Saturday, 24 December 2011

Stepping stones

Such is Life

I watched a star through my window last night
As it peeked from the shade of a tree
I wanted to see more of its twinkling light
But the dancing leaves hid it from me.

I focused my eyes on that certain spot
Till the whispering breeze allowed me to see
A few fleeting moments of that glimmer of light
Such brief encounters from behind that tree.

I waited and waited for an hour or two
It seemed like a lifetime was passing me by
But all I could catch was an infrequent glimpse
Just a random twinkle and I wanted to cry.

Why don’t those leaves just stop all their dancing?
Why don’t they let my star shine through
Move over, come out, show me it’s brilliance
I long for much more, just flashes won’t do.

I finally left my comfortable chair
(All it took was that minor decision)
Moved to a spot where the tree did not block
That star’s silver beam and my vision.

My star was now glowing, all in full view
Minus those shadows, it glistened so bright
If I had but moved when first I had spied it
I’d have basked in its beam the whole night!

How much like real life, this starlight, I thought
All the time that we waste while we wait
Instead of just moving on with our life
We sit and complain about fate.

We need only to move from the rut that we’re in
To find happiness that we’re yearning to feel
Let go of the past, reach our to the future
It’s there for the taking, it ours and its real!

Friday, 16 December 2011

Old Prairie Christmases


It had been a bitterly cold and blustery December that year and. as on several other occasions during that wicked month, my father had gone outdoors early in the morning and after a walk to the woodpile and back, had come into the house and made that solemn official declaration of his that my younger brother, John, and I dreaded so much.  "Don't bother getting ready for school today kids, it's too cold to go out".
It never failed to amaze me how my father, without the aid of a thermometer, was able to take a short walk outdoors and determine when it was 30 below.  But he had that gift, and his judgment was often carved in icy stone, never to be questioned, and most certainly not to be disputed.
That was not to say that my brother and I didn't try.  We both loved school and to have to stay home was the greatest of all punishments.  We'd beg, plead, entreat, promise to do everything short of taking the feather quilt on our back, but we never won any of those sessions.  My father was an authoritative figure and he considered it his God-given duty to take care of his family.  If it was too cold, it was his responsibility to keep his family warm and safe!
Today was a special occasion however, and we begged frantically.  True, the two and a half miles to the Kulish School was a long walk.  But we were used to these walks; they were as natural to us as the sunrise and the sunset. 
"We'll bundle up so warm, the teacher will have to search for us in those wraps", we promised, "but we just have to go to school today."
Tonight was the Annual Christmas Concert and this would be the final rehearsal.  We just could NOT miss that. 
"Please, oh please," we begged.
Seeing Father's countenance unmoved, we turned to Mother.  Her heart melted easier than Father's, though we knew we were treading on forbidden ground.  Mother seldom dared to overrule his judgment or undermine his authority and this action of ours could get us all in trouble.  Still, we knew that Mother had a special way of talking to Father that sometimes worked miracles, and we were desperate enough to try anything. 
"Maybe, just this once", Mother's appeal was hesitant, questioning, poised for retreat, if necessary.  “It is concert night and they can stay in school till after the concert.  I’ll give them extra sandwiches for supper.”
Father knew mother was not foolhardy.  She never contradicted him and never questioned his authority unless she had a valid reason.  Her argument and reasoning made sense.  Fully aware of this, Father agreed to harness the horses, hitch them to the sleigh and drive us to school.  He had never done this before and we knew we had to be extra grateful for this extraordinary privilege.  Most people had vans mounted on the sleigh, with a little boxstove inside to keep the occupants warm, but Father believed that if it was too cold for man to brave the elements, he should offer the same respect to horses.
"Too cold for man," he'd say, "too cold for horse".
And so, cold days meant staying home inside a house kept cosy and warm by the big boxstove that sat in the middle of the big center room of the house and the wood stove in the kitchen.
