Clearing the Land

My Uncle Fred (Dad F) sold his farm back about 1958. This was the original home place, the farm he’d inherited from his father, Thomas Forsyth. He did, however, retain one quarter section —160 acres — a couple of miles south of the farm; this was rented to neighbours as pasture.

After Bob and I were married, I longed to make a “sentimental journey” back to Pathlow, where I spent the first four years of my life and visited many times after. Dad mentioned this land he still owned so we made a stop there to have a look around.

We parked our car by the side of the road, got out and looked around. Tall grass grew in a small area — this would be where the renter pastured his cattle — but most of the quarter was covered with native poplar bush. A spindly tree every meter.

We’d driven up on gravel roads, past miles of fertile fields, but my mind went back to the original settlers, who’d maybe got off the train at Melfort, seventeen miles NE, to outfit themselves and begin the search for their land claim. For those who came later a road of sorts had been made through the bush, but the first homesteaders would have wandered in the woods or followed creek banks until they came to the part that matched the land description in their hands.

And there they stood. Maybe with a backpack containing some food and another sack holding their tiny tent and a blanket. Likely they’d bought an axe, hanging from their belt. Now go for it. Start chopping, clear this land, build a farm.

Back around 1908 Thomas Forsyth, born in Glasgow, Scotland and a coal miner heretofore, carved his farm out of bush just like this. He called it Hillside Farm because the house and buildings were built on a rolling upward slope. My great-grand and grandfather Vance would have faced a similar situation when they arrived at Spy Hill, SK. A few farms had been wrested from the bush, but most of the land was forest, except where creeks meandered through it.

Thankfully clearing the land wasn’t the daunting prospect our forefathers faced when they landed in Oxford County. Our grandfather Allen didn’t face chopping down maple trees a meter thick such as great-grandfather Sam felled when he moved up to the Listowell area. Old timers in Ontario talked of a time when you could travel the trail from Kitchener to Sarnia without ever seeing the sun because there was such a dense canopy of spreading maple branches overhead. Can you imagine launching into those woods with an axe?

Today we see fields of waving grain all over Saskatchewan — because those who came first were willing to start swinging that axe.

Originally posted on the Vance-Turner Connect blog – March 2014

Of Flowers and Weeds

I was working in the garden one day when I started to feel blue. I didn’t know why life suddenly felt so overwhelmingly sad, but I prayed that the Lord would help me deal with this feeling. I know it’s not His will that we spend time wandering in a blue fog, thinking how sad life is.

Awhile later when I was walking to the corner store my neighbour came out to intercept me and asked how my garden was doing. He was a retired widower who enjoyed visiting with anyone, and though I doubt he was much for going to church, he did have a reverence for God and his creation.

After we’d chatted a bit he made this comment: “I was weeding in my flowerbeds and wondering why there have to be weeds. I came to the conclusion that the Lord made weeds so we would appreciate the flowers more.”

His thought was like a little light that pierced through my dark mood. I am too much inclined to see all the weeds in life and miss seeing the flowers. In fact, too many times I don’t even believe there are any flowers!

Through my neighbour’s words the Lord was able to nudge me and remind me that there is hope, there are flowers, there are many things to be thankful for. Life isn’t all bad and days aren’t all blue. And maybe these blue feelings help me appreciate the joys more when they come.

I whispered a little prayer of thanks as I continued on my way to the store. He had given me what I needed and through this I could feel again His love for me. So many precious little jewels the Lord scatters on our pathway every day because he truly cares for us and wants us to enjoy the beauties He has created.

“Blessed be the Lord, because He hath heard the voice of my supplications. The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped: Therefore my heart greatly rejoiceth; and with my song will I praise Him.”
Psalm 28:6-7

Diners on My Driveway

Mourning doves, prim and proper,
strut along, poke among the pebbles
for windblown seeds.
Their muffled cooing
mellows the morning air
while a jaunty flicker nearby
jack-hammers ant homes.

