Prologue to "Stories From My Prairie Childhood" - Why I'm Here
From retirement on I began to receive and amass a considerable amount of family memorabilia. In 2017 I had become totally overwhelmed by the mountain of disorganized information and didn’t know where to begin. Then I discovered Learning in Retirement at Carlton University. Courses on writing memoirs were available and I jumped at the chance that I might be able to climb that mountain. I’ve been scaling it ever since, at times still overwhelmed, but determined to at least reach the age of 20 on this wondrous and revealing trip into the past. I am assisted by what I learned on the courses and by the informal group that has persisted since my first class with our excellent instructor, Dr. Anna Rumin.
The series "Stories From My Prairie Childhood" focuses on a period that span years of depression and WW ll from the perspective of a pre-teen with two exceptions – "Tough Love" (still to be published) and "Rubella or Rubeola?" (where I was at the ages of 13 and 14). The stories are relatively ordered but may dissolve into disorder from time to time. Memories are like that.
The first story in this series is 1. The Pasture.
6. Winds Of Woe
The spring of 1942 was the spring that every farmer hopes for. Spring rain and melting snow had provided an initial jolt of moisture, crucial to land that would be seeded once the fields were dry enough to work. This sounds like a contradiction but isn’t. The moisture from snow cover in the winter permeates soil in the spring and raises the water table. At the same time warmer weather is drying the upper layer of soil. This year the upper layer of soil was soon dry enough for field work. Fertilizer applied the previous fall would provide additional incentive toward an abundant crop. Other relatively new practices further supported the possibility of success, for example stubble left from previous crops as additional fertilizer and as a soil stabilizer. After the experiences of the 30’s, Farmers were now encouraged to work on the contour when plowing, cultivating and seeding on slopes in the hope that this would help to prevent soil erosion and retain rain when we were blessed with that. Yes, we had slopes in Saskatchewan. Still do.
All of this was pretty much above the heads of children aged three, five and seven. We delighted in exploring the burgeoning creeks and coulees. At one time these water courses had been stocked with fish, at least in the spring, or so Dad said. Remarkably our parents trusted us to heed their safety instructions and let us explore on our own. Our destination was a coulee about a five minute walk from the house. We must have listened to our parents as we are all here many decades later. Best of all was the wading contest. The wader who was able to advance the furthest without getting water into his or her boots was the winner. Second best fun was collecting tadpoles. Once they had morphed into wee frogs we plopped them back into the coulee. First though we had to exhibit them to our parents, and in my case, to my teacher. Eventually I would get to enjoy the wonderful songs of frogs. I loved that sound! Today I miss it.
Growing up on a small farm was endlessly entertaining and informative. Animals that had spent most of their wintertime in the barn could now be let out into the pasture for lengthier periods and they acted accordingly. Calves, cows and normally sedate horses frolicked and played, mooed, whinnyed, snorted, cavorted and rolled over and over as they celebrated the return of Spring.
However while we were enjoying ourselves with the riches of our early childhood, our parents were burdened with multiple worries – early frosts, late frosts, untimely rainfall, no rainfall, too much heat, not enough heat, diseases, hail storms, low prices for their grain. Deciding on seeding time was a guessing game that required intuition, experience and access to The Farmers’ Almanac for weather predictions. Eventually Dad would decide that it was time to get going, field work would begin, and seeding would take place. At the same time Mom would start to open windows to let fresh air in. Blankets were given an ozone treatment on the clothesline. In the house tomato seedlings had been nurtured in old soup tins and would wait for warm weather for transplanting into the main garden. Seed packages were brought out and decisions were made about what to plant this year. Our rhubarb had already started to sprout and black currant bushes had leafed out and blossomed. The plot had been fertilized the previous fall was now ready to be get down to business.
By mid June crops were coming along nicely and our parents allowed themselves to be carefully optimistic. This was going to be a good year. However they recognised that farming is a guessing game – one with very high stakes. Farmers are like hockey commentators, Foster Hewitts of agriculture. Things can change very quickly from “period” to “period” and farm chatter regularly expressed this oscillating uncertainty of outcome. Everyone can dream. Mom would have been imagining an extension to the house. Both parents would have envisioned a new car, or a new tractor – even the acquisition of more land. Optimism is a frail thing but a comfort nevertheless. It needs to be enjoyed as long as possible.
By late July crops were still thriving. Our vegetable garden was yielding up spicy young radishes and tasty baby carrots. Potato vines were up and blossoming making it tempting to carefully dig down on one side to pry out baby potatoes, a special treat. Pea vines were doing well despite visiting boy cousins who had previously stripped them down during one of their visits from Humboldt. Tomatoes were starting to ripen and the sun shone. Community picnics were a welcome summer recreation – games for everyone and lots of home cooked food to fill up on – tomato aspic, devilled eggs, potato salad, hotdogs, pies and cakes galore. School holidays were still in effect.
On a warm day not long after one of those picnics, when we’d just finished lunch we began to notice sombre changes in the weather – stronger winds, a darkening sky. The three of us and our parents gathered to watch from our kitchen window with a stomach churning sense of foreboding as winds became even stronger and the sky darkened into malevolent clouds that now raced toward us at an ever increasing pace. Then came lightning followed by giant claps of thunder and angry gusts of wind. We stood together immobile, speechless and steeled for the worst. “Worst” it was to be, as now hail stones began to batter the roof like a cackle of wild demons. Then the icy missiles got bigger and hit even harder. There was a collective sigh and we held each other very closely.
There would be no “good crop” this year and there would be long term consequences for our family and our community. Somehow we would have to find a way to survive another year in order to begin the next cycle of hoping for the next crop. We had to have income and the first opportunity came with the possibility of a temporary teaching position, a three hour drive from our farm. It would be a nine month contract in the village of Middle Lake, Saskatchewan. Mother applied and was accepted. The school had a teacherage on its property and she decided to take me with her. I would have preferred to stay home with the rest of my family. My time in Middle Lake was not a happy one – the only good thing being the considerable slope at the back of the school – great for sliding on small sleds or even large pieces of cardboard. I was eight years old and missed the rest of my family.
Fall and Winter
In the next school year mother obtained a permanent contract with a country school near home. We were a family again but not for long. We did harvest crops the year after the hail storm but late springs and early frosts had reduced its value. This time it was Dad who took action. He hired on as foreman to work on a building project in Northern Saskatchewan. He was a good carpenter and he spoke passable French. Now mother was on her own with the three of us – two now in school and one preschool. She took my brother and sister with her to “Sunny View” and I returned to start my Grade three at Rosebush, so near that I could walk home for lunch. A neighboring teenager was hired to look after my sister during the day. Katie was a pleasant teenager who had dropped out of school shortly before turning sixteen. She was a good cook and a good caretaker. Her beet wrappers and wild mushrooms were tops. The mushrooms were a pleasant surprise. We’d seen these crinkly brown growths before but had feared that they were toadstools.
We were getting by using every means available - no new clothes, no new shoes, more bare feet (in the summer), more mending, no Christmas Tree, no weekly jelly beans or maple buds. However we never lacked for good food. It took us a while to get back on our feet. But then came the Melfort experiment, an event not directly related to finances. This time the whole family moved.
This is part one of a new series (work name "Stories From My Prairie Childhood").