Purple Gas

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.

We still laugh about it.

#PurpleGas #FarmFuelTax #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #PrairieHistory #SaskatchewanHistory #MargaretGHanna

Grandmothers

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.

Grandma Hanna with baby Margaret

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.

Addie Hanna, ca. 1955

Perhaps that is the reason I decided to have her “narrate” my book, Our Bull’s Loose in Town!: Tales from the Homestead. It is a way of honouring all she lived through and all she contributed to our lives.

Thanks, Grandma.

#Grandmothers #Childbirth #ChildCare #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #MargaretGHanna

Chores!

“Margaret, today I think we should do . . .”

Uh-oh. I knew what that meant – Mom had a chore for me to do.

Mom loved the Royal “We.”

Doing chores for Mom often meant doing chores with Mom. And doing chores with Mom was always an adventure. It was a time for stories, jokes and laughter.

Especially jokes. Mom was never above pulling a fast one, even on her daughter.

Like one time when we were doing dishes – Mom washing, I drying. It devolved into a game of “I can wash faster than you can dry!”

I was keeping up but I seemed to be drying an inordinately large number of saucepans. Wait! Didn’t I just dry this saucepan?

Mom!

She laughed. “I wondered how long before you noticed.”

Instead of putting the saucepans away, I had put them on the stove. Which stood beside the sink. Within Mom’s easy reach.

Silly me!

#ChildhoodMemories #HannaFamilyHistory #NonFiction #FamilyHistory #Humour #DoingChores #MargaretGHanna

Dinosaur At Large!

“Mom! Mom! There’s a dinosaur outside!”

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!

TV ruined a lot!

#Dinosaurs #ChildhoodMemories #ChildhoodImagination #Fiction #NonFiction #MargaretGHanna #LifeBeforeTV #Play

The “Chocolate Squares” Caper

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.

#BakingAdventures #BakingDisasters #Baking #ChildhoodMemories #HannaFamilyHistory #NanaimoBars #MargaretGHanna #Humour

The Million Dollar Rain

It’s raining, it’s pouring
The old man is snoring.
He went to bed
And he bumped his head
And couldn’t get up in the morning.

We awake to wind and rain. Rain pouring down, gusting down, sheeting down. Hammering against the walls and windows.

Dad comes in from the barn on a gust of wetness, hangs his coat on the hook, declares, “It’s socked in for the day.” Mom yells, “Take off your muddy boots!”

After breakfast, Richard and I put on our coats and rubber boots and walk the quarter-mile to town and school, bracing ourselves against the gusting west wind and the driving rain.

Dampness seeps through the school. It smells of damp coats, damp hats, damp text books, damp hair, damps socks, damp notebooks. At recess, we head down to the basement, play pump-pump-pull-away, or stand around in knots and talk and giggle.

At noon, we tromp home for dinner. Richard pulls off his rubber boots and examines a wet sock. “My boot has a leak.” Dad examines it. “There’s a crack above the sole. I’ll take it into town and get it vulcanized. Wear your overshoes this afternoon.”

After school, the rain takes a breather – it’s only drizzling. The dog bounds toward us, drops a stick at our feet. Richard tosses it and she streaks off after it, mindless of mud and water. A cat delicately picks its way around puddles, flicks a contaminating bit of mud from a paw and scurries into the barn.

That night, we go to sleep with the sound of rain thrumming against the roof, splattering against the window.

Rain, rain, go away
Come again some other day.

The yard is a morass of mud and slop. Dad comes in, hangs his sopping wet slicker on the hook, declares, “Raining too hard. We might as well go Moose Jaw.” Mom yells, “Take off your muddy boots! I don’t want to have to wash the floor again.”

We snarf down breakfast and head out in the ‘53 Ford. We fishtail out of the yard and down the road to the highway which, itself, is only gravel, so we fishtail some more. Mom gasps, “Careful!” and grabs the door handle. She white-knuckles all the way to Assiniboia and Highway 2 which is paved. An easy drive then, with the requisite stops at Mitchelton for gas and Conn’s Corner for a bite to eat.

First stop in Moose Jaw: Joyner’s Department Store. New shoes for Richard and me. Fabric for Mom. A new tie for Dad. The clerk puts the bill and our money into the carriage and onto the track that whisks it away to the central cashier who empties the carriage, puts the bill and change back into it and onto the track to be returned to our clerk. How does it know where to go? we wonder.

Next stop, the Exchange Café on the corner of Manitoba and Main, across from the CPR station. We always eat there, we always order the same thing – fish and chips, because it’s exotic (yes, really!). The Chinese brothers who run the place always give Richard and me lollipops when we leave.

