I came across these writings when we were in the process of emptying the house on 72nd Avenue. They are bound in a loose-leaf folder (adorned with a photo of autumn maple leaves), typed in double-space until the 'Postscript on Food and Friends', which is photocopies of Aunt Rebecca's longhand. I left the spelling as I found it. I don't know when Aunt Rebecca wrote this; I'm guessing it was sometime in the early 1970s.
-Elizabeth Morris (Aunt Rebecca's sister, Goldie, was my grandmother), April 2012
There is no possibility that this report will be properly consecutive. Memories merge. But I will try to make it strictly true. And the sum of it will be I hope, at least in some measure, a tribute to our mother's unfailing courage and determinations. That should not be difficult to do.
The Pine stands tall with rigid
The willow yields to wind and
Which has the better strength?
Tis hard to say', say I.
But willows choose the windiest
world, in which to live and die.
After our father's death, though she was not penniless, our mother looked at her resources, and at her six children, and was keenly aware that what she had was not enough. With a sick baby to cherish and a long future to scan; with a sheltered, if not affluent past to study for answer, she very soon became convinced that her best chances lay ion the prairie. Admittedly the prairie had, so far, brought nothing but disaster, but to return to the east would reduce her capital greatly and the land was already partly on its way to patent.
She was not without valuable friends in the Battleford area, people who had already mitigated by their kindly interest the chapter of disaster that had pursued the family from farm to town. The most beloved of these was Mrs. Champagne, the wife of the Territorial representative to Ottawa.
It is too bad somebody has not written a book about these two people the one so forceful of manner, so loving in heart, the other a serene and polished gentleman, certainly not cold, but whose heart did take orders from his reason.
They each did their part. It was decided that our mother would add a widow's quarter to the quarter already partly proved by the plowing Father had had done by the hired man during the tragic sod-house period. I am almost certain we were late going to the land that first year because of my meningitis, after which my convalescence was long, so the delay was probably forgiven because of the building done in our absence. I was only five years old that spring so I can't be sure of much. But I do know that some arrangement was made to mother's advantage.
However, all Mr. Champagne's power and prestige among the Métes could do nothing about our horses. It had to be accepted that they had all died of the winter. I may come back to that subject in the later chapters of this tale. After all I was only five and a quarter, and half-sick still from meningitis. But I give that prairie the plum for my rampant recovery from that.
The family had been reduced by two. Since schooling, even in Battleford itself, was primitive, and, at first, I think, wholly run by the Catholic Church with French the controlling language, Jean and Lillian were sent back east to Grandpa and Aunt Jessie. This was to make sure that they would be well taught with no breaks in the coming school years. Thus, because the story that follows, is largely based on my memories, supported and enlarged by thirty-nine years of close living with our mother, I am the only one left who actually was formed very largely by the life we lived then. And it may seem strange, but the memory of those far off days, which had so little of contact with people, are far more vivid in my mind than the more normal years which followed. Is that because the following years were complicated by having so greatly increase dramatis personae?
Because they place a period at the end of each family day, and though Jessie almost at once, and Goldie somewhat later said their own prayers silently, I shall begin this report by writing them down in order in which they were said.
Gentle Jesus meek and mild
Look upon a little child
Pity my simplicity
Teach me how to follow Thee.
Pappa and Mamma,
Jessie and Jean,
Lillian and Goldie,
And Dicky and me.
Rodg was called Dicky for a long time. Aunt Beckie gave him that name. She called him "Dicky Bird".
The prayers proceeded
Now I lay me down
I pray the Lord my soul
If I should die before
I pray the Lord
my soul to take.
Does any child say that prayer now? I think it would offend any psychologist.
However for us any thought of dying in the night which might have occurred to us, was immediately stopped short by the Lord's prayer. This certainly left no foreboding. It was full of words which exploded in glory - kingdom, earth and heaven and a hand to lead us, and bread to feed us, really a wonderful sound and sense for any child to take to bed.
I have quoted these prayers loosely but, almost exactly. We never called our father Daddy. Jessie tried her best to teach me to do so because it had become fashionable in Owen Sound. But was I going to say my prayers differently from everybody else? When I came near to my teens I turned from Pappa to Father and have never called him anything else since. It may even have started earlier than that, because every story by our mother about him, and any reference to him, to the last day I lived with her, began with "Your father".
People who drive, or go by train through that prairie may come home with a sense of enormous flatness, but children who walked it, when no plough had preceded them, knew that it was not really flat. One could disappear from home-based view very quickly because of its gentle roll. They could disappear in parts of their own land, and there were shallow hollows all over it where the great herds had rolled, and deep-worn now-grassed runs which seemed to lead nowhere but if followed led always to water, great or small sloughs, where, in the late summer, the retiring water left a glisten of salt, and if an approach were made very carefully, deer or antelope might be caught licking busily. A heron might rise at our coming and cause a commotion of wings by alarming his companions whether heron or goose, or mallard. We found that the smallest of the birds were, or seemed to be, the least fearful. We could get very close to a snipe before he took off in flight. By close I mean about ten feet, not close enough really to mater. It seems to me now that the sky was nearly always scribbled with flights of birds, but of course that cannot be true. Nevertheless there were certain times when we could, had we known the proper language, have read a book from the sky and there was an unlikeable Reid boy who could have explained all that was being said in the noisy air, and named without mistake the particular birds that were speaking. These boys had learned the language from babyhood and first life in the Dacotahs or Nebraska. They knew a flock of cranes from its first dim appearance, and would never have mixed up the sound of mallards with that of wild geese.
In the bottom of one of the rolls in our own land, we found, each year, a bonanza of strawberries. There were four or five slim poplars growing there, the only trees anywhere, except a few willows at its northern edge near another small slough - (that was where the skeleton of the sod house remained as memorial to our father's presence).
Near our own house there were four dead skeletons of "Balm of Gilead" poplars, which we called "Grover's Grove" because of Grover Reid, at Jessies's request, had planted them there. They had actually tried hard to live and grow for two years. I think they probably gave up in the year in which a prairie fire selected our time of absence to make a circuit of our firebrake. that was the last year we ran bare-foot. Nobody who has not experienced walking on burnt over prairie could possibly imagine the torture it was. So we were supplied with "wigwams", shoes long defunct even before we left those parts. I think Buster Brown might have worn them. They were a cross between sandal and shoe.
In spite of the four trees' death they never were cut down. They stood there afterwards, lifeless for several years. At length they fell of themselves, probably in the face of the wind. That is what "Keemah" means in the Cree language and what a suitable name it was for our dwelling.
To speak of wind makes it right to say that the only time our mother showed fear to us openly was when a big wind tore at our roof and caused the frame of the house to groan. Since Lillian was there when the wildest tempest of all howled us out of our beds and left all the doors in the house forever out of plumb, I shall not go further into this subject.
Let us then return to buffalo hollow and bones.