On those bitterly cold days, Father would let the livestock out for water, but if they wanted back into the barn after the drink, they were fed inside. 
So this concession to Mother's petition went against his grain we knew, but today, for her sake, Father was going to break his own rule.  We felt strangely guilty.  While he tended to Jack and Jory, the two horses, Mother warmed up the two rocks in the oven that would keep our feet warm.  When the sleigh was brought near the house, Mother packed us in with the feather quilt, wrapped the hot rocks with towels and put them at our feet.  Then we left for school, feeling very humble, and grateful but also very happy.
We did not take the road.  That was plugged with big hard snow drifts, some of them as high as twenty feet.  These were our secret play areas, though I suspect that Mother and Father knew that when we left the house in the dark hours before dawn, often at least half an hour before the usual departure time, or came home much later than usual, also through darkness, that we had just been playing on the drifts.  But they never questioned or scolded us about it because they knew we were just “enjoying the winter”.
We utilized that extra time to slide gleefully down those steep slopes and then climb up the "stairs" that we had dug out into the drift along the side to the top.  Then it was another exciting slide down and another and another.  These were the bonus thrills of winter and all us kids from the neighbourhood enjoyed this free sport that nature herself provided.  Who feels cold when they're having such fun?  Indeed, staying home from school meant the curtailment of many pleasures, some approved and others not.  Even drifts on the school yard were well utilized.  We simple dug tunnels through them and built forts underneath the hard packed snow.  Winter cold or tons of snow were never a problem for us. 
Anyway, we bypassed all these treasure troves of delight as we stopped at our neighbour's house to pick up their two big teen-aged boys.  They may as well ride since we were all going in the same direction.  We drove through wide open fields where the snow was not deep, having been swept off towards the fences and roadside by strong winter winds.  We crossed from one farmer's field onto the next until we hit the deep ravine that always created such a problem area for travel in the winter. 
Usually, people just drove through the field and then through the next farmer's yard crossing the ravine beyond and came up the other side.  This year, there was a special problem.  The ravine had several springs that often overflowed during the winter causing minor flooding.  This year, with the weather being so severe, each successive overflow froze to create countless layers of ice rendering that section of the ravine too dangerous to cross with a team of horses and a sleigh. 
Father decided to try and get back on to the regular road to cross the ravine.  This part was not badly flooded because the overflows had been frozen upstream.  However to get to the road, he had to cross those big drifts of snow along the fence line.  Everyone knew the snow was deep up on the hill, but down lower, it shouldn't be too bad, he theorized. 
He steered the horses to the corner of the field that was down almost in the ravine.  The horses did fine for a while and then started sinking in the deep snow beneath.  Yet we were just about twenty, maybe thirty, feet from the road. 
"Giddap, Jory, Giddap, Jack", Father encouraged and the two horses gave it all they had, leaping through the deep snow, trying desperately to reach the road that was ahead of them.  But each leap brought them down harder.  Each heavy thrust of the hoofs perforated the thick crust of numerous layers of accumulated snowfalls as the horses sank ever deeper into the snow, until, with their feet stuck in its depths and their bellies suspended by the drifts below them, they hung there, panting, no longer able to move.
We were all frightened, my father, no less than we, though he probably did not experience the utter hopelessness and guilt that John and I did.  Mumbling something under his breath that, possibly, lucky for us, did not quite reach our heavily insulated tender ears, he got out of the sleigh and walked over the top of the drift to the front of the horses to assess the situation.  No doubt about it.  His precious Jack and Jory would never walk out of there, unless they were dug out.  
"Whoa Jack, Whoa Jory". 
Patting the horses' frothing nostrils sympathetically, he spoke soothingly, reassuring the helpless, bewildered horses, that this was just a temporary situation, and that all they had to do now was rest and he would make things normal again soon.
