Martha looked up at me as I stood by her walker and said “I know I can’t live at home just now. It’s too cold and they tell me my drive is frozen solid. I could slip on the ice and hurt myself. I have to wait for the summer before I go back.” I looked at the profusely flowering sweet smelling rose beds beside us as I walked slowly with Martha around the nursing home garden. The July heat was intense. “Of course,” I reassured her “your farm is in good hands while you’re here.” But Martha was already gone from me in that moment, looking out of a window far away in her mind. It was summer for her, then and through the open kitchen window she smelled the roses that she had planted just underneath.
She saw her two youngest children playing in the shade of the tree in front of the house. The older ones were sitting at the picnic table beside the winding road that led to the barn and the fields. Mary was reading and the two boys were playing a game. It would soon be time to bring them a cool drink and then get the chickens fed and bring the house cow in for milking. Those children and her farm were all she had. She had lost her husband a few weeks after her youngest son was born and since that time she had worked hard to stay on her farm, in that house with her young family. She had refused to take social assistance because that would have meant giving up the tractor and some of her land. She had never been afraid of hard work. She dried her hands and turned from the sink. She wanted those children to have a chance at a good life that she had never known. Continue reading →
The voluptuous Florette was so generously endowed that she was renowned as the beauty queen in the area, especially at the end of her pregnancies. Old farmers would drive for miles to come and gawk at her, or, to be more accurate, at her udder. No one had ever seen a larger bag on a cow. And that was exactly why we got her. Her udder was too big and hung too low to be practical on a commercial dairy farm. In what used to be called the milking parlour, now referred to as the ‘unit’, where milking time is money, an udder that differs from the norm represents precious seconds lost at every milking while the operator struggles to place the machine milking cups on teats hanging in an unfamiliar location. In the past, dairymen and maids who milked by hand were perfectly able to adapt to the peculiarities of individual animals, smoothly proceeding from cow to cow, not phased by any lack of uniformity in size or shape. So Florette was looking for a home. And we, as we didn’t know nor care about the ‘norm’ were looking for Florette (a cow, at least).
She had to be a Jersey
As soon as we read the wonderful original edition of The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour, we knew that we had to have a cow. And I knew that it had to be a Jersey cow. I had spent the happiest times in my childhood in the barn at my uncle’s dairy farm or in the fields behind it, with his Jersey herd. These gentle, productive creatures represented a calm and peace that I found nowhere else as a child.
Tout compris roughly translated from the French means Everything is included, but The spoken word can also sound like Everything is understood.
This piece, a mini story was written on the back of an envelope, scribbled down feverishly, almost illegibly, while I was sitting on the train. This was a trip I took every Monday and Friday while I commuted to Montmorillon, in France, for my year at the Agricultural college there. I have always loved travelling by train and these words came to me, suddenly crystallizing of the reasons that I do.
Come with me on this short train ride. Don’t bring a book!
Inside the moving train the patrons overlook the bonus on their ticket – theirs for the taking. Theirs is the world of the between the covers magazines, the ‘before’ and ‘afters’ of fashion makeovers and other modern fables. Before their unseeing eyes the world awakens beyond the train’s cinema windows and the sun tries to distract them, but they close the curtains.
The pages of my book cannot hold me. I try to focus my attention – I have seen this same scene every week, so often, and the writing on the page is new to me and should captivate me into its world – but the flashing pictures beyond the glass draw me, and I am once again mesmerised before the unfolding story. I feel a slight shame, that of the addict or the lover who hopes his passion is not nakedly exposed for the world to see, then I abandon myself completely to this panoramic moving landscape fusing the fact of vision with the fiction of a fired and active imagination. I press myself shamelessly to the glass, then strain to look across through the other side – so much to miss!
