19 March, 2008

~ Buried Treasure ~

Looking outside, it seems rather incredible that it is actually spring. The accumulation of snow on our sheds and the great white mound which is all that remains of the four majestic poplars we had to have removed from our yard last fall (the only good wood remaining on one of them was the bark, which is not actually wood at all...our insurance company ought to be quite relieved!) indicate winter has no intention of releasing us from its hold quite yet. The annual Tulip Appearance Bet between my husband and myself is being reconsidered. Ordinarily, we place our stakes (always a pizza and Cokes) on the date the tulips down our front walk poke their tiny green and maroon heads through the soil (he always chooses 15 April, my date varies from year to year). This year, however, we are considering betting on whether the tulips put in an appearance at all. One of us remains hopeful (albeit, guardedly so) while the other has surpassed pessimistic and has become downright negative. According to the negative one among us, not only will the tulips not flower, their foliage will not grow above a hand-span, barely a few sad inches. Further, according to the nay-sayer, there will be no peonies, no lily of the valley and—especially, worst of all—no sweet peas.

Well! That’s enough to make a person cross.

One particularly warm week in January, my husband brought me a willow branch laden with dozens of furry little catkins. I stuck it in water, just to see what would happen. Today, it has lovely, strong roots and any number of sweet, lacy green leaves. Even some of the kids are excited about planting it out in the yard...if the ground ever thaws.

In an attempt to placate ourselves, to quiet our jitters, since we cannot take coffee cups in hand and wander about the garden, poking at the soil to see who survived the winter and who was not so fortunate, who has put out new shoots and who requires a trimming back, we cleared the dining room table, gathered together peat pellets (totally magic, if you ask me), plant cells, cell trays, the ingredients for light and tender starter mix, the baby bath we use as a potting tray, two spray bottles, a length of plastic (which, in former lives, has protected shop equipment from dust and travel abrasions, kept paint spatters off furniture and contained a few stray batts of fibreglass insulation), saw horses, plywood and the big wicker basket containing absolute treasure in the form of thousands of seeds.

I must admit I am an obsessive seed-gatherer. I wander the garden deadheading like a good girl, but I always leave one or two flowers to wither and die and set seed which I drop into little home-made triangular packets, dated and labelled. These I place carefully into the Treasure Basket. My horticulturist husband shakes his head in despair at my slap-dash system of labelling. As he sorted through the Treasure Basket the other day, he was forced to comment, “Honey...you have convolvulus, ocimum basilicum and myosotis seed in here. You also have bachelor’s buttons, love-lies-bleeding and Manitoba tomatoes.” At this point, I looked sideways at him, waiting for the question I know will next escape his lips. “But tell me,” he asks, his brow furrowed (that’s a gardening joke!) in puzzlement, “what does ‘f. bed und. delph nana’ mean? What do you have in this packet?” He rattled the packet at me, his eyes narrowed (unfairly, I think) in suspicion. For, despite our blessed compatibility, we have very different ideas about what form a garden ought to take and what ought to be contained within it. He is a fan of soldierly rows of plants, well-spaced, well-mannered, well-ordered specimens, in front of which are stuck little signs listing genus, species, origin, common name and plant habits. I favour looser, blowsier, more relaxed plantings, reminiscent of an abandoned-and-newly-rediscovered farmhouse garden. I adore cosmos, he calls it “a weed, and an ugly weed, at that!” And I don’t like signs. He insists on sticking those infernal little signs into the soil near our plants and, while I completely respect his right to have the signs, I also exercise my own rights…..by flipping soil (quite accidentally of course) at them until they are covered over...and effectively eliminated.

He was still rattling the seed packet, awaiting a response, somehow knowing he will not like the one I’d give him. It was my turn to shake my head, lovingly of course. “Silly!” I said, “ ‘f. bed und. delph nana’. Those are seeds of that little short thingie with the pinkish flowers that we planted under those delphiniums that were mislabelled,” I looked at him hopefully, “Remember?”

He didn’t.