We had, near our house, a very commodious hollow. At that period, which must have been early because we were still wintering in Old Battleford, all our town playmates were Catholic. The Catholic Church was close to our town house. Both Goldie and I were fascinated with Catholic matters. Therefore the Church we furnished in the great Hollow was as Roman as we knew how to make it. Of course I was the humble workman who did as he was told. Goldie planned the church and later stood at its altar to perform religious doings that might surprise any priest, but, I hope not offend, because they were done with great solemnity.
Our altar was the biggest and most perfect buffalo head we ever found. Both its horns were solidly perfect and every tooth so far as we could see was firmly in place. The span of the head from horn-tip to horn-tip was inches more than my height at the time, and only a very little short of Goldie's. Thigh bones were laid as pews which certainly made sitting less than comfortable. But our impression of Catholic Ritual kept us perpetually on our knees so we none of us, even the imagined throng behind and before, ever rose or needed the thigh bones, except as occasional rest. I am sure our order of service would have astonished any priest. It really rested on the socalled rosaries, Goldie-made with washed out snail shells for beads. But whatever its faults the whole thing was remarkable for the creative effort that went into it. It stayed intact till the year the land was ploughed. During the winter of that year all the bones disappeared. Later reading has explained their fate. I found answer years later when I read those many books, which so much shocked Lillian, in that I got them from the Parliamentary Librarian. The bones were undoubtedly picked up, maybe by the Reids who did the ploughing, and sold to the lime companies to raise the quality of the plaster maybe in some far eastern city hall. There was a creek somewhere in Saskatchewan which gained its name from that business. It was called Pile-of-Bones creek and was somewhere between Saskatoon and Prince Albert. I think near Rosthern. I know I saw it once in later years.
I am afraid our church was sometimes defiled by levity in the ritual. Who taught us the verses, I do not know. Perhaps it was Barney Cruse. Anyway we sometimes used them to our own great delight.
Dear beloved Brethren
Isn't it a sin
When you peel potatoes
To throw away the skin
Skins feed the pigs
And the pigs feed you
Dear beloved brethren
Isn't that true?
It is interesting to recall that our mother never showed shock at this ribaldry. She even laughed a little.
The only daytime prairie memory picture I have of our mother in which she is not clothed in a black skirt and a white blouse, is "The Day of the Sunstroke". She was doing a wash that day in a quart or so of water, for the near sloughs were all-but dry, and the rain barrels in danger of emptying. She was wearing that day, a garment common to the country kitchens - a wrapper of faded print. Suddenly in the midst of a scrub she staggered away from the tub and up the two steps into the kitchen.
Momentarily I was too astonished to be afraid but the terror followed quickly and froze me solid. Not so Goldie. She was certainly no more than eleven or twelve but she took over, helped Mother through the kitchen and staggered with her till they reached a bed.
For two days, Goldie was Mother's nurse and support, and though she gave me orders, they were such as reduced my fear and made me feel that I was helping, that it was a good thing I was there. I was to keep an eye on Dicky, as Rodg was called. This was not an arduous job since he was so sickly a child that he didn't roam very far at the best of times. I was also to be ready to wet the bandages which I took and brought back at intervals. All these things I did without protest.
In those two days Goldie revealed the qualities which later made her an outstanding teacher. Though she gave me orders she also made me feel important so that I ran gladly up the slope and down again to the slough at its other side to refill the pails of water that seemed to empty very quickly. And Dicky, as we then called Rodg was never before or after so closely attended. Thus, in activity, my fears were greatly relieved, and though they followed my feet to and fro, and up hill and down they really took second place to my sense of importance.
On the third day, Mother was a little better, and Goldie feeling proud of her nursing, when in walked the itinerant minister, and of course, took over the office of manger. The fact that his coming allowed of sending word to Mrs. Champagne in Battleford and Aunt Becky in Winnipeg did not relieve Goldie's fury at being deprived of her position of manager. She had never liked Mr. Elliot, and he was really not a very likeable person, but from then on she hated him with the full of her heart.
Mrs. Champagne came later, and it has to be admitted that nobody would have come if Mr. Elliot had not taken letters to Riddel. I cannot recall any doctor coming at all, and Mother did lie long in bed, and was slowed fro the whole of that season.
Also for all the rest of my life with her she was afraid of the sun, and one year, while we lived in the house on Balmoral Place she was very ill for a time with similar symptoms. That was when Frank Coppock was a constant visitor at our house on Balmoral Place, and he made himself very useful. Oddly enough, that illness, so much later, and all the test he arranged with Harvey Smith and half a dozen other doctors, is less vividly recalled than the original sunstroke, when I couldn't have been more than seven. However I do remember my half amused embarrassment in all the years I lived with Mother, and which came as a result of both illnesses. When we boarded a street car, we immediately must sit on the side not sunny, and at every change of direction we had to move to the shade. I don't know whether anybody actually stared but I certainly thought everybody was staring. We also had a way, when walking, of crossing to the other side rather frequently.
I cannot fix the date of the first sunstroke, but it had to be either when Jessie was at Havergal or after she was married. She certainly was not with us. I rather think it was Havergal, because Rodg was still very much a baby. But of course he stayed a long time so, because of his debility.
A further thought - it had to be before the school was open, or there would have been somebody near enough for us to reach. Does it really matter? The important thing is that it happened. It bothers me though not to know. Did Uncle Rob come from Salt Lake that year? I believe he did and insisted we go for the winter. That would make it 1906 because I turned 8 in the spring of 1907 and had diphtheria in Salt Lake City, so that we did not get back to the prairie till June. It was that illness of mine which gave us the experience of coming by train through the Montana cattle country in June with snow still lying in patches and whole herds of dead cattle crowding the rails of the railway where they had come to find unsnowed feed. The date could, I suppose, be easily made certain because it went down in history as "The Great and Terrible winter". It changed the ways of the Montana cattle men, and I remember myself that from Montana on every bluff of poplars still had snow in it.
Our trunks were lost - found later but rifled of much. We were dressed in gingham, and at Lethbridge Mother had to buy us something else. Goldie was old enough to care, and I must admit that my dress was at least not conspicuous. It was flannette it is true, and ugly, but it was dark green and brown. The only thing Mother could find for Goldie was a really wild magenta. She refused to put it on, and her refusal was far from silent. I don't think she ever did put it on or if she did, covered it quickly with something else. But the thought of that dress is still noisy, as noisy as its colour, and I certainly never saw it after we got home. The trunks were found but most of the Christmas flat silver, and some other things too had been removed from them. The silver was a gift from Uncle Rob, and the thieves did miss a few spoons which we had till I left home. I have two of the spoons, which Mother sent me when we were waiting for my own freight to arrive. - a teaspoon and a dessert spoon. When I use them I feel under my feet the cactus of the field we had to cross somewhere south of the border where the tracks had been destroyed by the winter snows. We were wearing our Christmas shoes, which were beautiful to see, really buttoned half-boots with dull kid tops and patent leather bottoms. They were no shoes to reject cactus spines.
I am sure that winter is still known at least in the history books as the worst in the century. But it had not killed the cactus in that field though it had crumpled a whole section of railroad. and that is enough to say of that, perhaps a little too much.
