When I was little, the farmhouse seemed huge. It was my whole world. I still remember what it felt like to see things from a child's height, eyes barely skimming the countertop and being little enough to make a tent for me and my doll under the kitchen table without bumping my head too often. The house sat square to the world on a small hill. Walking into the northeast jutted-out porch, it was like a cloak room where we kept our coats and boots. It also housed the wood box for the wood stove in the kitchen, a basin for washing off the dirt, and a pail with fresh water from the outside well for drinking, a dipper hanging nearby. Our house was a simple two-story, rectangular building, nothing fancy, with five small rooms on the first floor and two large ones with slanted ceilings on the second. Crowded when company came, it felt perfect for the eventual six of us who'd call it home for years to come. Although I wouldn't have known how to describe it as a child, the smallness of the rooms made the house feel cozy and intimate. Especially so at Christmas with the tree lights on and the ceiling light off. I loved it.
It was cozy. And cozy became the standard for how I thought a place should feel and be. I sought that ambiance wherever I went.
By the time I came on the scene, our house had electricity. Old lanterns in the basement and attic remained as remnants of my dad’s childhood. The telephone, indoor plumbing, and natural gas for heating wouldn't arrive until I was older, nearing age ten, or so. The outdoor biffy was a nifty two-seater, and my little sister and I would synchronize our visits, not being keen on outhouse visits on our own, especially as it grew dark—one never knew if there’d be skunks waiting down the hole. It never dawned on our vivid imaginations that no self-respecting skunk would choose such a spot to hang around in. Same with imagining the coyotes in the basement beneath the stairs, scary creatures just waiting to nip sweet young ankles if we didn’t tear up those stairs as fast as we could without dropping whatever we'd been instructed to fetch from the pantry... slamming the basement door behind us, to Mom’s annoyance.
Every room in the house had tall windows that let in fresh air in summer and had storm windows fastened over them in winter to keep out the cold. The house was bright on sunny days. Morning sunshine streamed over cereal boxes and milk jugs. By noon it lit up the southeast situated living room where Mom's beautiful piano stood as a queen and where we’d watch, mesmerized, as dust mites danced on the sunbeams. Across the hall sat my south-facing bedroom, which I shared when my little sister came along three years after me. How we loved to play in that bright, snug room, jumping on the bed and stoutly denying those were not our fingerprints marking the walls near the ceiling. In late afternoon, sunshine streamed through west-facing windows in the stairwell and our parents' bedroom, now bathing the kitchen in warm evening light that fell by the stove where Mom cooked supper.
I loved looking out those windows in the wintertime to catch the sun's waning light skimming across frozen fields. In deep winter, layers of frost covered the windows. It was only after scratching frost off with a fingernail or melting tiny holes with our breath that we could peek outside. And when a snowstorm was blowing or the temperatures had fallen to -40 in both Fahrenheit and Celsius, a peek was all we were interested in, happy to turn back inside to play with our toys and warm our cold toes on heat registers.
I probably learned my directions from watching where the sun shone through which window. I knew high noon was in the south. I knew which way was north. No sunshine shone through that window, but I could probably spot the North Star from it at night. It was a lovely view in the summertime—trees filled the sky with lots of greenery and the fields felt alive with growing crops and hay. But on grey sunless autumn or wintry days, I never liked looking out from that window. The world felt stark and just a little scary with its bleakness. Fields lay empty. Bare branches bristled against sullen skies. And I didn't like those dull colours of grey and earthy stubbly brown (hues I have since come to appreciate). Besides, there were coyotes out there somewhere, with their eerie howls, which made for scary dreams of being locked out and no one to let me in. I never lingered at that window in winter, always eager to turn from it into warmth and safety. The kitchen was especially welcoming, the radio filling the air with talk host chatter interspersed by homey tunes like Little Green Apples.
The kitchen was the heart of our home. And the kitchen table was the hub for all that went on in our family. Where all things important and trivial took place…where we ate our meals, folded laundry, cleaned fruit and berries, sweated over homework, played games, did crafts. Where the Eaton's Christmas catalogue was studied, and bills were calculated. And where yummy things like plum kuchen, ginger cookies, and buns sat on cooling racks. Mom’s sewing machine often occupied one end where she transformed bolts of fabric into pretty dresses, blouses, jackets, new curtains as well as patching torn sleeves and ripped pants. It was also where Dad took off his big work boots and sat in his thick woolly socks, or Mom took a few minutes of rest peeling an orange while browsing the latest Reader's Digest.
I grew up in rural Alberta thinking everyone's family was the same as ours. And in many respects, they were. The families we knew were mostly of European roots, having immigrated at some point, settling in Western Canada. Farm families usually were large with four to six children, or more. Some families thrived; others survived. Thankfully, we always had more than sufficient of the necessities of life, with enough extras and treats to sweeten our days. My mom and dad would play with us when we were little, put nourishing meals on the table, lay loving hands over fevered foreheads and help us sip ginger ale for upset tummies. We had shoes that fit growing feet and lovely clothes for the new school year and at Christmas and Easter. New toys were usually saved for birthdays and Christmas, but occasionally a new book for eager young minds came out of the shopping bag from the trip into the big city. If there was one for me and one for my sister, it was a double bonus; we could trade when we finished our own.
