I’m not talking about a tea bag plunked in a mug of hot water. I’m referring to TEAS – ladies dressed in their finest, tea poured from a china tea pot, flowery china cups and saucers, loose tea, cut crystal cream and sugar, little spoons, and plates of fancy sandwiches and “dainties” (the prairie term for squares and other tooth-achingly sweet confections).
I found several of Mom’s china cups and saucers when packing up everything in my brother’s house prior to moving him into an apartment (more of that in a future post). They brought back so many memories:
a cup and saucer given as a wedding shower gift
my brother and I scraping together our collective pennies, nickels and dimes to buy Mom another cup and saucer for Mother’s Day
enduring the Ladies Aid meetings that Mom had dragged me to (no baby-sitters then) so that I could have my version of “tea” – a glass of milk, a fancy sandwich and a dainty (I always peeled the icing off the cake and ate it last).
But most of all, they brought back memories of church teas, a fund-raiser of epic proportions for a small prairie village. A multitude of decisions had to be made. Who would be the hostess? Who would provide the sandwiches, and who the dainties? Who would bring the cream and sugar, and who the sweet pickles? Who would provide coffee (someone always wanted coffee instead of tea)? How much would be charged for the privilege of taking tea (25 cents was the standard, as I recall).
A day or two before the tea, all the ladies swung into high gear preparing the food. I remember helping Mom make fancy sandwiches – checkerboard, pinwheel or striped – by alternating slices of white and whole wheat bread filled with egg salad, salmon salad or deviled ham. Other times I helped make matrimonial cake, chocolate brownies, peanut butter squares with tiny marshmallows, Nanaimo bars, divinity fudge or spice cake topped with mocha icing.
Come the morning of the big day, all the food, extra tea cups and chairs from the church basement were delivered to the hostess’s house. About two o’clock, the ladies began to arrive, all dressed to the nines in their best dresses, hats, gloves and purses. Only the rare man ventured in, looking decidedly uncomfortable not because he was the only man in a room of women but because he had to change from his usual work-a-day farm clothes into his Sunday suit and white shirt and tie.
We young girls were pressed into service. The older ones asked each lady, “Tea or coffee?” and when the chosen beverage was delivered then asked, “Milk and sugar?” The younger ones passed plates of sandwiches and dainties. Each lady smiled and said, “Thank you” to each of us. It was all very proper. The room was soon filled with the buzz of chatter, talk of children and grandchildren, the price of butter, how the gardens were doing, who was getting married or expecting a baby, So-and-so’s trip into Moose Jaw or Swift Current. Never mind that they had already exchanged all the local gossip earlier that day at the post office or grocery store.
By five o’clock, it was over except for the washing up and putting away and returning borrowed items. Leftover food was saved for coffee following next Sunday’s service. The hostess counted up the quarters and handed them over to the minister who, come Sunday, praised everyone for their hard work and the handsome sum they had raised.
* * *
I packed Mom’s cups and saucers, not to move them to my brother’s new apartment but to put into the garage sale. Only two out of the dozen or so were bought, and not to be used, either. No, the person who bought them had some sort of frame in which he glued the cups to be admired. No one would ever drink tea out of them again. Those that remained after the sale were repacked and sent to the thrift store.
I wonder who will buy them. I wonder why they will buy them.
In a previous post, I referred to “purple gas.” Prairie people are very familiar with the term; people elsewhere, not so much.
Beginning in the 1940s, the Government of Saskatchewan (among others) exempted bulk fuel purchases intended for farm use from provincial tax. This could amount to a savings of 10 cents a gallon, not an insignificant amount back then. Since this fuel was to be used only in farm trucks and machinery, it was dyed purple in order to distinguish it from domestic-purpose fuel (colloquially known as “bronze”) used in cars and other non-farm vehicles.
We used purple in the farm truck which was easily distinguished from non-farm vehicles not only by mud and manure permanently adhered to its body but also by the “F” on the licence plate. Purple (and diesel) also fueled our tractors and combine, and they were not exactly “fuel efficient.” Consequently, we had two 500 gallon fuel tanks, one for diesel and one for purple. Every so often, Dad called the bulk station and soon Mr. Conlan, and later Mr. Lalonde, arrived with his big tanker truck and filled our tanks. The reek of gas and diesel hung in the air, and on Dad’s clothes, for hours after these visits and Mom refused to let Dad in the house.
