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!

1 comment:

  1. I love this story, Cassie! I felt like I was there with you enjoying the cold.