I think it was when Jessie was at Havergal that we used to watch our mother saying her own prayers, and I do not know what Goldie thought, but in the later years I would say my prayers in my mind and wonder why Mother took so long over hers. Probably I was a little impatient because our first going to bed was not usually final. There remained the real closing of the day in which we sat on her bed, playing doctor to her tragic feet and listening to her reading of the bible. The whole Bible was read through once, including the Begats which delighted my ears. The second reading covered al the great stories of the Old Testament and the whole of the new. And I am not sure how many times we heard Isaiah and the New Testament, but much of it was almost known by heart and to this day, when I read any of the great psalms I hear her voice, particularly saying, "The Heavens declare the glory of God, And the firmament showeth His handiwork." She often said this on one of the white nights, when the moon went into hiding and gave the stars their full chance for display. They became multitude - the Milky Way making unblurred path across the dome of sky. There were always stars of course, unless it happened to storm, but on those moonless nights they allowed us to see a universe.
One way in which our mother fought off the loneliness of leisure time was by singing. Rarely a day passed without song, though it was not often that she sang as she worked at stove or wash tub, or when scrubbing the kitchen floor. Most of the singing came after sunset and particularly when Jessie went to Havergal we, Goldie and I, stayed up late with her. Since our only field-work was in a rather small garden which was planted each year, and, according to rainfall, either flourished or failed, there was no need of rising early. Even when we went to bed early, we sat on Mother's bed while she read the whole Bible to us, the first time including every word, even the long repetitive chapters which chorused the word begat. I particularly loved those chapters for sound not sense. Although there must have been some sense too because the generations of Noah and his sons marched in and out of our small lonely dwelling - such wonderful names! Such a noble music comes still out of their listing. Our nights were not full of actual music, but the words of the King James Version made music in our ears and minds.
In later years the two Harpers, Ozzie and Monty, and Mr. Gibb whose first name we never knew, came sometimes in the early evening to sing at the piano. Their shadows made a pattern on the factory cotton which made partition from living room to bedroom. We did not call the living-room that. We called it the Other Room which separated Kitchen and Bedroom. The table there had two cloths. In the evening it was square and was covered by a heavy fringed cotton brocade with a good deal of crimson in its pattern. For meals it was lengthened by a board and became a dining-table with a white cloth. Except in the morning for breakfast we never at meals served on oil cloth and the table was set as was the remembered table in Owen Sound. My job was often placing the knives and forks and spoons. (Each piece was always named lest I forget one) While Jessie was with us she occupied the place of the Father, and Mother her accustomed end.
But I am off my subject with all this. I was talking about singing and music. Well, sometimes my table setting was criticized for sound. So we shall let it pass.
Anyway the singing brought in the name of Monty Harper and so we come to his gentle little wife, gentle by nature and obviously gentle by birth. Since she is one of the many who came to soddies from solid brick and stone, she should not be left out of the picture. Since both the Harpers, Ozzie and Monty, rushed back to England in August 1914, I think she went then too. I am not sure that she had survived. She was certainly not made to live in sod or even in the frame houses that followed. And though she was Monty's wife, any help she got came from Ozzie, for Monty was as helpless in the face of that country as she could possibly be. They were not Remittance Men in the usual way. I don't think either of them was drunken, but Monty's hands really rejected a plough, if you know what I mean. Ozzie was the staff of life for both of them and the baby that came in its proper time.
There was another English bachelor who got very little sympathy and came only once or twice to our house. Before we left the prairie, he hanged himself one night. He was supposed to be a "gentleman" but didn't know how to be anything but rude to the American settlers and when called upon at some dance or other to help one of the Davis girls from a wagon, remarked that she came down like a thousand of bricks. He was, as one can understand, not popular. The story went round that his soddy was practically paved with whiskey bottles. The country was shocked at the manner of his death but nobody grieved at his passing.
Later Hugh Gibson came. His house could be seen by walking about a hundred yards to the east. He was a quiet, rather dull, I think, but very gentlemanly Scot who, when Jean came at last, dismayed her by proposing marriage. Mother was fond of him. He was good. But certainly not for Jean who had lived with our Aunt Ella, our mother's twin, and about as different in nature as a person could be. She had a theory that household service should be a profession and from what we heard, both from Jean and others, her manner of training for that profession, was to lie in bed reading while Jean slaved at stove, tub and ironing board. She was really a queer. As twins they were far from identical.
After three or four years of Aunt Ella the last thing Jean needed was any proposal of marriage from anybody, least of all from a sober-sided Scot eight years, at least, her senior. How did her 9 year old sister know all about this? She lay on one side of a factory cotton partition, exuding the odor of camphorated oil from a bandage around her throat and actually hardly able to speak in more than a whisper, while Jean's voice rose and fell in the telling and her mother's spoke common sense.
"You must just tell him that you cannot marry him. In the first place you are too young to marry anybody (she was seventeen) and you are too strange to this country to rush into marriage so soon; and you may, if he argues, say that not only are you not ready to marry but that you will be needed at home. Mr. Gibson has been very kind and helpful to me, but I regret to say this proposal makes me angry."
I may be quoting her wrongly but I did hear the whole conversation and it adds up to that in my memory.
Some way or other Mr. Gibson was told. He was a good man I think, but not one to charm a young girl of seventeen, who was learning to laugh and enjoy after some years with Aunt Ella. No need of going into that except to say that nobody would believe that a twin of Mother's could be such a crazy cuke. I'm not sure how to spell that but it is the only word that describes her. She had both husband and soul-mate but they were not one person. And she lay like Elizabeth Barret without Elizabeth's reason. She was just, in her own mind, a genius, whose creations were the human beings she managed to get into her grasp. Jean did the housework while she lay in bed, to arise at times, during which she read "The Fall of the Roman Empire" to her own sad daughter and a rebellious Jean. Only Ross went to school and only Jean's strong will and private efforts saved her from Gertrude's fate. Gertrude was incapable of becoming part of the modern world.
Except that it was before the school was built, I cannot be sure in what year Aunt Lily came for the summer, at least the two months when the schools of Owen Sound were closed for holidays. She was Father's second youngest sister, and apparently she joined Aunt Charlotte in disapproval of our Father's choice of bride, a dowerless person, no matter how pretty and good. However, in view of her behaviour during that summer, if Mother continued to hold that against her, I do not think she was justified in so doing.
This aunt too was a teacher and unmarried but she gave to our mother the whole of a summer vacation, taking on her shoulders all the outside work, such as chopping kindling, filling the mangers in the small stable where pony and cow spent the nights. In the day they were picketed outside, so though Aunt Lily also cleaned the stable floors occasionally, there was usually not much of that to do. The floors were solid prairie anyway and a raking occasionally was all that was needed. The real job she took over from Mother was the milking. And thereby hangs a tale which has a large touch of humour in it, particularly in retrospect, though certainly at the time no one dared laugh.
She had just finished the milking that day .....