It was not at all unusual for the RCMP to stop non-farm vehicles and inspect for illegal purple gas. Woe betide the person driving a car who was caught using it. Fines ensued. Vehicles could even be impounded.
But there was a work-around, according to my anonymous but totally reliable source (not that my anonymous but totally reliable source would ever do anything of the kind). A solution that only a farm kid could dream up, a farm kid who wanted to take his newest “squeeze” out for a spin but couldn’t afford to buy legit gas. Pour purple into clear glass jugs, set in the sun for a few days, and voila! The sun had bleached out the purple dye so, go ahead, Mr. RCMP, check all you want.
In the 1990s, the Saskatchewan government abandoned the tax exemption. Now farmers pay the tax up front and receive a rebate. Purple gas has become a thing of the past although some jurisdictions still use it.
Our family has a purple gas incident that involves our 1958 Ford, a neighbour couple, a ram, and an unsuspecting RCMP officer.
From about 1968 to 1975, my parents and their good friends, George and Muriel Morrison, jointly owned a flock of sheep. For the first couple of years, Dad and George “borrowed” a ram to, well, you know what rams do. They decided they needed their own ram, so off they went to Regina to the livestock auction to buy one.
During this time, my parents were living in Moose Jaw so that my brother could attend school. George also lived in Moose Jaw. Neither had a truck to bring back the ram, so a truck-owning friend agreed to meet them at the auction mart and ferry said ram back to the sheep yard.
All four drove into Regina (about 75 km away) in our 1958 Ford. Dad and George bought the ram. The friend with the truck did not show up. Now what to do?
Dad took the back seat out of the car and stowed it in the trunk (remember cars with giant trunks?). They covered the floor with plastic, and between Dad and George, with the help of a bucket of oats, they managed to wrestle the ram into the back where they crouched, uncomfortably, holding the ram in place. Ram was not amused. Neither were Dad and George but what else could they do?
Mom and Muriel got in the front seat, Mom driving. Half-way between Regina and Moose Jaw, she saw the flashing lights of an RCMP cruiser behind her. Being a good law-abiding driver, she pulled over and got out her licence and car registration.
“I’m checking for purple gas,” the RCMP officer said, and walked back to the gas cap. Just as he walked past the rear door, the ram stuck his head out of the window, gave an ear-splitting B-A-A-A-A in the officer’s face, and further expressed his displeasure with the situation by taking a big dump of you-know-what.
What Dad and George said cannot be repeated in public. The RCMP officer decided he didn’t need to test for purple gas. Mom drove home, windows rolled all the way down. The ram was delivered to the sheep yard. The car received a thorough cleaning.
When my grandfather homesteaded in 1909 in what was to become the Meyronne district, there were no roads, there was no railroad. Everything – mail, groceries, supplies, harness, wagon repairs, even machinery – had to be freighted from the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) mainline to the north, three days one way northeast to Moose Jaw or two days one way northwest to Morse. And yes, the grain the farmers grew also had to be freighted by horse and wagon over those same routes to either Moose Jaw or Morse.
That changed when the CPR, in 1912, started building the line from Weyburn clear across the province to Shaunavon. The “steel” arrived at Meyronne on September 3, 1913. Everyone was ecstatic. No more long-distance freighting. Now everything, including passengers, came and went by train.
Right behind the railroads came the grain companies building elevators to buy and ship wheat. Names like Patterson, Federal, UGG (United Grain Growers), Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator, Parrish and Heimbecker, Pioneer, Olgivie’s, Blanchard’s, Province, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool – these and others were familiar to every town, to every farmer.
Grain elevators stood out on the prairie, visible for miles, hence the nicknames “Prairie Sentinel” and “Prairie Giants.” They were massive structures, standing 150 feet tall; the later ones, even taller. They were built of old-growth fir 2″x4″s, laid on the flat and nailed together with 6″ spikes. Within that giant structure was a belt with scoops that lifted the grain from the receiving hopper up to an assemblage of distributing spouts that poured the grain into vertical bins. The “annex,” a secondary storage bin, was built likewise, and reinforced round-about with 2″x6″s to withstand the tremendous pressure of the hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain stored within them.
