Saturday, October 29, 2022

Home Sweet House, Where Memory Begins, Part 2




"Home is where one starts from"
T.S. ELIOT


In this Home Sweet House series, I am looking back at the places I once called home, revisiting each one in my mind, ruminating how they shaped and sheltered my life. Today I look forward to sharing some of my story about the little farmhouse - the home where I started from. If you missed the intro post, you will find it HERE.

One spring day in the late 1950s, a little girl was born. She was as bald as a blonde billiard ball. "Look what the Easter Bunny brought," exclaimed the nurse to the tired, new mother. She was her parents' firstborn and was the delight of their lives… or so I'm told. That little girl was me. We lived on a farm in Alberta, one of the Canadian western prairie provinces, where my dad lived as a boy when his parents immigrated from Poland shortly before World War II. Some of my earliest memories, still rich and evocative, are rooted in the farmhouse where my mom came as a young bride, and where my siblings and I grew up. Looking back, it's the ambiance of that humble farmhouse—the one my mom turned into a warm and welcoming home for her family and all who visited—that I yearned to recreate in every dwelling I lived in when I left to make my own way in the world.

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.

TO BE CONTINUED. . .




Wishing you a beautiful weekend,
Brenda


Photo Credit:
Top - Vincent Van Gogh Image from Pixabay




20 comments:

  1. Oh that sturdy little house! Always a safe port in many storms, figurative and literal. And the light streaming in through all those windows, I've been chasing that all my adult life! The power of place--you have portrayed this perfectly:) Lovely altogether!

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    1. A sturdy house that's a safe port! That's what we probably all long for in our lives, from childhood to old age. Thank you, Sis! Your words mean a lot to me. xo

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  2. Beautiful descriptions of childhood in that dear farmhouse and, more importantly, that dear family. Though you are younger than I, your circumstances seem more "olden days" to me. My home always had a tv for example. Our first color tv came when I was a junior in high school. That was a happy day.

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    1. I grew up very much in rural Alberta where modernity was slowly spreading from the urban centres. That's probably why I still caught the tail end of some of the old ways my mom grew up in. My oldest nephews, born in the 1980s, are mind-boggled that their own mom and aunty have memories of living without phones and indoor plumbing. It seems inconceivable in this day and age. Oh yes, the arrival of the first color tv was a very happy day in our house too. Thanks, Vee! xo

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  3. And I'd say those dreams and hopes of yours have come to be in your own cozy home.

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    1. As I think about it, yes, they have come to fruition over the decades. Thanks, Diane!

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  4. What a beautiful tribute to your childhood home, and to your dear mother. I can relate to many aspects of what you wrote although I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood and not on a farm. Chores, hospitality, good manners were all important. I remember our first television, a little black and white set. I don't remember watching it very much. I love your descriptions of the light streaming in the windows at different times of the day and different seasons. I notice that, too.

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    1. Thank you, Lorrie, for adding a few of your own growing up memories. We're children of an era sharing similar experiences. I know we're both lovers of the light...and Light. xo

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  5. Brenda, So many sweet memories you have. The 1 though that I thought was SO precious was the memory of your Mother greeting you most mornings with “Good Morning Sunshine!”💗🌻. What a sweet greeting that SO communicated “I so love you!!!!”
    From my own growing up at home memories I also remember being taught to “set the table” and did so particularly at holiday time. My own children don’t seem to have that same sense of formality and I still treasure “a beautiful table with linen napkins, China and silver.☺️ Thanks Brenda for reminding us each of our homes and the blessings within them.☺️~ Ann

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    1. It's as you say, Ann, that little greeting of 'Good Morning Merry Sunshine' really communicated that I was loved. It's still precious to me all these years later. I'm so glad for the glimpse of your own home memories growing up. This modern day era really is much more informal and casual, but I guess that's okay too. As long as the loving never gets lost. Heart hugs! xo

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  6. I love reading beautiful writing, especially writing that tells a story of memory and oh my, this was so perfect, setting my own mind on a journey to past times. Yes, the setting the table got to me -- I learned it as a kid and I still set it nicely, even if it's just hot dogs! Maybe not always cloth napkins -- but always pretty napkins in colors that work! The thoughts of our old houses, especially our childhood homes, evoke such beautiful feelings, stories, memories. I loved reading about yours.

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    1. Loved your note, Jeanie. Thank you! I do love all the colourful and pretty napkins available out there these days. I like to stock up, especially at Christmas. xo

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  7. Oh Brenda. What a wonderful series you are creating. I loved the story of your very first home. I can easily picture how cozy and quaint it was! I forgot your Polish roots. My maternal grandparents were Polish, too, and that culture is very much a part of me. You are a wonderful writer. I LOVE reading what you write. Can't wait to read about each of the houses in which you have lived. Susan

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    1. Susan, how lovely to learn we share some Polish roots. Thank you so much for your supportive and lovely comments. They hug my heart. We are working on the next segment in the series. xo

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  8. When you finish this series you must put it in book form! This completely drew me in, my favorite books contain backgrounds like this. Ordinary days about ordinary activities. Writing through the eyes of a child does not always succeed, it's difficult for me, but you did it so well. I loved all the little details and they brought memories to my mind as I read it--my father taking down the screens when cold weather came and putting back up the heavy wood storm windows. My sisters and I practicing the piano, Sunday dinner after church--me always setting the table--and Sunday drives after a short nap for all.

    I can see where the groundwork was laid for you wanting to have a home of your own to care for. I'm of a generation born during WW II but your mother reminds me so very much of my own.

    I'm looking forward to future installments,
    Dewena of Dewena's Window

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    1. Dewena, I have similar thoughts of putting the series into book form when I'm finished. Your comments hug my heart, and I am so glad of them. Thank you! Heart hugs. xo

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  9. I loved reading this. I also enjoyed your description of the way the light came in from different angles and windows throughout the day. That's something I don't remember about our ranch style house in the middle of an orange grove. I think it was designed to keep the windows shaded under deep eaves, for coolness.

    Your appreciation of your mother and the way she made the home is beautiful in itself, maybe an overflow of the home's coziness built on her love. It is a great gift to grow up in a stable family, without want. Thanks be to God for His wonderful gifts.

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    1. Gretchen, it was when I started looking back at my childhood memories in recent years that I realized how much the light and the windows to let it in from every direction meant to me as a child growing up. It's still as vital to my soul's well-being to live in a place where the windows allow generous amounts of light through them. Thank you so much for your beautiful words. xo

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  10. Dear Brenda,
    I so enjoyed your memories of your childhood home and all the sweet details of your daily life. I could picture myself there with the sunbeams shining through the rooms, the kitchen full of loving activities of family life, and even the scary trip to the outhouse in the winter cold. It brought back memories for me, too, as I was a child of the 50's. The Sunday drives, the neighbors dropping in, the Reader's Digest, and the delicious food of the times. (The gelatin salads made me smile). Oh, and that sweet song, 'Little Green Apples' was a favorite. Such a lovely time and place, written with such love. x K

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    1. Karen, I loved hearing how you were reminded of your own memories when you read about mine here. That's when I feel my writing has hit the right note, when we recognize our own generation by the common experiences we share... no matter where we each grew up. I love it. Thank you for stopping by. Wishing you a beautiful day. xo

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To My Beautiful Readers,

Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same. ~ Franz Peter Schubert

Thank you so much for leaving your 'footprint' here in my comment box. I do appreciate you taking a moment to share your thoughts today.

Brenda xox

PS. I do not always comment here, but I do look forward to coming and visiting you....