Chronicles of COVID

Manitoba Women’s Institute shares stories of pandemic’s daily impact


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Annette Holowka kept a journal, Dorothy Braun devoted herself to caring for her mother, Sheena Letexier travelled the world without ever leaving her armchair and Debra Barrett collected stories.

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Annette Holowka kept a journal, Dorothy Braun devoted herself to caring for her mother, Sheena Letexier travelled the world without ever leaving her armchair and Debra Barrett collected stories.

These four women, together with 14 more, have shared their writings in a new book: Manitoba Women Coping with COVID Challenges, a digital publication by the Manitoba Women’s Institute (MWI) that aims to shed light on the impact of the pandemic on women of the province — especially those living in rural areas — and their loved ones.

The idea for the book came to MWI president Barrett when she realized there were hardly any stories on how women navigated life during the Great Flu pandemic of 1918.


Sheena Letexier with the postcards and gifts she received from her UK and US pen pals


Sheena Letexier with the postcards and gifts she received from her U.K. and U.S. pen pals.

“When COVID came I was looking for stories on how women had coped with the 1918 Spanish Flu because it was a story my granny always told us about. We couldn’t find anything that related to women other than a couple of pictures of women in long gowns and parasols who were obviously the urban elite. We thought we need to have something that would represent the actual lives of women living in the rural areas of Manitoba so we thought let’s see if we can get a book going,” Barrett explains.

Barrett, and three other MWI members — Liz Chongva, Ann Mandziuk and Angela Pickett — formed a story collection committee and put a call out on their social media.

“We were trying to get a cross-section of women through word-of-mouth as well. If we knew a woman chaplain we contacted them, if we knew a political leader we contacted them… farm women, teachers, business owners… we didn’t get the magnitude we had hoped for, but all the stories we received were very interesting and heartfelt,” Barrett says.

Holowka, who has kept a journal for most of her life, continued to record the impact COVID had on her nearest and dearest. Her poignant observations on rising numbers, latest restrictions and stream of negative news is laced with humour, a trait she says has held her in good stead throughout her life.

“I am British by birth and I think we sort of turn things into a humorous slant,” she explains. “I think I am a pretty resilient person and, it sounds a terrible cliché to use, but I look at life as half full not half empty.”

Her “scribblings” as she calls them are a touching read. Her changes in mood as the pandemic lingers are frankly recorded, her wry sense of humour ever present. Flashes of joy are held close — a visit to a greenhouse in May overwhelms her with its sense of normalcy. Likewise a moment alone in February 2021 where she feels “cocooned in contentment.”

But the isolation and restrictions take their toll on her, too. She misses family, and it doesn’t take much convincing when her daughter who lives in London invites her to visit. She’s all set to fly but then the Canadian government issues an advisory against “non-essential” travel.

“Sorry, my heart decreed that my trip was essential. Also, it is a bit of a thrill to flaunt the rules after 20 some months of compliance,” she writes in her diary.

“Keeping the journal kept me rooted,” she explains. “My husband, Robert, passed away and I’m alone. Usually when something happens you would turn to the other person and go, ‘Oh my god, really?’ But instead of discussing with a person in my home I took my journal and wrote down feelings and impressions of what was happening. It’s good to have that concrete evidence that we did go through something unusual and quite significant that had a big impact on people.”

Laughter also proved a salve for Barrett who credits gallows humour for keeping her positive. In October 2021 a semi rammed into her vehicle at highway speed, causing her to suffer a concussion which affected her memory for months afterwards. The accident also rendered her temporarily disabled.

“It was 10 months before I could drive again and after that there was a fear of driving. I am still taking physiotherapy to get my full range of motion back and I’m not sure that it will ever return but it’s better than the alternative… at least I’m above ground,” she says.

“You twist and you turn, and you change. A lot of learning and adaptation takes place and overall I can see where those two experiences have caused me to grow.”

Barrett’s son Brian moved in with her to help and remains there to this day. She credits him for keeping her spirits up.

“I don’t think he will ever know how great of an impact he made. From simple things like picking up cat food and bird seed after work to greater things like helping me get out of the walk-in shower after I stayed in there for too long and couldn’t get out… he and I have a very strong dose of gallows humour and he got me through the tough times.”

Barrett’s hunting spaniel and three cats also played their part in boosting her mood.

“It’s incredible how dedicated these animals became when they realized how I couldn’t do what I normally did. If I was sat on the couch moaning, they would come sit all around me; if I fell over which I did a lot at the beginning, they were right there looking at me,” she shares.

She says the experience has taught her to look for silver linings, and that she now has a greater appreciation for the little things in life.


Dorothy Braun reflects on her mother during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Manitoba Women’s Institute collection: ‘I was able to take care of her when she was the one always taking care of others,’ she says.

“I don’t panic too much when I can’t complete a task or finish something on time. It’s not a huge issue now, I just think, ‘Oh well, I’ll do it tomorrow.’ The one habit I am quite disgusted with is I developed a rather unique vocabulary; every time I tried to do something and couldn’t do it, I found myself cursing. My son, he had worked in the oil fields said, ‘You sound like an oil rigger.’ I have to make a concerted effort that some of these words do not come out of my mouth,” she laughs.

