When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got shipped off to a variety of relatives for the entire summer. I don’t know what was happening at home but in hindsight, I should probably have noticed something. My sisters stayed home and at 5 and 6, they didn’t notice or at least don’t remember anything unusual in the household or in our parent’s relationship. Maybe I had been a handful for my mom and she needed a break from me. Nonetheless. I spent the summer on the road, shuttling between my uncle’s farm, my grandmother’s house, an aunt with a huge family in the same town and between two aunts who were raising their families in Saskatoon. I have patches of clarity about that excursion and it seems that I stayed about two weeks in each home and then was shipped to the next arrangement.I haven’t a clue about the real itinerary but there would have been a logic to make the trip from south to north with a stop at the farm and then two stays in outlook and the final month in Saskatoon.
I imagine that my dad drove me to the first location and likely left me without much ceremony with my aunt and uncle and three older cousins. For the rest of the trip, I have a recollection of a solo bus ride and a trip alone on the dayliner that occurred about that age but can’t be sure it was the same tour.
The farm was like so many in Saskatchewan, in the early 1960’s – small (about 160 acres) fenced with a big coulee running east to west where the few head of cattle grazed during the day. I can hear my older cousin standing at the top of looking across to the sunset, placing his hands at his mouth like a megaphone and hollering ” Soiee, soiee”, a tradition from our Scandinavian roots; kulning, I think it was called. It was remarkable, and now I understand Pavlovian that the three or four cows made their way across the bottom land and up a trail straight to the barn. Chester always had a handful of oats for each of them as they passed into their stalls. He might have needed to milk them but that might be an image from another farm that I spent time at before I was 12. There were a dozen chickens; layers, that I shared responsibility for with my girl cousins. We needed to scramble into the coop, right after breakfast, and snatch up the eight to ten eggs that had been laid in the last day. It took some effort and fortitude to reach under an angry hen and steal away her creation, but there wasn’t any dillying because the air reeked of chicken poop and ammonia. I barfed a bit, in my mouth, almost everytime but I didn’t shirk my duties. The girls made fun of me for being a sissy and a city slicker and said: “we are going to make a chicken farmer out of you, yet.” There really weren’t any adverse childhood experiences. Even when Chester convinced me that it was Wednesday and we needed to let the chickens out of the enclosure so they could get some exercise, I didn’t resent the whooping my aunt gave me. We were able to corral all the birds before supper, and this became the story the three cousins told about me at all our family gatherings.
The day-to-day experience of waking to the smell of food cooking, eating a big, delicious breakfast, with strangers and being outside picking rocks, weeds, or some other chore became a refuge from a bit of homesickness. I didn’t know the strangers were boarders that my aunt had ‘taken in, who were building the hydro dam a few miles away and I didn’t know that what I was feeling in my heart and chest was about missing my sisters and my home.
After we got our morning chores done, we were on our own until lunch. I learned to swing in the hay loft and was coaxed into walking a ridge beam in the barn that seemed to be 50 feet above the ground. I snared gophers, and we cut off their tails. Supposedly there was a nickel bounty on each tail, and by how many my cousins had stuffed in old snuff cans, I thought they were going to be rich. I didn’t get or expect a share of the payment and don’t know if those cans are still lined up in the rafters waiting to be taken to the land agent.
The firmament of time leaves the impression that I ‘lived’ the farm life for a couple of weeks before it was time for an aunt in a neighbouring town to take me in. I had spent time in the chaos of their household before. An older girl and eight boys created more than enough drama and intrigue to make me forget about hearth and home. It likely wasn’t the schedule during the school year but when I was there at the end of July, the kids had settled into very late nights and sleeping until almost lunch time. I felt the jetlag from the transition from farm life and relished not having any real responsibilities. No one seemed to clean, do laundry or even wash dishes. A couple of us would venture to the regional park to toss rocks in the river or swim in the outdoor pool but nothing was scheduled and nothing was promised. For the five or six days I was there it was liberating to be free from internal and external expectations. I am sure that I would have gone stir crazy if the lack of routine and planning was permanent but it was fun while it lasted.
I grew up a bit that summer. I recall independence and my mom tells a story of having to come rescue me and take me home. Her detail of me standing alone sobbing with dust sticking to my face and her asking ” do you want to come home” sounds right but feels wrong. Did I want to be the big man who is okay when he feels alone? Do I still need to be that?
When I spend time with my mom, who is now 90, we talk about my childhood and her early years of marriage. My misremembered childhood may be more or less accurate than her nostalgic memories. My stories may be a compilation of experiences across time and distance and hers would have infinitely more variations.
But does it matter? If I remember my grandmother as important and caring and a cousin thinks she was dictatorial, does it change the world we both live in? Could he change his impression and would he be better for it?