He tossed the seed packet disdainfully onto the table, selected a fresh, brightly coloured, store-bought packet from the Treasure Basket (store-bought seeds are always his contribution to the Treasure Basket...he has this thing about wanting to know what to expect, about not wanting to be surprised by what grows...I don’t get it). I rescued my grubby little triangular packet (my own dirty fingerprints are all over it) with its unknown contents, determined to plant the seeds anyway.

He pretended not to have noticed.

There is something therapeutic about digging about in the dirt, even if the dirt is contained within a baby bath on the dining room table on a sub-zero afternoon in the middle of March. Plunging our hands into the soil, loosening it, fluffing it, breathing in the loamy goodness, we set about to fill hundreds of cells with soil. Then, we fill hundreds of soil-filled cells with seeds, perfect little promises. Buried Treasure. We create a nursery table in the sun room, mist The Babies (as I am now calling them) and cover them over, clipping the edges of the plastic to keep in the moisture and to keep out the cats. Our home smells wonderfully of moist soil, of wet dirt, of spring. We scrub our nails, reluctantly removing the dirt that has reminded us of the garden, a place we are both blissfully happy. We put on another pot of coffee, we turn the TV to a gardening show where everyone is wandering about in hiking boots and shorts and we try not to notice the snow falling just outside our window.

10 March, 2008

~ Risk N' Hope ~

Perhaps people are like salmon. Perhaps the area in which we are born marks us as indelibly as a badly healed childhood wound. Perhaps moving away from our beginnings becomes our badly healed childhood wound. Perhaps, like salmon, we spend the rest of our lives trying to return to what we first knew, trying to recreate the atmosphere, trying to ‘go home’.

I was born to farm people. I was the fourth generation of my family to live in the two-storey, Dutch-gabled, white and green farmhouse on the south half of 7-13-22, near a tiny village in Manitoba. My first memories are of that house and of events transpiring within it. The smell of lilacs will still send me reeling through time to land on the front lawn in the heavy-scented shade of a lilac hedge planted on the east side of the house, now nearly seventy years ago. Last time I checked, the hedge was still there.

Some people paint flowers or wildlife or the sea. Some people paint mountains or hearth scenes or fantasy worlds. Fields and farm buildings form the subjects of most of my paintings and drawings. Like salmon, I have spent most of my life feeling the murmured lure of ‘home’.

A movie I am very fond of tells of an aged woman, living with her son and daughter-in-law who do not, cannot understand. Our grandmotherly woman runs away from home and makes a long journey by bus to ease her longing to return to the place of her childhood. It is—and is not—everything she expected. That is as it should be.

Somehow, I have become the repository of family memorabilia. Somehow, I have become the dumping ground for all those things found in chests and drawers and boxes by my aunts and uncles, things which would be of absolutely no worth to anyone who did not have the happy accident of being born into our family. I have received photographs, brittle and yellowed newspaper clippings, school reports, scribblers filled with the daily musings of my grandmother, bundles of greeting cards given and received five decades ago, envelopes full of postcards picked up during road trips through the northern states, decorative plates commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of this church or the seventy-fifth anniversary of that settlement, a number of community history books and even a portion (just a portion, mind you) of a watch which once belonged to my great-grandmother. Amassed, these items would be of laughable value to anyone who did not know the land and people whose artefacts these are. My children, a generation removed, have been to the farm, have seen the house, have wandered through it, but it was unlived-in and contained, to their eyes, nothing more than a few dishevelled remains, the detritus of a family long moved on. A generation removed, my children never knew most of the people whose well-loved images appear in the photographs on my piano. A generation removed, my children have lives shaped by different forces, different faces, different places. This farm in south-western Manitoba with the two-storey, Dutch-gabled, white and green house, is, to them, nothing more than the stuff of legend, for truly, that is what a family history becomes.

