daughter of a family with seven boys and seven girls living on a mixed farm near Bluesky where she went to school and then worked at the local Co-op.
When her father passed, she found work at an old folks home in nearby Whitelaw.
“There really wasn’t anything past Grade 9, there wasn’t a high school. That was it, so when my father died, there were financial problems, and we (her brothers and sisters) had to go to work to help our Mom,” Anne said. “We would send our money home … to Mom.”
While working as a nurse’s aide at the old folks home, run by nuns, one day, Anne saw a young man sitting near the entrance, he was an orderly named Joe.
“I walked by and thought, ‘jeepers, this might be the right person’,” she said. “Actually, a few of my cousins were interested too.”
The two began dating and made trips back to her family farm near Bluesky when they had days off.
“We never owned a car. We would take the bus to the corner (near Bluesky) and walk two or three miles and visit (her home) … but we knew we really wanted to get married.”
At the old folks home in Whitelaw, a couple from Kitimat came to visit their father who was being cared for at the home.
“Joe knew the couple from Kitimat, who were visiting his father in the home. That’s when Joe got the introduction to Alcan … it was better work, better pay,” Anne said.
“So, Joe went out there in November 1955.”
Anne wanted to follow but ended up working in Vanderhoof — for a short time.
“I wanted to work as a nurse’s aide but the nuns [in Vanderhoof] were running the place, they were pretty tough,” Anne said. “I worked there for three months but the nuns decided I was going to do all the cleaning, and I thought, ‘enough of that’ and that January I went to Kitimat by train.
“A couple of weeks after that we were married.”
Joe and Anne rented two rooms of a shared Starling Street house and in November 1956 their first of 12 was born — Joe Gerard.
“From there on it was all about family,” Anne said.
Over the next ten years, as their family grew, Joe and Anne moved several times as the fledgling town of Kitimat also grew.
“Back then, it was a real challenge finding someplace. There just weren’t enough houses for people, it was a big challenge, it took a quite a long time for the town to be built.
“There was only one grocery store — the Shop Easy — I tried to go shopping once a week. If I could.”
Joe and Anne moved to Kindella and then to Omineca where they spent three years.
“Alcan was renting houses cheap … there were three bedrooms and we were expecting Trish then, we were there for three years then we moved to Partridge (Street) and our seventh was coming then.”
The couple moved one more time, across the street on Partridge to a place with four bedrooms and one bathroom, before finding their place in the world.
“We lived on Partridge for 20 years, the first 10 we moved all over the place … and then we found this place … we’ve been here 30 years. Our family built this house … Willie was a carpenter, Joe was the electrician … they really did a lot of work and really helped out.”
The house in the evergreens has three bathrooms Anne pointed out with a broad smile.
For 30 years, the bucolic home outside Kitimat was perfect for the family of 14.
“It is just like living in the country,” Anne said. “We always had a garden … we even had goats … but [some of the younger] girls didn’t like the milk, so that didn’t last too long.”
Joe and Anne have a tight family of six boys and six girls: Joe Gerard, who lives in Kitimat and works as an electrician; Michael, also an electrician and lives in Victoria; Lawrence, now retired from the City of Victoria; William, a carpenter in Kitimat; Samuel, who lives in Victoria; Matthew, who works at Rio Tinto; Trish Parsons, executive director of the Kitimat Chamber of Commerce; Pauline Clarke, a RN in Kelowna; Christine Howell, a nurse’s aide in Kitimat; Bernadette Mansour, a RN in Vancouver; Emily George, a teacher in Kitimat and Theresa Monaghan.
And as Anne would suggest, having a large family was always the plan.
“I think it was actually. Joe came from a family of five and I guess it was a [prairie farm] thing. Lots of people at that time had big families, especially in Alberta,” she said.
“It’s probably … well, no, family is the biggest thing for [ the success of a 60-year marriage].”
However, Anne is very quick to credit her partner and best friend of 60 years.
“I always had good support from Joe. If I wasn’t able to do something … he was always there. He can do anything. He’s great in the kitchen.
“I think that makes the difference — supporting one another. It’s not always easy-going. You have to work at it, you just can’t expect it to work. You have to talk things through, talk it out … after, you feel better about yourselves.”
And over that 60 years, Anne can only remember one time when she had second thoughts.
“I remember now, when I was [giving birth to the couple’s first born], I went into labour on a Thursday night and he [Joe Gerard] didn’t come until Saturday morning. Joe was working the night shift and he came into the room, I turned around, I couldn’t even look at him …” Anne said with a smile and a laugh.
Anne attributes the couple’s successful 60-year marriage to supporting each other, good health, but ultimately having a family that spends time together.
Anne and Joe have always been avid outdoors people, enjoying hunting and camping and when asked, who was the best shot in the family, Joe quietly, but quickly, pointed at Anne.
The other mainstay in the family was music.
“The homemade music was always something for us. Joe can play the violin and the piano … and the banjo … can’t get him to play the banjo anymore … but I remember when three or four of the boys would be playing guitar and we would be together … sure made it very nice,” Anne said.
Anne, a longtime volunteer with the Catholic church still enjoys sewing and singing, has in fact, joined a ukulele group and credits activity to not only the success of a long marriage but that of a healthy life.
“At our age, we gotta keep movin’,” she said.
For Joe, who still works part-time as a welding inspector, the success of a 60-year marriage was even more simple.
“I got a good woman.”
By Todd Hamilton
Kitimat Northern Sentinel