My mother, Maisie Mabilia Appleton Hanna (née Higham) was born June 1, 1923, in the middle of a terrific thunderstorm, or so she says. She was the fourth of six children born to Caleb and Mary Higham who, at the time, were living on a farm south of Mazenod, Saskatchewan.
Her mother taught Mom and her sisters all the traditional fibre arts – sewing, knitting, crocheting and embroidery – and she continued to pursue them throughout her adult life. In fact, she continued to learn: Battenburg lace, Brazilian embroidery, petit point (too fussy, she said), copper tooling (too boring), Hardanger, drawn thread work, and crewel embroidery (I’m sure I’ve missed several).
But her first love was quilting. At first, they were scrap quilts, the legacy of growing up with so little money during the Dirty Thirties when nothing was thrown out, when everything was reused or recycled. She sewed those scraps into the classic quilt patterns – Dresden Plate, Log Cabin, Sunbonnet Sue, the Gingham Dog and Calico Cat, Double Wedding Ring, and Flying Geese, among others.
The quilt that graces my bed began that way. She cut butterflies out of scraps left over from the dresses she made for me when I was a child. I added to the assemblage as I grew older. But Mom didn’t make the quilt. She handed all the butterflies to me one day and said, “Here, you finish it.”
That was some time around 1960.
I’m not the dedicated quilter Mom was. Those butterflies hung around for years. Every now and then, I hauled them out of whatever cupboard or drawer I had thrown them in and embroidered one or two more squares. By about 1995, I had enough done to assemble into a quilt. Then, it was back into a cupboard.
I began quilting it about 2000, the old-fashioned way, by hand. Progress was episodic and glacial, to put it mildly. Mom passed away a few years before it was completed. I regret that she never saw the finished quilt.
The quilt is more than a bedspread. Each butterfly represents an act of love, of time spent choosing a pattern and fabric, time spent cutting and sewing, and time spent telling me to “Stand still while I pin up the hem!” Each one reminds me of all the times we spent together, creating, arguing, scheming, encouraging, laughing and sharing.
Now, each night, when I crawl into bed and pull the quilt over me, I feel her arms enfold me and her love enclose me. What more could a daughter ask for?
The winter of 1916-17 had been brutal. Blizzards every other week. Snow up to the eaves. Bitter cold. Chickens froze in the coop. Coal piles ran dangerously low. A bachelor asphyxiated in his homestead shack. People feared winter would never end.
It did, with a vengeance. Spring came early and suddenly. The mercury shot up, and the snow melted down. A heavy two-day rain worsened the situation. Meltwater spread out across The Flat to the east and the west of town, submerging pastures, fields and trails. Through it all flowed Pinto Creek, normally a placid trickle of water, now a torrent tearing past the south edge of town.
Everyone kept an eye on the creek as the thick ice cracked and shifted and groaned ominously. They all agreed, there’d be hell to pay once it broke.
It happened Thursday afternoon. A huge BOOM! Then another, and another.
“The ice’s going!”
The cry rippled through town. Like moths to a flame, everyone came. Kids hustled out of the school yard. Men sauntered out of the beer parlour, long-necked bottles in hand. Shoppers exited stores, clutching their purchases. Everyone gathered along the railroad track that separated the town from the creek to watch disaster unfold.
“Hey, anyone seen Noah? We need his ark!” Laughter.
The water rushed by, faster and faster, tearing at the thick ice that began to buckle. Then, it began to move. Huge ice floes, the length of box cars, high as a man’s knee, slid under the bridge, grating and grinding against each other. Chunks of ice heaved up on both shores, chasing back those who stood too close. Boys grabbed smaller chunks, ran to the still-rising water’s edge and threw them onto the growing ice jam. They ran back, chortling, daring others to do likewise, ignoring mothers’ pleas: “Stop that! Come back here! That’s dangerous! You’ll fall in and drown!”
The water rose higher and higher, flooding the trail to the elevators and lapping up against the rail bed.
“Should’ve hauled grain yesterday.”
“Yup, too late now.”
“You’ll have to wait a couple o’ weeks, I bet.”
“Wonder if the train’ll get through.”
The ice piled up, a higgledy-piggledy churning, heaving, thrashing mass, slowly, then faster, advancing to the little bridge that spanned the creek. BAM! The first one hit the bridge. It shuddered.
“Jesus H. Christ! Will you look at that?”
“Ain’t never seen nothin’ like that.”
Ice floes continued to ram into the bridge. Boom! Boom! Louder than cannon shots. Little girls covered their ears. Mothers grabbed their children’s hands. Everyone stood, gape-mouthed, as the creek began to flow over the bridge deck. Muddy water swirled away as the road disappeared. Men edged back.
