Fickle Prairie Weather

After a less-than-snowy winter, after a long warmer-than-usual spring, after a long scorching hot and dry summer, we are now in autumn. The harvest season.

Too bad there’s not much to harvest.

The drought across the prairies – from Manitoba to Alberta – has brought back memories of the Dirty Thirties. A time of no snow, no rain, no crop, no income. A time of dust storms that obliterated visibility and buried shelterbelts and fence lines. A time when farmers abandoned their farms and moved elsewhere. Anywhere.

This year’s crops are stunted due to lack of rain and bleached or burned due to the intense heat. The heads are only partly filled, the kernels in them shrunken. It’s not a pretty sight.

Harvest started two to three weeks earlier than usual. Those crops that are worth combining are so short that the combine table barely clears the ground. Other crops aren’t even worth the cost; farmers have turned their cattle in to graze what little grew. They will be depending on crop insurance to see them through to spring. No farmer likes that, if only because it means next year’s premiums will rise.

Ranchers are in no better situation. Cattle have eaten pastures down to the dirt. Hay crops are abysmal. A cousin got just over 300 round bales off his hay field this year. Last year, he got over 1000. They’re selling off their cattle because there’s little hay to bale or to buy, and what is available is horrifically expensive. Ranchers, like farmers, are depending on government relief payments. They don’t like that any better than farmers like crop insurance.

I joked with my brother a few weeks ago that the rains would come as soon as the combines rolled into the fields. And they did. Last week, the rains came. Good steady showers and rains. The kind that should have come in May. Or June. Or July. They’re too late to help this year’s crops and pastures. They might help restore ground moisture for next year.

If more rain comes. And winter snow.

In 1986, my father had a bumper crop. He combined one field, 40 acres of Canada No. 1 Hard wheat in the bin. And then it started to rain.

It rained all September. Not just showers, but downpours. Constant. Steady. Occasionally, it stopped raining for a couple of days, just long enough for Dad to think, “If this keeps up a bit longer, I can get the rest of the crop off.”

He’d wake up the next morning to pouring rain.

The crops deteriorated. They were so wet, kernels sprouted in the heads.

At the end of September, the clouds rolled away, the sun came out, the breezes blew, and the crops dried out. Too late. The damage was done. The crop was ruined. What had been a bumper crop of Canada No. 1 Hard was now barely feed quality.

All this makes you wonder why farmers keep on farming. Why they persist in spite of fickle prairie weather.

I think it’s because there’s nothing else they’d rather do.

#PrairieWeather #Drought #PalliserTriangle #HarvestTime #ClimateChange #FarmingChallenges #TooMuchRain #HannaHistory #MargaretGHanna

Saying Good-Bye

I wandered through the silent house, my footsteps echoing in the empty rooms. I heard a creak in the living room floor I had never heard before. Otherwise, nothing.

I checked every cupboard and closet. Had I forgotten anything? Yes, there was a bowl that Mom had bought from a local potter. How had I missed that when packing up the kitchen? Oops, still some garbage under the sink. Better get rid of that.

I gathered everything together then stopped and looked around.

The house was empty, empty not just of furniture and “stuff” but of life itself. These rooms once vibrated with energy. Family gatherings filled with food, laughter, stories and, quite often, hi-jinks, everyone sitting elbow-to-elbow around the huge table. Friends for supper and a movie in the “Lower Level Repertoire Theatre,” as we called the TV room downstairs. Raucous visits from grand-nieces and nephews. Sitting on the deck, enjoying coffee or a glass of wine, a decadent dessert and the view of the garden resplendent with Mom’s flowers. My brother and I working under Mom’s directions – “Today I think WE should do . . .” – trimming the hedge or pruning rose bushes (“Ouch!”) or moving some perennials (“Oh, my aching back!”). The whir of the sewing machine as Mom sewed yet another dress or skirt. The smell of cinnamon buns or chocolate cake or peanut butter cookies or roast beef. Laughter as we tried to interpret Grandma Higham’s enigmatic dark fruit cake recipe. My brother setting up his HO scale “Davy Crockett” train under the Christmas tree, and the cat chasing it. The living room in chaos as Mom sorted through her fabric stash searching for the perfect combination of colours for a quilt top as requested by a niece or nephew. Just sitting quietly in the evening, watching the flames in the gas fireplace, remembering, enjoying each other’s company, no need to talk.

And now, it was all over. What had once been a home was now just another house, an empty shell.

I patted a door jamb. “Good-bye, house.” I picked up those few things and left.

Someone else lives in that house now. Someone else is transforming it from a house into a home. Someone else will bring life into it. Someone else will create memories there.

The good thing about memories is that they are easily transported. No matter now many you have, you don’t have to worry if you have enough boxes or wrapping paper. You don’t have to worry if they will get lost or broken in transit. All it takes is the phrase, “Do you remember when . . .?” and instantly we are transported back to that place, to that house that once was home to my mother and brother.

#Memories #Moving #EmptyHouse #SayingGoodBye #LeavingHome #MargaretGHanna

The Path

Others have walked this way before
left their stories here.

A bevy of young boys scamper
laughing, pushing, daring
one falls, scrapes his knee
he doesn’t cry
‘cause boys don’t cry.
He gets up, brushes gravel off his knee
runs to catch up with the others

A young couple in love
he plays the gentleman,
holds his hand out to help her down the slope
She’s a New Woman, refuses.
They aren’t lovers anymore.