But before I continue the tale, I must explain that Aunt Lily was simply mad about wild-life. Even a gopher could excite her interest, and coyotes, which were legion and often made wild music in the evenings, fascinated here, especially when they stopped momentarily, as they habitually did, and turned their pale faces so they suddenly became ghostly. It seemed to us that she never moved without her camera, and really she very seldom did.
This day she had just finished the milking, and stood with the full pail in her hand when she saw a weasel. It was not an ordinary common summer weasel, but one who had rushed the season and donned its winter white. It fled by her in royal ermine. She practically dropped the pail which fortunately stayed upright. The weasel however, startled by the sudden sound, dived into the first gopher hole it came to. She stood waiting for his reappearance, while Goldie and I looked north, south, east and west, knowing that the land was a network of gopher runs and the weasel had many places to go. Wherever it did go, at least it never came into any of our sight.
Aunt Lily returned at last to the abandoned milk pail and found it empty. Our cow had turned about and drunk her own milk back. She was very used to pails at her own head end, for every day at milking time she received the skimmed and soured milk of the day with potato peelings and other vegetable leavings. A pail anywhere near her meant victuals. On that day the cowstick, which usually guided her to water, had been dropped remotely. Thus the cow escaped the beating that practically screamed in Aunt Lily's face. Nevertheless she did suffer a couple of over-vigorous milkings on the following days, and certain unusual words were said by the milker.
Apparently, however, our cow was late with her calving that year, because it was sometime after Aunt Lily arrived that we were sent to Osborne's for milk one day.
Goldie was a very precocious reader. Except for Chatterbox which came to us in a bound volume every year, there were no specifically children's books on our shelves. Goldie read every book there, and most of the magazines for which our Father had secured four year subscriptions, The Illustrated London News, The Literary digest, and another magazine of the time. Was there an "Everybody's"? I think so. [I think it was Scribner's, but we did get Everybody's later.]
In our walks to the watering places for cow and pony Goldie entertained me with extended serial stories, which were like the stews which Father called "crowdies" mixed of everything from Grimm to George Elliot or Scott. In later years they became personal and were punctuated with oral commas from me "And what did I do?" The answers were never refused but they led right back to the more exciting doings, wearings, and sufferings of the main character. She really had a gift and in later reading I discovered that a great many of our great writers, particularly the poets, have written volumes, not necessarily in the first person, but all about themselves.
On the occasion of our going to Osborne's for milk she had just finished Kennilworth. Consequently when we got to a place where there were three other girls, and a table built for thrashers, the milk was set in a cool place near the door to await the end of a play's production.
Time went on, rehearsals were repeated. Just as Amy Robsart was being pushed down the cellar for what was to be the last time, the open door was made frame for an imposing combination of black skirt, white shirtwaist and very red face.
There followed a series of wild scuffling sounds, which had far more terror in them than had the disposal of Amy. I think she was really named Rhea. The Osbornes all had names which suggested dime novels. Anyway her body remained half pushed. And believe me, we never, that summer at least, hung around Osborne's if sent on an errand.
Aunt Lily was passionately interested in all wild-life as I have already said. On that awful day, we plodded twenty-five feet behind her, and saw for the first and last time, a cross-fox, part black and part red, with a splash of white on its chest. When we cried out, "Oh! Look! Aunt Lily! Look at the funny fox." She never turned her head.
What effort of will was required for this response is not to be measured. I think Aunt Lily can be remembered as more than a person who disliked our father's choice of a minister's daughter without cash. When she died, she did something to ease that situation not only for Mother but for Jean whose recovery to full health was not then certain.
Moreover every one of us has four sterling silver coffee spoons which were part of her Christmas giving toward the last of her life. Even at that time, especially with the matching teaspoons that came for Mother in those years and I think for some years after, amounted to a large chunk of the kind of salaries teachers received per year. But that two months of summer seem to me the greatest gift.
When she did, both Mother and Jean, who was still in bed in the Balmoral Place house, and not really sure of recovery after her series of operations, were well remembered in her will. I do think Aunt Lily deserves to be remembered as more than a person who was not very nice to her brother's penniless wife. Perhaps penniless is a little extreme but Mother certainly hadn't any great fortune with which to bring up six children.
Any callers who came, came and went early. Our mother was forty odd and very pretty and as slim as a willow, but when these young men came they came together and, since we saw all that went on in silhouetted I know that not one of them ever laid a hand on her. They satisfied their love impulses by singing about a person called Marguerite in a typical song of the time about undying love that would be hers though she was in process of giving her love to another.
Only once did any of them arrive with sign or smell of drinking. That was Wilbur Ried and he came out of sudden storm, one of the worst of our experience. We were all up. It was wile Jessie was away and Lillian and Jean still with Grandpa. He sat awhile, while his overcoat hung over the back of a chair in front of the Franklin stove which had already been lighted and, with open grates soon warmed it if it did not dry it. When it was lighted Goldie and I came out - no I think it was only I, for Goldie was about eleven and beginning to mature. She was very self conscious about it. Dicky was still very small though he was beginning to be really active. We could no longer use him as a human doll. Indeed he had frightened the life out of all of us, and almost got himself shot as a fox only a few weeks before. He was lost for some hours and Mother was frantic. There was nowhere to hide and her frantic trills were unanswered. At last a man we had never before seen came carrying the child. He had been out looking for game and, seeing a gilded head in a tiny bluff of trees thought it was a fox. He raised his gun thinking he might as well get a fox-skin since his game hunt was a total failure. Fortunately the child turned toward him just as he raised the gun. He was a stranger, so what he did was look for the nearest house. He had carried the child half a mile, or so he said. We rather doubted his reckoning. But it was certainly true that Dicky had traveled far and a new anxiety entered our mother's lonely life.
I may have this out of order. As I was reading it over I kept feeling that somebody else was there except Goldie and I. I am almost sure it wasn't Jessie, I think she had been married in the just past winter. Does it really matter? I know it happened and very much as I have told it.
Any story is made of people. Though this tale is dominated by empty miles, and the feeling of it is places, the feeling would have no meaning without the people in it. I think it must have been a later year that I ran in at a calling, from my favourite place over the "rise-called-hill", and found Aunt Beckie sitting by Mother's bed. This seems to delay Mother's sun stroke till after Jessie's marriage, or was Mother just temporarily ill of something else? After the sunstroke she did have occasional sick times. Anyway Aunt Becky was very anxious about her and tired from her journey. She was wearing a white, very severe dress, striped with grey. She scared me. And remembering this I am also made aware that I have never in my adult life had a striped dress or liked one on anybody else.
However even to tell of this incident is unfair to Aunt Beckie, and it requires a new departure into the first house we lived in in Winnipeg.
When the rooms and beds were allocated in the Victor Street House it was found that there was no place for me, so at last it was necessary for a child (afflicted with a recurring dream, the horror of which still causes me to shiver), to be taken into the bed of a fifty-year old woman whose basic tenderness was hidden under a stern control.
Many nights had that dream taken me to my mother's bed in horror. All that need be said about it is that I am sure it came of having been taken by some idiot into the room where my father lay in an open coffin. I was three years old.
