The brown-lidded eye of memory lifts the dung-coloured curtains of time, revealing to the mind’s eye a white and black clapboard schoolhouse nestled amidst scintillating snowy swells and rills.
Multi-faceted aurora borealis prisms of colour flash dance in the brilliant winter sunlight. Memory harkens, “crunch, crunch,” as the solidified rubber boots compress the molecules of glittering mounds.
Crisp cold air nips the base of our lungs. Our spirit swells as we ascend the worn wooden staircase to the realm of yesterday. “Thunk, thunk, thunk,” boots assault the treadmarks of those who’ve gone before.
We turn the ice-cold doorknob. The enveloping warmth of the percolating Brown Betty diesel stove effuses warmth, and the unmistakable pungent petroleum odour enshrouds us to be at one with the dimly-lit single-room school house.
Toasty warm inside and out, five little girls huddle in the comer, giggling, sharing – snippets, secrets – the little secrets at first, “My sister is sweet on your brother.” Then, the big secret, “If you tell me what you got me, then I’ll tell you what I got for you. My mommy bought each of you from Eaton’s in Moose Jaw.”
Local, independent, in-depth.
Our Prairie stories.
Confidence sharing despite mother’s warning to preserve the magic of giving and receiving as long as possible.
“Be a young lady; keep your gift a secret. You don’t want to spoil your friend’s surprise.”
No Southern Cotillion elicits any more excitement or anticipation than does the social event of the season in rural Saskatchewan, the annual Christmas Concert.
In readiness for the evening, the reins of decorum have been slackened, allowing the rural belles to come to school without their hair ‘done.’
The girl, with sandy-coloured hair, has it twisted and tied with bits of white rags; the brunette has her luxuriant locks plaited into a regal coronet of French braids; the auburn-haired lass has her hair twisted into pin curls, the blonde’s hair is rolled upon tin curlers fastened with orangey-red tips.
The raven-haired beauty’s oval face is framed by the glistening bob cut, which requires no torturous beautification process.
In true “cats in training” fashion, the other girls proclaim their superiority over the unadorned ones by preening and discussing the merits of their various coiffure-making devices.
The little ladies eye the proceedings. The big kids move the Buddha-shaped crock water fountain to the comer furthest from the stage.
Little brothers and sisters partake of the water from the revered pot-bellied school fountain in a ritualistic pledge to their future status as pupils.
Stacked in readiness are the conical drinking vessels which serve as bull’s-eye missiles, but only when Teacher isn’t looking.
The true sign of a non-tattletale is to keep your trap shut when a hurtling water bomb drenches you.
There’s a special song sung to those who “tell on “their classmates, but its rendition is reserved for the teller and their “nemeses” – never within earshot of Teacher’s wrath.
“Tattle-tale, tattle-tale, sitting on a bull’s tail. When the bull begins to pee, you shall have a cup of tea.” The tattler’s self-appointed vigilantes would recite the ditty in seemingly unending crescendos and decrescendos as they made shame-shame finger signs at the offender.
How proud I was of myself for not telling on Annie, for dive-bombing me by mistake … she said.
The code, “big kids only wing missiles at other big kids.”
Little ones watch and learn.
The gigantic globe, that enticing bluish-green world which holds the enigma of the awaiting future and pinpoints where we are today, is relegated to the top of the high comer cupboard out of harm’s way.
Later it will be returned to its focal vantage in the center of the room, where it is a constant reminder that we are a minute fraction of a greater whole.
Sawhorses and planks are manfully wrested into place by gangly sinewy-muscled boys providing a foundation for the stage.
The bigger girls and younger boys skid the wrought iron wooden-topped desks with runners into the cloakroom.
Dark oak desks with bottom drawers are lifted gingerly so as not to empty the contents.
Teacher’s ebony desk is pushed against the blackboard with the drawers facing the wall so that no one tampers with the trove of pedagogical accoutrements.
No actual “school” work has occurred for the past week.
All are geared toward the annual performance.
Some of the tallest boys string wire from the ceiling hooks above the plank-laden perimeter.
Freshly laundered white sheets soaked in bluing have been hung outside in the pristine snow-blanketed world to purge their mundane utilitarianism.
Ironed and cross-examined for flaws so as not to cast aspersions upon the lenders’ housekeeping prowess, meticulously folded inside softly nubbed, muted label-ridden sugar bags, they are proffered by the eldest pupil from each home.
In an uncharacteristic lapse of propriety, the teacher stands atop her chair as she fastens the drapery using safety pins as gliders.
Those deemed artistic draw freehand Christmas scenes on the blackboard, using the treasured hoard of coloured chalk frugally saved and doled out only on very special occasions.