Another couple
he slips
she grabs him
they both fall into the grass
giggling at the ridiculousness of it all
then discover clouds above.
There’s a ship.
No, it’s a horse.

A man walks alone
walking off his loss
his wife beside him only in his memory
his tears wet the grass.

I step onto the path
my story merges with theirs.

#Poem #Paths #Memories #Stories #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

Skunked!

We had a close encounter of the skunk kind the other day. It had wandered into one of our squirrel traps. Long story short, we managed to release it but not without incident. We didn’t get sprayed, directly, but the odour still stuck to our clothes. They went into the washing machine, we went into the shower, and my husband’s old runners went into the garbage.

It brought to mind the summer of 1977 when I was directing excavations on an island not far from the Village of Duck Bay, just off the western shore of Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba.

The “Summer of the Skunks” began the day a crew member came running back from the outhouse shouting, “I just saw a skunk!”

We didn’t pay her much mind. After all, she was the one who firmly believed that moths have fangs and suck your blood. Seriously!

Her report was confirmed a couple of days later by a more reputable crew member. Soon we discovered there was not one, but an entire family of skunks co-habiting the island – Mom and Dad, four Teenagers, and the runt whom we named – wait for it – The Squirt! (Da-dum-dump!)

What to do? So far, we hadn’t been bothered. We decided to let well enough alone and see what happened.

We learned that the skunks were as wary of us as we were of them. The first time we met on one of our paths, both turned tail (hmmm, maybe not the best phrase given we are talking about skunks) and ran for the hills, not that there were any hills on the island but you get my drift.

Next, we discovered that, if we clapped our hands really loudly, the skunks would scurry off into the bush. The skunks quickly learned that the sound of clapping hands meant nothing at all so they stood their ground.

So did we.

Eventually, we could pass each other, very cautiously, without incident.

And so life continued. We dug the site. The skunks dug worms and grubs.

Skunks are very interesting creatures. They can’t see well and often blunder into things. We discovered that the morning I opened up the “office tent” to find two of the Teenagers inside. They scrambled back and forth along one wall, coming within inches of the open door, only to turn around and scramble back the way they’d just come. Only by chance, so it seemed, did they stumble into the doorway and run off.

1977_TheSquirtFbMb1
The Squirt, cleaning up

They may not see well but they can smell! The Squirt came wandering through our cook tent one evening as we were eating supper and headed straight for the tub that held our yet-to-be-washed pots and pans. He did a good job of washing, not so good with the drying.

They’re definitely built for digging. Long claws on their forelimbs can rip open almost anything. They’re wedge-shaped – pointy at the nose and widening toward the rear.

When you’re stuck on an island, you learn to devise your own entertainment. One night, that entertainment took the form of Feeding the Family. We had cooked stew for supper and traces were left in the pot. We put the pot out on the ground and, in keeping with our sophisticated reputation, placed a wine bottle (empty, of course; no archaeologist worth his/her salt would waste booze) wrapped in a towel beside the bowl.

The Teenagers were the first to arrive. They encircled the pot and began to lick it clean. Along came The Squirt who tried to nose his way into the tight circle. The Teenagers were having none of it. The fight for a bite of tasty stew intensified. The tails began to rise. The Squirt never did manage to get his share of the stew.

But we were well entertained. And not sprayed.

The only incident happened the day some kids came over from Duck Bay with their dog and ran up into the bush before we could warn them about the skunks. Two seconds later, we heard a bark and then a yelp and the dog came ky-ying back with the kids not far behind. “Lady, there’s skunks on the island!” they yelled.

“Really?”

1977_EggNoodleBurialFbMb1
RIP, egg noodles!

Oh, there was one other incident. The Teenagers broke into our food tent one night. We heard the ruckus but no one was about to go and break it up. In the morning we surveyed the damage. Amongst the shambles, we saw well-munched packages of Baker’s Chocolate and completely untouched packages of egg noodles.

Those egg noodles remained untouched until the day we backfilled the excavated units. We dumped every package into one of the units.

When we returned the following summer, that unit had the tallest, lushest growth of weeds on the entire island!

And the skunks were gone.

(P.S. Three days later, there still remains a faint but distinctive Eau du Pepe Le Peu in our garden.)

#Skunks #MephitisMephitis #Archaeology #Manitoba #DuckBay #LakeWinnipegosis #AschkibokahnFbMb1 #MargaretGHanna #NonFiction #Humour #ArchaeologicalAdventures #WildlifeEncounters

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

“Next Year” Country

Or, Hope Springs Eternal

He looks out over the prairie, hand on the breaking plow, horses at the ready. “Not much of a field this year, but next year it will be bigger.”

They walk, hand in hand, across the blackened field. She says, “At least the prairie fire missed the house.” He says, “This ash will fertilize next year’s crop.”

He fingers the rusty wheat leaves and thinks “Next year I’ll grow that new rust-resistant grain.”

He watches the droves of grasshoppers ravage his fields. “No crop this year, but a cold spring next year will do them in.”

They stand at the window, watch the dust storm carry away soil and seed. “Next year, we’ll have rain,” they say.

They cry as they look over the hailed-out crop. They put their arms around each other. “At least we have crop insurance. That will carry us through to next year.”

He holds the grain cheque. “Hardly worth putting in the bank.” His son says, “Prices should be higher next year.”

They watch their grandson start up the four-wheel drive tractor, air seeder and fertilizer applicator attached, and go into the field to start seeding. “This year,” they say. “This year!”

#FarmLife #NextYearCountry #RuralLife #Hope #MargaretGHanna