He had had the foresight to bring two shovels along, and with the help of the two neighbour boys, who were as strong as any farmer's sons could be, they set about to dig the horses out.  John and I were useless, of course, and since sitting there was not going to keep us warm, Father allowed us to continue on our way to school, walking, which was now only a mile away.
When we got to school, the class was already rehearsing the play "Olga From DeVolga".  There were about twenty items to rehearse.  Besides the play, there was tap dancing by Stanley, recitations, carols, action songs, a Ukrainian Hopak dance, guitar selections and yodelling by Rudy and of course, the final item "Jingle Bells" which was to usher in gift bearing Santa himself. 
The rehearsals continued and in our excitement over the last minute preparations for the concert, John and I forgot our worries about how Father and the boys made out with the poor horses.  Shortly after lunch, the boys, Stanley and Morris, walked in to school, exhausted, but just as enthusiastic about the concert arrangements as the rest of us were.
Eagerly, we all gathered around the two boys as they told us how, when they kept digging through that drift, they finally found Jory's front hoof standing on top of a fence post!  They had gone to the yard of the neighbour that lived near the ravine, get wire cutters and an axe, and cut through that fence first before they unhitched the horses from the sleigh and let them jump their way to freedom. 
My father then took the tired horses back to the open field, leading them out of the ravine single file.  With the use of the neighbour's logging chain, he pulled the sleigh out of the snow backwards onto the field where he was able to hitch the horses back on to it to drive home.   
"Your father said for all of us to stay for the concert.  It's no use going home after four and coming back again.  Your folks and our folks won’t be attending the concert tonight at all, so we'll have to walk home at night.  He said to make sure and wrap up warm." 
That evening, our excitement knew no bounds as the school filled to capacity with parents, neighbours, friends, and even some more distant relatives, this in spite of the cold weather.  As we danced, and sang, and performed our various pieces, nobody could have matched the exhilaration that each one of us students experienced. 
It was after midnight when the concert finished and everyone left the school for the various destinations.  For the first mile of our trip home, we got a ride with Mr. Bilous who had come to see the concert.  We rode in a warm but very crowded van, pulled by horses decked with jingle bells that tinkled merrily as the horses trotted along.  We were deliriously happy and everyone talked ecstatically about the wonderful evening as the bells jingled along outside. 
Just before the ravine, we came to the crossroads where Mr. Bilous had to turn off to his farm.  Climbing out of the van, we got out into a beautiful crisp night, a million stars in the sky and the moon shining down on us in all its glory, lighting up the night with a silvery blue haze that sparkled on the snow around us like gleaming diamonds strewn at random over the landscape.  The shadows of the trees cast an ethereal glow onto the path below. 
That second mile, we walked home with the boys and then ourselves the rest of the way.  We didn't feel the cold; we were too excited by all the happenings of the day and especially the concert.  We even had a dozen or so slides down the steep drifts that glistened so brightly in the moonlight, like some captivating picture from a book of fairy tales. 
We needed no electric lights twinkling with bright colors among the trees to tell us it was Christmas time.  No star copied or created by man, could possibly match the stars that lit our way that evening.  Mother Nature provided all the color and sparkle that man could imagine but never equal.  It was wonderful and glorious and great to be alive because it was Christmas! 
Mother and Father were awake when we got home.  They were waiting for us and for our report of the concert.  In those days, no one thought of being afraid to go out at night and children of school age were always adept at getting to where they were going with little or no supervision.  Cold was considered a greater enemy than any predator but if you were dressed properly even that was not a threat and everyone survived.  Who cared if it was cold?  It was a Very Merry Christmas in our hearts!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Christmas Turkey