Grain elevators were symbols of hard work, of perseverance in the face of adversity, of wealth and prosperity. They defined the prairie economy and skyline. Saskatchewan billed itself as the “Breadbasket of the World,” and a line of elevators every six or seven miles gave credence to that motto. Towns took great pride in their “Elevator Row.” Every town had at least three elevators, some as many as a dozen. The greater the number of elevators, the more the townspeople boasted.
Every child growing up in a prairie town has memories of those grain elevators. Here are two.
A trip to the elevator always began with Dad coming into the house and announcing, “Quota’s open.” A one-bushel quote meant he could sell one bushel of wheat for every acre of wheat he had planted. He hauled the auger to the granary and loaded the old blue International 3/4 ton truck full to the brim. I got to go with him, a special treat when you are ten or so. We drove the 1/4 mile into town, clunk-clunked across the railroad track and along the dirt trail paralleling the railroad, past the Co-op Bulk Station where farmers bought diesel and oil and “purple” gas (therein lies another tale) and up the gangway into the elevator and onto the grate and scale.
To my ten-year-old mind, the elevator was a place of wonder and mystery encompassed by ritual. We got out of the truck. Dad and Mr. McCaslin, the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool Elevator operator, chatted about anything and everything – they were probably solving the problems of the world – while Mr. McCaslin weighed the truck and jotted the result into a book. That done, he said, “Okay, you can dump now.” Dad opened the hatch on the back of the box – if I was really lucky, I would be given that honour – and then activated the truck hoist. As the box rose up, the grain poured out through the grate into, into where? I stared down into the grate, trying to see where the grain was going. All I knew was that it was pouring into some dark mysterious place and somehow it was lifted up into the bins above. But which bin? How did Mr. McCaslin know where it was going? Meanwhile, he held his scoop under the golden stream until it was full and then dumped it into another scale. A bushel of wheat at optimum dryness weighs 60 pounds (forgive me using old-fashioned imperial measures but in the mid-1950s we knew nothing of metric). If that bushel weighs less, it is because it is contaminated with weed seeds. The weight of that measure determined how much the load was worth. That bit of information also was jotted down.
Once the last of the wheat was scraped out of the box, Mr. McCaslin weighed the truck again, the final figure needed to determine the value of the wheat we had just delivered. Truck full – truck empty = weight of grain / weight of one bushel (as measured above) = total number of bushels x price per bushel = a grain cheque and money in the bank! Who knew an elevator agent had to be a math whiz?
Mr. McCaslin’s son, David, remembers:
“Back then, grain was shipped in wooden box cars with sliding doors on the side. The doors had to be “coopered”, i.e., sealed so no grain could leak out. I have a lot of great memories about “coopering”! It was my first job as a teenager. My Dad (the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) paid me $1.00 per car to “cooper.” A dollar’s pay for 45 minutes of work was big bucks for a thirteen-year old, way back in the day.
Dad would sometimes get five to ten boxcars at time. Having to stop and “cooper” the next car greatly slowed the process. I got quite skilled at it. Although it was pretty straight forward, it had to be done 100% correctly.
The CPR provided prebuilt slabs the width of the doors. Each slab weighed about 25-30 pounds and each door required about six to eight slabs. The process of loading slabs into the car and then nailing them in place took about 45 minutes. After the slabs were securely in place, the whole section was covered in sheets of industrial paper to ensure there was no leakage.
The last step was to get out of the boxcar after you had boarded up the doors. There was a two foot space at the top. You had to pull yourself up to the top (well over your head) and then slide sideways in order to get out.
Although it by no means qualified as a craft, I took great pride in it., The experience had a profound impact on my personal development. Among many things, it taught me about personal accountability, attention to detail and the importance of meeting deadlines. In hindsight, most significantly, it sparked the beginning of what became an adult relationship with my Dad.”
Grain elevators, like gambrel-roofed barns and church steeples, were such a part of the prairie landscape that we almost didn’t see them any more. Until they disappeared.