“Hope the bridge holds.”
“The south country will be cut off if it goes.”
The bridge was now a dam, holding back the mounting pile of ice. The rushing water propelled a slab up over the ice jam and into the guard rail, mashing it into a mangled mess. The south end of the bridge gave one final shudder, then twisted.
“Oh, my God, it’s going!”
“Stand back, everybody!”
The bridge wrenched free from its southern mooring with a piercing screech and bobbed violently. The weight of the jammed ice was too much for the northern moorings, and slowly, as if in a dream, the entire bridge tore loose. It swung wildly as the now-freed ice rode up and catapulted it over before shoving it down into the depths of the water. One end popped up briefly and then it was gone, borne downriver by the rushing water and the never-ending ice floes.
“Oh. My. Lord!”
The ice was gone by midnight, except for a few giant slabs stranded up on the banks, bearing testament to the height and strength of the water. The flood abated two days later, and Pinto Creek returned to its banks and its lazy meandering ways. The remains of the bridge were found the following week, miles downstream, embedded in the creek bank. People living in the south country had to wait two weeks before a temporary foot bridge crossed the creek, and two months for a permanent bridge to be constructed.
The story of the flood lived on for years.
“I was this close when it happened!”
“You could hear those booms five miles away.”
“Pete got enough ice to keep his beer cold for months, he said.”
This story began as a response to the Carrot Ranch’s 99-word story challenge, to write about “high water.” As you can see, my response overflowed its limits, just like Pinto Creek.
I took a few liberties with the actual event. Pinto Creek did flood and people did congregate to watch, but the bridge survived, as you can see in the photograph. But why let a few facts get in the way of a good story, I ask.
I am not sure about the year. It is definitely post-1913 because another photo of the flood shows telegraph poles flanking the CPR line that came through in 1913. However, the cut of the men’s clothes and hats suggest the late 1910s, maybe very early 1920s.
This was not the only time Pinto Creek flooded. I recall a time in the early 1950s when, just as in 1917, everyone stood on the railroad bed and watched the water lap at their feet. I was somewhere between 4 and 6 years old at the time.
Pinto Creek flooded again in 1997, following a bitter winter that seemed never to end. Most of southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba were under water. Once again, Pinto Creek raged against its banks. Once again, the bridge held.
All I know of Mary Ferris (neé Smith), my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother, is derived from Ancestry documents. She was born about 1828, was illiterate (she signed her marriage certificate with an X), was married to William Ferris, a ship’s carpenter, and lived in Feock, Cornwall. Whether or not she believed in fairies or any of the giants, mermaids or other beings that supposedly once roamed Cornwall, is pure supposition on my part. But why let a few facts (or no facts, in this case) get in the way of a story?
This little snippet of imagined family history is told from the perspective of my maternal grandmother, Mary Louisa Higham (neé Appleton). Her family (father George Appleton; mother Amelia Ferris Appleton, and siblings, Amelia, George, and Clive) lived in Feock from 1891 to 1897. This would have given them ample time to hear stories not only from their grandmother but also from their grandfather. His would have been tales of the sea and the monsters that dwell in the deeps.
From time immemorial, people have told stories that explain everything from the creation of the universe to the appearance of warts. Those stories explained our relationship to Earth and to all other creatures. They set out moral standards, often as cautionary tales to show what would happen if one didn’t follow those standards. Think of all the Trickster stories told around the world.
Some stories were simply meant to keep children safe from “things that go bump in the night.” Grandma Higham certainly told such tales – the story of the Bologna Man is a legend in our own family.
“The Bologna Man?” you ask.
You’ll read about him in my grandmother’s story, Searching for Home, which will be published this summer.
A farm provides a host of places in which to play, not all of which are parent-approved. The old threshing machine, for example. We were told it was dangerous, which only made it even more enticing. Its interior became our “cave.” Then there was the hay stack in the barn loft. We ignored our parents’ warning that air pockets might lurk in its interior, ready to swallow us up and suffocate us. We ignored those, too, and lived to tell the tale, although not to our parents.
However, our favourite place were three poplar trees. The swing hung between two of them, and the third was our climbing tree. Our imagination transformed that climbing tree into a myriad of other places.
The “swing trees” were parent-approved. I’m not so sure about the climbing tree, not that it would have made any difference.
My brother and I visited the old farm a few years ago. All those poplars, including our playground trees, that our grandfather planted 100 years ago are dead or dying.