The stories in the book are sincere and, on the whole, uplifting. The women who wrote in faced their personal challenges with grace and fortitude, choosing to look on the bright side of life, even when the light proved difficult to find, sometimes.

The rising death toll especially in senior facilities, ever-increasing restrictions, the inability to be with loved ones as they approached the end of their lives, missing out on family occasions and religious celebrations all left the women feeling deflated, fearful, and upset.

“I was certainly angry about the hesitancy of people to do what I thought was best which was to get vaccinated, wear masks and keep their distance to prevent the pandemic from bouncing across countries like it did,” Braun shares.

Braun’s biggest fear was her mother Justina Braun getting sick. Justina had been living in a private personal care home when the pandemic hit. The strict restrictions on care homes meant Braun could no longer visit like she used to.

“Mum became very hard of hearing and very hard of seeing. As she passed the ‘100’ mark it was very hard for her to enjoy all the things she had used to enjoy. When everything shut down I couldn’t see mum, which I was doing very regularly. To a large extent that was my main activity, and I would plan my days around that. That went on for weeks…. then I realized that I wasn’t doing what I should be doing, so I got her to come here,” she continues.

Looking after her mother kept her grounded, she says. They spent a lot of time together, talking and sharing stories and songs. She found the experience satisfying.

“It was enjoyable and uplifting. I was able to take care of her when she was the one always taking care of others. I felt like I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. Having mum here with me was exactly the thing that got me through the pandemic.”

Braun’s husband Bill Massey built a ramp for Justina to walk around their yard and started making breakfasts for them daily, a habit which he has continued to this day.

Justina moved back to the care home in the summer of 2020 when restrictions eased but returned to stay with Braun in November that year. In June 2021 went back again to the care home and spent her last three months there, dying the day after she turned 107.

“I was pretty lost for a while after mum passed but I wasn’t as devastated as I thought I would be. My mum was 107, she had long wanted to pass on to her next life and so I wasn’t so sad that she was gone but I felt like I didn’t have a purpose… like how some people feel when they retire,” she says.

Again and again it’s the tales of families rising to the occasion and the stories of enduring friendships which had to swiftly evolve from meeting in person to Zoom chats, FaceTime calls and weekly emails, that leave the biggest impression.

As the pandemic approached the one year mark Letexier was busy making new friends.

The schoolteacher had started writing to four international women, her pen pals, whom she had established connections with via her local WI.

Letexier’s friends, Jane in Manchester, Emma from Southport and Kath from Tamworth, all in the U.K., and Cheryl from Decatur, Alabama, in the U.S., provided a release from the surreal reality of the pandemic. She would email each lady once a week and get a message in return.

“I was always looking forward to looking in my email to see their names and when I saw their names, I would get a nice feeling. All four of us talked about things to see and do in our parts of the world. I have established strong friendships; they are each very special, and so different,” she shares.

The friendships were a good way to take her focus off the nightly stream of negative news and change her perspective towards something positive, she says. Letexier continues to exchange messages with the ladies although emails are not as frequent as before.

“What’s happening now, because things have opened up, we have gone back to our regular busy lives. We understand we’re not able to write so often. I hear from them once every three or four weeks and then I write my letters back,” she says.

The ladies would share their lived experiences, recommend places to visit and restaurants to eat at. Each of them brought something unique to the friendship. Often the messages would just be photographs of interesting things.

Letexier would send pictures of the Northern Lights, which the ladies in the U.K. had never seen before, or of the deer standing in her front yard and in return she would get photos of English castles, U.K. farm fields and guide dogs, which her friend Kath trained.

Postcards would come in the mail, from Portugal and Morocco, from the Cotswolds in England and Tuscumbia, Alabama, U.S.

“It was wonderful to get postcards from different parts of the world. I say I am armchair travelling though my pen pals and it’s wonderful for the soul. There are a lot of new places I want to visit in retirement now,” she says.

Letexier was surprised to learn of the popularity of the WI in the U.K. Her friends had told her how meetings there would sometimes attract hundreds of members.

“The WIs in the U.K. are busting at the seams, there are so many women at the meeting. Over here we are trying to figure out ways to attract new members… we are trying our best to attract people to these services,” she says.

The focus of the Women’s Institute here is changing, Barrett says.

“It’s 113 this year. It started with education, and it’s progressed to empowerment,” she explains.

Barrett and her team are thinking of starting a second volume of COVID stories, opening up submissions so those who live in towns and cities can share their stories.

“If we could get another 15 or 20 women to write in. You don’t have to be a member of the WI. We want all women, women who are urban dwellers, too because they have different experiences,” she says.

For more information on how to contribute to volume 2, and to purchase a digital copy Manitoba Women Coping with COVID Challenges for $5, log on to

The WMI is holding a Women’s Day event on April 29 at the Dugald Community Club in Dugald. Participants can attend in person or virtually. The speaker topics will be Diversity and Inclusion; Women’s Heart Health; Rural Safety; Scams; and Microgreens.

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AV Kitching

AV Kitching

AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.

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