Off to Eaton’s, the upper class shopping establishment. Next to Kresge’s, not so upper class but they have little sugar-coated doughnuts to satisfy our sweet tooth.

Back to the car. Parcels in the trunk, we head for home, yawning all the way. Richard and I are soon asleep. So is Mom. It’s still raining when we get home. We go up to bed with the sound of rain thrumming against the roof, splattering against the window.

Sunshine and Shower
Won’t last an hour.

We awake to sunshine and glimpses of blue sky. A stiff breeze chases away the ragged remnants of rain clouds. We jump out of bed. So much to do – puddles to jump in, rivulets to divert and dam, mud pies to make.

Dad comes in from the barn, hangs his jacket on the hook, declares, “That was a million dollar rain! And kids, don’t forget, chickens need to be fed and eggs picked up right after you eat.”

Chores. Bummer!

Note #1: Until the Joyner’s building burned down in 2004, it had the only remaining operating Lamson Cash Carrying System in North America. Read more about it here, and see it in operation here.

Note #2: There were no “million dollar rains” during the Dirty Thirties. Addie tells how farmers and others survived those terrible drought years in “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead.

#Rain #ChildhoodMemories #MooseJaw #JoynersDepartmentStore #MargaretGHanna #ExchangeCafe #FarmLife #RuralLife

Rhubarb Season

Garnet (my dad) aged about 4 or 5. Caption on the back of the photo reads “rhubarb 4’10” high, a good crop in one of the good years.” Photo probably taken about 1927 or 1928.

When I was growing up on the farm, there were two sure-fire signs of spring – the first feed of asparagus and the first feed of rhubarb. Daily, we visited the two longs rows of asparagus, the one long row of rhubarb, searching for those first nubbins breaking through the soil. Especially the rhubarb.

And then, there it was! We yanked an armload of rhubarb stalks and marched triumphantly to the house, precious booty in hand.

Our rhubarb was the old-fashioned green kind, to be eaten only with generous amounts of added sugar. The first feed was always plain and simple — stewed rhubarb, often served with cream. Real cream! The so-called whipping cream you buy in the store is a mere pale imitation of the cream from our Jersey and Guernsey cows. So thick, you could stand a spoon in it. You could cut it with a knife.

Or so I recall.

Only after we had sated our appetite for rhubarb on its own did Mom then turn to rhubarb crisp and rhubarb pie. We filled numerous freezer bags with chopped rhubarb to see us through the winter.

And then rhubarb season was over. But we had memories of what had been, memories that would remind us of what was to come.

A couple of springs ago, when rhubarb season was at its peak, our writing group decided to collect rhubarb recipes. And so I give you:

Rhubarb Pie, a recipe (sort of)
(With apologies to William Shakespeare)

How shall I make thee on a summer’s day?
The day’s so hot and sultry, yet my mouth
Doth water at the thought of rhubarb pie.
I don my hat and brave the summer heat.
I pluck an armful, and with sharpened knife
Cut thee in dice like rubies shining red.
Thy tangy taste I soften some with sugar
And flour holds thy juices well at bay.
Thy pastry bed I make with flour and lard
That glistens like a pearl ‘neath summer moon.
Once mounded in the dish, I crown thee last
With butter and with nutmeg and a cap.
Then bake one hour full, and when ‘tis done
The joy of eating pie is soon begun.

#Rhubarb #RhubarbPieRecipe #Sonnet #HannaFamilyHistory #ChildhoodMemories #WilliamShakespeare #MargaretGHanna #FarmLife #MeyronneHistory #PrairieLife

Bread of Life

Man may not live by bread alone but it’s a good place to start.

Bread is as essential to us of European descent as rice is to Asia. We “break bread” together. We give thanks for our “daily bread.” When women, a century ago, marched for better working conditions and the right to vote, they sang “Give us bread and roses.”

I grew up with bread-making. Mom made bread, six loaves at a time, almost every week. We knew what was in store the day she saved the potato water. Tomorrow, there’d be bread fresh out of the oven when we got home from school! We could taste it, smell it, from that moment on.

Next morning by breakfast-time, Mom was already scooping flour out of the bin. She baked so much that we bought flour (and sugar) in 100 lb sacks. (As an aside, those flour sacks were recycled. Once the flour was dumped out, she unpicked the seams, washed and bleached them to remove the trade marks – either Five Roses or Robin Hood – and then handed them off to me to hem for dish towels. She told me when she grew up during the Dirty Thirties, her mother made those flour sacks into underclothes for the girls or shirts for the boys). She was kneading the dough by the time we left for school. The bread was into its second rise when we came home for dinner – we lived only a quarter-mile from school – and soon it would be in the pans.

