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Around the Kitchen Table

By Joan Eyolfson Cadham

06/17/2015

The best gift I ever received from my father didn’t come in a wrapped box. It didn’t come at Christmas. But, of all the gifts I’ve ever been given, this one has been the most valuable, and the most enduring.

I was old enough to read, so the time must have been the late 1940s. Although I can’t get anyone to confirm my theory, I suspect that I had been born holding a half-read book. Certainly I was reading long before I started school, and nobody in our house had ever told me that the world was divided into child and adult literature. If I could puzzle out the words on a sheet of paper, the contents were fair game.

My favourite evening reading nook was the wood box which held not just kindling and split logs but old newspapers and magazines, more fodder for my reading itch. I don’t know if the adults in my world knew I practically lived there; I was small enough that I was invisible as soon as I had cozied down. I do know I was left undisturbed except when they needed to refuel our wood-burning cook stove.

The Second World War had recently ended — though the major significance as far as I knew was that my two older brothers were home again — one had been in the army, the other in the air force, and they had both seen overseas service. Having them back was wonderful. Their souvenirs fascinated me.

We always had a hired man. The man of the moment also had something that fascinated me — a stack of comic books devoted to stories about people the likes of which I had never seen in our rural community of Icelanders, Ukrainians, Scots and British. There were two distinct types in these books.

The Japanese were all soldiers. In fact, they were all men. They committed terrible, cruel acts. These frightening people were very yellow, with tiny slanted eyes and buck teeth. Each one had one gold tooth. They thought they were very smart, and were always cheering for themselves. However, in story after story, nice handsome white soldiers always managed to defeat them. The other scary group was made up of German soldiers. They had thick square necks, short hair and mean eyes. One time, they implanted a secret monitoring device into a Danish soldier’s head so that they could make him do what they wanted him to do, so he would fight against the right side. They thought they were very clever, too, but, in truth, they were very stupid. They talked with an accent, and they always lost.
I was chronically short of reading material and devoured these things as fast as the hired man brought them into the house, soaking up the not-so-thinly veiled racist messages along with the story line — until the day my father discovered me reading them.

He didn’t say a word to me, at least not directly. But that evening, when I was curled up in my cozy wood box in the corner of the kitchen, Dad called in the hired man and handed him the comic books.

“Get these out of the house,” he said very quietly. “If I ever see books like this around this farm again, you will be fired on the spot.”

That was all he said. The books vanished. I don’t know whether those few words had any impact on our hired man. I do know they were my father’s lasting legacy to me.

Eyolfson Cadham is an award-winning columnist and freelance journalist who moved from Montreal to Foam Lake in 1992. She is a member of Saskatchewan Writers Guild and is an oral storyteller who has professional status with Storytellers of Canada.