The 1950s and 1960s accelerated a decline that had begun during the Dirty Thirties. Highways were improved and now became the lifeline of prairie towns, replacing railways. Railway stations closed. Old people passed away and no young people took their place – they had fled to cities in search of education and work. Houses were shuttered. Businesses closed.
Many of the smaller grain companies had disappeared or been bought out by the big ones – Pioneer, Cargill and the Wheat Pool (now Agrium). By the 1990s, grain companies were building centralized monster concrete high-capacity inland grain terminals; they were more efficient and cost-effective. Farmers traded in their three-ton trucks and invested in semi-trailers to haul grain the 20, 30 or 40 miles to the terminal.
Some elevators are still in use. Some were purchased by farmers and moved to their farms where they continue to serve. A few others have been converted into museums. Some crumble in place, abandoned, rotting, falling apart, home to pigeons and rodents. Most were tipped over and burned, a raging conflagration so intense that the outsides of houses a quarter-mile away were hot to the touch. The few remaining townsfolk cried as they watched what had once been a source of pride reduced to a pile of ashes. It was the end of an era.
As the grain elevators disappeared, so did the villages, visually if not in fact. Now, as you drive through southern Saskatchewan, you can’t tell if that cluster of trees and houses a half-mile or so off the highway is what was once a town or is merely a very large farmstead.
To those of us who remember, that vacant space pains.
It takes a village to raise a child, so says the adage.
Or a grandmother, according to anthropologist Dr. Kristen Hawkes at the University of Utah.
Her thesis is as follows: grandmothers perform “motherly” duties, such as feeding and tending young children, thereby allowing mothers more time to forage for food and more energy to have more children. She developed this hypothesis while working with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer society in Tanzania. Hadza mothers were able to forage for food and care for a child as long as they had only one child. The birth of a second child limited the mother’s ability to both forage and care for the existing child, and that’s when Grandmother stepped in to help.
From this hypothesis, Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers were a significant factor in the evolution of modern Homo sapiens because a grandmother enabled the birth of more descendants thereby increasing the probability of her genes surviving in subsequent generations. This, in turn, led to slower aging and increased longevity. Her reasoning is complex (you can read more about it here).
Another study published last year in Current Biology argues that the ability of grandmothers to be able to participate in child care was dependent on geographic proximity. The authors examined familial data from 17th and 18th century St. Lawrence River region (now the Province of Quebec). They found that the presence of a grandmother not only increased the size of the family but also the number of children surviving to age 15 (read about their study here).
Grandmothers did more than look after children. They were essential as midwives to help bring children safely into the world. Childbirth is one of the most deadly periods of a young woman’s life. It’s impossible to say what the death rate per 1000 live births was when we lived the hunter-gatherer life, but statistics from 18th century Europe and the USA paint a deadly picture. In England, the death rate was 10.5 per 1000 live births, dropping to 7.5 deaths in the last half of the 18th century. It was just as deadly in the United States, about 12 deaths per 1000 births, dropping to about 6 deaths per 1000 births in the 19th century. Even today, it is still the sixth most common cause of death among women aged 20 to 34. So, grandmothers who had survived childbirth knew from experience how to help their daughters successfully give birth.
Grandmothers were also the keepers of stories and traditions and knowledge (so are grandfathers, but sorry, men, this post is about grandmothers). These wise old women had seen it all; they’d lived through childbirth and disease, possibly even famine and war. They knew how to negotiate difficult situations and how to survive in times of scarcity. They were a pillar of security and confidence in an otherwise insecure world.
Unfortunately, our modern world has removed most of us from our grandmother’s sphere of care and influence. The need to move to where work is has splintered families across countries and continents. Social media provides one means of keeping in touch, but it’s no substitute for sitting snuggled up to your Granny while she reads you a story or feeds you your favourite cookies in defiance of your mother’s edicts or shows you photographs from the “old days.” Social media don’t allow you to have a sleep-over at her place, or help her weed her garden, or hug her or be hugged by her.