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May Doings at Our Place

The tree swallows have been back for several weeks and are busy building their nests now. One pair has found our bathroom exhaust fan vent to their liking again so we’re hearing tiny scratching noises in the cavity. A few mourning doves have returned and I think I’ve seen some wrens in the last couple of days, as well as different warblers and the first goldfinches.

A couple of days ago a small flock of thrushes landed in our yard and have been foraging in our garden and on the driveway ever since. There are three kinds of thrush that come through here: hermit thrush; Swainson’s  thrush; gray-cheeked thrush. These are either Hermit thrush or Swainson’s, but it’s pretty hard to tell from pics in bird books.

They are still scattered around the yard this morning. Such cute birds with their pudgy white tummies, speckled at the throats, white eye rings. They won’t stay around; their nesting grounds are in the pine forests farther north, but I enjoy seeing them passing through every spring and fall.

It’s YOUR Face

Photo prompt © Roger Bultot

Time for another Friday Fictioneers tale. This group is hosted by the kindly and ever-smiling Rochelle Wisoff-Fields over at Addicted to Purple. As usual she’s presented us with a picture that should unleash our creative energy — and then it’s cut, cut, cut. A most valuable exercise for learning concision. If you wish to participate, check her blog for details. Everyone is welcome to submit a story.

A special thanks goes to Roger Bultot for supplying us with this photo. Since it’s his photo, lent to the group specifically for this week’s prompt, it must not be “borrowed” by anyone for any other purpose without asking permission.

My mind bounced around on this prompt and finally came up with the following 100-word tale:

It’s Your Face

There she is, conceited, backstabbing brat. Hanging out with my former friends. Probably flirting with that server like she does with all the guys in the office. She makes my blood boil!

I feel a hand on my shoulder. “Too much lemon in the drink today,” Mike from accounts-receivable asks.

I nod toward the giggling trio. “If you only knew!”

“I do know… some at least. Yeah, she’s annoying, but let it go. It’s disfiguring your face.”

I hear her laugh and grit my teeth. “She’s so fake!”

Mike shrugs. “It’s your face,” he says as he turns away.

Since Jessie Died

by Edgar A. Guest

We understand a lot of things we never did before
and it seems that to each other Ma and I are meaning more.
I don’t know how to say it, but since little Jessie died
we have learned that to be happy we must travel side by side.
You can share your joys and pleasures, but you never come to know
the depth there is in loving ‘til you’ve got a common woe.

We’re past the hurt of fretting — we can talk about it now:
she slipped away so gently and the fever left her brow
so softly that we didn’t know we’d lost her, but instead
we thought her only sleeping as we watched beside her bed.
Then the doctor, I remember, raised his head as if to say
what his eyes had told already, and Ma fainted dead away.

Up to then I thought that money was the thing I ought to get
and I fancied, once I had it, I should never have to fret.
But I saw that I had wasted precious hours in seeking wealth;
I had made a tidy fortune, but I couldn’t buy her health.
And I saw this truth much clearer than I’d ever seen before:
that the rich man and the poor man have to let death through the door.

We’re not half so keen for money as one time we used to be;
I am thinking more of mother and she’s thinking more of me.
Now we spend more time together and I know we’re meaning more
to each other on life’s journey than we ever meant before.
It was hard to understand it! Oh the dreary nights we’ve cried!
But we’ve found the depth of loving since the day that Jessie died.

From his book, Just Folks
©1917 by the Reilly & Britton Co.

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I’m doing something unusual today: publishing two posts back to back. I read an excellent post by fellow blogger Kathleen Duncan about what to say to someone who has lost a child, be it through a miscarriage, stillbirth, accident, disease, suicide, or crime. She’s given me permission to Reblog her post so I’ll do that next. I think it goes together well with this poem. one of my favorites from Edgar Guest.

My Mom Was Simple

One day I was given a writing prompt: tell about a person you’ve known, someone you’d describe as simple. Well, the simplest person I ever knew was my birth mother, Mom Vance. She was about as simple as they come.

