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Around the Kitchen Table

Lloyd Ratzlaff

02/24/2016

Last night my dead father came driving a monstrous snow plow, huge beyond imagining, to open a road where not even SaskPower trucks running on their own tracks could go. He drove so fast that I feared operating this goliath would add stress to his already-weakened heart.

And this morning, what can I do but admire him? I don’t say the dream was my father-in-himself “contacting” his son-in-himself. Yet there I was, and there he was plowing a way forward.

***

A prairie blizzard began overnight, “a honkin’ big dump,” as one radio caller says this morning. Amid the still-falling snow a shoveller across the way pauses, leans against the building, lights a cigarette. He demonstrates how feeble our patiently built medical and scientific knowledge remains — we know this about lungs, understand that about hearts, predict such-and-such probabilities with a certain degree of confidence.

The guy outside leans on his shovel, takes one last drag, butts his smoke, looks around and up at the snow coming down, and resumes work when he’s good and ready.

***

Wind and snow whirl about the village at the dusk of a bleak and boreal day. Dark is quickly coming on. He with his 10 young years fares through the street toward his grandfather’s house, thinking how Grandpa will have made his kitchen warm.

The villagers have backed in from the tempest, paths and sidewalks covered over by the furious winter wind. The tracks of his own size-five bootsteps scarcely reach a few feet back toward the schoolhouse when he turns to peer behind. Ahead of him, at the west horizon, stretch the whitened winter fields, visible sometimes between the howlings of the storm. The streetlamps stand beswirled with flying snow, are burning dimly in this moaning wind, but Grandpa will have laid a fire and his kitchen will be warm.

Day is nearly done, the schoolroom might be closed tomorrow. The 10-year-old turns through the gate between the hedges. Even Grandpa’s footprints leading to his door are drifting over. And now the boy can vaunt himself, remonstrate with the flying storm, and laugh to stand beyond the edges of such great distemper — Grandpa will have tended to his fire long before the light is gone.

Then leaving at his parka’s back this great spectral immensity, he goes content and uncontested through the path, thinking with a 10-year-old’s correct regardlessness: Let it storm — the wrath is past, I will take refuge in the warm.

And Grandpa shovels one more scoop of coal into the fire, settles fourscore years into a creaking rocking chair. Thinks of one more story from the fatherland to tell the boy, and of the moments in which time can still be held at bay — but for how long?

***

The snowy owl of childhood appeared along the grid road leading to my mother’s house in Laird. The hugeness and whiteness were what made it so. The bird sat on a low pole near Pat Hardy’s farm (ah, childhood love-that-never-was), and I pulled over and took a bird guide from the glove compartment. This owl had no dark spots or bars, which the book said meant he was an old male — they’re the only ones who turn pure white.

He turned his head in a full circle, and after a while turned it back again. He could see more clearly than I the house at the edge of the village where my mother waited with our lunch, could see my father’s workshop where it still stood at the edge of the yard, and the slightest motion of a rodent in the fields between here and there. I regretted not having binoculars with me to study him more closely, but for those minutes he suffered my gaze, then eventually flew off toward the north and out of sight.

I drove on, grateful to have seen such a visitant again after these 50-odd adult years. As I neared the village, there was the old snowy owl again, this time sitting on a snowdrift beside a SaskPower pole, his second coming nearly as startling as the first.

Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.