Like most kids growing up in the 1950s in prairie villages and towns who had their grandparents nearby, our paternal grandmother, Addie Hanna, lived only a quarter-mile from our farm, in the village of Meyronne. She played a significant role in our lives: she looked after us when Mother was in the hospital, we went to her little house after school for milk and cookies and a visit, I learned to ride a bike in her back yard, and we often slept over at her house just because we could. We had Sunday dinner at her place, or she at ours. She sat with us in church, she tolerated us at Ladies’ Aid meetings that Mom dragged us along to, and she tut-tutted over what she viewed as inappropriate behaviour. She was just “There,” and it wasn’t until I left for university that I learned how unusual it was to have a grandmother so close to hand.
Every farm has one. They may be of different sizes and configurations, they might be build of different materials, but they all have the same function – a place to shelter livestock during inclement weather, a place where cows/sows/ewes/horses give birth, and a place to keep their fodder and bedding.
This is the barn I grew up with. My grandfather, Abraham Hanna, had it built in the summer of 1917, the year he moved the entire farmstead one mile, from the east side of Sec. 25 clear across to the west side, just north of the village of Meyronne, Saskatchewan. It was built under the direction of local carpenters, Norman Hisey and R. Leadley, who built to last – huge old-growth fir posts, beams, joists and rafters are the “bones” of the barn. Mr. Leadley had the misfortune of falling off the roof and, as my grandfather recorded in his diary, “was badly injured.” When the barn was finished, Mr. Hisey painted “Cloverdale Farm” on the roof.
It no longer houses livestock – the last horse died about 1949 and my father sold the last of the cattle about 1968 – but I remember it as a place filled with the aroma of manure and straw and chop and cattle. Those aromas seeped into the concrete floor and the fir beams, never to leave. Three milk cows – two Jerseys and a Guernsey – stood in the stanchions to be milked, their tails constantly switching back and forth, threatening to swat the unwary milker. The bull filled one of the box stalls both physically and psychologically (I was terrified of the monster). Two other box stalls were well-used come March and April as “birthing” rooms; I remember Dad coming in from the barn and announcing, “We’ve got a calf!” The barn cats ruled, semi-wild creatures that birthed in the mangers or the hay loft, that sallied forth to hunt mice and rats and gophers, that vanished in a trice when we walked in and peered suspiciously at us from their hidey-holes. The former horse stalls housed equipment or were boarded up to hold grain.
The loft housed the straw pile and the chop bin and flocks of pigeons and barn swallows and sparrows. The straw pile was our “mountain;” my brother and I trekked up and down it, rolled in it, threw handsful of straw at each other, and then spent an eternity picking straw and chaff out of our hair, our ears, our clothes. The chop bin – “chop” being oats chopped into a coarse, flour-like feed – was the bane of our chores. It always clogged in the chute, forcing us to hammer at it with the shovel until it dislodged and came thundering down, covering us from head to toe in an itchy cloud. We spat it out, dug it out of our ears, tousled it from our hair, slapped it off our clothes and then carted 5-gallon pails of it in our little red wagon the 100 yards or so to the chicken coop.
Hisey and Leadley built well – the barn is as straight and solid as it was 103 years ago. The neighbour who bought our farm respected the barn’s antiquity – he painted it and reshingled the roof. It now looks almost like new, although the roof no longer proclaims “Cloverdale Farm.”
The top of every Christmas tree has something, usually either a star or an angel, to provide the finishing touch to all the lights and baubles and tinsel and garlands that sparkle and glitter and twinkle below. Ours is no different – we have an angel.
But she’s not any old angel.
Once upon a time, many years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, a little girl accompanied her daddy to the hardware store. She went everywhere with him because he was her hero and, in his eyes, she was his little angel (boy, was he mistaken! but I digress).
While her father conducted his business with Mr. Enticnap, the little girl wandered around the store admiring all the decorations for sale. And then, she saw it. Her! The most beautiful angel in the whole world. In the whole universe!
Her silvery shining hair was held in place with a golden diadem. Golden wings spread wide behind her. Her flowing gown was bedecked with golden stars and in her right hand she held a wand tipped with a star. And she shone because you could put a light inside her.
The little girl ran over to her daddy and in her best whiny six-year-old voice pleaded, “P-l-e-a-s-e, Daddy, will you buy her? P-l-e-a-s-e!”
Of course, he did.
She has graced our family’s tree top ever since. She came with me when I moved to Alberta and she continues her duties here.