Mom’s stepmom Maggie told me Mom was born “simple,” as far as she knew. I suspect that circa 1923 a number of babies were damaged at birth by various factors not controllable in the days of home deliveries, without x-rays or antibiotics. A difficult labor, a baby deprived of oxygen at birth, or an infantile infection resulting in days of high fever. The brain was damaged and the child was classed as slow, simple, or addle-pated.

And part of the problem was that Mom got her head stuck inside a cream can when she was nine years old. The family says she was already blue when they got her unstuck, so that oxygen deprivation likely did yet more damage.

Mom was friendly enough to people she knew, but not the cheerful, everybody’s-friend like a Down’s syndrome child. More like someone half asleep. Sometimes we say of such a person: “The lights are on but nobody’s home.”

I nodded when I read in Oliver Twist that “Mr Bumble struck Oliver with his cane; once on the back to make him lively and once on the head to make him wise.” Yeah; that was the policy and it probably made some normal children “simple.” One woman talked of how her father would knock the kids’ heads together and she’d see stars. It wasn’t because all folks back then were so cruel, but in that society nobody seemed to know any other way to raise children.

So I feel Mom’s upbringing was a contributing factor to her mental state. When I was young the old folks held to the concept that if a child was slow, a good whack on the head would straighten things out “upstairs.” And being slow, Mom got more than her share of whacks on the head — with frying pans even, I’m told. In one instance Mom’s father blew up and beat her over the head repeatedly with a chunk of wood until his brother intervened.

My Dad F, incensed at me over some density on my part, would often say, “You don’t have the brains you were born with!” Well, Mom V literally didn’t have the brains she was born with — or the emotions, either — because they’d been beaten out of her. Today we’ve tumbled into the ditch on the other side, where parents hardly dare discipline their children, but these former excesses have been cited to support the current position.

Mom did have a kind heart and was generous — too much so at times. She’d let any pal call from her phone — and run up huge phone bills. Anyone could crash at her house. But if she got mad, you had to watch for flying objects. My sister Donna claims she’s dodged a few knives hurled by Mom.

Because of her damaged brain, she couldn’t keep any facts straight. When Donna was expecting her third baby, Mom V told me one day, “The doctor says Donna might be having twins. She wasn’t very happy about that.” Her next remark threw me for a loop. “They say I had twins once, but I can’t remember.”

“Who said you had twins once?”

“Maggie (her stepmother) and them,” Mom replied in her usual vague way. Everything she said was vague. I overheard her trying to explain to someone who I was and she simply couldn’t. I was “that girl.” So Mom wasn’t capable of tact, sense, or the deviousness the rest of us are. As one of my sisters said, “A couple of beer and she was drunk enough to do anything.”

Mom’s schooling ended at Grade Three. My sister and I guessed Mom to be at a nine-year-old’s level, but really, a nine-year-old would be much more capable and careful if made responsible for the care of young children. It was her irresponsibility when I was a three-month-old baby that led to me catching pneumonia and ending up being raised by my uncle & aunt. (I refer to them as Mom & Dad F and call them my “real parents.”)

I must give my Dad V some credit here. He didn’t have much education or smarts, never had a driver’s license, but he was a hard worker. I’m not sure if all my siblings would have survived if he hadn’t been around at least part of the time to keep an eye on things. He really did love his kids and never forgave my uncle for taking me away and keeping me.

It wasn’t till I was older, started meeting other relatives and learning the family story that I discovered what kind of upbringing Mom had and why she was the way she was. But simple she was.

The Swallows Are Back!

“When the Swallows Come Back to Our Exhaust Fan…”

Did you know that tree swallows have seriously decreased in numbers here in North America, especially in areas where English sparrows have multiplied. Non-native birds, English Sparrows are miserable, aggressive neighbours. They’ll chase adult tree swallows away and hog the food and best nesting sites. They will also invade swallow nests, kill the adult birds, eat their eggs and destroy their chicks. Heartless things, they lay their own eggs on top of the corpses and pick away at the remains.

Swallows may find a remote abandoned building where sparrows don’t hang out, or they may find humans who are blind enough —or kind enough— to let them live close by, where sparrows and other predators won’t venture. All the better if there’s an opening easy to defend. At least that’s what one pair of tree swallows must have thought in the spring of 2010, when they found the cover of our exhaust fan missing.

