We have a really interesting and different interview this week on Sister Leadership. Following the wonderfully successful high tea at the Billings Estate, we’re now sharing insights from storytellers, Donna Stewart and Ruth Steward-Verger, who shared stories of Lamira during the event.

The questions this week are focused around the theme of vocation. At Sister Leadership, we define vocation as a special urge, inclination, or predisposition to a particular calling or career to meet our spiritual needs. A calling to make a difference and to give meaning to one’s life purpose; a feeling that we need to serve others, to give something back to our community.

From what we have learned about Lamira, we feel that she had a considerable amount of common sense and the ability to take challenges in hand, which is why we’re adding her into our logical series for spiritual intelligence. This interview is also an insight into the lives of Lamira’s daughters, Sabra and Sally, whom Lamira helped nurture by supporting their independence and studies – something almost unheard of in those days!

In this week’s post, we bring you the interview with Donna and Ruth as well as another video from the storytelling. Enjoy!

Donna and Ruth, would you share a little about your relationship with the life of Lamira Billings?
Donna: I admire her. I like her. If I lived in those days I probably would not even have gotten to know her unless I got to work for her.
How did Lamira make a difference in people lives?
Donna: She made a difference in people’s lives because she was a kind, sensible woman.
If you asked her for something, she did the best to get it for you. She always did what she felt should be done or needed to be done.
When people came to her for medicine, she was quite happy to provide it. She was generous, she worked on the assumption that what was available should be available for everyone.
Ruth: Lamira lived in a completely different time and place: Time and place makes a difference.
Lamira was content with being a good wife. I wasn’t uncontent being a wife. Raising children was very important to me and I think it was to Lamira, too. Lamira did what needed to be done because it needed to be done. Lamira reminds me of myself. I don’t read of very many people who remind me of myself.
It was really difficult to live in the 1800’s – washing clothing, cooking food, unsanitary conditions.
Can you provide an example where her actions were fuelled by her spirituality?
Donna: She had been raised as a good Quaker girl. The Quaker attitude being that you love your fellow man, you live your life in a way that God would be pleased. I am sure that influenced her.
I don’t think she went around talking or thinking about that all the time. In her writing, she seemed to feel that God would touch her life. This was part of the common belief of the time.
Ruth: She saw the world as a creation of God; people were, as well. Lamira was a Quaker; ‘I will live my life quietly and simply. Hopefully the world will be better for it.’

How did Lamira, at the age of 71, come to be ‘in purpose’ by opening up a school?
Donna: I don’t think she ever saw her life as not having a purpose. She just saw that this was one more thing that had to be done, so she did it.
If Lamira had a role model, who inspired her to have a meaningful life?
Donna: I don’t know that she had a role model. How can you know, we don’t even know who she knew. Her mother was interested in plants and so was her son. But who is to know if Lamira became interested because her mother was, or if her mother focused on this because it was something that her little girl was interested in…. Mothers often do that… develop an interest or knowledge with the children… think of the number of mothers who become experts on dinosaurs when their boys are 4,5 ,and 6.
There is nothing we have read that suggests her mother was of particular importance to her, or her role model. But she could have been.
Ruth: Lamira lived in the States, in Merrickville. She taught school. We don’t know much about her feelings in those formative years. We suppose her mother was important: Taught her about herbs and healing. Lamira did continue in that. But was that out of necessity or because of her mother? We don’t know.

Can you describe an incident when Lamira mirrored her role model?
Donna: I can’t. In her diaries she writes about what happens to her. She does not make judgments either positive or negative about people around her.
She writes things like I could have gone back to my stepfather, I know he would always take me in. But she doesn’t say: ‘I really admire him.’ We can conclude that she liked, admired him, and learned from him to treat others generously.
She doesn’t say her brother made her exasperated… but he must have… He lost the family farm, leaving Lamira’s mother and all her siblings destitute. And when he came out to farm with Lamira and Braddish for a couple of years, her brother found the farming or homesteading too much. She must have found that frustrating, but she never says this.
When her daughters got the farm she never celebrated ‘We won!’… we don’t know if she had any feelings or aspirations for woman’s rights.
You do get from Braddish’s writings and Lamira’s that Braddish was fond of status and money. But there is no celebration or condemnation of this. You get the feeling from Lamira that she feels he was a pretty good guy.
When people come by, he lets them come in and stay.
When Barney is buried in his graveyard, Braddish allows his remains to stay there, despite the refusals of the churches to bury Barney…. So there must have been some social pressure. Was there also pressure from Lamira to be generous? Or was Braddish generally kind? We don’t know.
Braddish seems rather pleased with his wife, but he never says this.
Braddish helps out first his brother-in-law and then his brother (who lives on a nearby farm). He did not seem to insist on anything for the help. He may have been verbally demanding, but there is no sense of it in any of the writings.
If I had been married to Braddish, I would have been pretty frustrated with him, but she never says she is. We don’t know… We can only make guesses based on our own life experience which is incredibly different from hers.
Ruth: I could not really see Lamira envisioning herself as a role model. She gave help when others needed it. She gave help when people were sick. She made them feel good when they needed it. When an old woman was dying … she said, ‘Forget the priest, and get Lamira Billings.’ The old woman wanted to go into the next world ready for it. She wanted someone to hold her hand and make her feel better.