The challenge was to write a “love letter” to Nature. Perhaps if I were young and naïve, perhaps if I had not grown up on a farm, perhaps if I had not seen the horrors that “Nature” can inflict, then perhaps I could write a “love letter.” The problem, however, is not with “Nature,” it is with us and our arrogant belief that we are the pinnacle of evolution/creation/ civilization. We are not. Hence, the line: “We can only change ourselves.” We must, if the human species is to continue to survive on this planet. This is our challenge, as individuals and as a collective.
“What ya’ doing? “Packing up Grandma’s stuff. Like this everyday china.” “You givin’ it to the thrift store?” “I don’t know what else to do with it. Do you want it?” “Why would I want those plates?” “They were Grandma’s, that’s why!” “But they’re crazed and stained. The cups are chipped.” “Remember her fried chicken? It was s-o-o good.” “Yah, and her meat pies. The best.” “She gave me my first milky tea in one of those cups.” “Yah, and that’s why it’s chipped.” A pause. “Okay, I’ll take one plate, but just to remember Grandma.” “Yah, me, too.”
No bending the knee to some high and mighty landowner, like Dad. No working someone else’s farmland, like Dad. Nope, I’m going to have my own farm.
To do that, I’m leaving not-so-merry old England. Leaving my friends, too, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.
I don’t quite believe the picture the agent painted of Canadian farms. I’ve worked with Dad long enough to know farming is hard work. You don’t just throw the seed in the ground and watch it harvest itself.
Tomorrow, I leave on Mr. Cunard’s Ultonia. My farm awaits.
Caleb Higham, my maternal grandfather, emigrated to Canada in April, 1913, in search of his own farm. He did not want to be a tenant farmer like his father, and he knew that owning a farm in England was impossible.
Caleb landed in Montreal, bound for Regina, Saskatchewan. The Ultonia’s passenger manifest indicates he emigrated under the “British Bonus Allowed” program of the Canadian government. This program paid a bonus both to the agents who recruited farmers and to steamship agents. It also paid the immigrant farmer $10.00 if the immigrant purchased his farm land within six months of arriving in Canada.
Getting his farm wasn’t as easy as Caleb had imagined. By 1913, all the homestead land in southern Saskatchewan was taken up, and buying an existing farm was out of the question for someone who had arrived in Canada with only $25.00 in his pocket. He worked as a brakeman for the Canadian Pacific Railway for a time, then began work as a farm labourer for Will Grigg just north of Moose Jaw. There, he met Mary Appleton and, in 1915, they married .
He had to wait another nine years before buying his farm. First, he delivered milk for a Moose Jaw Dairy, then he rented a series of farms. In 1924, Caleb finally achieved his dream – he purchased a half-section (320 acres) of land north of the town of Assiniboia in southwestern Saskatchewan.
I wonder what she would have been like, my little girl that never was.
A mother’s worst fear, a miscarriage, a child born too soon.
People said, “But you already have three children,” or “You can always have another.” How could people be so cruel? No one can be the same as this child.
I sometimes dream of her, what she might have been. Sometimes when I’m in my garden, or sitting quietly embroidering a pillowcase, I hear her voice, her laughter, and I look up, but no one is there. Only a ghost of what might have been.
The back story: Losing a child under any circumstance is a heart-rending event. My maternal grandmother, Mary Higham, had two miscarriages sometime in the 1920s, long before the advent of medical interventions that now allow premature babies to survive. Even though infant mortality, both premature and full-term, was more common then, it was still a devastatingly tragic event.
My mother and aunts didn’t say much about the miscarriages, just that they had happened, but their few words conveyed profound sorrow. They must have thrown a long-lasting shadow in the Higham home for my mother and aunts to remember them after all those years.
He’s been here a month. A month of spending time with his friends, smoking, drinking telling tall tales. A month of being swooned over by all the girls who think he is “so handsome!!!” in his RCAF uniform. A month of helping Cale with harvest. A month of teasing his sisters and kid brother.
But throughout the whole month, all I could see is Damocles’ sword hanging over his head. I wonder if he sees it, too. If that’s why he spends so much time “living it up.”
My uncle, John Brock Higham, “signed up” for the Royal Canadian Air Force in the spring of 1940, and was called up for training in September of that year. One year later, September of 1941, he came back to the farm at Assiniboia for a month’s leave before being posted overseas as a pilot in Bomber Command.
As happy as his mother might have been to have him home, Grandma Higham probably carried a heavy stone in her heart that entire month. It wasn’t her sabbatical, it was John’s, but she experienced it, too, just from a different perspective. The news from overseas during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz was nothing but doom and gloom, destruction and death. And her son was heading straight into it as a pilot in Bomber Command. How could she not worry?