Leaving the grey and black tunnel city, the strip of film unrolls along the track, interrupted by tunnels allowing for a few brief moments of reflection in the dark. I feel certain that this secret world does not exist except as seen from the moving train – could not be found on ordnance survey or tourist guide – and hesitates, breath held, to live again, twice each day as the train passes for the next performance. The fleeting moments glimpsed in flash of sun or gloom of rain are ever changing, though always constant. The torrents of spring running beneath the dripping winter moss trees become a gentle stream, twisting and turning lazily in the heat beneath the hanging leaves of summer; a rusting wreck undergoes an unseen and patient transformation; in a stretch of field, surprised in the late spring sun’s warmth, fleeing young lambs betray their youth near their calm mothers – last year’s frightened babies – heads bowed, intent on the evening browse, hungrily oblivious, their memories of indoor winter hay too fresh.
Black plastic covered heaps, rusted fence and end of track to the side and then we slide into the little country station for a pause in the unfolding drama.
On again, through shameful flooded stretches, sodden and weary of all the rain. I see the red brown dead bracken, fallen protectively in one last brave act, to cover the secret curled unfurling green, pushing insistently, stiffly through the smothering embrace. Wet black trunks and branches pass, some with new pale green – spring promise of summer’s welcome shade – others dark and still. Winter is a great equalizer for the woods. Which trees are sleeping, waiting? Which are dead? Those who watch behind glass windows will see when it’s time.
Pick-up sticks railway sleepers tumbled down the bank by some careless giant hand are gently being covered by secret tangles of brambles and riotous hawthorn blossom. Rutted tracks appear suddenly, take me to a dark plough-furrowed field, then twist and run off where I can no longer follow, first leaving me a glimpse, in a flash of sun, of the misty haze of bluebells. On a hillside, older lambs with their numbers in black on their backs, horizontal ears curious, are familiar, emboldened by their few weeks experience. These are my crowd scenes and walk-on parts in this unfolding life, briefly glimpsed, week after week, from the train.
On each journey these scenes hold my attention, silently insisting. In my carriage there is only me watching, searching, seeing, eyes wide, drinking in all this mystery, this dream of possibilities that is this unreachable, unreal world of scene from the train – and all for the price of the ticket from Limoges to Poitiers.
A little boy walks down the streets of Montreal with his father. The child’s name is Eric and he is 8 years old. His father, Thomas holds onto his hand tightly saying little to him along the way, but Eric will remember this walk for the rest of his life. He will later relate the story to his son, Bruce who will, in his turn pass it down to his children who relate it to me. This memorable trip takes them longer than it normally would have, as Thomas walks very slowly, pausing often. When they reach their destination, they stop in front of the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Thomas takes his young son’s hand and says to him “Eric, I am going to go inside. I want you to wait out here. When I get to where I am going, I will come to the balcony and wave. Then you can go home.” The little boy nods gravely. Time passes and his eyes keep scanning the building above him. Finally Eric sees the figure of Thomas on a balcony**, waving down at his son. Eric waves back and turns to go.
That was to be the last time he would see his father. Thomas never came home from the hospital, where he died shortly after being admitted.
Now Step Back Ten Years earlier to 1893
We have a young Victorian family setting sail for a bright new future in a distant land. The Father, aged 32 was that same Thomas in the story above. The Mother, Harriet was kept busy on the voyage caring for their three young children. Together they were leaving the comfort and security of their home on the island of Jersey, in the English Channel and travelling across the sea to a land they had never seen. Harriet was probably pregnant and the baby, Olive* (shown in the photograph below in her mother’s arms), was born soon after their arrival. The voyage surely would have been rough at times, in a boat packed full of hopeful immigrants like themselves who were looking for opportunity and a better life, whatever that meant for each person. This distant country to which they sailed was Canada.
Montreal turned out to be a bitterly cold place in the winter compared to the relatively temperate climate of their home back in the Channel Islands. In the summer they’d have had little respite from the sweltering heat and humidity in their cramped, upstairs brownstone apartment in Durocher Street. I hope that perhaps they might have been able to find some relief from that heat by visiting the shores of the mighty St. Lawrence River sometimes, though I don’t know for sure. Life would have been a struggle for this young family, but at least they had each other. In time six more children were born into the cramped quarters of the LeDain household, though sadly two never reached adulthood. Continue reading →
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