Lamira’s daughters, Sabra & Sally

What practices such as poetry, reading, music, walking in nature kept Lamira engaged in the flow of purposefulness?
Donna: We don’t know. She was pretty engaged in life. Every day was focused on survival. The only books we hear of are the Bible and her botany books. But they did have a small library by the time the white house was built. It is arguable about which ones were acquired by Lamira and which by her later ancestors.
She was famous for her knowledge of plants, but she built this knowledge to survive: to heal her family and neighbours and to feed family, workers, and then the community.
Ruth: There were things that she seemed to enjoy: She did needlepoint and crafts, but when Braddish died, she went back to running the farm and looking after things. She did not seem to do the ‘lady of the house’ things so much as the ‘manager of the farm’ things.
There were books of poetry in the house, but they were probably Sabra’s. Perhaps she read them, too.
Lamira had a creative approach to problems: healing with herbs, lotions, potions and tonics, and farming techniques, working with people. And when she and baby Sabra were going over the falls: Lamira picked up the baby and sat still, trying to balance the canoe so that it fell straight, not dip either end.
She had a recipe book that was methodically organized… what part of a plant to take, what to do with it. She often experimented to see what would happen when she mixed one thing with another thing… She used creativity, careful observations, intuition, and experimentation.

In your opinion, did Lamira possess those ‘Renaissance woman’ qualities of right and left brain thinking?
Donna: She is full of common sense. Her brain must have been fairly organized. She does not change her lifestyle as she goes along, other than to satisfy the wishes of Braddish. She attends events as ‘the lady.’ But she does not lose touch with the daily life of running the farm.
She sounds quite pleased with winning prizes for her needlework, etc. But is this because it pleases Braddish? Or because it pleases her?
She seems to see part of her duty to please her husband.
She is a forceful woman of her time.
She does not think education is important as an end, but more, as a means.
She did not berate Sabra for being interested in arts, culture, fine clothing, attending lectures. But then, she did not berate Sally for being uninterested in these things, and focusing on the practical running of the farm.
Of all the things Lamira could do, she did the practical things best.
She certainly was a common sense practical woman.

What was Lamira’s contribution to life on a broader scale and how did that manifest?
Donna: The people around her felt better for having had her there. She was nice to her family. She was kind to neighbours and workers.
Imagine if they had been a rich landlord that would not give, unless they got back more. The writings suggest that she chose workers because they needed the work, and would be good at it.
If she had not had the medicines, a lot more would have died in the cholera epidemics.
She did not make startling discoveries, but what she knew was probably more valuable to the community around her at the time.
Ruth: Her girls were educated, organized, and well endowed with business and common sense. But the boys were not so solid. They may have been educated, but had marital and drinking issues. The children’s lives were all a little messy. Maybe she did or did not do the ‘messing’, maybe Braddish did the ‘messing.’ We will never really know. Lamira never challenged Braddish, whatever he wanted was fine.
That is why she married Braddish: to help him… he wanted to be rich and famous, and she helped him do just that.
What I like about Lamira was there was no fancy stuff about her. She was not a drama queen. There was no drama about Lamira. She was full of practicality and common sense. She had a rough life. Two fathers died before she was in her teens, then she lost her mother. She lost two homes in early childhood. Yet, there was no bitterness, no ‘poor me’ in any of her writings. She knew she could go to her stepfather. In her diary she said several times: ‘I could always go to my step-father’, but she did not want to. She wanted to be independent.
It couldn’t have been easy cooking for 15 over the fireplace.
She was generous. She was the type of person that people said: ‘Go and talk it over with Mrs. Billing, see if she can help you.’ Or, ‘Mr. Jones is not well, he can’t work’… ‘Mrs. Jones can’t come too early; she has all those kids to get up and fed.’ And Lamira would have said, ‘Ah, I know just the job for her.’
She did not insist her girls get along. She flitted back and forth across the line down the house. In effect, she ignored it.
I don’t thing that she ever thought of herself as a role model, even to her kids. She instructed her children in right and wrong, but she did not say look at me, do as I do. She never expected people to see her as one to follow. She ran the day to day operations of the house and farm.
She was a good wife to Braddish, but did not seem to miss him when he was gone. He was a good, true husband to her in his way. He ran the show. Made the deals. He had reason to go away for business frequently… he needed to make extra money. Braddish liked a good deal, liked to make money, but nowhere is it suggested that he did it to the disadvantage of others, nowhere is it suggested that either of them were tightfisted. Braddish lost a good deal of money the year before they married when he lost his logs. But he paid everyone back – it took two years, but he paid all his debts.
Both Lamira and Braddish seemed to get along with others: Just the fact that the natives came to visit them says a good deal. They had a relationship of trust: the natives took their meat and left moccasins as payment. Natives liked to stop there… they would have avoided the Billings if they did not like them… or if the Billings had seen themselves as superior. The Honeywells would not have had natives stopping by. They lost children from their school due to bad feelings among parents.
What she was doing, she did as well as she could.
She never blamed anyone else if things were not going right. Rather, she just dug in. She did not seem to argue, she simply did what she could.
There did not seem to be any bad feelings with others. She left the Presbyterian church when Braddish died, but without any bad feelings. At her death, she still had respect and admiration of the moderator of the Presbyterians and the church members.
Her contribution: She shared what she knew and what she had which were healing tonics, recipes, food, time, knowledge.
To which fictional character in literature or in art do you relate and how is it important to you?
Donna: I enjoy characters or dislike them, but can’t think of any that are important to me or helped shape who I am. Some of the values of the characters are important to me. No one in the books I have read have had a life like mine. There are a good many people in my life and my community that I admire. Family members have shaped who I am. But I do not see myself following the path of another.
Are you inspired by any women of your past, or of your community’s past? We’d love to hear your stories. Please share in the comments!
Till next week,