Now, I was terrified the dream would come and how was I to climb over Aunt Beckie, of whom I was still half afraid.
Strangely enough, I never did have that dream, but I learned to sleep without tossing and, to this day my bed is very easy to make.
And I must now, in fairness to Aunt Beckie, tell a story which is not of the prairie but of the first year in Winnipeg.
I was always the receiver of hand-me-downs, because Goldie was bigger than the older girls. The hand-me-down I particularly remember was a hat. This hat had been varnished to save it from utter ruin. It was red straw and had been re-decorated with a crumple of patterned silk which made it quite pretty to look at. However, its stiffness was sculptural, and since it did not fit down on my head it was provided with and elastic to make it stay on. Since the hat was as hard as caste iron, my elastic was usually under nose instead of chin.
One day I was taken down town by Aunt Beckie. It was windy, as was not unusual in Winnipeg. A gust of wind caught my hat and lifted it off. That was not the worst. As I chased after it a small white dog joined the fun, snapped up the hat and far out-ran me. I came back despairing.
After on look, Aunt Becky said calmly. "We'll just have to get you another hat."
She took me to Fairweathers which was at that time, a very high-class store. She had an errand there and left me at a table of hats. There was one which would not allow my eyes to leave it no matter how I tried to look somewhere else. It was basically a leghorn straw but the crown was of pleated blue silk and surrounded by a wreath of forget-me-nots and small pink roses. The brim was faced with the blue silk. It was totally unsuited to my life-style. Watching me unnoticed, Aunt Beckie said, "I think that hat would be nice for you." It was certainly not a suitable hat for my general costumes. But its buying removed forever the fear that was still in my. She really aroused in my ten-year-old heart a love that lasted and grew through a lifetime.
Now to return to the prairie where such hats certainly had no place. But we have to stop in Old Battleford to get me over Meningitis which delayed our going the first summer until somewhere near June. I think that the building of the two dwellings forgave mother some months because there was somebody there working on the house. I think Mrs. Champagne had something to do with that as well as so many small favors.
Later reading has explained why we often had a glimpse of red coat, but I remember only one visit to our place, of a mounted policeman. Disappointingly, he came on foot. The person in whom they were interested was our nearest neighbor, Mr. Nolin. I only discovered the correct spelling of his name when I was reading all hose books on the west, the request for which so shocked Lillian, but, I think, from his letter, rather amused and touched the librarian. Our neighbor was, it seems, second only to Gabriel Dumont in the followers of Louis Riel. It is not so surprising that his dislike of us gave him excuse for charging as much for our beds on the kitchen floor as if Father had taken us all to the Walker House in Toronto. I have only vague pictures of that time when we stayed in his house after the fire. But the thought of him brings the sound of his voice saying "Mush, Mush" and I got to know that he meant "Get out of my way".
Later I saw him many times, always with fear, for it was always when we were out of drinking water and had to go there and buy it at prices varying from $3.00 to five dollars a barrel.
"Why did we not have a well of our own?"
The water lay very deep and machinery to drill to that depth could be got, in the first four years, only in Saskatoon, a hundred miles away. The cost was prohibitive. We got along on rain water and sloughs, and I drank quarts of milk as did Dickie - or Rodg. Goldie couldn't stick it. I guess she was allowed to start on tea, for at really bad moments our water was strained and boiled slough. Not one of us was ever sick in bed while on that land. At least I cannot remember our being, except, of course, Mother with the sunstroke.
Since this is the record of a time and a place I must include an experience which I shared with Mother. Since Lillian was there at the time it must have been the last or the second last year. I cannot think why we were driving by buggy the twenty-five miles to Battleford unless actual cash was short and we were just going to the bank, a mere twenty-five miles. The first night we stopped at the very first house we had seen in a bare country where practically everything was visible for miles. It was on a hill. We saw it a long way off. When we got there I was stricken with astonishment, for the woman came half a dozen yards down the hill and she was crying out loud, like a child badly hurt. Mother was the first woman she had seen for months. She couldn't stop crying. I thought it very strange. She was English. The house was full of good furniture but the piano was all but destroyed by the weather. Half a dozen at least of its notes were gone on the wind and the rest were skimpy. I wish I could know what happened to that woman. Was she one of the many whom the Mounties accompanied back to Selkirk to the Mental Hospital? She was a little better on our return stop.
That was a long drive, one of the longest I remember. One of the things I recall about long drives, is being lulled to a half-sleep by the motion and the clop of our pony's hoofs. It is a dream of hearing, but not seeing, a soft plop of hoof on grass, for those prairie trails were so little used that the grass stayed even in the wheel-tracks. It is a sound that, even remembered, makes the lids of one's eyes tend to close.
As I have said, rarely a day passed without some singing in it. Our mother had sung in church choirs and had on the tip of her tongue music from hymn to anthems. Sometimes the singing was almost a whisper as she sat darning or patching, but once in a while she would sit down at the piano and play and sing songs that became part of our life.
And the night shall be filled with
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tests like the Arabs
And as quietly steal away.
This song still comes whole in my mind at times but for this writing, that verse will do. It was so much part of her own philosophy. As I write it I hear it though could not at this time capture its whole. She also sang sometimes the solos that she had sung in the several churches in which Grandpa preached, probably mostly in Collingwood where he opened the "new" Presbyterian Church and preached there for twenty-vive years. The favorite of these arias was, "I know that my Redeemer liveth". The favourite secular song to me as a child was "By the Blue Alsatian Mountains, Dwelt a maiden young and fair." It was a sad song, I can even yet sing it almost whole, A stranger came to the mountain and lingered and left and she waited his return. It ended with the words, "She will never see the stranger on the mountainside again."
To write those words really makes a child of me again and I see her "withering like a flower that is waiting for the rain." I wonder if there is anybody else in the world who remembers that song. It was already old when Mother sang it.
I think the charm of the song had a reason beyond its story because, looking from our windows northward across the miles of sunburned grass we saw the line of our own blue hills, so far away that only once we saw them near enough to lose their lovely blue. That was one of the sad blows of my childhood. We had gone to a picnic with the Bennet family to a sand bottom lake at the very foot of those hills and I left the party and climbed and descended three of them, trying to catch up with the blue which, of course, had disappeared. I caused a panic.
Fortunately Bobby Bennet whom I greatly disliked, but to whom, I suppose, I owe a debt, just happened to climb the same hills and found me, about a quarter of a mile on the way to the vanishing blue. Afterwards I read the story of the golden windows and really accepted the fact that our lovely blue hills were just the same colour as our plain. When I think of that climb, and again of the miles we walked in all directions I cannot be surprised that I have always had very strong legs. Just in case it means anything to anybody, those were the Eagle Hills about the nearest thing to mountains that occur on the map of Saskatchewan. I was less than ten when I essayed that climb - I think I was going on 9.
When Jessie came back from her year at Havergal, she brought some new songs with her. One of these was called Times Roses which was typically of the time.