The Christmas Turkey

Every new farmer has to learn about farming.  It's a matter of survival.  Basic intelligence supports that survival.  I grew up on a farm and that being the case; I have no excuse for ignorance.  Contrary to popular belief, ignorance is not always bliss.  Sometimes it can hurt - a lot.
I always prided myself on being a good strong farm girl, capable of handling any situation independently but pride goeth before a fall.  I learned, and quite reluctantly, had to admit, that my strength and independence had limitations. 
One year, in lieu of payment for some service we had provided, a neighbour gave us a tom turkey for Thanksgiving, but since we normally did not do the big Thanksgiving dinner deal, we decided to save him for Christmas.  We put him into the chicken coop and there he strutted proudly among the chickens, gorging himself incessantly on the constantly available nutritious grain.  By Christmas, his already adult weight and size had almost doubled.  He just forgot to stop growing! 
Christmas at our house always meant lots of relatives, friends, and neighbours so a turkey would go along way to satisfying all those hungry appetites.  A couple of days before the big day, I informed my husband that it was time to dress Tommy for Christmas.  John got the chopping block cleaned off, got the axe and on the way to the chicken coop, he proceeded to tell me how to aim that axe so as not to waste all that good meat on the turkey's neck.
I was stunned.  It had never occurred to me that I would be wielding the guillotine.
"I'm not chopping his neck off!"  I protested in alarm.  "You do that.  I'll hold him."
With his proud regal strut, and that welcoming "gobble, gobble gobble," those beady eyes watching me with such respect each time I brought feed or came to collect the eggs that the hens so obligingly deposited for me, I had grown rather fond of His Majesty.  Not enough to spare him his fate; mind you, but enough to make me refuse to wield the axe on that meaty neck of his. 
"Are you crazy?  You'll never be able to hold him.  That sucker weighs as much as you do."  John scoffed in disbelief.
I was insulted.  "I can too, hold him.  I'm strong as horse and you know it!  I can keep up with you at any farm job."
"You may be tough, but you'll never hold that turkey."  John sneered, conviction and scorn dripping in his voice.
This whole thing was taking on a turn I had not anticipated and the prospect of that turkey dinner was not as enticing anymore.  But John’s lack of confidence in me stung to the core!  I was tough.
I was adamant - and defiant now.  How dare he presume that I was such a weakling?  I'll show him!
"You wield the axe.  I'll hold the turkey."  I insisted doggedly.
Patiently, John tried to explain the facts of life to me.  "You don't understand.  When his head gets chopped off, that bird's reflexes will go ballistic.  He'll jerk and jump like a yo-yo out of control.  He'll beat himself - and you - black and blue with his wings.  You won't be able salvage any meat by the time he's finished."
I had killed enough chickens to know that a bird without a head can do two or three whole minutes of frenzied reflex dancing before the nerves succumb.  But I was a good strong farmer and I would handle that sucker! 
"I'll hold the turkey." I declared resolutely fairly daring him to cross me.
After a few more explanations and remonstrations, John finally sighed.  "You're going to have to hold on tight if you want to eat that bird." he warned.
"Don't you worry, I will." 
We cornered the confused turkey-cum-dinner and grabbing him in a firm arm lock, John soon had him at the chopping block.  He checked once more with me if I had come to my senses but I was unyielding. 
I glared stubbornly at him.  With obstinate determination borne of confidence in my own inflated ability and strength, I clamped the spindly feet tightly between my knees and, slipping my hands along its body, I gripped the wings firmly from beneath.  Convinced I had that bird securely trussed, I nodded to John that I was ready.  He gave me a condescending look that clearly indicated his disbelief at my lack of intelligence and pulled the neck into just the right spot on the chopping block.  At his final pause as if to say "Last chance to change your mind," I nodded.  In resignation, he let the guillotine drop.
I couldn't say I hadn't been warned but I must admit I was ill prepared for the absurdity that followed.  Minus a head, that turkey's adrenaline went into overdrive and its power multiplied a thousandfold.  Somehow, those spindly legs vaulted free of my knee's stranglehold.  With the force of a charging rhino, I found myself being catapulted through space, onto my back, onto my side, on my feet and off again, bouncing around like balloon that had not been tied properly.  The turkey neck was rotating, spewing blood in every direction and I was now covered with it.  Occasionally, I caught a glimpse of John helplessly trying to catch up to us but it was no use.  This rocketing Tasmanian devil didn't stop long enough for him to grab a hold.  Desperately, I held on tight, remembering John’s warning that I would not be able to salvage any meat if I let his wings loose.  I clenched my teeth and my fists and hung on as I had never done before.  I felt myself hurtling around like an unguided missile, frantically wishing that this Pandemonium would end, that the stupid bird would die already, because if it didn't die soon, I was certain that I would.
After an eternity, I found myself lying quietly on my back, the crazy turkey on top of me, its now still legs pointing to the sun, blood from its now limp neck slowly dripping down the neck of my parka.  My arms were still securely locked around its body but they felt like quivering jelly.  As a matter of fact, my whole body felt like quivering jelly.  But I hadn’t let that turkey beat himself up.  Beating me up was another matter.  I now had no strength to move.  The turkey had sapped it all.  John came and lifted the turkey off me and then extended a hand to help me up.  The yard looked like a war zone with blood everywhere on the white snow.  John said nothing and neither did I.  He carried that turkey into the house and I meekly followed him.  I went straight into the shower, parka and all.  When I finally emerged almost an hour later, I was clean but every muscle in my body was screamed in agony. 
John left the house while I was in the bathroom washing up.  He didn't come in till late in the evening.  I didn't know if he was angry and punishing me for my stupidity or if he was killing himself laughing out behind the shed.  I honestly didn't care.  What ever it was, I was grateful he was doing it well out of my sight and earshot.  Suffering silently in pain and indignity, I plucked the feathers off that wild Brahma-bull of a bird and by evening, I had him safely in the cold room, gutted, clean and washed. 
On Christmas day, still enduring excruciating pain in places I had never even known I had, I dressed and cooked that turkey for the big gang that were expecting for Christmas dinner.  Everybody enjoyed it except me.  I ached too much to enjoy anything for almost two whole weeks and it was months before my body regained its normal fleshy tones.  There are muscles in my body that still have vivid memories of that Christmas turkey and I have never felt so arrogant about my prowess and efficacy as a farmer since that turkey gave me a lesson in humility.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Looking Back

