On the Canadian Prairie
Atop a Throne of Cordwood
Very clearly, in memory, I see the girl I was at fourteen, beautiful and determined, leaving the blue house where she had grown up.
I see myself in the back of a truck, perched atop a pile of logs soon to be cut for cordwood. The two men inside the truck, transporting the wood to be sold in a distant village, show no concern for any danger I might face traveling over bumpy roads, balanced precariously on that heavy load. As the truck heads down the long driveway, the girl I was looks back at her home for the last time.
When I think of that moment, I feel both sadness and compassion for that naïve, determined girl. I understand now that, while none of us can know what lies ahead, the way we set off, the spirit in which the journey is begun, will determine if we see the path ahead through a glass lightly, or darkly.
They say that character is destiny. Clearly, my character at that young age was still forming. Perhaps I knew what I didn’t want to become more clearly than what I did want. A spirit of defiance was enough to propel me down the road. While my body rocked and bumped down the drive away from the blue house, something in my core felt steady and sure even as it moved into the unknown. Now, approaching fourscore years on earth, I see that departure in a different light. It tells me something about goodbyes and how important it is to always say, “I love you.”
In the kitchen, as I prepared to leave, flies buzzed in and out of the torn screen in the window, drawn by the unwashed pots and pans in and around the sink. Moth er stood kneading bread dough over and over, refusing to look up at me. This was not how I knew her to be. My childhood memories are full of Mother putting my hands in hers and then looking directly into my eyes with such loving kindness, or simply patting my head softly. It was her way of connecting. Through the simplest gestures, she transmitted an unshakable belief in her children. Her love gave each of us a positive sense of self so that we were assured of success, no matter what obstacles we might face. Yet today, the last day that I would ever live in the blue house, the sudden end of my childhood, Mother would not look up. Without her loving, assuring eyes connecting with mine, for a moment my confidence was shaken.
My sister Linda recalled when she left nearly ten years later, heading for California to live with relatives, Mother was hoeing the garden and refused to look up or say goodbye. Why would Mother not acknowledge her daughters as they set out into the world? Was it just too painful to confront the prospect of us vanishing for good? Was she worried about all that could happen to us leaving home at only fourteen years of age? Or was she perhaps thinking that while I was managing to escape our miserable life of utter poverty, she never would? Was this why she kept kneading the bread dough, refusing to look up, with just moments left between us? All of these questions rode roughshod across my heart.
I believe she was neither cold nor indifferent; rather, her pain was so deep it caused her to behave in a way that was contrary to her kind and affirming nature. Perhaps it was a lingering memory of the loss of our oldest sister.
While Mother would eventually give birth to seven teen children, her first pregnancy occurred at seventeen years of age. The first born, Donaldene Margaret, lived for one month. In that time, the child suffered a bowel problem requiring Mother to give her enemas with a sharpened bar of soap. Little Donaldene, in constant pain, cried a lot. One night, sleeping between my parents, she died. My parents didn’t know if the cause was crib death or a result of her bowel troubles. Mother always said, “I wanted to die that night, too.” My parents kept her tiny casket in the house, with the lamp on throughout the night, the saddest vigil.
Perhaps this was why Mother stood in the kitchen, silently kneading the bread, on the day of my departure. This image of my mother, unwilling, or unable, to look up and truly see me one last time, the sense of missed connection, haunted me deeply as we drove away from the blue house, and it has haunted me ever since.
Linda, eight years old at the time, still remembers watching me lurch and bounce away atop that pile of cordwood. All she could think, watching me recede into invisibility, was, “Oh, my God!”
It is important to leave the people we love knowing how we feel about them in our hearts. Even if they cannot fully receive this message in the moment, the words can grow inside them, and perhaps comfort them at a later time when they might really need that fortification. The truth is, we never know what will happen. We never know how, or even if, we will see each other again.
I cannot recall what I was thinking when I left the blue house for the last time, at the start of a hundred-mile trip to the town of Wynyard. I was heading for my ma ternal grandmother’s home, with plans to attend high school there in the fall. For the summer, I had been offered a job on a farm just outside of the town, working for a couple I had never met.
I was headed toward an unknown destiny. Yet, as I struggled to get comfortable atop the sharp, hard wood, I do remember one very distinct feeling: a fierce, almost wild hope, rising. I was finally moving towards a conviction I had long held in my heart like an inextinguishable talisman: I am somebody, and I am going to be somebody greater. Here was the first realization in my gladdening heart that the destination was not a place. My north star was the belief that, having escaped the blue house at last, I was headed to something greater. As I clung tightly to the old straw rope that loosely held the logs in place, I did not know or consider what lay ahead of me. I just knew I had to survive the journey.