Mind you, after more than 65 years, she is showing her age. The golden diadem is slightly askew. The starry wand has been glued back into her hand several times. Her wings are not as bright. Her backing is so warped by the heat of numerous tree lights that she is now held together with wire.
She is still the most beautiful angel in the world but not because of her looks. No, that beauty is a result of 65 years of memories, and particularly that one special memory of a father who loved his daughter so much he bought her the angel of her dreams.
Traditions – what would we do without them? Celebrations just wouldn’t be the same. It doesn’t matter what the occasion, we expect that certain foods will be served, certain practices followed and certain things said, and if they’re not, well, the whole shee-bang falls apart.
Traditions represent continuity through past, present and future. They cement family ties and provide a sense of security and normalcy even if all else is falling apart. They give us something non-tangible yet still very real to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
Traditions make sense to those who follow them; to outsiders, they might raise eyebrows.
Take the Christmas Fence that stood around our tree for decades. A fence? you say. Why a fence?
Once upon a time, many years ago, a certain toddler by the name of Margaret just couldn’t keep her hands off the shiny baubles that dangled off the Christmas tree, despite numerous admonitions and even punishments. They were so enticing, they demanded to be grabbed at, handled and, Oops! dropped and broken.
My Uncle George, who lived with us that year, came up with the idea of a fence. He cut a sapling into lengths, nailed them onto wooden bases, bored holes through them and strung two lengths of silver garlands through the holes.
I was informed that everything behind the fence was a “no-touch” zone. Apparently, I listened. However, if even the tiniest bit of a branch extended outside the fence, well, it was fair game.
By the time I had grown past the “grab and dash” stage, my brother had arrived, so once again the Christmas Fence was needed. By the time he had grown past that stage, the Christmas Fence was as much a part of the tree decorations as the lights and tinsel. For many years, once the tree was in place and decorated, we put the “snow” (a.k.a. white cotton batting) around the base and on top of it went the manger scene, the church, the snowmen made of styrofoam balls, the plastic Santa in his sleigh pulled by six reindeer (only six?), the pipe cleaner evergreen trees and, of course, the presents, all securely protected by the fence.
Yes, it got a bit ratty over the years, all that security work took its toll. Eventually – I don’t know when – it fell apart and was discarded. Ever since, the Christmas tree has looked so unfinished, so alone, so unprotected, without it!
Next time: Tradition #2 – she isn’t just any angel!
I looked up from my crossword puzzle. “Really?” Now what had Adam, my son, seen?
“Quick! Come see.” He grabbed my hand and I followed him onto the back deck.
He pointed. “It’s over there. You can’t see it now, it’s feeding on something, but just wait! Oh, there it is!”
Off beyond the trees, I heard roaring and grating and tearing and then it appeared above the trees, swung around and disappeared — the neck of a large yellow excavator ripping up the street in the next block.
I clapped my hands to my face in mock terror.
“Good gracious, Adam. It’s going to eat us!”
“No, Mom.” He rolled his eyes – I was so ignorant about dinosaurs. “It’s a herbivore, probably one of the brontosaurus species.”
“But, it’s so huge. It could squash us and not even know it. Or knock over our house. How would we escape?”
Adam patted his large watergun. “Mom, you don’t have to worry. I have my Blast-o-Matic with me. If it comes this way, I’ll dial it up to maximum and blast it into extinction.”
“But when you kill it, it will fall over and crush us!” I was trying hard not to laugh.
“Mom, don’t you remember?” He sounded so exasperated. “When my Blast-o-Matic is at max, it vapourizes things.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank heavens. Adam, you are such a brave boy. I’m glad you’re here to defend us.”
He smiled, straightened and saluted. “At your service, Ma’am!”
I went back inside, smiling. My little hero had things well in hand.
* * *
A couple of days ago, I did indeed see a large yellow “dinosaur” working in the street one block over. As the arm swung back and forth, into and out of sight, it reminded me of the long-necked dinosaurs that used to roam the earth. How big they were and how tiny we are! I just had to write this story about a boy with an imagination as big as a dinosaur and his mother, complicit in his fantasy.
Writing this story also reminded me of the many times my brother and I lived out our fantasies when we were children.