Only wait little child
Time will bring you roses.
It went on to a weeping girl who still must wait. That verse ended with
Lover's kiss shall seal your bliss
When the long day closes.
But in the very last verse the girl - now a mother or grandmother was still waiting and being reassured. At the time I thought it a beautiful song, and it did have a pleasing melody, but nobody could call it cheerful.
I think it was of the time though, because another of the songs both Mother and Jessie sang was, "I dread the day you forget me, Marguerite, Although I know it soon will come."
I am glad to say that the hopelessness of these songs was mitigated by the affirmation of "I know that my Redeemer liveth," which brings my mother near whenever I hear it sung.
There are lots of small details that come to mind and lots of people to mention. One of these must be mentioned because it was he who told me how to get rid of my wars. That was Barney Cruse. He was a big kindly man, the son of the very unwashed gentleman who apparently taught Mother how to bake bread. Barney was not dirty though, at least not so when he came to our house. I can even recall a day when he came in a very handsome suit, a fine checked black and white. That may have been the day he game me his secret charm for curing warts. I had to find a smooth white stone, spit on it, spread the spit, and say some very peculiar words which now escape me. since he was bog-Irish they may have been Erse. Anyway they were magic. For, following directions to wait till the sun went right down, and at the moment it disappeared spit liberally on the stone and throw it as far away as I could, I didn't have to wait a week till the small warts went away and in no time later the great big mother wart was gone. Even this day I can't help giving Barney Cruse the credit for that cure.
I wonder where he may be? He'd have to be nearly 90.
In the 3rd year, I think, the school was built on our land. The allotted acres had been strangely chosen at one corner of the township near which nobody lived, so Mother very gladly gave up an acre for the school. The first teacher was "an aunt-of-the-chairman-of-the-board", who never as long as she was there, completed a sentence without a grammatical error, or recognized that I was not reading when I rhymed off the words of the primer and second part at a speed which placed me, always, as the best reader in the class. The secret of my success was that I had a gift for oral learning and stood always at the same place just as she always started at the other end of the line of four. My deception was really innocent. I thought I was reading. After all I was used to that kind of learning because of the family habit of reading aloud. I am including this in the story because it tells something about the schools of the North West Territories when the century was young. In the year in which I turned eight, it did not take Donald Fee, our second teacher, more than a moment's hearing to know that I was not reading. Under his teaching I was reading in less that a week of his guidance. I don't know just what he did, but the pages of a perfectly strange book came alive before me. Before that summer was over I embarked on Ivanhoe in print that would now dismay me. I read it all before we left for winter quarters in town. The words did not bother me much. After all I had listened to the rich language of the King James Bible, the first reading having included even the Begats. I still like to read a page or two of those. There is a sound that somehow delights, and the names are delicious.
Mr. Fee lived in our shack and usually prepared his own meals at the beginning at least, but Mother often sent him some of whatever we were having and he always received bread from every baking. In return, he took over the milking, draping his handsome limbs in the "milking skirt" which had served both Mother and Aunt Lily. He was six feet tall and over, and built like a Norse God with a flag of fair hair which rose with every breath of wind. A thoroughly nice person. He came for two summers - the last two.
Mr. Fee graduated from Queens, a medical doctor. I think he must have been a good one. He came to us for two years, and we all really loved him.
Let us now look again at our nearest neighbor, whose dwelling was less than two miles away, although it was screened by a bluff of poplars, which gave hint of a large slough beyond. There was little evidence of the extensive series of buildings which housed several of his sons, stabled horses, and the milkers of the herds, and supposedly some children. Though I was a good many times taken there, when the rains failed to replenish our drinking water, I only once caught a glimpse of a child. I think they must have been trained to disappear when the "enemy" invaded the farm yard.
Nevertheless, although the price of water was exhorbitant, there was one son of that house who could be called a goodish neighbor. When the big winds came, as quite often they did, though not in the fury that made their climax, the backhouse, which was our toilet, had a habit of falling over at the first wild gust. Maxime Nolin invariably arrived to set it up.
To us, as children, he was something of a hero, not because of this service, but because of his horse. I call Jimmy a horse because he was one, not the general run of the ponies of the herd. Maxime allowed us to ride this lovely animal, clinging to the horn of the great western saddle which had a high-rise back, almost to enclose small bodies. Oddly that pony was the only one of the lot with an easy English name, and later reading has roused in me a suspicion of his parentage. This reading revealed to me that the Plains Indians looked upon hose-stealing as part of the life style of young braves. The horse's remains which were shown to Mother were so decayed by two winters of lying they could not be recognized a s belonging to anybody, but she always felt they were the wrong shape and size. Thus it is quite possible that all of them lived, but not in those parts. It is true that Jimmy was a dark boy but he had a very black mane and tail. Moreover, the Nolins had relatives all over the map. After all the twenty-five children that Mr. Nolin claimed as his were reduced in our community to four, though there may have been some daughters at the home-place. Nancy might be in the far foothills in what later became Alberta and still producing superior young.
However, we cannot prove anything, and at the time all we knew was that jimmy was a pony, not averse to acceptance of unlearned riders of early age. So partly because of Maxime himself and partly because of his horse, we liked him very much. Unfortunately, he later disappeared from the area, and we were told he had forged a cheque and was wanted (not taken) by the police. I don't think he ever was taken. The country was wide and Nolins had relatives all over it, as far away as the mountains. The last of our ponies was bought from these neighbors, and Lillian will have told you of him. While Maxime was present, he was the soul of propriety and Lillian gave him his name which was Teddy, a cute name for a cute little fellow. No sooner had his master left than he showed himself as a one-man animal. He had to be bridled from the other stall, and was not above biting the hand that was unwisely delayed in leaving. At length he was sent back for further breaking, from which he never returned. He disappeared at approximately the same time as did Maxime himself. The mortality among our horses was really unusual. However, the subject of Nolins cannot be left with Maxime on the run. We must go back in time a little. He came one day to tell us of his father's grave illness, that the old man could not eat the bannock to which his latest wife's abilities were limited.
Mother said, "Would you like me to make him some bread?" Maxime thought, perhaps his father might be able to eat that. At every baking a loaf or two went to the sick old man.
Soon came a request from Mr. Nolin that Mother come to see him. When she did, he spoke his regret for his past antagonism, and the trouble he had made for her. He asked her forgiveness, which, of course, was freely given. Perhaps this could be discounted as a personal preparation for meeting his maker. I am sure Mother did not think so. The old man got his bread till he went to meet his final judge and he was able to eat it till very near his end. When I mentioned this giving to Mother long afterwards, she said, "You should have seen him." And I suddenly saw that proud old man, white-bearded already when first he said, "Mush, Mush" to me and I knew what she meant. Wherever he went when he died, he went, in one area, forgiven.
As a matter of fact, the worst trouble with the herds, of which Lillian will have told you, came after the Nolins hiring of an English herder, who taught Jimmy to bite any strange rider. He was a nasty man. If only two were left in the world, and I were given a choice of which would stay, I would certainly choose Maxime.
