by Marjorie Simmins
“While you’re on your hind legs prancing,” says my husband, smiling widely and extending his empty coffee mug in my general (sitting) direction across the galley table from him.
Before I have a chance to inquire about what surely must be a newly broken ankle, he’s already retrieved the coffee thermos from its safe spot in the galley sink and is filling both our mugs.
“I haven’t used that expression in years,” he says, still smiling, though gently now, memories warming his eyes. “Pretty silly, isn’t it?”
“No,” I say. “I like it. Most of us just say, ‘While you are up….?’ and leave it at that. Hind legs prancing is more fun. Your Mum, right?”
It’s true, my husband’s mother, whom I never met, seemed to have a revolving and plentiful supply of amusing expressions. Her three sons still use many of them.
“We’ll do our little best.”
“Time to call it half a day.”
“Well, I’ll love you and leave you.”
“That’s why I’m so much fun to be with.”
And my three favourites: “You crazy fool, you’ll kill us all” (about bad drivers); “Let joy be unconfined” (said with heavy irony); and, “We must do with things as things will do with us” (expressing calm amidst confusion).
I wish I could have seen the look on her face as she offered up these cheery or florid sayings, though I almost can when I look at the face of her eldest son, my husband, as the side of his mouth twitches with a suppressed laugh and his eyes shine with the right-there-ness of enjoying his mother’s voice and peppery delivery.
They disagreed, and often, he tells me, about how to live life the best one could. But I know from photographs how similar their smiles were and how warmly they exchanged these smiles. Lack of love was not an issue. As for the rest, they both “did their little best” to respect one another’s choices. Every turn of phrase shared with me is the most evocative and immediate way I will ever come to know my husband’s mother.
Like all of us, she was an adult for many more years than a child.
And yet my most enjoyable imaginings of her are as a child and were given to me after my first visit to Manitoba, three autumns ago.
It was there, just outside of the small town of Treherne, that my husband’s mother grew up. She was the second oldest of eight children. They were farm children, hardworking and kept relentlessly busy by parents who were more so.
Over them all, sun like clarified butter shone from a blue bowl of prairie sky. As vivid were stretching acres of golden grain, swaying in the breezes. Smaller flower and vegetable gardens were tended by nimble young fingers.
Chickens and cows were fed, eggs and milk retrieved. Horses were groomed, harnessed and worked, and in stolen moments, I like to think, ridden bareback, their summer coats glossy and hot against bare child legs.
It is impossible to think of large families and farms and not think of food. From the screen door leading to the kitchen, there must have come the hunger-stirring smells of baking bread, meat stews, applesauce with nutmeg, the tart tang of pickles and and the simmering, ruby richness of jams.
At the supper table, prayers for health, of gratitude, for rain and sun as needed and God willing, amen. Let the wheat harvest be bountiful this year. Now sit straight and elbows off the table, thank you.
In the winter, the vast flat world turned white and frigid. Slim boys and girls became rounded by many layers of clothing. Heads were haloed by steam; prairie dragons, each hard breath pouring more smoke into the air.
As though charmed, the children were drawn to the shining, wickedly pointed icicles that hung from the house eaves. The taller boys broke off the narrower icicles, placed them one by one in the ring of mittened hands. All the children sucked and crunched on the dripping bounty until their mouths and tongues were numb. Then to school. On the way home, the children walked even faster, with hopeful thoughts of cocoa or steaming chicken broth awaiting them at home.
These are the things I think of, when I imagine my husband’s mother’s growing up years in Manitoba.
The autumn my husband and I visited Treherne, the prairiescape shone a dappled gold and green. I soon learned that clusters of graceful elms announced homesteads.
“There it is,” said my husband. And there indeed it was, the white clapboard house I’d seen in photo albums, its immediate perimeter shaded by elms and hazel trees. The house even had a name, Hazeldell, and was still a family home, occupied by a distant cousin of my husband.
The photos I’d seen were wedding photos. My husband’s mother married a Prairie man, though they met on the west coast of Canada and would later return there.
As I remembered the photos, he wore a well-tailored suit, his expression lit by pride. She was petite, and her figure trim. The dress was feminine but not fussy, and a pretty shawl added a sweet, old-fashioned touch. Her long hair was worn as a Scandinavian woman might, in sleek braids around her head. All around the pair were family. There are bands of shadow on some of the beaming faces. A sunny day then, which made skin warm, eyes narrow and the air fragrant with blooms.
I’ve been so lost in my meandering thoughts of long ago, that when I look up, I am startled to see the world beyond our cabin windows dipping and rising. No house this, though our boat has been home for over six months.
We are a long way from Treherne. From Canada, for that matter. Even from the North American mainland.
“Time to climb the wooden hill,” says my husband, yawning.
Another saying of his mother’s, but I can’t remember what this one means. I lift an eyebrow.
“You know, the wooden hill,” he repeats. “The staircase to the second floor, where people sleep at night.” He waggles his eyebrows back at me, points a finger toward the boat’s overhead. He looks so goofy I can’t resist playing the straight guy.
“I think it’s too cold to sleep on the deck. Wouldn’t be that comfortable, either.” I pause, still straight-faced, trying to remember yet one more of his mother’s expressions. It comes to me on the downside of a giggle: “But have it your own foolish way, if you must.”
We will, of course, kip down below in the V-berth, warm but closed off from the stars. If I could choose, I’d ask for a dreamscape of cobalt prairie sky, filled with tumbling cumulus clouds.
Perhaps I’d see a young girl with her hair in braids, tied with ribbons, sitting in the shade of an elm, book in her lap. More likely she’s resting too, under a talc-soft cotton quilt that she and her sisters pieced together. She could be dreaming of becoming a teacher, a wife and a mother. Tonight, Miss Hazel Robertson is simply a young girl in a family of 10, listening to the last of the cricket song through the open bedroom window.
Copyright: Marjorie Simmins. “Prairie Dreamscape” was published in the Chronicle Herald in 2005, during a sailing trip to the Bahamas undertaken by Marjorie, her husband Donald Cameron and their dog, Leo the Wonder Whippet.