Treasured among the goodies passed to me for safekeeping is a cash book for the farm, kept the year I was born. Written across twelve pages in this blue-covered, coil-bound volume, I see evidence of the successes, the disappointments and the struggle which characterised farm life in that day. Then, as now. I see that the hired man’s name was Mervin and that he was paid wages of two dollars; I see that a trip to the city meant paying for a meal (forty cents) and parking meter (one cent); I see that a hair cut set you back a dollar and each visit from the vet (twice in one week during June) was a six dollar touch. The ledger records that a tractor could be obtained (from Ed Hare) for $25, and a truck could be bought for $35. A sow sold netted $47.65 while a sow bought cost $65. Cigarettes cost fifty cents and bars were a nickel. The cost of a dance plus lunch was $2.55 while the same evening out including a sitter for me, was $5.50. After totalling the receipts from hog cheques, premiums, cattle cheques, baby bonus, et cetera and deducting the costs of feed, seed, gas, veterinarian, barn spray, insurances and machine parts, et cetera—oh, wait...deduct the payments made to my grandfather, with whom the farm was operated in partnership (though my grandfather lived in town) - and the year’s profit breaks down into a monthly income of approximately $55, from which must be deducted groceries ($8-$12 every two weeks), hydro ($6.05 per month), telephone ($6 per month), fridge payment ($13 per month), prescriptions and clothing/shoes/diapers for two adults and a baby. Is it any wonder the words my father penned on the front cover of the ledger are “RISK N’ HOPE”?

Someone tucked a store receipt inside the front cover of the “Risk N’ Hope” cash book. It is a receipt for coffee, sugar and milk from Glinz’s Solo Store, total cost: ninety-three cents. For the record, Glinz’s Solo Store features “nationally advertised merchandise: groceries, dry goods, fruit & vegetables”. If you found the need to contact Glinz’s Solo Store by telephone, you would, as directed by the notice at the top of the receipt, “Phone 9”.

I received a call the other day. Someone found some old photographs they had forgotten about and they are forwarding them to me to do whatever it is I do with them. The current owner of the vacated, family-less farmhouse has offered me the great gift of both coloured glass windows from the front room. Curiously, it seems that ‘home’ is slowly making its way to me.

I have placed the three-column cash book on my bookshelf between “75th Anniversary History of Blanshard Municipality, 1884-1959” and “History of Blanshard Municipality, Volume II, 1884-1970”, produced for Manitoba’s centennial celebrations. I know that whatever spiritual connection remains between me and my Manitoba farm, I am beyond fortunate to live, as I do, on a corner lot in an Alberta town. My house is white and green, but it is only one storey and there are no Dutch gables.

I have, however, planted lilacs on the east side of the house. Perhaps in seventy years, someone—a grand child or great-grandchild, perhaps—will come reeling through time to land on the front lawn in the heavy-scented shade of my lilac hedge.

04 March, 2008

~ Necessary Losses ~

The thing about loss is that it brings with it some measure of pain. It seems that when it doesn't, it isn't counted as loss. It's a curious set-up. Curious, too, is the fact that a loss seems all the greater when it is sudden or unexpected.

Like most people I know, I have had my share of loss. I have been force
d to let go of people, places, lifestyles and even beliefs I have loved and been comfortable with. Some of these losses have proven to have positive outcomes. They have cleared the way for new and unexpected things, things I had not dreamed of for myself, things which became, eventually, loved and comfortable in their own right. In terms my gardener husband would use, those losses were hard prunings.

Some of my losses have shattered me, have shaken me to the centre of my being. Some I have never recovered from. They have left huge and gaping holes in my life, holes in my heart. Some day I may heal from such losses, but I have not done so yet. However painful they are to live with, I am certain they were necessary. That doesn't make them any less frustrating, of course, and it doesn't make them any more bearable, but I have learned to live alongside these losses without making friends with them. I have learned to give a little when it is necessary and I have learned that it is sometimes necessary to give a little more than I think I can.

Most of the time, I am not impressed with this set-up. I'm okay with learning from the experiences and I'm good with the growth that invariably springs from loss. I am fine with having to let go of one thing in order to be able to receive another, What I am not so calm and even about is that it is necessary for letting go to happen in the first place.

I am letting go again today...this week...last week, too. I am preparing for growth...trying to remain focused on the horizon while extracting my boots from the mire of pain and loss where I now stand.

Moving forward. Moving ahead. Moving on. May I always remember that a hard pruning is sometimes what is called for and that some losses are indeed necessary.

Peace ~