Suzan Bekolay – Pipestone Flyer Staff
A horse that wouldn’t do anything but trot, a pony that would only trod in a circle, a single jersey cow that gave birth to Bambie and two geese that chewed bare the wires to a guest’s boat hitch might not be a farmer’s dream but it was my Mom and Dad’s little farm, and the place of priceless memories for this one gal and her four brothers.
There were always animals around. At one time or another pigs, sheep, a few cows, ducks, banty hens and roosters cockle doodle doing at all hours and always a garden – an acre garden of course. Mom always had the cold storage full; pickled and canned everything. Every night, without fail, our family of seven sat down to a supper table to no less than three vegetables, often fresh buns and pie – still the best pies I’ve ever had – my favourite was peach and theirs apple.
My Dad was a Saskatchewan native, transplanted to the Ottawa valley, but I think he always pined to be a farmer in the west. Together with my Austrian native Mom, they turned acres of bush into what became a little piece of paradise complete with an outdoor kitchen, a thirty foot swing, and a water fountain made by hand from abundant stones.
May long weekend was seed potatoe cutting time on the back deck and sorting of seeds that arrived by mail a month earlier. The deck was so hot, it burned the soles of bare feet if you stood still. Naturally, there was no other way to be but in bare feet. Almost as soon as the snow was gone came the call from my oldest brother “time to toughen up our feet”. We would run back and forth across the rock filled garden in preparation for summer. That’s the way it was having a garden on the Canadian Shield – endless rocks. Misbehaviour led to the sentence – “get out there and take 5 pales of rocks off the garden and don’t come back until it’s done”.
Looking back, Dad seemed to rescue animals. There was a German shepherd named Sergeant who, by all accounts, had been trained by an Ontario Provincial Police officer who was killed leaving Sergeant to the lonely life of a junk yard dog because nobody could seem to manage him. With Dad’s patience and care, in time he joined the other dog and menagerie of our little farm. He was indeed a protector. A family friend pulled into the yard and got out of his car. He took one look at Sergeant who had lowered his ears with his sights dead on this stranger. The visitor hearing the low growl after he’s taken only two steps from his car, turned and ran, diving through the open window, hitting the bridge of his nose as he promptly sped away, holding his nose, waving and yelling, “I’ll call you later”.
Rocky was a black and white pony who spent most of his years at fairs walking in circles with no doubt thousands of delighted children judging by his swayed back. It didn’t matter to us if he would only walk in circle. We were thrilled to have a pony. As an unexpected addition we kids concluded Rocky needed hay. I don’t remember which older brother had the idea or maybe the older two cooked up another of their schemes, which they did often. The steel framed wagon was ready to go early the next morning. Bright and sunny it had the promise of becoming a hot summer day. “C’mon, we’ve got work to do.” There was no hitching up Rocky. We had no harness. My two younger brothers rode on the wagon. Up and down our rural dirt road, we three bigger kids pushed and pulled the brute of a wagon – learning quickly that the slightest hill was a great challenge. We tucked a stone at the wheel so it wouldn’t roll away and were in and out of ditches all day long, picking up the cut grass left by the township mowers. We had with us peanut butter and jam sandwiches for lunch and a jar of lemonade. Filthy from head to toe, covered in dust and dead tired but oh so proud of our accomplishment, we arrived back home with an almost full load just before Dad got home from work. He seemed pretty proud of us. Then the sad news; the hay couldn’t be used because back in those days the road sides were sprayed with DDT.
A big old log barn from an abandoned, maybe hundred year old farm, made of huge timbers was moved on skids from a half kilometer away to our farm. Dad negotiated with a neighbor to hay their huge fields on steep hills. When it came time to “get the haying done”, my brothers and Dad hefted the bails on the wagon and I was the driver. Only 10 years old, I was barely heavy enough to stand on the brakes. Down the hill I puttered on the old grey tractor. I looked back as the wagon was loaded only to turn my head to see a giant gopher hole dead ahead of the front wheel. We aren’t talking of ground squirrels like there are in the west. We’re talking about gophers bigger than a small dog so their holes are a real problem. I stood on the brakes but couldn’t get them fully engaged, turned the wheel sharply to avoid the hole nearly tipping the whole wagon but finally we came to a stop. After that, I was relegated to the kitchen to help Mom prepare the field supper which we delivered; potatoe salad, deviled eggs, dill pickles, a good sized chunk of kielbasa, fresh bread with a thermos of iced tea. Somehow everything tasted better in the field.
On the three mile dirt road to home, we rode blissfully atop the load of golden hay high enough to enable us to touch the canopy of maple leaves as we passed the long ago abandoned Gourlay stone walled mansion. At one time the mansion was surrounded by apple trees which nourished us often on our treks through the woods. Into our barn yard we rolled. The hay went on the conveyor belt up to the loft. We couldn’t wait to hang the rope from the rafters and swing out to let go in huge piles of soft hay or make a fort with the bails. The farm kids from next door would walk over on occasion making for extra fun.
The Muldoons were a big family too. They had been farming for years – had a huge potatoe field half way to our house across the back fields and milking cows. They had a hand cranked milk separator. Mom and Dad would go for ‘a visit’ every now and again. They played euchre sometimes at the kitchen table by a huge wooden stove in a low ceiling kitchen. Mom and Mrs. M talking of kids and recipes and sipping tea while my Dad and Mr. M chatted of farm challenges, usually a wee snort or two to help the figuring. Dad occasionally did some welding for Mr. M. One day in early spring we were playing hide and seek while the adults had their visit. “Holly, holly home free” someone yelled. I ran out of the barn, over the top of what looked like a pile of six foot pile of frozen dirt to find myself at the top with one leg up to my knee in a soft stinking mess. It wasn’t dirt. We always returned home with cream or eggs or home made something.
Mrs. M was a big woman with a huge heart who never whore a bra and always wore a small print cotton shift, as I remember, even in the dead of winter. She showed my Mom how to kill the chickens. Our goose became Christmas dinner. While some of us had weird feelings, the youngest of us tucked into that goose with no problem. Revenge perhaps to the goose who often flew at him, knocking him over then pecked until he was rescued. He was only a wee tike as they would say in the valley.
Our house was finally built following a cold winter with my Mom and Dad on the roof hammering shingles at night by lamp light. It was just after supper one night with all of us in a good grubby Saturday state when some “well to do” neighbours came a calling dressed in their finery. For some reason we were rushed off to get bathed and put on our Sunday clothes. I was looking out the living room window when headlights streamed into the yard. People arrived with food, a tea cup and saucer for Mom and a plastic bowling game for us kids. A house warming they called it.
There’s something special about farm kids and farm folk seems to me – even if my experiences weren’t of a “real” farm. We reminisce and feel wrinkles being taken from our souls as we share stories of building rafts to cross ponds, getting more soakers than anything else, of heels dragged in mud as we engineered water systems to make the spring waters flow, of tree houses and snow forts and fox and the goose, of lilac bouquets for our teachers, long school bus rides and favourite pets. We filled our days with adventures in the bush together, cross country skied by moonlight with make shift skis from old down hill skis acquired for two bucks from the junk store, turned a chicken coop into a play house, played baseball in bare feet with chicken poop often between our toes, flew homemade kites, hung tire swings that resulted in the first broken bone in our family (poor brother dear) and fresh cream turned to butter by shaking a jar. While I never did get my “go go boots”, memories of our farm are priceless. No matter where they come from nor how big or small the farm, there’s just something warm, kind, generous of farm folk with appreciation for the simple things. One of those Alberta farm kids became my husband.