The heavenly aroma of bread greeted us as we ran in the door after school. The loaves were out of the pan, cooling. Time for “coffee”, the mid-afternoon lunch that was both tradition and ritual in our family. Mom and Dad had coffee; my brother and I had milk. Mom cut the still-warm bread; it steamed as she let the first piece – the heel – fall away. Then, to prevent a battle royal from breaking out, she cut the heel off the other end of the loaf.

You see, my brother and I both preferred the heel (still do) because we could slather on no end of butter and jam without it falling apart. The heel made a most satisfying crunch when we bit into it. And it had more flavour, or so we claimed, than the inner slices.

By the end of “coffee,” we had demolished the better part of that first loaf.

Bread-making fell by the wayside for many families. It was easier to get your loaf ready-made from the grocery store or the bakery. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, people seem to have rediscovered bread-making. Yeast and flour are almost as rare as toilet paper.

My husband uses a bread machine but, for me, the grind and thump of the machine is no substitute for the physical, visceral experience of kneading bread. At its most elemental, it is a communion of person, flour, water and yeast.

Kneading is meditation – turn, fold, push, repeat again and again. I rock back and forth with each turn and push.

It is physical – I feel the dough give and resist, give and resist.

It is sensual – the smell of flour and yeast, the dough turning from sticky and obstreperous to smooth and satiny. Every now and then, the dough speaks, a slight squeak as an air bubble pops.

And it is memory reenacted, memories of my mother and her mother before her, standing at a counter, participating in a ritual generations-old.

Then magic happens. This seemingly inert mass of flour and water and yeast grows and expands before your very eyes. It seems so fragile – poke it and it collapses with a sigh. Yet it is resilient; it expands once again, this time taking the shape of whatever you want to create, be they loaves, buns, cinnamon rolls – the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from bread-making in the midst of this pandemic – that even though we may appear fragile, we are also resilient. Although we may collapse in the face of something overwhelming, we will rise again. That our strength, our resiliency, grows out of our malleability.

There’s more than food for the body in that humble loaf of bread.

#BreadMaking #Meditation #ChildhoodMemories #COVID19 #Resiliency #Hope #Courage #MargaretGHanna

Elsie and I

(A Christmas story)

I hated it at first. Thought it was the stupidest gift I had ever received. Threatened to give it back, throw it out, anything but take it home.

It was a Christmas present, and what kid doesn’t like Christmas presents? Christmas is the best time of year for any kid. The anticipation of Santa Claus with his bag of goodies, the tree, decorations, food, cookies, candies, turkey and stuffing. But most of all, presents. Piled up under the tree. Piled so high you can’t see over them. And stockings, hung perhaps not by the chimney but certainly with care, awaiting gifts from Santa. Christmas morning can’t come soon enough.

But first you have to endure the school Christmas concert, the Sunday School pageant re-enacting the birth of Baby Jesus, singing carols, and trying to figure out which cup and saucer to buy for your mother and which tie (or socks) for your father, just to get to the best part – opening your own presents. You wonder if Christmas morning will ever arrive.

But finally, it does. It’s early in the morning. It’s dark. Mom and Dad are still in bed. Never mind. You tear downstairs and run straight to your stocking. There it is, full to overflowing. You ignore the mandarin orange and hard candies, and go straight to the good stuff – the gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins, the little toys. That will keep you happy until you get to open the mother lode, the pile of parcels under the tree. Now all you have to do is wake up Mom and Dad and wait while they have their coffee and make breakfast.

Sometimes you have to wait even longer because your family is going to spend Christmas day with your relatives. You bundle up in winter clothes, put all the parcels into the trunk, and away you go. When you arrive, the grown-ups have to have coffee, talk, eat cookies and Christmas cake, check the progress of the Christmas feast, and talk about the weather. Don’t they know that Christmas is about opening presents?

But finally the big moment arrives. Paper flies, boxes are strewn about, and in five minutes it is all over. Reality settles in. That’s it, folks! Now we have to wait till next year.

I was 10 that particular Christmas. We drove to Assiniboia, 40 miles away, to spend the day with my Aunt Kay and Uncle Bob (my mother’s oldest brother). Grandpa Higham and Uncle George (my mother’s younger brother) were also there.

