I’m not sure what event we were attending, but I do remember that it was autumn and I was catching a ride with a friend. As we drove country roads, he looked out at the combines busy in the fields and said, “It’s interesting. We always talk about the pioneer men who worked so hard to open up the prairies, to create the farms, to make the province what it has become. But what about the pioneer women? How could the men have managed without their wives running the house, growing a huge garden, preserving food for the winter, dealing with the farm chores during harvest, looking after the children? Why don’t we ever talk about the women?”
I’ve been reflecting on Bill’s comment over the past few days. Sept. 8 was my mother’s birthday. Sept. 9 is mine. Mom was 43 when I was born, the 10th child. My younger sister arrived 17 months later. My eldest brother was 24 years older than I was and, given the era, Mom had two babies at home when her two eldest fought in the Second World War. The older girls were away, too, teaching.
I think of Mom as our birthday dates arrive. September. Harvest time, not just in the fields but also in the garden. Pregnant, with the responsibility of cooking for the threshing crew as well as the family, bringing in the garden harvest, canning, preserving, making jams and jellies and conserves, putting down chicken and beef for the winter, milking the cows while the men worked the field — and a new baby to tend.
No running water, of course. No electricity. Gas mantle and coal-oil lamps. A wood-burning kitchen stove and a wood-and-coal furnace in the basement. All the wood needed to be split and carted into the house. Ashes to clean out. No stove timer, no thermostat. She could tell the temperature by putting her arm into the oven.
Lines of laundry to do weekly, the water heated in the copper boiler on the stove, the washing machine gas powered. Mountains of ironing with “sad irons” that were heated on the stovetop of that wood-burning stove.
She sold cream and eggs as a source of cash money, the “creamery man” coming to the farm to pick it up — and for coffee — about the same time as the sun rose. Never-ending mending, including repairing binder canvas on her trusty Singer pedal-operated sewing machine.
A never-ending round of work. And yet . . . and yet . . . she always had time to put the coffee pot on if a neighbour turned up for a visit. She always had cookies or gingerbread and whipped cream ready to accompany the coffee. She modelled cheerful giving without words, always having garden produce for some neighbour whose crop had not been successful, always finding something for anyone to came to the door.
Her private joy was her flower garden that curved around two sides of the house, marked out by white-washed stones and caragana hedges, flower beds filled with sweet old-fashioned flowers: bleeding heart, lychnis, Sweet William, sweet rocket, evening scented stock that she grew because Dad so loved the fragrance, and the companion ferns, Little Old Lady and Little Old Man whose Icelandic names I never knew although the original stock came to Canada with my great-grandmother. The front verandah was her greenhouse, filled with geraniums and ferns. She would steal away in the evening to spend time with her flowers, maybe drawing enough peace and strength to make it through another day.
And yet — she found the time, the resources and the strength to give her two little ones a joyful childhood, taking us outside in the evening and laughing as we rolled around like puppies in a bed of wild camomile, the scent of which still brings back sweet memories. As I grew, she somehow imbued a sense of importance in conquering tasks so that, while I mended or gathered eggs, or ironed the flat pieces, I felt grownup rather than burdened. She found money to buy us books; she cut up brown paper bags and stitched them up to form pages that I could use for drawing or writing our own stories; she helped us memorize the weekly recitation we needed for the public speaking session after lunch every Friday at school and quizzed us on our spelling words until we had perfectly committed them to memory.
Yes, as my friend said, What about the women?
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.