The Grandma Archives: Documenting the extraordinary lives of Edmonton matriarchs

The wedding shoes were unearthed from a dust-covered box in the cellar.

White leather with bows, they had been stored alongside a delicate bridal veil in a long-forgotten trunk.

Louise Perkins discovered the family heirlooms in the basement of her Edmonton home. 

The shoes belonged to her grandmother, Sarah Jane Sleath, a woman Perkins remembered only vaguely as a tiny elderly woman too frail to get out of bed.

After finding them, Perkins was inspired to research the story behind the shoes and the woman who wore them.

"She was a little bit of a thing, standing about four feet 10 inches — at least that's what she looked like in pictures," Perkins wrote in her submission to The Grandma Archives.

"Some say I look like her. Perhaps my temper is justly inherited. Who was this woman I barely knew?"

Perkins learned that her grandmother was a strong-tempered woman who worked as a parlour maid before marrying the village blacksmith and emigrating from England in 1913.

"Sarah Jane had seen dramatic changes in her lifetime," Perkins said. "Wish I had been able to hear her story firsthand." 

The story of Perkins's grandmother is one of many chronicled in the Grandma Archives, an Edmonton-based digital archive designed to preserve the stories of local grandmothers, mothers and matriarchs.

I just wanted to create a space to celebrate the lives of women who otherwise wouldn't make it into the history books. - Kalie Bredo, archives founder

The online catalogue features dozens of articles, photographs, letters, videos and audio files, each one using an ordinary object to represent important memories and pieces of family history.

Using meaningful objects or artifacts as a conversation point, Edmontonians are invited to submit the stories of their own matriarchs to the website. 

"It's basically a show and tell of stories and objects related to grandmas or grandma-type figures," archives founder Kalie Bredo said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"The stories are based around objects and the objects can be anything from a photo, recipe, a book, an heirloom or even a piece of art that the grandchild has created.

"I'm really interested in women's history and I just wanted to create a space to celebrate the lives of women who otherwise wouldn't make it into the history books." 

Louise Perkins/The Grandma Archives

Bredo launched the archive last year after getting a grant from the Edmonton Heritage Council. One of the first submissions was a video she captured of her own grandmother, Alva Smith. The Barrhead woman, married 68 years to her husband Joe, died last June.

In the video, Bredo's grandmother explained the story behind her wedding dress and her unusual wedding proposal.

"Grandpa had sent for [the rings] in the Sears catalogue and then it came but he was in the hospital," Smith said in the video.

"He got hurt in the bush. He was laying flat on his bed on his back, he had hurt his back. And so his mom brought the rings into the hospital when I went to see him and that's where we got engaged."

'Conversations between generations' 

Bredo is encouraging Edmontonians to seek out the stories of the important matriarchs in their lives.

She hopes to collaborate with local teachers to get children involved in creating submissions. She wants to see the catalogue grow. 

"I think there is a lot of value in ordinary women and ordinary lives," she said. 

"Part of it is just about the process. I just think it's really important to have those conversations between generations about those stories and about those objects."

Kalie Bredo/The Grandma Archives

With files from Clare Bonnyman