A Backward Glance

 Over the years, there have been many changes that "modern folks" just would have problems relating to.  Only us elders can conjure up these very vivid images.   Among the first are our mores.  We used to be so prim and proper, it used to make even us sick!  Thank heavens, some of these traditions have relaxed but in some instances, we have gone practically to the opposite end of the spectrum.  Nowadays, no one even thinks "Easter Bonnet" anymore.  We seldom wear hats and gloves to church now - not even the ladies, let alone little kids like in the old days.  Now, with some folks, it's more likely to be shorts, tight little miniskirts and halter tops.  And grubby sneakers instead of those shiny shoes that some conscientious family member spent all of Saturday polishing. As far as other aspects of "propriety", well, let's just leave that alone, okay?  
Moving on, our mode of travel has advanced since the horse and buggy days.  We have run the gammit from Model A's and "coupe" cars with "rumble" seats to "club cabs" and big gas-guzzling, road-hugging Lincolns.  Now we're down to tiny go-cars and mini vans.  The gas guzzlers of today are the super-efficient homes-on-wheels that roam the paved highways from one end of the continent to the other like giant vagabonds, imprinting us with clouds of putrid gases as they rumble on by.  We're not house bound anymore either.  For the sake of a musical concert, we drive five hundred miles and back as casually as we once went around the block.  Instead of inviting the neighbours to ride with us, like we would have done in the old days, we are often back before they even realize we were gone.  Even our bicycles have graduated.  We don't ride just ordinary bikes anymore - we have "ten-speeds", “mountain bikes” and what-nots.  Once a coveted dream for ordinary people, the Harley Davidson and its clones now strike a chord of fear and suspicion in our hearts as they thunder down the highway, especially if there are more than two in the group.
Farmers, too, have come a long way.  Instead of the six-horse-drawn equipment, farmers now drive multi-hundred-horsepower tractors and other self-propelled monsters with cabs equipped with quadraphonic radios, earphone head sets, cell phones and portable little gizmos that provide you with TV, voice mail, email, the world wide web and heaven only knows what else, all at a touch of a tiny button.  You no longer have to come home from the field to find out that the Yankees lost the World Series or some lunar space shuttle is gyrating out of control in the great beyond. 
We used to walk for miles to visit neighbours, friends or relatives and we visited them often.  Extended family was important and everyone knew even distant aunts, uncles, and cousins.  And we always knew where to find them.  No address needed.  They lived two miles east of the big barn, one mile north and half a mile up the crooked road that led up that steep hill.  People came unexpectedly, informally.  It was a general "Ya'll come" invitation that extended to family and friends alike.  Now we drive fast cars, communicate via email or IM messages or cell phone called “blackberry” or something else just as exotic, and, if it were not for weddings and funerals, we would never meet our relatives and friends.  But thanks to the web cam, I-phones and other hi-tech thingamajigs, we not only can talk to them, we can even see them while we chat, no matter where they are, across the street or across the ocean!  No hand-written letters with four-cent stamps. And no long distance fees either no matter when or how long you talk!  Like Wow!  Our ancestors would die again if they saw that.
Used to be when company came, we went to the hen house, interrupted some poor unsuspecting chicken, and after a guillotine process that would totally phase the modern housewife, there was a full course meal on the table.  And that was after starting a fire in the old wood stove from freshly slivered kindling!  There always seemed to be time for everything.  Nowadays, all too often it's Kraft's macaroni and cheese instead of perogies and sour cream.  Truth is, ever since they discovered that the earth rotates around the sun, instead of the other way around, our earth has been gaining momentum and picking up speed and we just adjust our clocks accordingly.  No wonder we can never catch up to ourselves! 