As I write and re-read this report I am impressed by the frequent occurrence of the word water or the lack of it. And the thought of that importance brings to mind one of the farther sloughs to which we had one year to go with cow and pony. It was a long way and a hot day, and against all Goldie's protests I was determined to wade in whatever water we came to. I carried out my intention; waded into squishy mud bottom, continued to wade till the water was close to my rolled up overalls came out and was greeted with screams. And no wonder - my legs were polka-dotted with small blood-suckers. I am sure that before I managed, with a willow-stick, to scrape blood sucker, mud and blood into a repellant mass, I lost at least half a cup of my life fluid. This was an especially long job, because Goldie refused to come within six feet of me. No one could blame her. And Mother was far from pleased to have to use precious water to clean so silly a mess.
As I sat and though about the last years of prairie living there came a new problem. Relationships had been extended and the familiar changes from season to season might have suggested to a more mature mind than mine that some cosmic factor had entered our lives. Mother was suddenly removed, for long periods, from the centre of my particular life. I was, accompanied by my terrible recurring dream, planted into the outskirts of the rather new setting of Jessie's married life, and, to that life, I did take my terrible dream, and once ran from it to Jessie's bed. I think, as a matter of fact, that the peculiar coolness of my welcome there must have been good medicine for that haunting ghost, because that one flight from its horror was the last I ever had to resist. The fear of the dream did got to Winnipeg with me, but its ghost had been laid in Jessie's nuptial bed.
How was it that I was left with Jessie and Oliver certainly most of the last winter. Somebody else will have to figure this out. Mother and Rodg (who in this narrative has been called Dicky all the way through), went to Winnipeg. Lillian went with them - Goldie was with the Gregory's but made such a fuss that she too went to Winnipeg. Mother came back in the spring and surely we must have stayed the summer. That part of the story is all mixed up in my mind. Jean must have come back too because when finally I, too went to Winnipeg it was with Jean alone and that was the occasion when I kept the Porter late because I couldn't find one of my red stockings. Finally Jean had to run off to the Carsleys and get me new ones, I think a good way to say goodbye forever to the Saskatchewan prairie as home, is to say that my costume for travel had been made form Jessie's gym suit from Havergal and it consisted of a sailor-collared tunic worn over voluminous pleated bloomers. When we reached home and at long last I went to bed, the missing stocking was found strung into one of the pleats of my pants. Thus what had seemed to be tragedy was, as so often in our lives, turned into comedy. High or low? I leave the decision to all who read this report. All I know is that I had two pairs of socks instead of one. Probably the first - first-hand "anything" I had owned since Owen Sound.
In the second last year of our stay, very early in the spring there came a monster over the "hill" to our south. It was a steam engine and it stopped at the edge of our firebrake. I think it was Russel Reid who descended from it and came to speak to our mother. This was the answer to one of her chief problems, how to insure a real crop to repay her soon, for the years of lonely vigil. That year the whole of her land except the school acre and the farmyard was ploughed in a matter of days, so that the whole view turned black as far as we could see to north and west , and except for the home plot and the school acre again as far east as we could see. Even our strawberry patch and the frail trees which stood by it, were ripped out of being. There was plenty of prairie still to our south for children to use as playground but our world had a new look.
However, it is a marvellous thing to have watched through the next year, the greening of our acres, the later lightening of the tops so that a wind made an ocean of waves almost white capped. And at the end a world turned to gold.
On that virgin land, fertilized by thousands of buffalo herds, through nobody knows how many years, we saw before the end of that year, first an ocean of gold, then thousands, it seemed, of saucy stooks and finally half a dozen hay wagons feeding stooks to a thrasher with a steam engine spouting navy blue smoke into the clear, cool air, while other waggons spilled stooks into the hands of men how stacked them.
This was our mother's reward. The lonely years had yielded before her faith.
As I sat and pondered the later years and the last, of our prairie experience, there came a problem, not yet quite solved, as to how? where? and why. During the second last year of our residence in North Battleford, Lillian was with us in the small grey house on the edge of town where I lay on a couch crying bitter tears for the death of Beth in Little Women, and cried again reading John Halifax to myself. I seem to have had a good deal of tonsillitis that year an din the spring there was a flood, and Mr. Hurst, the janitor of the new big school, carried all the smaller children across a lake which was left where usually there had been a mere hollow. Since I was one of the carried, that is clear in memory. But that was not my only year at the Battleford New School.
I have sat here, pondering these later years, particularly the last one, and I realized the source of the difficulty. The familiar rhythms of the preceding five years, broken as they were, by illness and that long stay with Uncle Rob in Salt Lake City, returned to an unchanging rhythm, created by the presence of our Mother. The second last year included Lillian, but though she enlarged the dramatis personae, and brought new factors into our life, its focus was unchanged while its interest broadened. Nobody could possibly think first of Mother's strength. It was clothed in feminity. But under the blossom and leafage of her being was trunk and branch of a mighty tree.
[It will be noted that my typist could not accept the Mac. In that she was like all our uncles and cousins on Father's side.]
There is a kind of scone, which is made from a thick batter of flour and water and salt. This receives a very vigorous beating, turning, and even some kneading, as no raising agent went to field or war with the kilted clans.
Then a fry-pan is dredged with salt, and flattened patties of the dough are laid upon it. The subsequent frying results in a bubbly biscuit, the bubbles usually very near black, and the inside of the biscuit decidedly doughy.
These scones certainly required more mental effort to make them palatable than any food ever encountered, but on the occasions upon which they appeared before us, they were made into a mental treat. Only the sound of the bagpipes was missing. I think they appeared in very early spring before the cow came to us from Nolin's where she had left a calf, weaned from her teats. The calf remained behind as payment for winter feeding and breeding. It was always a tin time of year, and required much conversation, as well as cash expenditure for a minimum of protein. However, after the first year, we did have a second source of milk at Osbornes, and the possibility of occasional fresh meat. When the railway brought a village only seven miles away, it became possible to renew basic stores such as flour, salt, sugar, and tea. Tetley's tea! The square topped red cans made a row on one of the shelves between the studdings of the kitchen walls and their sunflowery progress made a cheerful decoration while they acted as containers for rice, cornmeal, flour, salt and sugar. Thus, our mother's dramatization of unappetizing food became less and less necessary, and her planning, every year, more efficient.
In the fall, we often had a visitation from a group of duck hunters from North Battleford, who took up residence in our shack, and supplied our mother with duck, prairie chicken, and once a hare, which sent her to her really large cook-book, and resulted in a variation of jugged hare minus wine. I don't think I ate any of the hare, but we all shared in the birds. Allan Pickle, Oliver's partner was, at least for me, the favorite of these hunters, for he arrived at least twice with a full bucket of mixed hard candy.
But I am quite sure that our mother had more delight from the bundle of birds which they laid aside for her, and brought from cold storage, now and then throughout the winter in town.
Note - The spelling of meningitis is really my fault and the doctors of the family will please excuse.