The wee bits of leftover end pieces are used as fillers to colour between the outlines of nativity and Yuletide creations.
Green and red crepe paper hoarded from previous years festoons the blackboard’s borders, creating a gala frame for the artists’ temporary work.
Phillip is the best “draw-er,” hands down, no contest.
We, “ooh” and “aah” at his handiwork.
Already fourteen, he will leave school in spring to work the farm.
No grade nine correspondence classes for him.
Will he become a Canadian Michelangelo as he ceaselessly sculpts the fields or paints the hip roof barn a glowering red, surrounded by the hues and shapes of nature’s artistry?
Now, he basks in the glow of Teacher’s approving nods, words like “swell job” from school chums and the shy, adoring glances of the big girls.
I practice my recitation, “Christmas is a time for joy ….”
Will I remember which way to turn in the angel drill?
Agnes is vomiting, so I have to learn her part in the big kids’ play.
The remainder of the day is awhirl with last-minute touches.
Teacher still has to sew the tinsel onto my crepe paper wings.
We will be dismissed early so chores can be done.
Our innards are being dive-bombed by darting fireflies of anticipation. My mind is filled with a sinister dread paralleled by a wall of fervent hope.
“Please, God, let the December sky stay clear and calm just until tonight. Daddy won’t venture out if there’s the least sign of a storm.”
My outfit is brand new, ordered months ago from Eaton’s catalogue.
Brought from town by my Daddy in the wagon box laden with winter supplies.
My youngest uncle rode alongside on a cutting pony with the rifle across the pommel of his saddle.
My uncle, the strongest and biggest, insurance just in case the draft horses need a trail broken or a firm hand to grip their bridle urging them to lunge onward, over and through the snow-encrusted trail.
Daddy’s gentle brogue coaxing, “C’mon, Molly, c’mon Paddy puu-lll ye gr’at bobby dazzlers,” as his leathery hands telegraphed messages of faith and a demand for immediate obedience along the rein’s fibres to the toiling lummoxes, was often all that was needed for the all-day trip which covered a distance of six miles.
Six years old, a grade one-er, I don my white lace-collared claret velvet dress, long white cotton stockings and silver-buckled black patent leather shoes.
The grandeur of my attire is marred only slightly by the scratchy pull of the over-the-shoulder garter holder, which extends downward on either side of my body, held in place by dorsal and chest cross straps, so designed for young, would-be Femme Fatales sans waist or hips.
The offensive contraption chafes my skin and ego, but beauty has its price.
Unlike my friends, I can wear long white stockings and be a big lady rather than being relegated to the status of a bare-legged little girl.
Ambrosia, Mommy, baked a delicious white cake smothered in three inches of frosting and garnished with crumbled ribbon and peppermint candy.
A prairie delicacy, crust-trimmed salmon sandwiches cut on the diagonal, repose swaddled in slightly dampened embroidered white linen tea towels inside our huge white enamel dish pan.
Mommy’s royal blue velvet dress with sheer sequined neckline and her “for good” five-strand pearl necklace are topped by her new muskrat fur coat.
Daddy wears his best suit, a three-piece grey pinstripe, his fedora set as ever at a jaunty angle and a smile that melts hearts – a fine Gentleman Jim.
He escorts his ladies to our awaiting chariot, an onyx four-door Chevrolet.
Moonbeams glance from its glossy exterior.
Daddy opens our car doors.
Gently he places the cake on my mother’s lap, which she has protected with an old sheet.
He nestles the pan of sandwiches by my side, urging, “Be a bonnie wee lass and see to it that these don’t go for a tumble. There’s a brae lassie.”
He winks, checks to see that I’m safely ensconced and shuts the door soundly.
I snuggle, broody hen style, into the luxurious grey upholstery, keeping vigil on the twinkling angelic eyes of seraphim scattered throughout the navy-blue heavens.
I glory in that spectacle, revelling in this feeling of pure contentment.
The North Star leads us onward over the snow-squiffed trail.
What secrets does the sky conceal?
Will this joy last forever if I wish hard upon that shooting star? The moon showcases the crystalline waves of snow rippling laterally as the purring 52 Chevy cuts through the darkness.
Eyeing the panorama and listening to the vague hum of my parents’ voices blended incompatibility, I, Princess of the Deep Snow, deem this to be a perfect time and place, so decreed!
Crisp bursts of blue air crackle as they come, some astride prancing ponies. Cutters drew by sleek steeds slash the snow’s surface.
Wagonloads of large families, tousled in hay-filled wagons drawn by magnificent creatures with hairy gallon-paint-can-sized feet, come to a halt as the team heeds, “Whoa, Nellie.”
Horsey smell is everywhere.