It was the gift from Uncle George that intrigued me. It was a rather large squarish box, decorated with a plush cow’s head. That’s a weird decoration to put on a Christmas gift, I thought, but then Uncle George had a reputation for being a joker. It was the last one I opened. I tried to pull the head off before ripping off the paper, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally, I tore off the paper, opened up the box and pulled out – a cow!

1957Christmas
Oh sure, I’m smiling but that’s because I was told to!

She (and it was most definitely a “she”) was white with red blotches. She had horns, an udder and a silly grin on her face. She wore button-up boots and a bell. What a stupid gift to give to a niece! How could my favourite uncle do this to me?

Of course, my parents made me thank Uncle George and they made me take her home and put her in my bedroom with my other plush toys. But they couldn’t make me like her.

They explained to me that she was Elsie, the Borden Cow, the cow in the advertisements for Borden’s condensed milk. But that didn’t make her any less ugly.

What they didn’t tell me was that she had magic powers. She had to, because otherwise how could a despised ugly plush cow turn into a prized possession?

When I packed to go to university, Elsie came with me. She was a connection with home and family. That was important for me, being only 17 and 2000 miles away from home.

Elsie was also a conversation piece at residence. Students would come in to visit, see her, and ask “What’s with the cow?” I would tell them the story, and they’d look at me like I was crazy. She was unique, and somehow by association that made me unique. That was  important because I was at that point in life when I was trying to find out who I was and what made me tick.

Elsie is still with me. Like me, she’s a bit worse for the wear sixty-some years later. Her hind legs are bowed under her, her boots are dirty, her coat not as plushy. She still has her bell and her silly grin, and she sports a 1968 McGill Winter Carnival pin. I’ve grown to love her for who she is, slightly quirky, definitely herself.

Maybe she’s a reflection of me.

 

#Christmas #ChristmasPresents #ChristmasMemories #ChildhoodMemories #ElsieBordenCow #FamilyHistory #HannaHistory #MargaretGHanna #Humour #NonFiction #BWLAuthor

I’ve been here before

The house was in chaos. The remains of breakfast still on the table. Unwashed dishes stacked in the sink. The living room in shambles. Mom standing in the midst of it all, dazed, confused, worried. She looked at me. “I need help!”

A medical emergency? Break-and-enter? Home invasion?

Nope. Something far more serious.

“B______ wants a quilt with animals on it, and I can’t decide what to make.”

That explained the shambles. The floor, the sofa, the coffee table covered with fabric – fat quarters, cut lengths, remnants – of all colours and designs; quilting magazines opened to different patterns.

Two hours later, we had decided on a pattern (frogs). We’d picked out the fabrics from her stash (varying shades of green and green prints).

I knew this was far from over. I’d been here before.

Mom stood up, hands on her hips, her lips pursed. “We need contrast fabric. And something for the sashing. And for the backing. I just don’t have enough flannel for the backing and what I do have just doesn’t go.”

She gathered up the chosen fabric and her purse. “We’ll just have to go in to Peachtree.” She handed me the keys to her beloved Buick Century. “Here, you drive. You know I hate driving in Regina.”

Yep, I’d been here before.

Peachtree was Mom’s favourite quilting store. Two rooms filled with more quilting fabric than you ever imagined existed. Plus quilting supplies. And sewing machines. And quilting books and magazines, just in case you didn’t already have enough. The staff knew her by name. That was no surprise – I think she was there at least once a week. Mom was an avid quilter. We joked that if something stood still long enough, she’d work it into a quilt.

An hour later, Mom left behind a bundle of money and I carried out a bundle of fabric. But the afternoon wasn’t over.

Mom grinned. “I think we need coffee. And something to eat.”

I knew where this was going. I’d been here before.

Off to our favourite coffee shop. Two lattes and a couple of those really decadent chocolate whatever-they-ares. Then it was time to pay.

“Gee, I forgot my wallet, Margaret.”

“No, you didn’t. You paid Peachtree, remember?”

“Yes, but you’re driving my car and burning my gas.”

“Yes, but you asked me to drive. You need to pay your chauffeur.”

“I paid last time.”

“No, I did.”

Meanwhile, the poor clerk looked more and more concerned, wondering if World War III was about to break out. Little did she know this “discussion” was all in fun. It was part of our routine. Mom knew I would pay. Eventually.

Like I said, I’d been here before. And I loved every minute of it.

Oh, and the quilt? B_______ loved it.

 

#Quilting #HannaFamilyHistory #MothersAndDaughters #MargaretGHanna #Humour #NonFiction