Note 2 In respect to the Nolins I must add a small postscript. They were not pure Indian, but Maxime was the son of one of the really Indian wives. Mr. Nolin had married several. Mr. Nolin, himself was very lightly coloured and his mass of white hair and the beard that he wore made him resemble a Kentucky colonel. Not that I then had any acquaintance with such colonels, but the ones on the chicken signs always bring that old man back to my mind.
About Owen Sound: I have only two memories which I know are my own, though they many have been strengthened by later talk with Mother with whom I lived very closely for thirty-nine years.
One is driving with our father and bouncing beside him. Just as his hands touched me I bounced right over the arm of the seat and out of the phaeton. The wheel went over me, at least partly and Father was in an agony as he felt me all over. Of course I was crying. But I think the 200 pounds of my companion must have taken most of the weight off of me for he found no broken bones nor any vicious marks upon me. He took me to the office which was at the house and made a second more extensive examination but found nothing to suggest real disaster. However, he put me on the office couch and ordered me to stay there. At first, obedience was easy. I was still hurting very much, but soon sounds form the family rooms began to become more interesting than my pains. Someone was having a party, and this probably explains why I had gone with Father on his calls. A three year old, not shy, person was likely to become a nuisance. I think it was when the party moved from the upstairs playroom to the dining room, that the sounds of gaiety took precedence over my hurts. Anyway, when Father returned from his calls, I was the centre of attention in the dining room and sharing cake and company. I don't really recall Mother as part of that day. Lizzie Hutchison was the family maid, and she was always more than a maid and I think it was she who allowed me to stay up. Even when Father returned I was left for a while at least, where I was.
I think it was he who remarked, that this one was due for a long life. Anyway someone did. And considering my later recoveries from meningitis and a diphtheria that required four needles of serum, I think his remark was prophetic. Lillian was the other of the family who did a similar act of recovery, I think on two occasions. I know, on one. I think it was typhoid.
The other Owen Sound memory I have is of the woman who always came to beat the carpets. She became my symbol for every giant I heard or read about in my childhood. She wore out our father's discarded boots. (I don't think oxfords had been introduced at that time.) I can still see that woman flailing those carpets, and ever after, when I heard or read a story about a giant she came clearly into focus. She fascinated and scared me.
When we came to the prairie itself, to thin of our father, is to think sadly, except for one small incident. He took me somewhere behind the buckskins horse. Though he was not really well, he was still mobile. Anyway as we drove, I suddenly grabbed his arm and said, "Look, Pappa, look. There is Mamma's feather duster and it is running."
This remark inspired the only burst of laughter which I had heard from him since Owen Sound. The feather duster was an alarmed skunk and almost at once the air was filled with his defensive gas attack.
So a skunk and Mary Couture give me a relationship to my father. And Mary Couture takes me back to Owen Sound whenever I read of giants.
The other prairie memory of him is not of laughter. When the lumber for building failed to appear, we lived for a while in hope of its coming, in a tent bought in Saskatoon, after his illness there, from a merchant who had served the Barr Colonists in their appalling sojourn there. It was a large tent but as time brought no lumber, and a sharp hint that summer was passing into the realm of memory, it was decided we should build of the common material of the area, North West Territory sod. Poplar poles were cut somewhere in the vicinity for support for a roof and straw was piled first upon them to serve as protection against loosening earth. Then the tent was moved in and became a lining since it was too late to plaster as others did and even grass side-down, sods are likely to crumble quickly. Between tent roof and poles a layer of straw was laid and at each end of the roof a tin-protected stove pipe did duty as chimney. These pipes were connected to a long row which brought warmth with the smoke from one stove to the other. This arrangement may sound incredible to those who read this report but even more primitive arrangements could be found on the prairies of the North West Territories.
Now to the fire, which took place in the dead of winter. One of the Davis boys was our hired man, and when Father fell ill he had more responsibility than he could handle. Our water was melted snow which was clean and untouched by foot of man or animal. For cleaning, slough water could, at first be got quickly by breaking the ice on the adjoining slough.
Early in the week of disaster, perhaps two weeks before the real fire, the stove pipe hole above the cook-stove went into flame. The Davis boy doused it with the water that was handy, and thought he had got it out. However, the straw was apparently not really put out through nothing more happened till about a week later when flames burst out in full glory or whatever, above the rear opening. The tent immediately burst into flame.
We had all got up from bed. Everybody but I, had, I think, got pretty completely dressed. I was just at my shoes, and had one on. But when Father grabbed me the other fell from my hand. When he dropped me outside to run to the stable to make sure the horses had been moved to the slough, I ran back in to get my shoe. He saw me going in and ran back after me. I can still see the flames over our heads, and Father dived into the snow because his hair was singeing. I had a nasty small burn on one hand.
Fortunately there were coats and scarves and mittens and toques in the funny little entry hall which jutted beyond the front door. These were grabbed in passing and we all took refuge in the stable. In one of the windows a shelf held a few books which were saved. The other window shelf held the guns and shells which were going to extend our menus. When, after Father's death, almost a year later, Mother was driven to the place there were heaps of sod which showed that the roof had fallen quite quickly, but there was not one thing to find, except two or three silver spoons, one of which, bent by the heat was my favorite tool in the eating of porridge and I still have that. It is bent by the fire and now its plate is warn off almost half. But it is very precious to me. I think I may have it re-plated, but not restored in shape. It is a sort of symbol of my own life and our mother's. I love to look at it and even, once in a while to eat my cereal with it.
In reference to Mother's young victory over possible deformity, she delighted in telling us that her doctor remarked, at the time "The only thing that really cured you was your wicked vanity." And perhaps he was right, and that very thing had a great deal to do with her victory over the loneliness and vastness of the prairie. For, as I have said, it caused her always to dress as if for company.
Occasionally someone did come, especially one, whom she always spoke of as Old John. I think his other name was Englis. He came very rarely, and sat for a while in the kitchen. He would never stay for a meal, but he would accept a cup of tea. She always said he came just when she feared her spirit might break. That was what impelled her, on her last visit to the homestead, to drive on to Old John's claim to say thank you and goodbye. Since she had taken me with her from Battleford, I accompanied her on this last farewell.
The drive took us four or five miles to the north and west of our homestead, to the beginning of hill country where, under a few feet of soil there lay solid limestone, of which he had been building a house in preparation for the coming of his wife. When we reached his claim, the house stood there without roof or windows. Someone told her later that his wife had refused to come, and he had gone back to Nebraska.
So a roofless house was all that remained of "God's messenger" - not her term but it suits the part he played in her life, and he was as wordless as the still small Voice.
The horses that perished
2 heavy work horses at least partly Clydesdale
1 buckskin western bred but not a pony - very dark mane and tail - saddle horse or driver
1 black mare - I am not sure of her blood line, but it was not pure western and was good
1 mule- practically no western settlers of that time lacked a mule
I am aware that Mr. Nolin was saying "mouche" but it sounded like mush to me.
ANNA RODGERS McCULLOUGH | A Memory | A Tribute - by Rebecca Knowles