The sweaty, steamy flanks and frosty breath exuding from the equine colossus intermingle with winter’s biting air.
Jing, jing, ring, ring, jingle of festive bells, clinking of harness hardware interspersed with groaning horse collars, and the incessant creaking of wooden tongues announce the community gathering for the annual theatrical performance.
Greetings, hallos, backslapping, and handshaking add to the convivial spirit as horses are tethered, blanketed, and given oat-filled feedbags or are tossed an armload of hay.
We enter the transformed schoolhouse into the only theatre that most of the immigrant farmers will ever know.
The men congregate in the back after shedding heavy parkas, kushmas, toques, hats and galoshes.
Hair slicked down with Bums Lard, lads jostle one another in the tradition of cockerel Bantams, sparring playfully as much as the confines of the schoolroom and the dirty looks from stem fathers allow.
A sputtering, sallow, beige-yellow kerosene light casts a sepia tincture over the room.
Mothers make their way to the benches directly in front of the home-crafted proscenium. Smiling shyly, nodding hellos, they primly gather their shawls and infants to them, depositing toddlers within arm’s reach.
The women speak quietly amidst themselves, their scrubbed healthy faces crinkling into smiles, fanning the flames of hearth, home and pride in one’s family.
Men’s deep voices rumble and meld in the background.
The schoolchildren giggle and titter amidst Teacher’s breathless ‘shushes.’
The warmth of kindred spirits permeates this oasis of conviviality.
All lamps, save the two suspended over the stage, are extinguished.
With the fanfare of a collective hush, the curtains open upon the performers spotlighted in the yellowy glow of the slightly swaying hurricane lamps.
Acrostics, drills, plays, recitations, skits, and ethnic dances entertain the benevolent audience.
Fireflies dance in the performers’ tummies, but they forge on, some playing many roles or replacing other would-be thespians riddled with flu or stage fright.
Teacher smiles and leads through it all, repairing makeshift costumes, prompting, or sliding a forgotten prop from behind the curtains during the performance.
Excitement engorges our beings.
Our hearts thrill at their sounding applause reverberating from wall to wall.
We lose ourselves in our roles and execute our words, steps and patterns, ‘just like we practised.”
“Silent Night, Holy Night,” silence, peace and tranquillity reign supreme as the nativity scene is enacted.
The hush of reverence is broken only by a hastily smothered squall of a babe or the controlled rasp of an involuntary dry cough.
Then we all, even Teacher, assemble on stage singing Christmas carols as we are washed in the glimmering primitive spotlight of coal oil lamps.
The audience joins in.
Mothers’ eyes glisten, and fathers’ voices grow gruffer as we laud that which is sacred.
The tempo changes; we sing contemporary Christmas season songs such as “White Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Winter Wonderland,” and later, more frolicsome tunes, “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”… a persistent jangling of bells interrupts the lyrics.
Teacher does a double take worthy of Lillian Gish, cups one hand to her ear as she minces forward to center stage. “Here comes Santa Claus” is lustily echoed in song.
All eyes are riveted on the door.
“Who is he?” is the whispered question.
Whose ordinarily taciturn father is enjoying being the philanthropic sprite of the season?
Santa tromps to center stage and makes a, perhaps, not-so-playful attempt to kiss Teacher, but she skitters off, and the children break ranks, clamouring to sit on Santa’s knee.
The little girls exchange gifts.
Perfume, pencils, barrettes, what finery!
They all adore the little teacups I gave them.
The grown-ups watch, visit, and admire the gifts.
Not one of us wants to save the school presents until Christmas morning, even though these would be the only store-bought gifts some received or gave.
Teacher has given us each gift-embroidered hankies for the girls and pocket knives for the boys.
She, in turn, makes a great fuss over the gifts we’ve presented her—stationery, combs for her long hair, chocolates, lace doilies tatted by industrious grannies, jars of jam, a book of verse and other items fit to be given to a noble lady.
The lunch is devoured, and we savour the juicy sweetness of the Japanese oranges from our candy bags.
We must eat them now because they will freeze on the sub-zero trek home.
The ribbon candy can be rationed and enjoyed for the many lonely, dreary days before we return to school.
My little friends “ooh” and “aah” delightfully at the teacups, comparing colours and shapes.
They vow to treasure them forever.
We twirl in our finery, making the full skirts mushroom out as we admire our grandeur.
Little do we know that this minuscule world covertly huddled in the wraps of yesterday will be much revered as a place of great joy and contentment – unlike the real world of deceptions, betrayals, and thwarted opportunities.
The dung-hued drape drops. The eye of memory snaps shut.
Our Prairie stories matter too.
The Flatlander takes a closer look at the stories that unite us, and make us unique, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Will you help us tell our stories?