We learned how to help our neighbours. We found out life is a mix of happy and sad, good health and illness, joyful surprises and horrid things that go bump in the night. We were simple folk; in our house conversations didn't revolve around the philosophies of life, or poetry, or the classics. But we learned about getting along with our siblings and that helping was part of what makes a home a happy place. We learned that life isn't always fair, despite our protests. And we soon had a handle on the wonderful old stories about Moses in the bulrushes, David and Goliath, and Baby Jesus being born in Bethlehem. We learned to say grace at the table. There were flowers in the garden mingling amongst the long rows of peas, potatoes, and carrots. Family photos and pretty ornaments were set about the place. And music spooled from the radio and record player, along with the added cacophony as young fingers practiced scales, hammered out Chopsticks, and learned to recognize pieces by Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, not to mention plunked out hymns and tunes like What A Friend We Have in Jesus and Jingle Bells.
Our home was a pragmatic place: daytime was for work, no time to be lazy or fooling around. Clothes needed washing, potatoes needed hilling, pantries needed stocking, children and livestock needed feeding, crops needed planting, hay needed baling, school needed attending, and homework needed finishing. As kids—there were four of us eventually—we each had our chores, but then the rest of the day, especially during summer holidays and weekends, was ours to do as we pleased. We had the whole farm at our disposal, and we often asked if we could walk to meet the kids on the next farm. Together, we'd explore every corner of our parents' quarter-sections. We'd play games, put on plays, and pick Saskatoon berries. Sundays after church, Mom would often invite a family for dinner, and sometimes we'd go on Sunday drives, occasionally stopping at neighbours for a short visit (we always hoped there'd be kids to play with at that house). Evenings after supper, when I was little, were for relaxing: Dad sitting in his easy chair reading or listening to Mom play the piano. In summer we'd played outside until it got dark, and on dark winter evenings we played games and read storybooks and put puzzles together. When we finally got a television at our house in the early 1970s, well, that changed all manner of patterns, for we then gathered in the living room to watch the latest episode of The Waltons, Mary Tyler Moore, Marcus Welby, or Gunsmoke.
With our farm situated just off the main highway, friends and neighbours would often stop in on their way home from shopping in town. And one day when Helen, a good family friend, stopped in, and Mom wasn't home, I knew just how to step into being hostess. Inviting her in, I put the kettle on for coffee (usually Nescafe or Maxwell House), set out the mugs, cream and sugar. Tea was never offered where we grew up; it was always coffee. A quick rustling in the freezer for cookies which thawed quickly. Or maybe there was a fresh rhubarb cake on the counter. That day, the pair of us sat at the table, sipping our coffee, and chatting. I will never forget it. I was probably 11 or 12, already eagerly leaning towards my teens and young adulthood. I felt grown up, maybe the way Anne of Green Gables felt when she prepared afternoon tea for her chum, Diana Berry. Only I didn't make anyone tipsy - no elderberry wine anywhere in Mom's cupboards.
I loved setting a table for company, and to this day, it remains my favourite aspect of preparing for guests. With Mom busy making the meal, she'd ask me to set the table. I’d select one of her pretty tablecloths she got as a wedding present. And then carefully bring out the Old Country Roses Royal Albert dishes she'd collected over the years. I'd remember a page in a magazine on how to creatively fold dinner napkins. Experimenting was great fun. Days before the big event, I'd watch my mom at the kitchen table poring over recipe books as she decided on the menu. The entrée—although we’d never heard of the word until years later—we simply referred to it as the main dish which was always a meat dish: chicken, beef, pork, or turkey. Then there were the side dishes of vegetables like peas, cabbage rolls, and salads, including the green garden salad and the jellied salad popular at the time. Homemade buns and pickles. Not forgetting the all-important decision of which desserts to make. Would it be lemon meringue pie, angel food cake, or the pineapple layer dream dessert? The latter was probably my favourite. I marveled at how Mom was able to orchestrate her meal so that every dish arrived hot and done on the table at the same time.
Mom was the sunshine of our world. Coming home from school, she’d be waiting for us, welcoming us with questions about our day and something yummy for a snack. The house always felt sad and empty when she happened to be away when we got home from school. There were occasions when her cheerfulness would dim, and I felt its loss keenly although I couldn’t have said so at the time. Life was hard for her sometimes, often struggling with her own illness of severe asthma and allergies, trying to raise four kids, help her husband on the farm, and keep the household running. On days when there was tension in the home—every family has its imperfect human dynamics—those days I’d disappear into my storybooks. Always hoping that whatever was going on would clear up and our sweet and cozy home life would resume.
As a girl, I watched my mom taking care of us, of our home, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. I tucked these things in my heart and pondered them until the day I would be the chatelaine of my own home.
Wishing you a beautiful weekend,
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