We traveled across Canada, even the world, by train – all in our dining room. We lined up the chairs, one behind the other; I was the passenger, my brother the engineer cum conductor. “Ticket, ma’am,” he’d say, and I would hand him my “ticket.” We traveled through the Rocky Mountains, across the prairies and through forests, to the sound of “choo-choo-choos,” steam whistles and clanging bells. Every now and then we went to the “dining car” to enjoy whatever it was that Mom – excuse me, the Chef – had prepared for us. Eventually we had to park the train, er, the chairs and return to – sigh – reality.
Long before Sputnik and John Glenn, we went to the moon and back, in a cardboard box. To adults, it looked like a cardboard box but to us it was the super-duperest, spiffyest rocket ship ever built. And guess what? Long before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, WE discovered that it was not made of green cheese. Why would anyone even think the moon was made of green cheese? We brought back moon samples; at least, I think we brought back moon samples. Of course, all that traveling really worked up an appetite, so it was off to see what culinary delights NASA, er, Mom, had devised for space travelers.
This was well before we had TV. We had to devise our own entertainment, and devise we did. And no, it wasn’t playing “house” – “you be the Mommy and I’ll be the Daddy.” Heck, that was so boring!
We’d rather be outside, playing “cowboys and Indians” – now politically incorrect – or maybe it was “Cowboys and Rustlers”. Either way, there was a lot of running around, pointing our index fingers at each other, yelling “Bang!”, and falling down “dead,” only to be miraculously revived when Mom yelled, “Lunch!”
We pulled cattails from the nearby slough that magically became swords and we transformed into swashbuckling pirates battling the Royal Navy (and always sending the Navy high-tailing it across the seas) or we were Knights of Old saving Damsels in Distress (I refused to be the damsel in distress).
We climbed our favourite tree and became Robin Hood and his band of merry men, waiting in ambush for the nasty Sheriff of Nottingham. “Take that, you villainous cad!”
Or, once again, we were pirates, in the crow’s nest, on the look-out for gold-laden Spanish galleons. Arrr, me hearties!
I made “Chocolate Squares” the other day. That’s what we called a certain decadent, toothachingly-sweet, calorie-laden, carb-ridden, chocolatey dessert when I was growing up. Only when I was well into my adult years did I learn they had another name: Nanaimo Bars.
“Chocolate Squares” have a special place in my memory bank because one day, when I was maybe 12, I decided to make them. On my own. No help from Mom. I was a “big girl” now.
We had received the recipe from Mrs. Hill, one of my grandmother’s friends. It was hand-written on a 3″x5″ file card. And, as with many recipes from people of that age, details were sometimes a bit sparse – they assumed you knew what to do.
I didn’t know that.
The first layer was no problem. I melted the butter, cocoa and sugar in the double boiler, then added the beaten egg, the crushed graham crackers, chopped nuts and coconut. Once it was well mixed, I spread it in the pan.
So far, so good.
The recipe for the second layer read “Spread on . . .”, so I spread on the icing sugar and sprinkled on the Bird’s Custard powder. Next came ½ cup of butter.
That’s when I realized there might be a problem. How do you spread ½ cup of butter, even when it is soft, into a powdery layer of icing sugar? Not only that, but then I was supposed to add some cream. Things did not look quite right.
Time to call in the expert. “Mo-om!”
Mom was in the living room or maybe in her sewing room doing something, certainly not housework. She was a staunch believer in the “Housework if necessary but not necessarily housework” philosophy. There were so many other things to do that were far more interesting or rewarding than – Ick! – housework.
She also had a warped sense of humour.
Mom walked into the kitchen, took one look at my messy spread-on-as-the-recipe-said layer and burst into peals of laughter.
I was devastated, traumatized. For life. (No, not really but it sounds more dramatic, doesn’t it?)
When she finally stopped laughing and had wiped the tears from her eyes, she said, “You’re supposed to MIX it before you spread it on.”
“But, but, the recipe didn’t say anything about mixing it!”
Like I said, some of those old recipes are a bit shy on details.
Anyway, Mom helped me scrape the mess into a bowl where I mixed it up, as I should have, and then continued with the rest of the recipe. The Chocolate Squares turned out just fine. Only Mom and I knew how they had almost been made.