Our modern technology of freezers and microwave ovens just cannot begin to provide those scrumptious meals that exploded from old clay bake ovens and cast iron wood stoves.  We don't appreciate freezers enough, but to many of us, the mere mention of the words "salt pork" is enough to make our jowls cringe.  And those school lunches with cranberry jam.  Day after day, after day - cranberry jam sandwiches.  When we got desperate for a change, we mixed in left-over mashed potatoes and convinced ourselves we were getting a treat.  Now the kids get hot soup, Chicken Cordon Bleu and tapioca pudding and they think they are hard done by.
Modern technology has affected our modes of entertainment as well.  Before the advent of TV's, Nintendo's, VCR's, CD‘s, DVD’s and MP or IP-things, or other doohickies that attach themselves to our ears and entertain us as we walk, work or drive, people used to make their own music.  Every household had at least one member that played one, or several musical instruments: piano, organ, fiddle, guitar, banjo, ukulele, mandolin, dulcimers, banduras or that tiny little mouth harp they called a "drimba" that had that special twang that is probably unequalled in the music world.  And people sang!  They knew the words by heart - hundreds of songs, lyrics and beautiful melodic arias spewing forth spontaneously without the aid of song sheets - a cappella or accompanied.  Many even yodelled!  And if you think that was easy, you try it.  Getting music from behind a tongue that flapped in your mouth like sheet in the wind could not be an easy task.  It truly was a talent and some folks developed it into a fine art.  Even the Swiss would be hard pressed to equal the strains of Rudy's "Yodel-el-el-el-el-a-e-oh" when I was growing up. 
And Christmas was never complete without the carollers.  With hoarfrost on their eyebrows and icicles on their moustaches, they came in - singing their hearts out, eagerly helping themselves to the mountains of festive food and fountains of special spirits that were always home made and home brewed..  Now our carols are piped at us at the malls from the day after Halloween and by Christmas, we are too  tired of them to carol – or care - anymore.  And chipmunks, reindeer and even Santa just don’t seem to have the same affect that Baby Jesus had in our youth.
Laundry day is not what it used to be either.  We don't use Grandma's home-made lye soap anymore and there is no more Oxydol that "transcends" all other whites.  We don't get blisters from scrubbing linens on washboards or worse yet from wringing out men's denim overalls.  What a blessing our modern hot water taps and automatic washers are!  And what woman in her right mind was sorry to see the demise of the "sad iron"?  Even our modern irons with fingertip heat control, hissing steam and spewing spray are fast fading into the archives of history with the new "wash and wear" fabrics, some of which look like Bossy the cow mistook them for cud!  And let’s not forget clothes dryers either.  Remember those rows of solid, white, fleece-lined men's underwear waving in the winter gale like petrified white skeletons suspended from the clothes line?  After a couple of days, we took pity on the silly things and gingerly manoeuvred the monsters through cold-blasting gaping doorways to stack them over the couch until Jack Frost released his grip on the ghostly figures and let them wilt into manageable masses.  What a Godsend our dryers are now and how did we ever even exist without Hydro???
And how about the “less is more” and that Persian kitten soft bathroom tissue?  Maybe Eaton’s catalogues needed to perish in order for us to graduate to some of these modern comforts.  Just remembering those midnight dashes to the outhouse in forty below weather sends shivers up the spine.  No cushioned seats in those days either!  Skin had to be tough to withstand such drastic deviations in temperature.  No need for Ex-lax in those days.  No body dared to be that frivolous.
We have eliminated some of the old annoyances from the old days too, (though some may argue that we have replaced them with newer and bigger ones).  At any rate, we dont seem to have the flies like we used to have.  Remember those awful tacky brown curly strips we used to hang from the ceilings to trap the pests?  Who can forget getting their hair tangled into the sticky mess of glue and dead (or sometimes frantically buzzing live) flies?  Just one such blunder and you never, ever again, got near enough to repeat the experience - even in the dark!  Our modern air pollution must have had at least one commendable effect. Wish it had the same effect on mosquitoes. 
There are many positive aspects to our lives now, but we look back fondly at those primitive beginnings from whence we came.  We cherish "Yesterday" because it makes us remember and remembering makes us appreciate "Today"!