There’s a small hole in the outside wall of our mobile home just below the roof, where the bathroom fan is vented. It’s supposed to have a covering but this fell off sometime, leaving the recessed pipe about one and a half inches in diameter with one end open to the great outdoors. Tree swallows checked it out and found an entry just their size in a wall warmed by morning sun and a nice interior ledge with ample room for a nest. Thus began our own personal experience with swallows.

They set about furnishing their digs. We took note of their presence when a few straws started falling onto the bathroom counter but since we never used that bathroom fan anyway–it was far too noisy and rattling–it seemed a worthwhile nature lesson to observe this process. (Beside which, there was no way on earth we could get them out.) We taped the switch so the fan couldn’t be turned on by unsuspecting visitors and watched the swallows make forays past our window as they built their nest.

In time we heard tiny peeps coming from behind the fan. We dusted shreds of grass from our bathroom counter and smiled at the baby racket we heard when lunch was served — an all-day affair. Our cat was intrigued but helpless to disturb the birds — as were the outside cats. Weeks passed and peep volume grew.

One day I was in the bathroom brushing my hair when the peeping suddenly hushed. Then I heard the unmistakable tones of marching orders; it sounded like a parent bird laying down the law to indolent offspring just like human parents sometimes do. Followed by tiny feet scrabbling on wood, then the bathroom was silent.

I hurried to the kitchen and looked out the window just as the air exploded with swallows. Back and forth the young birds swooped and dived, getting their bearings in this new world into which they’d been shoved. They still called the nest home and for days after, whenever we passed that side of the trailer, we saw a tiny black head poking out the hole as someone prepared for takeoff.

Then the offspring moved out for good. For the rest of July we watched them zip through the sky or balance on wires, learning the ropes, feasting on mosquitoes and other insects. Swallows are entertaining acrobats and can clean up a fantastic number of bugs, especially mosquitoes, every day.

Shortly after their babies left, Ma & Pa Bird were back behind the bathroom fan scratching around. New peeps started coming through the wall and the cycle repeated itself: comings & goings increased; the peeps got loud again. I happened to be there again when another set of marching orders were issued. I could almost hear a harried parent insisting, “It’s time you were on your own. Get out there and feed yourselves!”

Repeat explosion of swallow swoopers. Repeat dives, twirls, and other aerobatics to strengthen wings. More birds on the clothesline.

The bathroom fan is vented not far from our outside tap, so we were often near their nest, but they never minded our coming and going. One or the other would often have its head out watching as I turned the tap on or off. I’d even talk to it from about two metres (6′) away and it never moved.

The next spring I learned an important lesson: don’t put out inviting bird food (i.e. sunflower seeds & nuts) for larger birds like grackles anywhere near the swallow nest. Our bird feeder, hung on a post in the lawn, was too close to the bathroom vent and the swallows were obviously distressed by the presence of bigger birds at the feeder. Several times I saw them dive at grackles sitting there. That spring the swallows raised only one batch of babies, then left.

The swallows used the exhaust fan vent for two summers, then moved on to other nesting sites. We’ve put up several more swallow nest boxes over the past six years, all of which are claimed every spring and new broods raised.

Our yard can be bad for mosquitoes, but we’ve noticed that as long as the swallows are around, the mosquitoes aren’t as plentiful. Nice! It would be worth the price of a dozen birdhouses if we’re spared West Nile Virus. The swallows usually leave us at the end of July and head over to the sloughs to feast on the multitudes of mosquitoes there. After that we  have to look out for ourselves mosquito-wise.

In the fall of 2010 I read in a gardening magazine that “swallows produce one batch of young every summer.” Well, ours must not have read the rules. Or they felt so secure in their cozy home that they decided on a second family. The ones who occupy the nest we mounted on the garage have raised two broods some summers as well.

Yesterday at leas one family of swallows returned, twittering around and all trying to get into their old nest box just outside my sewing room window. Welcome home, friends!